Given the sheer amount of praise that social liberals and atheists are heaping on Pope Francis recently, you would’ve thought that he had served as the grand marshal of a gay pride parade, cut the ribbon at the opening of a new Planned Parenthood, and written the foreword to Richard Dawkins new book — all in the same day.
The catalyst for this unlikely lovefest was an interview the newly-minted pontiff gave in which he said of gay marriage, abortion, and contraception, “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” He also said elsewhere that he’s not in a position to judge gay people — after all, that’s what homophobic God is for — and asserted that atheists have been “redeemed,” though a Vatican spokesman later clarified that no one goes to heaven unless they accept Jesus as their savior.
While Francis has been widely lauded for seemingly bringing a shift in tone and focus to the Church, ultimately his remarks are of no great consequence. And the accolades being showered on him are indeed strange but understandable.
Here we have a leader of an institution with a staggeringly archaic view on sexual morality – one in which contraception use, sex out of wedlock, and gay sex are sinful – being hailed by social progressives because he essentially said the Church shouldn’t emphasize these prohibitions as much as they have been. Francis’ position essentially amounts this: We’re still anti-gay, anti-women’s reproductive rights, and oh yes, still against ordaining women priests. But we’re going to downplay it so we don’t repulse everyone by the fact that we stink to high heaven.
Basically Pope Francis is a scented candle in an outhouse, and people can’t stop talking about how good the toilet smells.
All of this is completely understandable, given our tendency to lower the not-an-asshole bar for people and institutions that have previously espoused regressive and hateful positions. Just take a look at televangelist Pat Robertson. He’s so anti-LGBT, that it’s news when he says something tolerant. At which point you can’t help but think that that was nice of him — despite his bigotry — and that there just might be hope for the crazy son of a bitch after all.
It’s similar to the phenomenon at work in people who suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. Given the voluminous amount of dickish behavior from the Catholic Church, any glimmer of kindness or even mere absence of intolerance — however superficial — can be interpreted as true beneficence. But it’s not. Witness Francis’ recent excommunication of a priest in Australia for advocating the ordination of women priests, or the fact that several notable Catholics have correctly pointed out that there was nothing new in Francis’ comments, and that he will not be upending established Church doctrine anytime soon, or ever.
While millions of Americans and perhaps billions of people worldwide have accepted gay people for who they are, recognized the necessity of contraceptives and women’s reproductive freedom, the Catholic Church remains mired in a bygone morality. And yet Pope Francis is commended — not for recognizing same — but for simply placing less emphasis on the fact that he and the rest of the Church do not.
If this is what passes for moral epiphanies in the Catholic Church, it’s yet another reason why I was right to leave it.