This may come as a shock to you, but the Pope is a … Catholic.
Granted, Il Papa is a populist Pope and has worked the media hard since his election, to create the image of an adorable, loveable, warm grandfather-type character.
Pope Francis and the people around him are astute enough to recognise religion’s fading influence, at least in the West, and the desperation of liberal Catholics, and humanity generally, for religion and modern society to coexist harmoniously.
This desire by the public, combined with the extreme position held by the Catholic Church on many social issues, leads to a situation where Il Papa doesn’t need to do or say much for people to get a nice warm glow about how wonderfully moderate and progressive he is.
These past few days he generated a lot of warm and fuzzy headlines while visiting the United States. But, we were given a timely reminder of the religious tightrope Pope Francis is walking as soon as he left the US, during an impromptu press conference held on board his flight home.
He was asked, in a clear reference to the unfolding Kim Davis fiasco in Kentucky: ‘Holy Father, do you also support those individuals, including government officials, who say they cannot in good conscience, their own personal conscience, abide by some laws or discharge their duties as government officials. For example, in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples?’
Pope Francis responded: ‘I can’t remember all the cases that can exist about conscientious objection. But yes, I can say that conscientious objection is a right, and it is part of every human right. It is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right. Conscientious objection must enter into every judicial structure because it is a right, a human right.’
You didn’t see that headline in the newspapers or on the evening news: ‘Pope supports homophobic, anti-marriage equality Kentucky clerk, Kim Davis.’*
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The Pope’s position assumes discrimination, hate and homophobia offer a valid basis for conscientious objection. Because no matter how you try to dress up the Church’s position on LGBTI people, the fact is it has little to do with acceptance, conscience or love, and everything to do with discrimination, hate and homophobia. If the Pope thinks those human traits are worthy of protection by conscientious objection, the Church is in far worse shape than we thought.
When the mullahs of Iran, or fighters from ISIS, suggest their religious beliefs entitle them to ignore human rights and ‘man-made’ laws, there is immediate obligatory outrage. When the Pope says it, we all seem to gloss over it, even though he clearly suggested that Catholic faith and ‘conscience’ may override the American Constitution and laws, and the faithful is entitled to ignore them as ‘conscientious objectors.’
Sadly, there is nothing new about Pope Francis’ anti-marriage equality stance.
His much reported ‘who am I to judge‘ comment in response to a question about gay Catholics, was celebrated by many as great ‘progress’ in the Vatican, but conservative Catholics had a very different take.
We must also remember, the official position of the Church on homosexuality has not changed. It maintains its intellectually bankrupt, disingenuous position whereby homosexual acts are sinful, but homosexual orientation is not. That old love the sinner, hate the sin tripe.
Just as long as the gays are alone, denied their natural sexual orientation, and miserable, the Church is happy. After all, that approach worked so well for Catholic priests …
Pope Francis’ 224-page official policy statement issued in November 2013 made his position on same-sex marriage entirely unambiguous:
New patterns of behaviour are emerging as a result of over-exposure to the mass media… As a result, the negative aspects of the media and entertainment industries are threatening traditional values, and in particular the sacredness of marriage and the stability of the family.
The family is experiencing a profound cultural crisis, as are all communities and social bonds. In the case of the family, the weakening of these bonds is particularly serious because the family is the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another; it is also the place where parents pass on the faith to their children. Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will. But the indispensible contribution of marriage to society transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple. As the French bishops have taught, it is not born, of loving sentiment, ephemeral by definition, but from the depth of the obligation assumed by the spouses who accept to enter a total communion of life.
In 2013 he also personally urged a delegation of French lawmakers to avoid following the ‘fashions and ideas of the moment‘ in a reference to France’s legalisation of same-sex marriage.
In Australia, the Church continues to play a significant role in opposing marriage equality. The anti-marriage equality group ‘Marriage Alliance‘ was established by high-profile Catholics. The ‘Australian Marriage Forum’ often appears to be a mouthpiece for the Church, even though they deny any ‘specific religious or political persuasion’. The Church itself had sent curious letters to organisations which publicly announced their support for marriage equality. The Church also distributed a controversial booklet titled ‘Don’t Mess with Marriage‘ to Catholic school students.
Hearts were also aflutter when Pope Francis made an announcement about forgiveness for abortions during the ‘Year of Mercy.’ The mainstream press and liberal Catholics rejoiced about this ‘wonderful news’ and the ‘progressive Pope.’
But others quite sensibly asked, why on earth would a woman need the Church’s ‘forgiveness’ for an abortion in 2015?! By making this ‘progressive’ announcement, to many, the Vatican highlighted just how out of touch it is with the real world.
On the other hand, Catholic publications, such as the Catholic Herald, were quick to ‘clarify’ what the Pope meant to panicked conservative Catholics, by pointing out the announcement had very little substance:
What then is the Pope referring to here? What is being offered in this Year of Mercy? Here we need to distinguish two things: absolution from sin and remission of a censure.
In order to underline the seriousness of certain sins, Church Law can attach a canonical penalty to them. These are called censures. This means that if someone consciously and deliberately commits this particular sin, he or she not only offends God, and wounds the life of the Church, but also incurs what is called an ecclesiastical censure.
Abortion is the taking of an innocent human life and therefore a violation of the fifth commandment. It is a grave sin, as the Pope mentions. So, the Church has attached to it the censure of automatic excommunication (c.1398). It is important to add that the censure is only incurred if the person is aware of its existence at the time of committing the sin (c.1323/2).
In the early Church, the administration of penance was restricted to the bishop. Following that, even now the remission of a censure is reserved either to the local bishop or to the bishop of Rome, the Pope. In the case of abortion, remission is reserved to the local bishop or his appointed delegate, known as the Canon Penitentiary. So, a penitent who is seeking reconciliation with God and the Church after an abortion requires both absolution from the sin and remission of the censure. Because of this, the matter often had to be referred to the bishop or his delegate, even after absolution had been granted by the priest (cf. c. 1357).
What the Pope is saying is that, during the Year of Mercy, any priest can grant to a penitent who is truly contrite and seeks forgiveness both absolution from the sin of abortion and the remission of the censure, if it was incurred. He can act on behalf of the bishop. Many bishops have already granted this faculty to the priests of their dioceses. The Pope is granting it to all, as a sign for the Year of Mercy of the “true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence”.
Abortion and forgiveness: what is the Pope really saying? (Catholic Herald, 21 September 2015)
Again, it’s important to remember that when it comes to the issue of abortion, the Church’s position remains unchanged, and Pope Francis maintains those views:
It is must be therefore reiterated the strongest opposition to any direct attack on life, especially innocent and defenseless life, and the unborn child in the womb is the most concrete example of innocence.
Let us remember the words of the Second Vatican Council: From the moment of its conception, life must be guarded with the greatest care while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes. (emphasis added)
Pope Francis: Human life sacred and inviolable (Vatican Radio, 4 November 2014)
When it comes to artificial contraception, the Church also maintains its opposition and supports only ‘natural family planning,’ which involves monitoring a woman’s menstrual cycle and avoiding intercourse when she is ovulating.
The ladies also continue to be out of luck if they are interested in joining the priesthood, or any major leadership position in the Church, and Pope Francis unhelpfully referred to female theologians as ‘strawberries on the cake.’
On the upside, Pope Francis has taken a strong position on the death penalty, saying there is simply no justification for it today. He also called for action on climate change, which represents a fascinating intervention in the global conservative politics of climate action – or, inaction to be more exact.
I see a lot of good public relations work, but I struggle to see many substantive changes in the Church under Pope Francis. I acknowledge reforming an institution guilty of centuries of oppression, persecution and significant human rights violations is no easy task, and perhaps I need to have some more patience.
However, while the media, liberal Catholics and the general public are falling over each other in praising the ‘progressive’ Pope, the reality is that people continue to needlessly:
- suffer from religious discrimination; and
- lose their lives as a consequence of homophobic and transphobic attitudes in society,
propped up by the ‘faith’ of many of Il Papa’s followers.
Update: 1:30PM, 30 September 2015
Liberty Counsel, the US Christian organisation listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, just announced Pope Francis secretly met with Kim Davis while visiting the US. I can’t imagine why they would have done so secretly.
Kim Davis is represented by Liberty Counsel’s chairman Matt Staver.
The two met at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C., on 24 September, the pair hugged and the Pope reportedly thanked Ms Davis for her ‘courage.’
The report by Liberty Counsel is consistent with a story by Inside the Vatican, which also provides an account of the secret meeting.