Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air, which doesn’t reflect well on the church

Pope FrancisBack at the start of the year, you’d have got pretty long odds on the Pope being named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2013, but that was before Ratzi hung up his blingtastic papal shoes and cleared the way for a younger (or rather, slightly less old) man.

Pope Francis has undoubtedly had a good year. He immediately had a profound impact on perceptions of the Roman Catholic Church with his obvious humility and simplicity in dress, and his softly spoken inclusivity in speech has also been very popular from the beginning. To be honest, though, he mostly benefits from comparison with his predecessor’s considerably more prickly character.

The emphasis of the new Pope has been very different from what has gone before. The impression he gives is that his primary focus is the plight of the poor, a theme that has continued from his work in Buenos Aires. He typically speaks of human costs and the impact on real people’s lives, instead of narrow matters of doctrine. And when he says that the Church shouldn’t be obsessed with preaching about gays, abortion and contraception, it represents a significant change in emphasis for such a mild and unremarkable statement.

But on the other side of the coin, these fine words don’t translate into action, and where he considers it necessary, Francis isn’t afraid of putting the boot in, obsessively or otherwise. He has ordered bishops in Argentina to deny communion to politicians who support legal abortion, interfered in the Irish abortion debate, and even unexpectedly participated in a “pro-life” march in Rome.

His strong opposition to Argentina’s same-sex marriage legislation in 2010 leaves no doubt as to his views on that score, as he described the bill as “a ‘move’ of the father of lies [i.e. Satan] who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.” Since the Church’s fiery rhetoric is thought to have contributed to the success of the bill, this may explain his recent tendency to talk in more inclusive and generous terms.

Most revealing is how Francis has been opposed by some conservatives in the Church. His doctrine on the traditional Catholic shibboleths appears to be every bit as rigid as before, his emphasis on the plight of the poor is an unremarkable application of the most basic teachings of the gospels, and his speeches emphasise the human dignity of each one of us. In any normal world, he’d be considered pretty conservative. That anyone could consider him dangerously liberal, let alone “borderline heretical”, shows the inflexibility of the Church.

Unlike some, I have no problem with Time Magazine naming Pope Francis as their Person of the Year. I think his theology is a lot less progressive than is generally supposed, and a lot of people are likely to become disillusioned as his words aren’t backed up with action, but it’s a title that’s more about being a well-known figure who changed things over the last year than making some massive advances to humanity, or they’d just give it to a Nobel Prize-winner every year. He fits the bill very well.

It’s undeniable that Francis has a very high profile – he is Pope, after all – and has had a huge impact over the last year. Even if I’m right, and a lot of people end up being disappointed by his actions, for now he’s made a huge difference in a short space of time. Let’s see how he follows through on it.

Image courtesy of Agencia Brasil, used under Creative Commons License Attribution 3.0 Brazil

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

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