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Is Pope Francis Just Doing Savvy P.R. For the Oppressive, Dysfunctional Church?

We must remember that the Catholic Church is losing members and desperately needs to remake its image.

Photo Credit: Chidell


This article originally appeared on RH Reality Check, and is reprinted here with their permission.

If the world needed any further evidence of the public-relations prowess of Pope Francis, it was granted by Time magazine on Wednesday, with a fawning profile and bestowal of its Person of the Year Award on the current occupant of the throne of St. Peter.

Explaining the rationale for the magazine’s choice of Francis, writer Howard Chua-Eoan, narrating a video produced by the magazine, says, “The fact that he’s given so many people so much hope and inspiration in the last nine months—it’s only been nine months—no one else has done that this year.”

Yet it is that very hope that fills me with despair, for it is hope destined to be dashed. Based on nothing much—just appealing optics and some pretty words—the hope offered by Francis is mere cover for an institution that models, in the guise of holiness, the very sort of patriarchal rule over half the world’s population that facilitates violence against women, as well as their impoverishment and oppression. It is a model the pope has stated he has no intention of changing.

While Evangelii Gaudium, the papal manifesto released last month by the Vatican, excited progressives with its critique of capitalism and condemnation of trickle-down economic theories, the document, known as an “apostolic exhortation,” flatly stated that allowing women to enter the priesthood “is not a topic open to discussion.” He also affirmed, in that document, the church’s strict prohibition on abortion under any circumstances, and tacitly endorsed church teaching on the sinfulness of sex between two men or two women.

Chua-Eoan, who co-authored with Elizabeth Dias Time’s profile of Pope Francis, admits as much in the video. “Everyone’s saying he’s going to allow divorced Catholics to have Communion, he’s going to open the church to gay people, he’s going to be much more open about abortion, but he actually never said any of that,” Chua-Eoan says in the video. “He was just being more open so that these people are willing to come back to the church, without having to deal with the actual rules.”

What got people so filled with the notion that the pope represented the kind of change they could believe in was a masterful bit of public relations executed via an interview, published in English in the Jesuit magazine America, that he gave to Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica. In his discussion with Spadaro, the pope said it was not for him to judge gay people, and he urged compassion for women who have had abortions or gotten divorced. In all of his utterances since winning the papal throne, Francis has urged a change in tone, style, and rhetoric—away from condemnation of those who have sinned, and a more full-throated proclamation of the church’s longstanding “preferential option for the poor.”

I do not mean to suggest that the pope is insincere in his concern for the poor; I have little doubt that he is earnest in his desire to see the church better, and more loudly, defend them. For all I know, it may have been the pope’s exhortation that permitted Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the very Catholic House Budget Chairman, to momentarily turn his back on his Ayn Randian, Koch-backed sponsors to hammer out a budget agreement that will save Head Start. If so, that’s a good thing.

It is important, nonetheless, to note that this emphasis also serves another of the church’s needs: the remaking of its image at a time when it is losing members in the more developed nations, and competing for souls with Islam and Protestant Christian sects in the developing world.