Can Cool Pope Francis Change the Catholic Church?


The Catholic Church is arguably the world's oldest non-governmental organization. It is also one of its most conservative—at least until now.

On the bright side, the Church is often credited with preserving much of ancient Roman science and literature in a less refined era that no longer cared for such things, preserving the light of civilization until it could be rekindled in the Renaissance. Its desire to be the supreme power in Europe also led it to curb some of the worst excesses of kings and nobles in defense of the common man. And the emphasis on social justice and welfare for the poor in New Testament scripture have also led its followers to do many good work over the centuries on behalf of the downtrodden. 

Of course, these benefits have been mitigated by horrific misdeeds both ancient and modern, many of which still have echoes in the modern day. The Catholic Church helped promote the disastrous bloodshed of the Crusades; it killed and threatened scientists for daring to suggest that our Earth and our solar system were not the center of the universe; it played its part in the bloody wars of Reformation; it was responsible for the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, and much else besides.

The more recent history of the Church is less bloody but still very problematic. Many argue that the Church could have been much more forceful in opposing Nazi Germany. The continued opposition of the Catholic Church to not only abortion rights but even contraception has led to mass impoverishment in many parts of the developing world where the ability of women to control their own reproductive freedom has been shown to be one of the most significant factors in reducing poverty. Indeed, for all of Mother Teresa's advocacy on behalf of the unfortunate, from a cold statistical point of view her staunch opposition to contraception likely caused more suffering than she alleviated through her good works. The Vatican's strict opposition to homosexuality has caused untold suffering for LGBT people for generations. Finally and most recently, of course, the Church has been embroiled in an ever-growing scandal surrounding its protection of known pedophile priests

These very public embarrassments have also been accompanied by private internal corruption that is widely speculated to have led to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013. Battered and reeling in an increasingly secular world, it seemed that the Catholic Church was a largely spent force with limited influence and credibility--and many forward thinkers had good reason to hope that its decline would continue. 

Such was the situation when the reformist Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected by the Conclave and assumed the Papacy in March 2013. Following on the heels of two of the most conservative popes in modern history, it was uncertain how this new pope would make his mark: not only was he the first pope from the New World, he was also a Jesuit, the first in papal history. The Jesuit order is known for its uncompromising rigor and for its dedication to philosophy and introspection. Would the new Pope simply be a new face on old policies, or would he help midwife real organizational change? 

Time will tell, but so far his impact has been dramatically positive in a way that has shocked even secular progressives. His very first act was itself a profound statement: by choosing the name Francis he laid down a marker that would define his tenure. None of his predecessors had ever chosen the name Francis before, making him Pope Francis the First and thereby signaling a new beginning. More importantly, by evoking the memory of Saint Francis of Assisi, who famously challenged ecclesiastical excess and championed both nature and the poor, he indicated that under his leadership the Church would reorient its focus on social and environmental justice.

Since then it seems that every few days Pope Francis commands headlines with both actions and words. Internally, he has conducted sweeping reforms within the Vatican, purging corrupted officials within the Vatican Bankdemoting the most lavish and most conservative prelates, decrying ostentatious clothing, and insisting on simplicity and frugality. He was recently quoted as saying he wanted to "kick [corrupt officials] where the sun doesn't shine." It is rumored that he has plans for even more aggressive anti-corruption moves planned for this year.

He has also moved as far toward if not acceptance then at least tolerance of homosexuality as the institution can likely bear at this time. Most famous in this regard was his early "Who am I to judge?" statement, echoing the words of Jesus himself from the New Testament. He also courted a backlash among institutional conservatives when he endorsed a report leading up to a synod on family that took a much more welcoming tone toward both gays and unmarried couples. Among more shocking quotes in the report was this:

"Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?"

While even this attitude is behind the times in most Western societies, it is shockingly progressive to be coming from the Vatican itself. Sadly, Pope Francis still maintains opposition to birth control and demonstrates certain patriarchal attitudes, including making sexist jokes. Even so, his statements on women's rights are more liberal than those of his predecessors. He has made moves toward changing the role of divorcees and of women generally in the Churchencouraged more women to receive higher education, and welcomed breastfeeding within the Sistine Chapel.

While many shudder at his recent statement that families not "breed like rabbits" as simply another intrusion into a woman's personal reproductive decisions, it is at least an indication that he understands the negative economic and environmental effects of overpopulation. Prior Church doctrine has been criticized as essentially encouraging as many new babies as possible to become baptized souls; even without support for birth control, a shift away from breeding as many new souls as possible nonetheless represents a step forward in the institution's worldview. 

On science, he has been even stronger than his predecessors in supporting widely accepted theories like evolution and the Big Bang as fact, saying that "God is not a magician with the magic wand." On the geopolitical side, Pope Francis helped negotiate the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba and the release of political prisoner Alan Gross. He has also made moves to oppose military intervention in Syria, and to help restart peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

And while every recent pope has advocated for more attention to the poor, Pope Francis has been much more explicit than his predecessors about rampant wealth inequality, the failures of trickle-down economics and the immoral excesses of modern capitalism. His language of economic populism has been every bit as forceful as Elizabeth Warren's, including this direct assault on supply-side economics as a near sacrilegious heresy:

Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” Francis wrote in the papal statement. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacra­lized workings of the prevailing economic system.

These actions and more have caused the world to stop and take notice, earning Pope Francis TIME's Person of the Year award and doing much to give the Catholic Church a moral authority and relevance it has not possessed in decades.

All of Pope Francis' prior statements and actions may pale in importance next to his stand on global climate change. Following numerous exhortations that humanity become a better and more thoughtful steward of creation and a great deal of preparatory groundwork, the Pope is preparing an encyclical on ecology and climate change in advance of this year's G20 climate talks. That may not sound like much, but it's a very big deal. Papal encyclicals are rare. Pope Benedict XVI issued only three during his eight-year tenure; his predecessor Pope John Paul II was somewhat more prolific, producing 14 in his 27 years as Pope.

An encyclical is basically a public letter from the Pope to his bishops. They are documents of political or doctrinal importance designed to be presented to the laity and promoted as the official position of the Church. Past encyclicals have clarified the Vatican's official position on birth control and its opposition to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. A papal encyclical on climate change would have potentially earthshaking effects.

The first and most most obvious impact is to drive a wedge between Western conservative Catholics and the climate change denialist faction that dominates the right wing in America, Australia and Great Britain. Reactionaries across the Anglosphere are already apoplectic over the Vatican's overt evangelism in acknowledging mankind's role in climate change and urging proactive solutions to the crisis

But the impact of the encyclical is even greater. By its very nature climate change is a global problem requiring the conscientious actions of individuals and nation-states alike to solve. One of the biggest obstacles to action on climate change is the inability of nations to trust one another to reduce their own emissions, and of politicians within each nation to stand up to wealthy multinational corporations whose power often dwarfs that of the countries themselves. 

As of today there is no supra-national authority, moral or political, to force or even encourage nations to cooperate with one another. The United Nations is mostly powerless to compel the world's most polluting countries, and it lacks the gravitas and moral high ground necessary to shame countries into action. The Catholic Church is certainly not the great power it once was, but it can still be an active and influential player on the world stage. Pope Francis' progressive actions have helped to repair some of the Church's standing in the eyes of the world. And at an individual level the Church boasts over a billion members, a great many of whom may be encouraged to take stronger steps toward environmental justice given a strong doctrinal push.

While it may not be the most beloved of organizations by progressives, the Vatican is one of the few organizations in the world with a global power and reach that even the biggest multinational corporations and corrupted governments cannot sway, and with a moral authority that has the potential to shame great nations into taking stronger actions than they might otherwise have done.

Pope Francis seems to see a world dominated by the twin, related evils of corporate-dominated supply-side economics and devastating climate change. And he seems dedicated to steering the organization he leads toward helping to solve those problems. If he can accomplish that goal as he seems eager to do—and hopefully ensure that his successor continues in his tradition—he will likely be remembered as the one of the greatest figures of the 21st century. Especially if he can do it while reforming the Catholic Church by fits and starts into a more socially progressive organization. 

Amen to that, and best of luck to him.

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