Recently, I was interviewed by Frank Zindler, and one of his questions was about my thoughts on this current pope. I think it’s worth expanding on my response a bit.
First of all, as I no longer believe the veracity of Catholicism, I no longer accept that the pope has any authority over me. Some people shorthand this to “I don’t believe in the pope”, which I think is a very bad phrasing. It sounds, at least to me, that you are denying that there is such a person as the pope, which is an obviously ridiculous proposition. It’s like saying “I don’t believe in the president”. Guess what? The president and the pope both exist. However, the pope only has authority over Catholics. For those of us outside that religion, nothing the pope says or does should make a difference in our lives.
In fact, Pope Francis was elected to the office in early 2013, a full two years and change since I officially stopped believing Catholicism, and even after I was sure enough of my position to tell my parents. Because of that, I have not followed him very closely. I have no reason to care.
However, lots of other people care a great deal about what Pope Francis has to say! Not just Catholics, but most everyone, it seems. Some conservatives are upset that he is not conservative enough (I haven’t asked, but I’m sure my family fits in this category). Some liberals are falling over each other with praise for how “progressive” he is. It seemed really common for a while there that atheist subreddits were full of “I actually like this new pope!” threads, and they still occasionally pop up when he says something that seems decent. On those threads there is normally at least one person saying something along the lines of “this is just the same sort of thing that any decent human would say”, and I side firmly with that opinion.
The thing is, it doesn’t actually matter what type of person Pope Francis is, or what he actually believes, or even what he actually says. He might well be a super great person, and there are certainly indications that he is at least a step up as a person from his predecessor. At the very least, he is not sitting in a solid gold throne. None of this makes much difference with respect to what the Catholic Church actually teaches. What it does change is public perception of the Catholic Church.
This is why I think the election of Pope Francis is a PR move: the Catholic Church has motive, means, and opportunity.
The Catholic Church institution is feeling a lot of pain, at least in America and I assume in other developed countries. Very, very few people who consider themselves Catholic in America actually follow or even know what Church teaching is on many matters of faith and morals. Fewer people are becoming priests; Catholics have been talking about a priest shortage my whole life – I’ve even heard a sermon on the issue. Fewer people are going to Mass at all, and even fewer every Sunday, despite the fact that Church teaching is quite clear that missing Mass on a Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation is a mortal sin. Catholics are not following Church teaching in their sex lives or their political lives; the Catholic school girl trope exists not just because some guys have weird fetishes but because many guys have found that Catholic girls have no inclination to actually follow Church teaching on sex before marriage, and John F. Kennedy made it clear that he would not allow his Catholic religion to influence his decisions as president – ignoring that such behavior is extremely contrary to Church teaching. It is now widely known that the Catholic Church spent decades covering up the worst kind of abuse – child rape. Worse, they moved these child rapists around to other parishes, allowing them to hurt more children. Further, it was found that this behavior went all the way to the top, because Benedict XVI was involved, at least before he became pope. My thought is that this leak into public knowledge played into why he stepped down, although I don’t know if there’s any conclusive proof one way or another.
Once Pope Benedict XVI stepped down, which could have been a decision forced upon him by Vatican officials, a less evil-looking and better liked individual could be elected. Despite Pope Francis saying liberal-sounding things, such as that atheists can go to heaven or gays are ok people, he’s not doing anything to change Catholic Church teaching. In fact, he can’t do anything to change Catholic Church teaching on any matters of faith and morals.
One of the biggest misunderstandings about the Catholic Church is how papal infallibility really works. It does not mean that everything the pope says is right. Indeed, Catholic teaching allows that the pope can even be a heretic, and certainly he can be a sinner of the worst kind (and some have, in history). All it means is that the pope will not be permitted, by intervention of the Holy Spirit, to make an official pronouncement on a matter of faith or morals that is not in line with God’s Truth. Personally, of course, I think this is hogwash because I don’t believe in god or the holy spirit, but that is Church teaching on infallibility. This infallibility has arguably only been used a few times in Church history.
The point is, Pope Francis could not stand from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica tomorrow and announce that gay marriage is now moral according to the Catholic Church. Were he to try this, it would not be using papal infallibility, but disproving it, because that is precisely the sort of announcement that the doctrine of infallibility promises would never happen.
Nothing is actually changing, because the Catholic Church cannot afford to really change. But there appear to be at least some Vatican officials who have realized that the image of the Catholic Church needs to change, or they will die.
From my perspective, the Catholic Church needs to die; it has caused too much pain and spread too many falsehoods for too long. That’s why I find it vaguely upsetting when anyone gushes over Pope Francis. He’s only making the Catholic Church look more progressive than it really is, and better than it deserves.