The world has a new pope and everyone seems happy that he was not a Nazi and does not look like Emperor Palpatine. These are not Pope Francis’s only qualities, of course. The Argentinian-born Francis is developing a reputation as progressive and genuine. He has been photographed assisting people from all walks of life, including unwed mothers, Muslim prisoners and the disfigured. Some of his statements offer the possibility of reconciliation with homosexuals, atheists and members of other religions or other Christian denominations like Protestantism. He has attacked the free trade economic system, saying, “markets and financial speculation . . . deny the right of control to states, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good.”
Francis cuts an impressive media figure for a Catholic Church plagued by scandals and an inability to stay in touch with younger demographics. If he can keep his nose clean and the Mother Teresa act stays fresh with the public, Francis might be able to patch up the holes in his sinking ship and move the church forward. If he is successful, however, society will ultimately suffer.
The Catholic Church is so internally broken that no amount of public relations duct tape will repair its image or the damage it has caused. The introduction of this relatively liberal pope does not mean that the values which have powered the Vatican for centuries have suddenly changed; it only means that the church has remembered the power of surrounding a charismatic individual with mythology. This is not the first time the church has used this tactic — the celebrity of Jesus Christ and the canonized saints survives because of their (reputed) extraordinary personalities.
Francis’s modest lifestyle and public displays of compassion do not result from new precepts — they are an attempt to emulate the church’s oldest and most successful stars. Is this reboot bad? Good? Doesn’t matter.
The cardinals’ selection of Francis is not an attempt to appear relevant or cool — it is a return to the absolute grassroots of the church, which has always been a conservative and tradition-based organization, one whose very nature is to equate change with wrongdoing. And as we have seen, Francis has only mollified the Church’s critics by backing off on condemnation of homosexuals, unwed mothers and sin in general. He has failed to direct the church into substantially correcting the sexual abuse rampant in the Catholic Church and much of the adoration he has received is a result of inspiring but impotent rhetoric. For example, his condemnation of capitalist economics seems heroic given his personal rejection of wealth, but is in reality hypocritical considering his institution. The modern church’s financial machine follows a steady pattern of donations followed by corruption and disaster, having been consistently mismanaged by greedy and incompetent clergymen.
To personally attack Francis as a fraud or a front is unfair. His political power is limited and his views seem genuinely progressive and socially liberal for a Catholic official. The humble way in which he has presented himself is worthy of admiration. So much of the public’s enthusiasm for his persona, however, comes out of surprise after years of the clergy meeting our cynical expectations: abuse of both fiscal responsibilities and altar boys as well as hypocritical judgement regarding changing social norms.
Sadly, the public’s enthusiasm for Francis testifies to the hypnotic power of organized religion. People want to respect the church so badly that they have rallied around the new pope, forgetting he represents a group that has always presented misleading intentions and ignored its own teachings. The Catholic Church’s traditions have been tainted by the stench of greed and bloodshed as far as back as medieval times, when Crusader knights brought civilization to the inhabitants of Jerusalem by slaughtering them, or when women and children were burned alive by Spanish inquisitors. Society should let this ship sink, not applaud because a new public relations magician might keep it afloat with a few civil remarks about gays and atheists.
That Francis seems interested in working towards a more tolerant church is reasonable from a pragmatic standpoint. This is only because the Catholic Church’s core denomination won’t be going anywhere in the next 10 years, whether out of loyalty or the genuine belief that God chooses his voice from this group of essentially wretched old men.
It’s unfortunate that people equate the Catholic Church with the Catholic religion. As an institution, the church has proven itself unworthy of salvation, and declining attendance and donations over the last several years attest to a trend of dissatisfaction with its reputation amongst casual attendees. Francis is only delaying the inevitable — he might be the church’s new nativity star, but he’s stacked at the top of a sloppy mound left in the woods for him by his associates and predecessors.