Pope Francis is doing some good things with his influence. He’s called for greater tolerance. He’s advocated for action on climate change. He’s pushed the Church to focus more on helping those suffering in poverty. In an unprecedented and inspirational speech before Congress last week, he called for an end to the death penalty, action on the refugee crisis in the Middle East, environmental protections, progress on issues relating to social justice, advocacy for workers rights, and an end to the arms trade, all while holding up progressive champions of human rights throughout history.
Wonderful. Fantastic. Love it. If he can influence members of the Church to embrace more progressive ideals personally, I’m excited. But before we put the Pope on a pedestal, it’s time for a reality check.
For starters, he never should have addressed Congress in the first place. He is, first and foremost, the leader of a religious organization (despite also being a head of state… even if that state is absurd… but that’s really a topic for another day). He should have no place in American politics, where we’re supposed to be pushing for a separation of church and state. Yes, the ideas he’s embracing are progressive, but it’s hypocritical to cheer on his political involvement while decrying the insertion of conservative religious ideals in other corners of the political process.
But even if we look beyond that, the Pope’s rhetoric is merely words. While he may have influence over the members of the Catholic faith, his ability to create durable change in Catholic dogma and doctrine is limited, and members of the leadership beneath him are unlikely to codify Pope Francis’ more liberal agenda into the Church’s formal belief system. As the Washington Post pointed out:
Yet as he upends church convention, Francis also is grappling with a conservative backlash to the liberal momentum building inside the church. In more than a dozen interviews, including with seven senior church officials, insiders say the change has left the hierarchy more polarized over the direction of the church than at any point since the great papal reformers of the 1960s.
The conservative rebellion is taking on many guises — in public comments, yes, but also in the rising popularity of conservative Catholic Web sites promoting Francis dissenters; books and promotional materials backed by conservative clerics seeking to counter the liberal trend; and leaks to the news media, aimed at Vatican reformers.
In his recent comments, [ousted conservative Cardinal] Burke was also merely stating fact. Despite the vast powers of the pope, church doctrine serves as a kind of constitution. And for liberal reformers, the bruising theological pushback by conservatives is complicating efforts to translate the pope’s transformative style into tangible changes.
To a certain extent, these limits, though not codified, have been respected by Pope Francis. As the New Yorker reported:
[W]hen the organizers of the synod published a midterm report that included many of the positions of the progressive camp, there was a minor uprising, with traditionalists feeling that those preparing the provisional draft had carried out a kind of coup d’état that did not reflect the consensus of the bishops. In a subsequent draft, approved by the bishops, some of the more controversial passages were modified or eliminated. The passage about the “gifts and qualities” of homosexuals was gone. When the Vatican’s final report was published, it revealed the votes in favor of and against each paragraph. The contested passages (about gay people and divorced Catholics who have remarried) were the only ones that failed to achieve the two-thirds majority that constitutes a consensus.
Whatever the outcome of the debate, it is ultimately the Pope who decides on the content of the synod’s final document. “The Church is a communion, not a democracy,” Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia, the head of the Pontifical Council on the Family, said. Yet the Church prefers achieving large majorities, to avoid factions and ruptures. Francis has been working very hard to change the consensus within the Church rather than impose change.
Some might argue that this approach to introducing change to Catholic doctrine is wise. After all, should Pope Francis break substantially with those below him and force change, he may very well have a mutiny on his hands. Already, his stance on climate change has elicited very public criticism from some within the Church hierarchy.
With the power to appoint new cardinals, Pope Francis does have the ability to up the likeliness of his perspectives being integrated into Church principles. However, as his recent appointments suggest, creating a regime likely to advance progressive ideals is not his priority. This might be, perhaps, because the Pope is not breaking with Church on much. While he has called for tolerance of those who are considered sinners according to Catholic canon — such as those who seek divorce, use contraception, obtain an abortion, and are homosexual — he has not called for any substantive changes to the Catholic Church’s position on such subjects. And let’s not forget that this supposed beacon of progressive ideals within one of the most traditional realms of Christianity took time out of his trip to America to meet with conservative zealot darling Kim Davis. I mean, really?
Yes, it may be tempting to exalt Pope Francis for his rhetoric, but it is, in many ways, smoke and mirrors. The meaningful change progressives hope for is unlikely in a Church that has historically been excruciatingly slow to change, and really, that isn’t what he’s pushing. In the meantime, he is still the head of the Catholic Church. I mean, we’re talking about a group that just declared a practitioner of genocide a saint. No matter how beautiful his words, that doesn’t excuse the extensive problems behind his robes. Gawker hit the nail on the head in 2013:
Pope Francis — by all accounts a truly humble man who has demonstrated real concern for the world’s less fortunate — has done nothing so far to indicate that he is not, at heart, a good man. He is also the leader of the Catholic Church. The church is an institution which, as a policy, has sheltered priests guilty of child sexual abuse, fought against common sense family planning measures in the third world, and shamed gay people the world over. How many suicides have come about as a direct result of just these policies of the Catholic Church? Eh, who knows? We all have our flaws.
Perhaps more saliently: how much money does the Catholic Church have? No one outside the Vatican really knows, precisely. But it almost certainly has wealth that would rival that of many national governments. Last year, The Economist calculated that the Catholic church in America alone had a $170 billion annual operating budget. Globally, the figure is much larger. When you add up the value of the church’s worldwide holdings — land, buildings, and treasures — it’s reasonable to imagine a huge, huge number.
Is the Catholic church using its wealth in the best way possible? That is, is it using its resources in the way that most effectively embodies the Christian ideals that the church purportedly stand for? Leaving aside some of the church’s odious political positions, is it even spreading the good kind of Christian Love For They Neighbor as Thyself very well? The Economist‘sestimates found only about $5 billion in annual charity spending out of that $170 billion total — less than 3%. Even if the actual charitable spending were triple that amount, it would still mean that the American Catholic church spends less than 10% of its budget on direct good works.
That’s not even enough for a proper tithe.
So, yes, Pope Francis is good at inspirational rhetoric. And it’s fine if you want to applaud that. But until the Church as an institution begins to walk the walk his words encourage, until he actually begins to push for substantive change, you’ll have to forgive me if I’m not cheering.