Nobody can accuse the Catholic Church of being democratic, but as an atheist I’ll paraphrase Winston Churchill’s remark about democracy: Pope Francis is the worst pope we ever had, except for all the others. I’m no papal historian, but I’m pressed to think of a less bad pope. True, I have nothing bad to say about Pope John Paul I, perhaps because he was pope for only 33 days.
Although Pope Benedict XVI unified atheists whenever he made pronouncements on atheists, gays, pedophilia, and all matters sexual, his successor, Pope Francis, is a divider rather than a uniter within the atheist community. Some atheists see this pope glass as 1/10 full, while others see it as 9/10 empty.
For instance, what are we to make of this statement from Pope Francis? “God’s mercy does not have limits and therefore it reaches nonbelievers, too, for whom sin would not be the lack of faith in God, but rather, failure to obey one’s conscience.” Pope Francis added that God forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith, as long as they follow their own conscience.
I like the pope’s emphasis on conscience, though I neither want nor need forgiveness for not believing in a nonexistent deity. I doubt that the pope would appreciate someone telling him, “Zeus will forgive you for not believing in him as long as you follow your conscience.” Following one’s conscience instead of a religious “authority” is exactly what atheists and humanists do. We are also guided by reason, empathy, and a growing knowledge of the world to help live informed and meaningful lives that aspire to the greater good. No need for gods and other supernatural forces.
Promoting conscience must make a lot of conservative Christians squirm. Is the pope saying it doesn’t matter what you believe about Jesus as long as you are a good person? Not quite, but he comes closer to that position than any pope in my memory. I’d say the difference between conservative and liberal Christians is that conservatives place belief above behavior and view this life as preparation for an afterlife, while liberals place behavior above belief and focus on improving the human condition.
The issue for me is not just how much of Catholic theology this or that pope believes, but which parts he emphasizes and which parts he mostly ignores. Pope Francis is concentrating more on peace, poverty and social justice than on abortion, gay marriage and contraception. He even gave a limited shout-out to gays, asking “Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?” But he conditions his benevolence on a search for the Lord.
I think Pope Francis is a liberal Christian trapped in a conservative Christian body (the Catholic Church). There are many cafeteria Catholics who ignore doctrines that make no sense to them. That’s why 82 percent of Catholics say birth control is morally acceptable. I don’t know what the pope believes about birth control, but as leader of the church he can’t seem to find an entrance to the cafeteria.
Whether you call it tradition or baggage, popes take great care to live mostly in the past. They may be in the forefront of 21st century technology by tweeting, but they are stuck with papal dogma and doctrine from centuries past. I see three kinds of baggage that go from bad to worse to worst:
1. Church doctrine that mostly doesn’t affect behavior. Examples include “infallible” papal declarations that require faithful Catholics to believe things like the Immaculate Conception of Anne (Virgin Mary’s mom) so that Mary could somehow be free from the stain of “original sin,” and also Mary’s Assumption into heaven, body and soul.
2. Church doctrine applicable only to church clergy and nuns. For instance, lives of celibacy. Benedict supported celibate heterosexual priests, but not celibate homosexual priests. In his Orwellian world, all ways of not having sex are equal, but some ways are more equal than others. Pope Francis seems more welcoming of gay priests.
3. Church doctrine that affects non-Catholics. A prime example is Catholic political influence on prohibiting contraception in an overpopulated world with undereducated, vulnerable women— a policy that furthers the spread of sexual diseases when contraception is denied.
I suspect that Pope Francis would like to be even more human-centered, while at the same time not alienating a doctrine-centered Catholic hierarchy. But he took a job that comes with lots of baggage and he either can’t or won’t act as Thomas Jefferson did. Reflecting the Enlightenment thinkers of his day, Jefferson rewrote the Christian Bible by cutting out the superstitions and miracle stories in it, calling what remained “Diamonds in a Dunghill.”
Bottom line: Pope Francis may be as good as it gets, but the Catholic Church just doesn’t allow popes to get that good.
Image courtesy of Semilla Luz.