Am I allowed to still call him “new?” He’s been in office exactly 190 days. In terms of Pope terms (usually for life), that’s pretty fresh. If I’m being honest, I haven’t paid extraordinarily close attention to the two popes who preceeded Francis in my lifetime. I was raised atheist/agnostic and so from my perspective Pope John Paul the II (1975-2005) existed as a sort of vague, benign figure in the back of my mind. John Paul was fairly well-known for being an apologist pope. He authored several famous mea culpas for the Catholic church’s involvement in previous atrocities including the Holocaust, the slave trade and treatment of women. In 2001, he also apologized for the Catholic church abuse scandals that came to light. So he was awfully sweet-seeming. Awfully sorry. And maybe not as proactive as he might be. He reassigned certain guilty parties instead of booting them from the church altogether. From my secular position, I would have preferred a mass defrocking.
Pope Benedict, on the other hand, was the more sinister-looking Pope and was painted with a less favorable brush by pop culture. His reaction to the sexual abuse scandals was far more out-spoken and passionate than Pope John Paul’s and that, by rights, should have made him a hero. But he was, nonetheless, named specifically as being complicit in the cover-ups and whether he resigned due to persecution, his self-described “advanced age” or his later story of a mystical experience, he was the first to do so since the 15th century.
Enter Pope Francis. The most modern-thinking Pope yet. The Pope whose politics most closely align with mine. And though I’m still an atheist/agnostic, it’s hugely important to me that this leader of the Catholic world, this massively influential voice, seems to be speaking the words of progress. Or, rather, keeping silent on certain subjects. In a recent interview, Francis spoke to the Catholic church’s fixation on issues of abortion and gay rights:
It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. We have to find a new balance otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.
First of all, “freshness and fragrance of the Gospel” is such a delightful evocative phrase. Secondly, through his selective silences, Francis has become one of our most outspoken voices on the inevitability of modernity. We can leave the issue of abortion on the table, though my opinions on that matter are quite strong. But when the leader of the Catholic church refuses to condemn homosexuality outright? Ah, a change gonna come.
And I don’t know, honestly, how Catholics in general are going to respond. Some will be angry and feel they’re not being accurately represented. Some will breathe a sigh of relief that the old institution is beginning to catch up with the more progressive, spiritual thinkers. And that’s why this is important to an atheist/agnostic like me. I don’t like getting my back up about religion. I like being able to whole-heartedly support any person’s chosen faith and spiritual path. What does it have to do with me what you choose to believe in? Why should I care what manner divine thought gets you through this world? I only care when those tenets are pushed on me or my loved ones. When religion is used as an excuse to oppress and deny. What Francis and his progressive attitudes mean to me is that we’re a little bit closer to a world where we can all peaceably co-exist. And, if there were a God, and that God had a plan, wouldn’t that be it?