By TARA GUPTA ’16
In a 27-page interview released Sept. 19 in the Italian Jesuit magazine “La Civita Cattolica,” Pope Francis put forth a now-(in)famous call to reinvent the Catholic Church. The pope professed deep concern for the Church’s track record of discrimination, money laundering and child rape. Pope Francis asserted that the Church must move away from its “obsession” with issues like abortion and homosexuality, and instead direct its energy towards helping the poor and spreading love.
Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is the first Jesuit pope and the first pope from the Americas. The interview portrayed him as humble: when asked who he was, he replied, “I am a sinner.” Instead of living in the Vatican’s lavish papal headquarters like every pope before him, he took up residence in a small guesthouse room. Since assuming the papacy in March 2013, Pope Francis has emphasized serving the poor and granting mercy to sinners. He has washed the feet of juvenile prisoners and hugged disabled pilgrims. He baptized a baby born out of wedlock, and said that he would not judge LGBTQ people who want to be part of the Church.
The interview revealed a striking contrast between Pope Francis and his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. The latter vehemently opposed equal treatment of LGBTQ people and was part of the Vatican bank scandal.
Although it seems like the new pope represents a new era for the Catholic Church, nothing could be further from the truth.
In response to pervasive child rape and abuse by priests, Pope Francis imposed stricter laws and longer incarceration for rapists and abusers. However, rape and abuse were already banned under Church law and did not stop priests from raping children. The pope’s new law bans child rape and abuse in the Vatican, but the Vatican is only home to a few hundred people. Child abuse and rape happens in Catholic churches worldwide, not just in Vatican City. The pope’s new laws are symbolically forceful, but fail to lay down effective solutions to one of the Church’s most urgent problems.
David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) argued in response to Pope Francis’ new laws, “For the Vatican’s image, this is a successful move. For children’s safety, this is another setback…It will help foster the false impression of reform and will lead to more complacency…The church hierarchy doesn’t need new rules on abuse. It needs to follow long-established secular laws on abuse.”
Furthermore, the pope is not changing the doctrine of the Catholic Church; he is simply advocating what he calls a “new balance,” or a new focus of organizational energy. He wants to influence the Church towards uplifting the disadvantaged and spreading Jesus’ love, but he ignores an important fact of heterodoxy: in attempting to unilaterally change the Church’s priorities, he will alienate its most ardent supporters.
Social conservatives who oppose abortion and gay marriage are the Church’s most ardent rank-and-file members. On the other hand, there are the so-called “Cafeteria Catholics” who represent the liberal, less orthodox wing of the Church. Although they are growing in number, “Cafeteria Catholics” still have only a fraction of the power and influence of conservatives. The pope’s words and actions may be rallying cries for the less orthodox, but they serve only to fragment the Church while doing little to change its moral course.
This is primarily because the pope’s words have engendered backlash among the Church’s core constituency. Conservative Catholics have falsely claimed that the secular media distorted the pope’s words. The Catholic media has accused secular media sources, including the New York Times, of misconstruing the interview. Reverend Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, stated at a Vatican conference on Sept. 19, the same day the publication was released, “Nobody should try to use the words of the pope to minimize the urgent need to preach and teach about abortion”—even though that is precisely the message that the pope was promoting. Indeed, the pope’s interview went through five translators and was directly vetted by the Vatican before publication. Conservative Catholics actively rejected the pope’s message and distracted from the issue by portraying themselves as victims of the secular media. In doing this they spread misinformation about the message itself.
Although the pope’s interview symbolically challenges the Catholic Church’s dogma, it does not portend the kind of change that the pope can believe in.
From here, the function of the Catholic Church might change. Perhaps the Church will gain a new following of liberal Catholics and the Catholic Church will adopt the pope’s ideals. More likely, however, conservative Catholics will continue to dismiss or ignore the pope. In this case, the pope will be a non-controversial religious figure, unlike his predecessor, and can try to settle some of the controversy surrounding the Catholic Church.