Pope Francis recently celebrated his first year in office and the Conclave who selected him has every reason to rejoice in their choice. His affable manner, disarming smile and different voice instantly propelled him into rock star celebrity. He is humble and without ostentation while his predecessor Pope Benedict 16 was haughty and used all the pomp and circumstance at his service for the greater glory of the Church. Francis’ emphasis is on service not scholarship and in all of this he is the anti-Benedict.
Recently President Obama and the Pope met for the first time in what was described as a cordial visit. Barack Obama chose to emphasize their common concern over poverty and income inequality. Obama too came to power on a great wave of popularity. In 2008 his eloquence, his emphasis on hope and change had immense resonance. In his own sphere he was the anti-Bush. But he soon confronted the reality of entrenched power and obstructionism.
How long will Pope Francis’ popularity endure? Is he a true reformer?
While Pope Francis and President Obama were smiling for the cameras, Catholic bishops were seizing on the controversy of the Affordable Care Act to praise those institutions which refuse to implement it. These are religiously affiliated groups like charities, hospitals etc. who say they will not provide their employees coverage for birth control. Those groups have a misguided notion of what religious freedom means. Religious freedom means that anyone can practice his or her religion without any restrictions. It does not mean that a religious institution can impose its views of religion on those who do not share it. Birth control is a basic health care issue and every woman’s right. Every woman should have access to it, no matter what her employer’s view on the matter is.
In 1967 the Second Vatican Council effected some changes designed to bring the Church in line with modern times. Will Pope Francis be willing to reflect current concerns and move the Church forward again? His pronouncements to date do not give us any reason to think so. So far the change is one of form not substance and seems cosmetic only.
The Church has in no way reconsidered its stance regarding abortion and Planned Parenthood. Yet the world is facing overpopulation. In many countries children are malnourished and face many diseases. The Catholic Church is not likely to abandon its stance on the celibacy of priests despite evidence that this leads to sexual abuse of children. It is commendable to have created an Anti-Abuse Commission and to hold bishops accountable for protecting abusers. But it is only a stopgap. As long as priests remain celibate, sexual abuse will occur. Will the Church revise its policy toward stem cell research? Finally, the Church shows no evidence of changing its policies regarding the ordaining of women priests.
(My thanks to Rachel Hecht for pointing me towards the topic of freedom of religion.)