The Myth of the Liberal Pope

If you are not a Catholic, then it is easy to underestimate the political power the Pope still wields. He is the spiritual leader of over one billion people worldwide, has access to an incredible amount of money and resources, and has a great deal of influence over politicians in various countries. All this for an old man who usually has spent his entire adult life in the Church – if not sheltered then certainly removed from the real world – who has been elected by several other old men in a process too impenetrable to be explained here but certainly not democratic in the traditional sense.

The latest in this long line has been widely-touted, in the five years since his election, as a ‘reformer’ – Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The first Pope from the Americas and well-known as a campaigner for interfaith dialogue and acceptance of gay people into the Church, he has become the Catholic Church’s liberal pin-up. He better represents the Catholic Church’s changing demographic, with congregation sizes of all Christian demographics in Europe and North America shrinking and Latin America now containing 40% of all Catholics worldwide. Non-religious and Catholic press and politicians alike largely approve of him, with 70% of the American public also supporting him.

However, in January 2018 a story emerged that seemed to undermine Francis’ message of ‘reform’. A bishop, Juan Barros, in Chile who has been accused by multiple sources of being aware of or complicit in covering up sexual abuse by priests in his diocese, had last year escaped retribution and moved to another diocese. In January on a visit to Chile, upon being asked by journalists about his thoughts on this, Francis replied that the accusations were lacking in evidence and implored everyone to believe in Barros’ innocence. This caused uproar in Chile and angry responses from within the Catholic Church, most notably by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston. O’Malley criticised the pontiff, clearly aware of the murky history in his own city where in 2002 the press’s investigation of the worldwide paedophile-priest cover-up began in earnest. Francis has since retracted and apologised for his comments, but it is comments like these that make many people question how true the ‘liberal myth’ of his papacy really is.

It is true that Francis has made huge steps with his comments about gay people, most famously in 2016 where he called for Christians to apologise to gay people for the way they had been treated by the Church in the past. Many LGBT activists took this as an unswerving seal of approval, but of course the Pope’s policy remains complex. Officially, the Catholic Church still believes that homosexual acts are sinful, although being homosexual is not – a distinction that seems a little fine: does having gay thoughts count as being sinful? Also, there is evidence that Francis’s views may have changed on this after his election. In 2010, as Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, he launched a rather vitriolic attack on the legalisation of gay marriage in Argentina. Although he still does not officially support gay marriage, it is hard to align the comments of a man who said that the existence of homosexuals in a family will ‘seriously damage them’ with the same man who in 2013, three years later, said ‘Who am I to judge?’ when asked what he thought about gay people.

Similarly, Francis seems to blow hot and cold on the issue of women. He has expressed views similar to those about gay people in comments about women and has devoted more time to working with nuns and female church groups than previous pontiffs. However, he remains unrelenting on the issue of the ordination of women, and in his position as head of the Catholic Church is still complicit in an organisation which consistently treats women as second-class citizens. Then there comes the issue of paedophile priests, about which Francis has been outspoken in his desire for openness and justice for survivors. Yet his comment in January seemed like a simple echo of those of many previous holders of his office – to paraphrase, he said ‘believe me, I’m the Pope’. After all, he is the closest Catholics have to God’s voice on earth and he could use this influence in various ways if he so wished.

Growing up in a lower-middle-class area of a large city in Latin America and working in churches in poor areas of that city for many years certainly gives Francis some greater credibility in his calls for humility and love for all. He can arguably be excused for his apparent hypocrisy as the institution which he heads is unbelievably complex and steeped in almost 2000 years of history. Times may be changing, but Francis is constrained by a great deal within the Church. Whatever he does, he will ultimately probably be remembered as just one of 266 men who have held his post.

Yet whatever your view on him, there is one thing that does make him a little different. He is willing to apologise: willing to admit that he is wrong. It may be hypocritical that his views on gay people changed so radically, or it can be that he simply learned something new. He made comments which were unpopular about the Chilean bishop, and he admitted that he was incorrect. He is open about his fallibility; his humanity.

Those who hope for still greater reforms from Francis may be ill-advised but certainly have a more plausible chance than with any previous Pope. The ‘liberal Pope’ may be a myth – but it’s a myth I can allow myself to indulge in.