Pope Francis is lots of hope, very little change

In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, left, is welcomed by Pope Francis … Continued

In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, left, is welcomed by Pope Francis as he returns at the Vatican from the pontifical summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, 35 km South-Est from Rome, Thursday, May 2, 2013. Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI came home on Thursday to a new house and a new pope, as an unprecedented era begins of a retired pontiff living side-by-side with a reigning one inside the Vatican gardens. In background is archbishop George Gaenswein, prefect of the papal household. (AP Photo/Osservatore Romano, HO)

Catholics desperately want change in our church, and Pope Francis is being heralded in Time magazine and on almost every major network and newspaper as the one who will deliver it. But before we pronounce him the patron saint of reform, we should step back and take a critical look at whether his gestures indicate a true metamorphosis or are simply a media-friendly rhetorical shift.

First of all, there is no doubt that Pope Francis has introduced some changes. It may simply be Francis’ relaxed communication style. Or it could be Greg Burke, the Vatican’s spin merchant imported from Fox News, who was savvy enough to organize the photo-op with Francis carrying his own bag. Whatever the case, this papacy looks and feels very different. But let’s not be na ve: a PR offensive headed by a more likable pope is not an action, but a reaction.

The Vatican’s feverish brows are caused by a number of crises that have weakened the hierarchy’s power both within and outside the church, especially the continued hemorrhaging of the faithful to evangelical denominations. This is a serious issue in Africa, as well as in Pope Francis’ own backyard, Latin America.

The curia is on notice that the political shenanigans that passed for work in Vatican City are about to end, or at least come under increased scrutiny. Maybe a few heads may roll.

Pope Francis’s first order of business is the inexplicably long-standing sexual abuse crisis. He has also appointed a SWAT team to deal with the burgeoning scandal at the Vatican Bank. Whether the five-member commission possesses the necessary know-how is unclear. The four clergy lean towards canon law, diplomacy and the academy, while the final member, Mary Ann Glendon, is an ultraconservative former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican whose background is in law, not finance.

But the headlines are not about appalling management problems; they suggest a revamped narrative from the Vatican.

Catholics have been mortified by some of the amazingly dumb things church leaders have said and done over the years. From idiotic assertions that HIV can pass through a condom—announced with the same certitude once employed to tell Galileo the world was flat—to stigmatizing gays or attacking Jews and Muslims, many pronouncements by the hierarchy have been painfully embarrassing. That may change during the current papacy, but commentators have latched onto something else: this plain-talking pope, some claim, may be closer to the people. Francis may not just talk the talk, but actually walk with the poor and ordinary Catholics.

The evidence contradicts this rosy worldview, suggesting that a hardline position still holds firm at the Vatican and among the hierarchy. Pope Francis is a theological conservative—just like his recent predecessors—and theology inevitably becomes policy.

During Pope John Paul II’s reign, priests, nuns, bishops and cardinals who believed in liberation theology didn’t simply feel the poor’s pain, they stood with and advocated for them. These social justice heroes were put out to pasture. John Paul and his successor Benedict XVI replaced them with ultraconservatives who had little or no pastoral experience, but did have an impeccable record with far-right Catholic groups like Opus Dei or Communion and Liberation. This resulted in a College of Cardinals unlikely to elect a pope who will bring about the changes the Catholic majority so urgently desires.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and recent actions by the new administration have a familiar taste. At two meetings at the U.N. in June, the Vatican’s representative stood up to oppose sexual and reproductive health, just as he and his predecessors have always done. Pope Francis talks of compassion for poor but has done nothing to change the hierarchy’s ban on contraception, something that would help interrupt the cycle of poverty perpetuated in developing nations where lifesaving contraception is unavailable. Time and time again, the Catholic hierarchy and its charities prevent people from accessing the means to control their own fertility.

Pope Francis may have spared us the usual lecture about abortion but we can’t expect much movement on this issue. His predecessors were more insistent in delivering the anti-choice party line, their words falling on ears that are not deaf, but belonging to individuals fully able to interpret their own consciences. Parishioners easily recognize yet another instance of celibate men who, unable to understand the reality and complexity of family life, choose to condemn so many in our church.

Pope Francis did state that he won’t judge gay people, but continues to deny them the right to express their love in the same way as do heterosexuals, with perpetual chastity seemingly the only sanctioned option for LGBT faithful. He also forgave the sins of gay clergy, knowing that the church would grind to a halt were he to make sexual orientation a litmus test for prospective priests and nuns.

But when Francis was asked about the role of women in church, and the possibility that one day the church could enjoy the gifts of ordained women, he insisted that door was closed.

The doors and windows in the Vatican have been closed for a very long time. The air is stale. Faithful Catholics pray for real transformation—perhaps through Pope Francis. Wherever change comes from, one thing is clear: the winds of change need to blow through the whole church, especially the Vatican. Those few acres in Rome are the epicenter of a conservative brand of Catholicism promoted by the hierarchy that has little to do with the way everyday Catholics live and believe. The Francis-dictated fashion for plain cassocks over splendid robes notwithstanding, Catholics want a change of heart from the entrenched leadership, a revolution that would earn rank-and-file Catholics’ vote for sainthood.

Jon O’Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice.

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  • leibowde84

    “Catholics desperately want change in our church.”


  • hammangj

    Jon O’Brien overlooks a shift from emphasis on sexuality to an emphasis on social justice. Contraception is hardly the only or most important social justice issue. O’Brien is focused only on changes in doctrine on human sexuality and that ain’t happening. Look for more emphasis on refugees, immigration, living wages, fairness for the poor, decent housing, minimum standards of sanitation, water sharing/access, and other similar issues. Pope Francis is very much a Jesuit. Look to their agenda for a preview of his.

  • EddDoerr

    Catholics for Choice president Jon O’Brien is right on target. If Pope Francis really wants to help the poor and promote social justice, one of the first things he should do is rescind the Vatican’s 1968 condemnation of contraception, which the majority of Pope Paul VI’s own advisers opposed and which most Catholics have ignored. The second thing that Pope Francis should do is terminate the Vatican’s (Holy See’s) unique position as the only religious body in the world to enjoy Permanent Observer status at the UN, a position it has used to thwart international efforts to advance women’s rights and promote reproductive choice, often in cooperation with conservative Muslim governments. The Vatican’s opposition to women’s health, welfare, religious freedom and rights of conscience has contributed to the deaths of many thousands of women and caused untold misery for tens of millions of women and children. In addition, the Vatican’s opposition to contraception has contributed to the very serious overpopulation, climate change and resource depletion problems.

    Francis should also lighten up on the abortion issue. Its “personhood at conception” ideology is unscientific, unbiblical and ahistorical. It is alien to the thought of the greatest Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas.

    Since the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, the Vatican has stalled and even retreated in its efforts to address the important issues of our time.

    We need more voices like that of Jon O’Brien.

    Edd Doerr, President, Americans for Religious Liberty

  • EddDoerr

    Au contraire. O’Brien addresses issues which are just as important but which seldom get aired, except in the pages of Journals like Catholics for Choice’s “Conscience”, which you really need to read. — Edd Doerr

  • pintolinda

    Jon O’Brien reflects the hope and hearache that many catholics experience. We truly want to believe that Francis is a breath of fresh air. But, his smile, warmth and embrace of the poor will not overshadow a continuance of church policies which are abusive to catholics at-large. To continue the insipid war on contraception is embarassing. To maintain a focus on “pelvic issues” rather than those that free and feed the people, phycially and spirituality, is unfortunate. To try to reflect the face of God, but deny women a call to priesthood ( one that God gives them) or homosexuals the joy of intimate, committed love (a call that God also gives them) is ludicrous. Catholics by and large have moved beyond the walls of the church and have found places where they can celebrate spirituality free of incumbrance, while remaining staunchly catholic. I pray the Pope will join us soon.

  • Lewis S

    Wonderful article, Jon! There is a slight glimmer of hope. Pope Francis did use the word gay instead of what his predecessors have used. Unfortunately, Francis was referring to Catholic priests and celibacy. In saying that the issue of women priests has been definitely decided by John Paul II was devastating and demeaning to all those who are working for full equality of all Catholics in the church and society. Progressive Catholics still have a lot of work to do to make a more just church.

  • Theresa Padovano

    The laity are so starved for some small sign of a change of heart at the Vaitcan that any small signal of a change sends us all ecstatic. Let’s hope that Jon is wrong about Francis. Time will tell. But it does seem he is correct about there being no change of policy with regard to same-sex marriage and women’s ordination. As Jon says in his article, we are so used to irrational speech coming from the hierarchy, we could be premature on the change that Francis will bring. Let’s hope his words about “dialogue, dialogue, dialogue” somehow begin to apply to dialogue with the Church in the pews and on the margins.

  • frankyburns

    If ever there was an issue that pointed to the fallibility of the Bible, this is it. The Bible was written back in a homophobic age. Nowadays people know that there is no sin in being gay. The Church is being dragged kicking and screaming into the post-Enlightenment age. It will take some time, but ultimately they will find another interpretation, another “dispensation” to account for how it is really OK to be gay nowadays.

  • Big Thunder

    Nonsense. Utter nonsense. A pro-abort “Catholic” organization certainly doesn’t speak for me or any other true Catholic. It seems that only the wild-eyed “spirit of Vatican 2” dissidents want the Church to change to meet their ideological tripe. True Catholics want orthodoxy. True Catholics want the faith our Lord taught his apostles. We aren’t interested in re-defining marriage or changing the nature of the priesthood (if such things were even possible) to suit the whims of a bunch of navel-gazers who don’t believe what the Church teaches. True Catholics want an actual Catholic faithfully shepherding Christ’s church, not some heretical horror show like Jon O’Brien or Simons Campbell. Thankfully the hippie “Catholics” are finally aging out and dying off…and taking their theological gobbledygook with them.

  • mkc1

    Thank you very much for being yet another voice that recognizes that even though popes can change the tone of the message, they can never change Church doctrine itself. Truth is Truth no matter the time and place nor how many people it offends. Any real Catholic knows that.

    For the record, Galileo proved heliocentricty, not the roundness of the Earth, and although the Church officials who excommunicated him were certainly abusing their power, they did not excommunicate him for his theory that the Earth goes around the Sun, but rather for disobeying them on a matter related to his research.

  • teritomg

    Any generalization of “what Catholics want,” and especially any insinuation that one isn’t a “faithful Catholic” unless one agrees, is (at least) as narrow-minded and dismissive as Mr. O’Brien accuses the hierarchy of being.

  • mkc1

    Exactly. The path of the believer is so narrow, it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

  • FortBliss


  • MHughes976

    Why be a Catholic, ie a member of an organisation whose whole idea is to preserve what has been accepted ‘everywhere, for ever, by everyone’ to proclaim infallibility and therefore never be corrected, therefore never change, if change is what you want?

  • Unless We Think

    From Wikipedia:
    CFC is not a membership organization but an advocacy group. It relies upon paid employees and committed volunteer activists that it selectively recruits in various regions.[21]
    In 2007, CFC had a budget of $3 million, increased from $2.5 million annually in the years leading up to 2003.[1] It is supported largely by secular foundations such as the Ford Foundation, Buffett Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and the Playboy Foundation.[1][20][36]
    Also from Wiki:
    In April 1995, the National Catholic Reporter published a letter by Marjorie Rieley Maguire, a theology professor, former CFC activist and co-author of CFC’s 1984 New York Times advertisement, “A Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion”. In her letter, Maguire described CFC as “an anti-woman organization” devoted to “the promotion of abortion, the defense of every abortion decision as a good, moral choice and the related agenda of persuading society to cast off any moral constraints about sexual behavior.” Maguire also charged that when she was involved with CFC, she “was never aware that any of its leaders attended Mass” and that “various conversations and experiences convinced [her] they did not.”[23]

  • j sannino

    Reality is Reality. Not Truth is Truth. Truth is a human cognitive activity of conceptualization. Reality is never the sole possession of any human brain. While Reality is broader than Truth, even truth is never fully grasped by one or many brains at any one moment in the process of time. Divine Grace has not displaced this normative process.

  • j sannino

    I want a catholic faith that existed before me and will be here after me, a faith which commits itself to a creator who can and wants to embrace the entire human race ever born or ever to be born. Small mindedness can not be Catholic.

  • j sannino

    Thanks Edd. The “personhood from conception” must be addressed some day. This position makes the Creator and sustain-er of the human race the greatest killer of the innocent that has ever existed under such a concept, since tens of thousands of natural abortions happen at trimester every year, probably since the beginning of human existence. Human life and Human Person are not the same and it is wrong to force the equation and yet this confusion is promulgated continually so that people believe it without raising the question of the difference.

  • Big Thunder

    The Church was here long before you and I and it will be here long after we’re gone. Our Lord promised that the gates of hell would not prevail. Anyone who doesn’t accept the faith that was taught by Christ is free to leave his Church. If the faith of our Lord that has been handed down through the Magisterium for 2000 years is not what you’re after, then perhaps one of the thousands of protestant churches more closely matches your beliefs. If you can’t find one today, check again tomorrow…many will have changed by then.

  • Big Thunder

    Disgusting. Catholics for Choice is nothing more than a militant secular lobby masquerading as Catholic so that they can sow dissent. Catholics need to start fighting back by boycotting and infiltrating supporters of this sham.

  • Francisco3

    I am not a Catholic, but I do agree with the doctrinal positions on abortion, homosexuality, and same sex-marriage. I agree with Big Thunder that the Holy Trinity did not leave any margin for error in the Bible as to the abomination of homosexuality, abortion or same sex marriage. O’Brien represents a leftist reactionary group who seeks to destroy the foundational truths set forth by the Holy Trinity in the Bible or perhaps tweak and bend these eternal truths to suit their agenda. Then he proclaims that the homosexuals should not be denied the love they have for each other that is the same as the heterosexual love. That’s not love but it is lust. Since when has a sexual perversion, abnormality, orientation or whatever one labels it been considered a legitimate lifestyle? First, nature: the law of homo-genesis marks homosexuality as a perversion because there is no genetic or scientific proof that homosexuals are such at birth. Second, political law: no constitution in the course of human written history has ever recognized homosexuality as a civil right or as a legal entity. Third, the Holy Trinity places homosexuality in the category of an abomination in God’s holy eyes and condemns such a practice as sin. The burning of Sodom and Gomorrah was no fluke. Yet, Christ loves all homosexuals despite their immoral choice to live their rebellious sinful lifestyle. He lovingly calls them to repent and leave that unholy, perverted lifestyle to be clothed with purity, holiness, joy, peace,love, and eternal life
    However, the reasons that Catholics in Africa and Latin America are leaving the Catholic church has to do with the Catholic doctrine on salvation, the prayer to the saints and countless virgins which have supplanted what holy scripture teaches. No where in the Bible did Christ teach that a believer was to pray to virgins or saints. For salvation: see Ephesians 2:8-10; for prayer and intercession: I Timothy 2: 5-6; for holiness: Hebrew 12: 1-17.

  • leibowde84

    So, I guess the mass amounts of people turning away from the church is just a coincidence?