Habemus papam Franciscum
Last week, after two days of papal conclave, white smoke issued from the Sistine Chapel to declare that a new pope had been chosen. Soon after, it was announced that the 76-year-old Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the new leader of the Catholic Church under the moniker Pope Francis, a callback to St. Francis of Assisi. With speeches and fanfare, the news was run in media across the world.
But amidst the celebrations, it has become clear that this new pope is not out to transition Catholicism into a modern world. In fact, it seems that Pope Francis will be taking up the reins of Pope Benedict XVI’s traditional belief system. Not only has he embraced the time-honored opposition to abortion, he also supports a teaching on homosexuality that’s traditionally antagonistic. He has spoken out against gay adoptions, saying that they discriminate against children. Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner said that his tone was comparable to “the medieval times and the Inquisition.”
In my life, I have made no secret of the fact that I am generally not a fan of religion. While I respect the rights individuals have to possess and express their religious beliefs, I find that religious institutions are generally restrictive and ethnocentric, especially when it comes to personal freedoms. When anyone, let alone a powerful national or international community, attempts to abridge the freedoms of others, whether through legislation or social pressure, I have a problem with it. Many people from all religious backgrounds have moral codes that may differ from the holy books or authorities of their preferred religion. Many, particularly in the Western world, prefer to take the classic teachings of their religion and pair them with the progressive moral beliefs of modern times, such as supporting gay marriage and women’s equality. I ultimately have a problem with the hypocrisy that is often associated with religious institutions, particularly when it comes to their leaders.
I don’t mean to pick on Catholicism in particular. There are indiscretions and hypocritical decisions that happen in every organization in the world, religious or otherwise. But apart from its stance on other social issues, no other worldwide religious authority in recent memory has so systematically and emphatically covered up the misdemeanors of its clergy. Not nearly enough has been done to compensate the victims of molestation and abuse by church leadership, and the papal authority has remained staunchly passive in its efforts to combat the sexual abuse of children by priests. Further, it could be said that no other religious leader has the kind of worldwide political pull and deferential treatment that the pope does, which puts Catholics in a unique position.
Most Catholics don’t take what the pope says as absolute. They see him as a revered leader and the chosen one who is closest to God but also take what he says with a grain of salt. But even with this kind of generally lax attitude toward his teachings, it’s important to recognize the kinds of restrictive beliefs that are being championed. Pope Francis may be an older man, but he’s responsible for recognizing that times are changing and that people need to be free to express who they are. In the past he has referred to same-sex marriage as a “destructive attack on God’s plan” and the work of the devil.
The Catholic population in Nevada is around 27 percent, according to data from the Pew Forum, and we may see this number grow as more traditionally Catholic immigrants move to our state. But when it comes to the big picture, if this man is to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, then it’s important to recognize that the beliefs espoused by the Vatican may not be caught up with the times in which we live.