Pope Francis' new clothes: Why his progressive image is white smoke and mirrors

Don't buy his populist rhetoric. The new pope is every bit the sexist homophobe as his predecessors

Published June 22, 2014 4:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Alessandra Tarantino)
(AP/Alessandra Tarantino)

This article originally appeared on The Weeklings.

The Weeklings THE IMAGE OF Pope Francis is that he is a breath of fresh air, more progressive on social issues than his predecessor and a kinder, gentler pope.  But when the facts are examined, you see that he is none of these things. There is an enormous disconnect between who the pope really is in terms of his policies and his public relations image, as crafted by the Vatican’s PR man, previously with Fox News. The current PR mission is all about reversing the incredible decline in fundraising under the last pope from the U.S. Catholic Church in particular. Pope Francis has made any number of statements that seem to indicate change and progress that are not reflected in policy.  In fact, in the wake of such comments from Pope Francis, the Vatican often makes a point to explicitly state that no church policy has changed.

While the pope transmits a populist vibe—particularly about the economy— he is an old-school conservative who, despite his great PR, maintains nearly all of the socialpolicies of his predecessors and keeps up a hardline Vatican “cabinet.” He has done virtually nothing to change the policies of the church to match his more compassionate rhetoric.  People excuse the pope, claiming that he doesn’t have much power to make changes, but this simply isn’t true. Further, it is ludicrous to suggest that a man who denies comprehensive reproductive health care (including all forms of birth control including condoms and abortion) and comprehensive family planning is a man who cares about the poor of this world.  The bigotry of homophobia and sexism cloaked in religion are still bigotry and sexism. By giving to the church, American Catholics aren’t supporting “progress,” they are supporting oppression and in this way are complicit in the bigotry, sexism, and oppression of the church.

Pope Francis to the rescue of a church in financial crisis

People in the U.S. have fallen hard for Pope Francis. According to polls conducted byThe Washington Post/ABC and CNN, his approval ratings with Americans are sky high.  “Seven-in-ten U.S. Catholics also now say Francis represents a major change in direction for the church,” according to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center. In truth, while he is a PR darling, the new pope aligns closely on social issues with his predecessor, the wildly unpopular Pope Benedict XVI.

The wheels were set in motion to change the perception of the church before Pope Francis was elected. In March of 2010, Pope Benedict XVI had only a 40 percent favorable rating in the United States. By June of that year, the U.S. Bishops were planning a PR campaign to soften their image and attract the younger generation. Shortly thereafter, the Vatican hired Greg Burke, a former Fox News correspondent, as a senior communications adviser reporting directly to the Vatican’s third-ranking official, Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu. The New York Times points out that Mr. Burke had previously met Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, and “did not rule out that being known by the cardinal might have helped him get hired.”  Clearly, the American cardinals have a great deal of influence over Vatican PR, given how much Vatican funding comes from the U.S. Burke is a traditionalist, a celibate, a member of the conservative catholic alliance Opus-Dei, and his spiritual practices reportedly include self-flagellation, in keeping with Opus Dei traditionalists.

In addition to Burke, the Vatican has also hired the consulting firm of McKinsey & Company.  The consulting firm was engaged to “study the Holy See’s communications, with an eye to creating a more effective media operation.”  The goal was that this hire, along with that of Burke the year before, would reverse the declining view of the Church caused, in part, by public relations miscues.
A poll of U.S. Catholics conducted at the end of February 2013, just before Pope Francis was elected, indicated that most felt the church was out of touch.  Pope Benedict’s favorable ratings were still only at 40 percent.  Clearly, Pope Benedict was not the man to implement the PR vision of the church. The New York Times article from March 5, 2013, by Laurie Goodstein and Megan Thee-Brenan, which details the polling results, includes a telling quote from Eric O’Leary, a funeral director from Des Moines, Iowa. He says, “I would like them not to be so quick to condemn people because of their sexual preference or because of abortion, or to refuse priests the right to get married or women to be priests. I don’t think the church should get involved in whether or not people use birth control.” This sentiment typifies that of a majority of Catholics in America.

Greg Burke told reporters when he was hired that he “know[s] what journalists are looking for and what they need,” and “I know how things will play out in the media.” Pope Francis has played the part nearly perfectly and Burke’s strategies have certainly paid dividends for the Church. By going on the offensive and promoting positive stories instead of waiting to react to negative ones, Burke helped to turn around the Catholic Church’s image in the United States.  And improving American’s image of the Catholic Church is of critical importance. According to The Economist, “The American church may account for as much as 60 percent of the global institution’s wealth. Little surprise, then, that it is the biggest contributor to head office (ahead of Germany, Italy and France). Everything from renovations to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to the Pontifical Gregorian University, the church’s version of West Point, is largely paid for with American money.” The National Catholic Reporter points out that American Catholics put more than $150 million a week into the collection plate, totaling $8 billion annually.  Even if, as they assert, ninety percent of those donations never leave their parish, that means that about $800 million a year donated by American Catholics is being used to fund the Catholic Church around the world.

Forbes points out that U.S. Catholics are responsible for almost a third of the charitable contributions that directly fund the Holy See, contributions that were down from $82 million in 2009 to 70 million in 2011. This time period overlaps the decline in Pope Benedict’s favorable numbers among U.S. Catholics and is widely attributed to Benedict’s lack of PR finesse, handling of the church’s sexual abuse scandal, and launching of an investigation into the practices of the American nuns. The same piece in Forbes points out that “as of the last Vatican financial report from mid-2012, the Holy See is in the red.  The Church may be growing more rapidly in Africa and South America, but both the faithful and religious institutions in those nations simply do not have access to significant resources.”  The U.S. Catholics are an imperative center of the funding picture for the church worldwide.

And these already staggering figures only account for money collected directly by the Catholic Church.  Including the money raised by Catholic Charities paints an even more impressive picture of just how much money American Catholics are pouring into the coffers of the Church and Church-related organizations. According to Forbes, in FY 2012, Catholic Charities USA raised $4.39 billion dollars for its charitable and social service programs. Combine the facts that U.S. Catholics fund the majority of the Church’s activities worldwide, the decline in donations from U.S. Catholics, and how the drop in donations correlates with the decline in reputation of the Catholic Church in America over the same time period and the need for a serious PR campaign becomes clear: Improve the Church’s image with U.S. Catholics in order to improve the cash flow.   

The new sexist, nun-hating, poverty-perpetuating, pedophile-protecting homophobe is the same as the old sexist, nun-hating, poverty-perpetuating, pedophile-protecting homophobe, but gosh how the media loves him

In late October and early November 2013, reports were beginning to circulate that Pope Francis may appoint the first female Cardinal. However, the Vatican quickly crushed that notion, calling it “not remotely realistic.” Francis himself said “…it is a line that has come from who knows where…” However, the impression stuck that Pope Francis is progressive about women in the church.

Likewise, it has been widely reported that Pope Francis has struck, as The New York Times called it,  “a more compassionate tone than his predecessors” regarding homosexuality. Where Pope Benedict XVI wrote in 2005 that homosexuality is “a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil,” Pope Francis said in 2013, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” In fact, he has judged plenty. Salon compiled his 5 worst quotes on homosexuality. Again, though, the media widely circulated the story about his seemingly revolutionary comments about gays, and the pope’s reputation as progressive on gays in the church was set.

In April of 2014, Pope Francis announced his plan for a fall meeting of senior clerics to discuss topics including contraception and gay marriage. In his piece in The Los Angeles Times, Henry Chu pointed out that, “Hardly anyone expects the pope to propose sweeping changes to Catholic doctrine at the synod in October despite widespread criticism that the modern world has left the church behind. Indeed, Francis has unequivocally upheld heterosexual marriage and procreation as God’s established, sanctified ideal.” Nonetheless, the perception remains that Pope Francis is better about social issues than his predecessor.

On January 17, 2014, Politico pointed out that in an interview given by the pope in August 2013, and published in September of that year, “Pope Francis said the church did not have to talk about gay marriage and abortion all the time.” And yet, “the very next day [after the interview was published] Francis condemned abortion as ‘unjust.’” Furthermore, after the interview was given, a week before its publication, the pope excommunicated a priest from Melbourne, Australia, Greg Reynolds, for advocating for female clergy and gay marriage.  Pope Francis’s seemingly understanding words about gay marriage and abortion were sandwiched in between two events that completely undermined that message. Pope Francis is wise, though, to grab headlines that make him seem less homophobic than his predecessors, because in the United States, home of the church’s funding base, most Catholics support marriage equality.

Among Pope Francis’s most publicized and well-received moves have been to forgo living in the papal apartment. Instead he has chosen to live in a three-room suite in the Domus Santa Martha hotel. This decision has been widely interpreted as a sign of his humility and his effort to refocus the church on the plight of the poor. Seven months after moving into Domus Santa Martha, Pope Francis said, “The Church, all of us should divest ourselves of worldliness. Worldliness is a murderer because it kills souls, kills people, kills the Church.” This apparently does not apply to the Pope’s lavish apartment in the Apostolic Palace. According to NBC News Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, “…the pope will be using the offices in the Apostolic Palace and its grand, frescoed reception rooms to meet heads of state and delegations, and will continue to appear each Sunday to deliver a blessing from the window of the papal apartments overlooking St. Peter’s Square.”

It is ludicrous to take either Pope Francis or the Catholic Church seriously on their commitment to end poverty.  Even the National Catholic Reporter calls out the hypocrisy of the Vatican on this issue. Lack of access to birth control and comprehensive family planning traps people in a cycle of poverty. According to theUNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund,

“Family planning is a powerful tool in combating poverty. However, universal access to family planning is not yet a reality, particularly not among the poorest. Worldwide, 200 million women would like to delay or prevent pregnancy, but are not using effective contraception.”  Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times, “We should all be able to agree on voluntary family planning as a cost-effective strategy to reduce poverty, conflict and environmental damage.”

But Pope Francis and the Catholic Church could care less about these tools to combat poverty. It is not merely that the church tells its faithful that they’re committing a mortal sin by using birth control and decrees that a woman who has an abortion isautomatically excommunicated. The Catholic Church is also the single largest non-government provider of health care services in the world. That such an entity does not provide these basic services and actively lobbies against them in predominately catholic countries, such as the Philippines, and keeps them unavailable for all but affluent women is an abomination.   American Catholics, who have the easy ability to simply ignore the church’s teachings on these directives, and do as a matter of course, are willing to support a church that denies poor women in numerous parts of the world access to the same services they can—and do —utilize.

Most of us are happy that we have more freedoms than our grandmothers and great-grandmothers did in these areas. According to Reuters, “Some 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used contraceptive methods banned by the church …A new report from the Guttmacher Institute, the nonprofit sexual health research organization, shows that only 2 percent of Catholic women, even those who regularly attend church, rely on natural family planning.”  In 2010, 28 percent of women obtaining abortions in the United States were Catholic. It is a moral failing to at once reject the church’s teaching on these matters and simultaneously support the strong implementation of these practices in other countries—which  is exactly what funding by the American Catholic Church does.

In addition, a full 82 percent of Catholics (women and men) think birth control is morally acceptable. And 63 percent of Catholics (women and men) support a woman’s right to choose and don’t favor overturning Roe v. Wade.  As stated in the NCR, “Pope Francis has been highly touted for his criticism of institutional evils that create poverty. But there is something deeply troubling about a church leadership that rails against poverty and institutional sin while using its resources to defeat civil laws aimed at alleviating the suffering of the poorest.” Amen.  As highlighted in theNational Catholic Reporter and on the religion website Patheos, “One sharp example is the Philippines, which still suffers from poverty to a greater degree than many of its neighbors, thanks in part to a Catholic-dominated culture that’s ferociously resisted any effort to make family planning more available. A landmark reproductive health law that passed the legislature last year after decades of delay is still tied up in court, thanks to Catholic opposition.”

No surprise then that Pope Francis would not only continue an investigation and grip tightening on U.S. nuns but would elevate the man leading the investigation, Gerhard Müller, to cardinal. The investigation of and harsh critique about the nuns launched by Pope Benedict has been widely criticized by American Catholics. According to theNCR, “in 2012, the doctrinal congregation criticized LCWR for exhibiting ‘radical feminist themes’ and for failing to promote the church’s teachings on women, contraception and same-sex marriage.” Many had hoped that Pope Francis would remove Muller and end the investigation.  Quite the contrary. As Amanda Marcotte wisely pointed out in Slate last month, “The thing is that the LCWR is not advocating for gay marriage or birth control. They simply don’t discuss issues of contraception and homosexuality, preferring instead to focus on issues like climate change, immigration, and assisting refugees in need of aid. Despite doing what Pope Francis supposedly wants his flock to do, however, the nuns continue to be punished and castigated by the Vatican, suggesting that the new pope is the same as the old.” Indeed.

Another critical area where Pope Francis has continued in the tradition of his predecessor Pope Benedict is the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.  In addition to praising Pope Benedict’s handling of the scandal, Pope Francis also said in March of this year, “The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution that has moved with transparency and responsibility. No one has done more. And yet the church is the only one that has been attacked.” According to an AP report immediately after the Pope made those statements, the Vatican “still has no blanket policy telling bishops to report abusers to police or risk being sanctioned themselves, and to date no bishop has been punished for a cover up. In addition, the harshest penalty the church hands out to abusers is the ecclesial equivalent of firing the priest.” Pope Francis continues to engage in “…. more of what we’ve seen for decades — more gestures, promises, symbolism and public relations,” according to Joelle Casteix of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

Meanwhile Religion Dispatches reported later that month: “What should the new pope’s priorities be, for American Catholics? According to Pew, a top priority is dealing with the sex abuse scandal. Seven-in-ten Catholics say that addressing the sex abuse scandal should be ‘a top priority’ for Francis.”  The article went on to say,  “This news coincides with an extensive report in the Washington Post on Pope Francis’ reaction (as Archbishop Bergoglio) to the sex abuse scandal in Argentina, which won’t inspire much confidence or optimism about his possible global response to the scandal as pope: Father Julio Cesar Grassi was a celebrity in the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires. The young, dynamic, media-savvy priest networked with wealthy Argentines to fund an array of schools, orphanages and job training programs for poor and abandoned youths, winning praise from Argentine politicians and his superior, Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Grassi called his foundation Felices los Niños, Happy Children. Yet in the years after Grassi’s conviction, Bergoglio—now Pope Francis—has declined to meet with the victim of the priest’s crimes or the victims of other predations by clergy under his leadership. He did not offer personal apologies or financial restitution, even in cases in which the crimes were denounced by other members of the church and the offending priests were sent to jail.” Grassi was reportedly close to Bergoglio, according to the Post, and “was not expelled from the priesthood after the guilty verdict. Instead, church officials led by Bergoglio commissioned a lengthy private report arguing that Grassi was innocent.” Prosecutors maintain Grassi has avoided jail time owing to the report, despite being charged with molesting three boys as young as nine years old, and being convicted of abusing one boy, the Post reports. Families who charged their children—one three years old—were abused by another priest, Father Mario Napoleon Sasso, say that Archbishop Bergoglio did not respond to their requests to see him about the abuse. Sasso was later convicted, sentenced to seventeen years in prison, but has since been paroled.

Meanwhile, late last month, a UN Panel sharply denounced the Vatican’s handling of the sexual abuse scandal.  “The U.N. Committee Against Torture concluded that Vatican officials failed to report sex abuse charges properly, had moved priests rather than discipline them, and had failed to pay adequate compensation to victims. Although the panel did not explicitly say that the Holy See had violated any of its obligations under the anti-torture treaty, which it ratified in 2002, panel members said that was implicit in the criticism.”

 Truth and fiction about the pope’s powers

Defenders of Pope Francis argue that the vast gap between his words and the actions of the church are easily explained by how difficult it is for a pope to make any large-scale change to the church. In fact, it isn’t difficult for the pope to act swiftly and unilaterally to effect sweeping change. For instance, in January of 2014 he fired four of the five cardinals that oversaw the Vatican Bank. In March of 2014 the Religious News services reported that “Pope Francis fired—or ‘accepted the resignation of’—the German churchman known as ‘Bishop Bling’ because of his big-spending ways.” The pope can—and has—made enormous leadership changes within the church, yet he has not removed anyone for their handling of social issues.  Instead, he has kept the old guard on the job.

Beyond the fact that Pope Francis has already fired or forced the resignation of several senior church officials, and appointed nineteen new cardinals to lead the church around the globe—empirical evidence of his ability to create change—it’s important to remember his vast powers according to the canon law of the Catholic Church and his ability to overhaul the entirety of canon law, as Pope John Paul II did in 1983.  According to the church’s canon law, “By virtue of his [the pope’s] office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.” While there are ecclesiastical limits to what the pope can do and change—he can’t alter the dogma of faith—he can rewrite canon law. He can more or less overrule, ignore, or reorganize the roman curia.  He can replace it and issue directives to it.  It is sometimes mistakenly argued that the roman curia run the show and Pope Francis is stuck with that they say, but that’s a ridiculous notion.  He can issue orders directly—and has—and can order the curia to follow his orders.

Instead, the church has the same focus on dogma over helping the poor, the same oppressive views on women and homosexuals, and the same abhorrent behavior in response to the sex abuse scandals. There is zero flexibility on contraception, abortion, gay rights, women’s role in the church. Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI were at least honest salesmen; they told you exactly what you were getting. Pope Francis is much craftier than that. He uses his charm and humility (and a strong public relations strategy) to achieve the same goal as a used car salesman: to separate you from your money. American Catholics must put their faith and money where their mouth is if they want to see real change in the church. The idea that one can remain an active member of the church and expect ideological change only encourages the current pope to continue the practice of saying one thing and doing another. And why not? His numbers are up. The Catholic Church’s numbers are up. And it stands to reason that donations from American Catholics follow his favorability numbers and rise dramatically.

The church has a right to promote its beliefs and Pope Francis has a right to wage the best, smartest PR campaign he can—even if it is smoke and mirrors. But it’s wrong for a lazy media to tout Pope Francis as a reformer when he’s nothing of the sort. I hope the media will stop promoting Pope Francis as a liberal.

We should not allow comforting rhetoric to distract us from the actions of a church that continues to enact and enforce policies that hurt women, homosexuals, and the poor. We should look at the ways in which our dollars in the collection plate are used. For many years the prominent writer Anna Quindlen, a liberal feminist, remained a Catholic while publicly and vehemently disagreeing with the church on social issues. But in 2012 Quindlen was quoted as saying, “Enough … every time I sit in this pew I ratify this behavior, and I’m not going to ratify it anymore.” The great Catholic activist Dorothy Day said of people, “It is best to disregard their talk and judge only their actions.” Catholics would be wise to take her advice.

By Anna March

Anna March’s writing appears frequently here in Salon as well as in The New York Times' Modern Love column, New York Magazine and The Rumpus. She is the Publisher of the magazine Roar. Her essay collection, "Feminist Killjoy," and novel are forthcoming. Follow her on Twitter @annamarch or learn more about her at annamarch.com.

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