Be fair to Pope Francis
I have a multitude of issues with the Roman Catholic Church. Their laxity in dealing with clergy who abuse children disturbs me. Their ban on contraceptives, a policy that places women at risk, concerns me. Their canonisation of characters such as Junipero Serra, a man who was complicit in the abuse, torture and killing of Native Americans, offends me.
And the belief of many, that when wine is blessed it literally becomes the blood of Jesus Christ, perplexes me. As you would expect, I have not had much love for popes in the past. But now I have a confession to make: I am a fan of Pope Francis.
Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he is the 266th Supreme Pontiff and the first pope to take the moniker Francis (there have been 14 Clements, 16 Benedicts and 21 Johns), after Francis of Assisi, patron saint of the poor.
St Francis was a peacemaker, and the first Catholic leader to travel to Egypt to try to end the horrific Crusades. His influence on the most recent pontiff is obvious. At his first public appearance after his election, Pope Francis stood on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica in all white, with no traditional scarlet cape, and no gold-embroidered red stole around his neck. He wears inexpensive shoes and plastic Casio and Swatch watches, travels in modest cars, and chose to live in a two-bedroom dwelling in the Vatican’s guesthouse, instead of the Apostolic Palace.
Unlike many of his predecessors, Pope Francis has decided to place the humane treatment of all people above the dogmas and doctrines of his church. Not to say that the dogmas and doctrines have been discarded, but they are not at the forefront of his ministry. He has criticised the Church for being obsessed with abortion, gay marriage and contraception and for “putting dogma before love, and prioritising moral doctrines over serving the poor and marginalised”. As a Christian, he has decided to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, and obey his commands to love others and not judge.
Apparently this has been his persona long before he ascended to the papacy. Nine years ago in Buenos Aires, while archbishop, he knelt on a stage with evangelicals at an ecumenical event, and asked them to pray for him. The image of him kneeling, surrounded by clergy of lower status, disturbed many Roman Catholics and led to a front-page newspaper story branding him as an apostate.
Since being pope, he has been outspoken on matters affecting humanity such as climate change and immigration, and has exhibited a remarkable level of sensitivity and empathy. He offered to baptise the baby of a divorced woman whose married lover wanted her to abort it, and has chided priests who refuse to baptise children born out of wedlock for their “rigorous and hypocritical neo-clericalism.” Regarding homosexuality, he opined: “If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge.” Regarding women who consider abortion because of poverty or rape, he asked, “Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?”
His attitude of inclusivity is awesome and unprecedented. His approval rating among Protestants in the United States of America is now 74 per cent, up from 65 per cent in March 2013. He has reached out to Muslims, Jews and members of other religions, and even atheists, saying that "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! Even the atheists. Everyone!" Not surprisingly, his approval rating among non-believers rose from 39 per cent near the beginning of his papacy in March 2013 to 68 per cent in February 2015, according to a recent Pew Research poll.
The Vatican has been notoriously sluggish in punishing child abusers within their ranks. Shortly after his election, Pope Francis created a commission to develop policies for protecting children from pedophile and pederast priests and announced his intention to set up a tribunal to investigate clergy who cover up abuse. Last year he excommunicated a pedophile Argentine priest and has recently met with abuse victims and pledged to hold perpetrators responsible. He has also apologised for the barbaric treatment of indigenous peoples by the Church.
These are indeed noble gestures, but going forward, he must back up his talk with firm and decisive action. Instructing the Vatican to open its records identifying thousands of clergy who have been accused of abusing children, and to comply with efforts to reform statute-of-limitation laws that have shielded priests from prosecution is a good start. He also needs to rescind and repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, papal bulls from the 15th century that justified European colonisation of lands that they ‘discovered’ and the subjugation of their inhabitants. A review of the Church’s archaic contraceptive ban is also in order.
Unfortunately, many of us are so jaded by the injustices and scandals of the Roman Catholic Church that there is a knee-jerk reaction to reject all things Catholic, including its leader. Even some Christians, such as the Seventh Day Adventists, are so mired in their anti-Catholic doctrines that they are blind to the fact that this man’s attitude serves as a good example for Christians of all denominations. He deserves at least some credit for encouraging the 1.2 billion members of his church to exhibit love, and influencing many others to do so.
We must bear in mind that Pope Francis is just a man. A flawed creation, like the rest of us, who will make mistakes and errors of judgement and be wrong on certain issues. There is no perfect leader or system. But with the ominous rise of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism and the insanity and hypocrisy of American right wing religious zealots, it is indeed refreshing to see a powerful religious leader espousing and prescribing love, compassion, empathy, kindness, forgiveness, mercy, tolerance, unity, inclusion and adopting a non-judgemental attitude.