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Pope Francis I: Behind The Symbolism, An Unenlightened Catholic Church Remains

In December 2013, the media hype around pope Francis culminated in his nomination as Time Magazine’s person of the year. The steady flow of heartwarming stories indicates that the media seem all too eager to cultivate the image  of a modest, compassionate pope with a real commitement towards a more enlightened Catholic Church. While it is safe to say the Vatican is catching up on a long overdue public image overhaul, it remains to be seen as to how far this will translate into real structural, institutional and ultimately ideological change.

Before the election of pope Francis (née: Jorge Mario Bergoglio), the Catholic Church as an institution was arguably at its most unpopular point since the reformation. By taking the name of the simple monk Franciscus of Assisi, the new pope made a strong statement that he was willing to adress the church’s alienation from many of its believers. Indeed, believers and non-believers alike seem to be equally enthused by a dynamic, seemingly more open-minded pontifex maximus.

A Deliberately Different Pope

In efforts put this commitment into practice, Bergoglio made a series of deliberate lifestyle choices such as his refusal to don elaborate papal garments or to reside in the papal appartements. Instead, ever since his election, he likes to transport himself in a simple Ford Focus and resides in Domus Sanctae Marthae, a residence for visiting clergymen in Vatican City. Additionally, he created a commission charged to turn the notoriously secretive Vatican Bank  into a more transparent institution, and he has made statements against unbridled capitalism and consumer culture.

Pope Francis has managed to regain sympathy for the Catholic Church © Mazur/Catholicnews.org
Pope Francis has managed to regain sympathy for the Catholic Church © Mazur/Catholicnews.org

Apart from these symbolic gestures, he has also developed a taste for dramatic acts of kindness and compassion. Perhaps one of the most iconic images of 2013 showed pope Francis hugging and kissing a disfigured man, suffering from a severe form of elephantiasis. Other deliberate gestures include extending an invitation to a couple of local homeless persons for a Christmas dinner. Following Jezus’ example, during last year’s Easter celebrations he even washed and kissed the feet of ten male and two female juvenile offenders at the Casa del Marmo detention centre.

Whilst surely many christians appreciate these symbolic acts of kindness and compassion, these stories and images make up a narrative that resonates not only with believers who would welcome a church closer to the modest ideal put forth in the story of Jesus, but also with non-christians enthused about an enlightened Catholic Church.

Willing to go Beyond the Symbolism?

It is however important to separate largely symbolic gestures from institutional and structural changes.

Indeed, the temptation to resist this attractive narrative must be great, especially for the media, who have been keen to quote the pope out of context on a couple of key issues. Especially quotes such as “who am I to judge homosexuals” and statements regarding the salvation of atheists and divorcés have generated a lot of enthusiasm. The pope does indeed ask questions but it isn’t entirely true that he also proceeds to answer them.


His main criticism has been the lack of investment in present realities and the excessive focus on rules and regulations by the Catholic Church. This however, doesn’t mean that these rules and regulations are truly negotiable: when it comes to homosexuality Francis toes in line with Catholic doctrine. While he did appeal for respecting homosexuals as people, the act of homosexuality is still considered as being immoral. While this might adress direct violence towards LGBT persons, it still portrays queer sexualities as an unnatural deviation from the norm while also refusing to awknowledge sexuality is not only about acts, but also about identity. While one can applaud his regard for the spiritual needs of homosexuals, one can argue how comforting this compromise is to the people in question who are still told they are immoral perverted sinners.


Greg Reynolds, a Catholic priest from Melbourne has recently not only been fired but also excommunicated for his radical ideas concerning women in the clergy and gay marriage. The document indicating his excommunication was approved by the pope on March 31st, in the exact same week when he made statements about the rule-obsessed church. While no official reason is stated in the document, it is clear what the problem was: the priest had resigned as parish priest earlier in 2011 in order to found an organization known as the Inclusive Catholics. While he expected to be laicised, he did not expect anything as drastic as excommunication. While laicisation simply means one is no longer a priest, excommunication entails the punished can no longer receive the sacraments. This story indicates that when confronted with dissenting voices withing its church, the Catholic Church demands strict adherence to its doctrine.

Pope Francis © Mazur/Catholicnews.org
Pope Francis © Mazur/Catholicnews.org


Not surprisingly, pope Francis is outspoken against abortion both in legal and practical terms and has even sent out an official communication, encouraging the refusal of communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion. He has also attended several pro-life demonstrations. While some have said the pope suggested that the use of contraceptives ‘might’ be permissable in certain cases, during his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires he vocally opposed the free distribution of contraceptives by the government.

Women and the church

Moving on to equal rights for women in the Catholic Church, he has responded conform to Catholic doctrine and stated the usual condescending narratives stressing the so-called fundamental importance of women to the Catholic faith, based on meaningless escathology that women were the first witnesses of the resurrection and attributing to them only “feminine” traits such as maternity, affection and tenderness.

Since there are no  scriptural or theological objections to the ordination of women, it seems that much like the headscarf for Muslim women has less to do with theology as it does with the mysogynistic leanings of the religious institutions themselves. Journalist Damian Thompson remarks that a positive attitude towards many of these issues are simply out of the question if the Catholic Church is to maintain good relations with the Orthodox Church as well as Muslim clergy.

Great, Though Unfulfillable Expectations

All this seems to indicate that any structural change within the Catholic Church is not likely to happen any time soon. Perhaps it would serve us to look back at  last year’s nomination (and 2008′s) of president Barack Obama. Awarding him the Nobel Prize was indicative of the wishful thinking in the media which disregards any structural reasons as to why a fundamental change will not happen any time soon, and eagerly cultivates unrealistic expectations for the general public. All these inflated images and the stirring up of a media hype are bound to lead to disillusion. The overarching problem is that once a dynamic or mode of representation has been established and reaches critical mass, it becomes self-sustaining.

The moral of the story is that although vocal condemnations against the malpractices within the Catholic Church and promises to institutionally reform the church in combating child abuse are laudable, it is not realistic to expect the Catholic Church to throw out some of its key values and ideas. Dramatic symbolic gestures and vague, confusing statements are not the same as structural change. Unfortunately, this is something which the Catholic Church is not prone to do in the foreseeable future.


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Sam Donvil

Sam (24) is currently wrapping up a masters in Cultures and Development Studies at the KU Leuven and previously studied Archaeology. He is trying to piece together a thesis on heritage issues and international development and simultaneously develop some real world skills as part of the newswire team. Whenever time allows, he likes take some time off to go travelling, usually in the form of extended hitch-hiking trips and has now completed the trajectory from Eastern Turkey to Belgium twice.