Pope Francis appears to approve of Kim Davis’s refusal to do her job as Rowan County Clerk. (A refusal based on her deeply held religious antipathy toward same-sex marriage.) The Pope told reporters on his flight back to Italy on Monday that government workers have a “human right” to refuse to carry out a duty if they have a “conscientious objection.” Now Davis’s lawyer says the Pope met secretly with her when he was in D.C.. The Pope’s spokesman does not deny this, and has not elaborated on whether or not the Pope really (as her lawyer claims) told her to “stay strong.”
Ugh, I thought, when I read this. And then I had to remind myself of something that’s easy to forget with this warm, wise, populist Pope: he is the leader of the Catholic Church. That organization does not—has never, probably will never—recognize same-sex marriage. Why should the Pope’s support of someone else who refuses to recognize it come as a surprise?
Yes, we all love this Pope. I love this Pope—and I’m a Jewish-flavored atheist. But do you know why we love him? Because he seems progressive in an organization we think of as relentlessly regressive.
We’re not always right, by the way. Today’s Catholic Church doesn’t have nearly the kind of antipathy to scientific fact that some of its Protestant counterparts do. The Pope’s recent encyclical on climate change represents a shift in tone and focus, but not a shift in doctrine.
The encyclical does, however, emphasize the effect of climate change on the poor, and that is where Pope Francis really warms the heart. Critiques of greed and capitalism coming from the head of one of the wealthiest organizations on the planet—an organization that specializes in ostentatious display—are undeniably thrilling. They give a person a little jolt of hope for humanity, akin to that of hearing a rap song that supports gay marriage. Or hearing a football player say he doesn’t believe in God.
Fairly or not, we just don’t expect certain attitudes from certain quarters. When they come, we are deeply grateful.
Maybe a little too grateful sometimes. On the way back from his trip to the U.S., in addition to saying that conscientious objection was a human right, Pope Francis “Strongly Condemns Child Sexual Abuse,” as the New York Times headlined it. His organization behaved heartlessly, cruelly, and criminally, and now its leader is behaving . . . like your basic human being.
Well, good for him. And it will be good for the Church and for Catholics all over the world. Before we get too excited, though, let’s bear in mind that the Church still opposes contraception and same-sex marriage, and that those stances have crushing real-life consequences, especially for the poor. And the Church still refuses to treat women as equal to men. Regarding the ordination of women, Pope Francis told reporters Monday, it “can’t be done.”
His encyclical on the climate ends with this uplifting sentiment: “All is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.” That new-start feeling, that’s what we love about him. But in the context of Church doctrine, some things simply can’t be done. Fans of Pope Francis (like me) are sweetly foolish to expect otherwise.