Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has managed to charm non-Catholics like none of his predecessors. First, he spoke out in favor of treating gay people with compassion, famously asking, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” Two years later, he published a papal encyclical on the importance of fighting back against climate change, and two years after that he delighted every Democrat on Twitter by giving a copy of it to President Trump. He has been in the news for criticizing weapons manufacturers, supporting equal pay for women, and sneaking out of the Vatican in the middle of the night to give money to the poor. This has earned him the support and approval of Catholics and non-Catholics alike (a phenomenon known as the “Francis effect”), who seem to believe that the Pope’s actions signify a new and more progressive era for the Catholic Church.
Unfortunately, this perception has little basis in reality. It’s true that the Pope has adopted a gentler tone on hot-button political issues like abortion, gay marriage, and contraception, and he has criticized the Church’s past fixation on vocally condemning them. But this change in tone has not been followed by a substantive change in the Church’s actual stance on any of these topics. The Pope has voiced his opposition to LGBT+ rights on multiple occasions, comparing the fight for transgender rights to a nuclear arms race and asserting that all children should be raised by a father and a mother. He has also reaffirmed the Church’s commitment to opposing abortion, the use of contraceptives, and the possibility of ordaining female priests. The very first person excommunicated by Pope Francis was an Australian priest named Greg Reynolds, who was a vocal supporter of women’s ordination.
In fact, even the Pope’s more genuinely progressive statements are nothing new or revolutionary for the Catholic Church. In news that might surprise nonbelievers—many of whom haven’t moved on from the days of Galileo or Darwin and still perceive the Church as locked in an endless battle with science—Catholic leaders were preaching about the dangers of climate change long before Francis became Pope. Less shocking (hopefully) are the Church’s positions against violence and in favor of treating the impoverished with compassion, which have been firmly established since the New Testament was written. Pope Francis has changed nothing, but to someone with little background knowledge of religion, he seems like a real step forward. By strategically emphasizing the aspects of Catholic theology with the most popular appeal—humility, pacifism, and compassion for the less fortunate—and downplaying the religion’s more controversial values—traditionalism, patriarchy, and strict obedience to authority—Francis has pulled off nothing short of a PR miracle.
If everything I’ve written so far sounds like a condemnation of Catholicism as inherently and irredeemably conservative, all hope is not yet lost. The Pope might not be the beacon of religious progressiveness we hoped for, but there are plenty of others who can take his place. Dorothy Day, a devout Catholic and social activist, co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement in the 1930s, which publicized strikes, advocated better working conditions, supported workers’ unions, and pushed for federal child labor laws. The National Coalition of American Nuns was founded in 1969 to support social change both inside and outside of the Church, and its members are vocally pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, and pro-letting women serve as priests. Marie Collins, a survivor of sexual abuse by a clergy member and a former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, stepped down from her position in protest of Catholic leaders’ refusal to cooperate with the commission’s efforts to hold perpetrators within the Church responsible. At my own high school—a staunchly Catholic institution with mandatory theology courses, regular Mass, and several nuns working in the administration—our ninth grade health class curriculum included a comprehensive overview of all the major forms of contraception, even in the face of public criticism from the Archbishop of Seattle. There are plenty of brave Catholics working to make their faith less regressive, but the Church leadership, Francis included, lumbers five steps behind them. In religion, as in politics, real change never comes from the people at the top.
Tara Joy is a member of the class of 2020 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.