Pope has no intention of doing for the church what Gorbachev did for the USSR

If you want to set an original moral compass you don’t belong within any organised religion

Chatting to the press posse on the return flight from Brazil, Pope Francis got the formal informality down perfectly. Photograph: Reuters

Chatting to the press posse on the return flight from Brazil, Pope Francis got the formal informality down perfectly. Photograph: Reuters

Sat, Aug 3, 2013, 01:00

Pope Francis’s recent aerial press conference certainly tricked with the iconography of contemporary power. He may still have been wearing his cream maxi-dress but, that aside, the incident looked very much like one of those chats US presidential candidates are required to have with the press posse. Francis didn’t roll up his sleeves or toss an American football from hand to hand. But he got the formal informality down perfectly.

We have seen enough to know that the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio is significantly more accomplished in the field of presentation than his predecessor. Insiders attest that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is perfectly amiable in private. When at his balcony, however, he exhibited a supernatural ability to lower the world’s temperature by several degrees.

Francis has washed the feet of Muslim prisoners. He has admitted that atheists can be good people (much obliged, Frank). And he made what I take to be rather a good joke about granting his Twitter followers time off from purgatory.

There is nothing to suggest we’re not seeing the real Francis in these gestures. But we’re still just talking about skilled public relations. None of this points to any – to shuffle our political parallels – whispers of glasnost in the upper reaches of the hierarchy. After all, Pope John Paul II was, in his very different way, also very adept at image management and there were no great ideological shifts during his papacy.

Some signs that Frances may be to the Catholic Church what Mikhail Gorbachev was to the Soviet Union did, however, show themselves at the back of that Alitalia jet. The subject under discussion was homosexuality. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” he said.

The characteristically Jesuitical argument – Francis did emerge from that order – seems to be that it’s all right to have homosexual longings, but not at all okay to perform homosexual acts. Does this knock the sin of gayness down the hit parade of infamy? It is not, one assumes, acceptable to contemplate robbing banks, punching your neighbour or executing complex tax frauds. By implicitly separating gay activity from those sins, the pope has gone some small way to reversing centuries of dehumanisation.

Anchoring a legacy
If Francis really intends to liberalise the church then – to revisit the American analogy – he should consider how the last few US presidents have attempted to anchor their legacies. Bills can be quickly repealed (the Republicans have tried to repeal Obamacare 40 times). Funding decisions can be immediately reversed. But Supreme Court judges tend to stay at the bench until the undertaker comes to call. Ronald Reagan left America the conservative Antonin Scalia. Obama picked the liberal Sonia Sotomayor. If Francis were to begin appointing reformist cardinals then, when the time comes for somebody else to take over, the conclave could, if it had the mind, choose to continue down the path to modernisation.

It’s an attractive fantasy. But further analysis of Francis’s airborne comments deflates any notion that he is minded to make radical assaults on doctrine.

“On the ordination of women, the church has spoken and said no. John Paul II, in a definitive formulation, said that door is closed,” he said.

No means no
We should not be altogether surprised that the pope has rejected the ordination of women. What’s worth attending is the reasoning – or lack of it. “The church has spoken and said no.” In an otherwise open exchange, Francis makes no effort to outline the shaky scriptural basis for the earlier pontiff’s ruling. Why is it so? Because your father said so, young lady.

We should not pretend that the Catholic Church is any kind of cosy democracy. Nor should we exaggerate the impetus for any further opening up of the organisation to women and gay people. If you want to make up your own mind about “spiritual” matters, exercise independently devised attitudes to sexuality and set an original moral compass, then you don’t really belong within any established religion. Get on board any Christian faith and you are accepting the Bible as your guidebook. Leviticus is – in its King James version, anyway – pretty clear on the “abomination” that is homosexuality. Without the implementation of doctrine the church would lose its reason to exist.

What pope would want to be the church’s Gorbachev? By setting the USSR on the road to freedom – subsequently subverted by bandit capitalism – that unlikely visionary guaranteed the annihilation of the Soviet experiment. Tinkering at the corners of Catholicism may pacify a few disgruntled celebrants. But wholesale reform really could threaten the church’s continued existence. Good luck squaring that theological circle.

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