Media-Friendly Pope Francis: True Reformer of the Catholic Church?
By Johannes Nugroho on 12:14 pm December 19, 2013.
Pope Francis has just been named Time magazine’s Person of the Year, undoubtedly an important recognition for a pontiff who has been endeavoring to bring the Roman Catholic Church closer to the realities of the 21st century, far more than his two predecessors had. The pope, in a recent letter to the regent of East Kutai, Kalimantan, has also expressed his intention to visit Indonesia, although not before the end of this year.
A humble man, Francis shunned wearing the papal diadem during his enthronement and has chosen a more accommodating tone toward issues on which the church had been known for its parochialism, such as homosexuality and women rights. But is Francis’ seemingly progressive stance the fruit of his conscience or has he embarked on a smart public relations campaign to save the Vatican from becoming an anachronism? Regardless of all the praise, how far has Francis really pushed for reforms?
Although prior to his pontificate Francis was always known to be a champion for the poor and a paragon of humility, he has always been known for his conservatism on matters of church doctrine. During his tenure as archbishop of Buenos Aires, he opposed the government’s distribution of free condoms, spoke out against abortion and was vocal in his opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2010, describing it as a “destructive proposal to God’s plan.”
Yet as pope, Francis said in an interview in July: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge them?” While this statement may seem open-minded to many, it is actually a skilful delivery of orthodox church doctrine. The Roman Catholic church has always maintained that the practice of homosexuality is sinful but never condemns gay people. Instead of employing belligerent language, Francis has managed to use a more compassionate way of preaching the same doctrine.
On the issue of women priests, Francis appears to use the same strategy. In a conciliatory gesture, he included two women among the twelve whose feet he washed during his first Easter as pope. Yet he remains opposed to the ordination of women as priests.
“Women play a role that’s more important than that of bishops, or priests. How? This is what we have to explain better publicly,” he said in an interview. If word alone is insufficient, in September this year Francis excommunicated Australian priest Greg Reynolds for his public support of the ordination of women priests.
Indubitably, there resides in the Vatican now a pope who is not media shy, who gives interviews freely and whose mastery of communication is such that even a discriminative doctrine can be made to look presentable, and even made to sound humane.
Francis’ better grasp of public image than his predecessors is perhaps parallel to and even possibly inspired by the current Dalai Lama, whose popularity in the Western world has done a lot to boost the image of Buddhism there.
The peaceful image of Buddhism in the West largely owes to the popularity of the Dalai Lama who has preached tolerance and peace throughout his exile from Tibet. In the propaganda war against the Chinese Communist Party, there is no doubt the Tibetan leader fares much better. And yet for all his alleged open-mindedness, it is also a fact that the Dalai Lama has declared the sect of Dorje Shugden illegal within Tibetan Buddhism. He has also called for the sect’s suppression, something that is rarely reported in the press.
In the face of a superior intransigent force like the Chinese, it is understandable that the Dalai Lama cultivated the rest of the world, for Tibet alone could not hope to stand alone and win. By the same token, Francis, who is a pragmatist after all, is wise to foster better relations with the increasingly secular world that sees the church’s adamant medievalism as a challenge to progress.
Francis’ pragmatism is apparent when one considers that during his campaign against the legalization of same-sex marriage in Argentina, he was at one point prepared to accede to the status of civil unions rather than marriage. In light of his flexibility on the celibacy of priests, which he said, “can change,” with times, this pope has shown that at the end of the day, the ends are more important than the means.
Time alone will perhaps reveal the true workings of the mind of Pope Francis. It is undeniable that he has succeeded in breathing fresh air into the Vatican so far. He certainly understands public relations better than most of his predecessors. Though it is still too early to say if Francis will actually manage the Herculean task of reforming the church, at least more humane news is set to emanate from the See of St. Peter.
Johannes Nugroho is a writer and businessman from Surabaya. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.