Editor’s Note: ‘No Comment’ is a new column by Jesse Bernstein featuring perspectives on politics, culture and current events.
It helps to smile. Pope Francis, unlike that gargoyle Benedict before him, seems to carry one with him wherever he goes. Whether he’s visiting the poor and afflicted a world away, issuing encyclicals about climate change or, now, attempting to help reestablish diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, the man’s showing teeth.
That smile has helped vault Pope Francis to a perch of popularity that hasn’t been approached since John Paul II. He’s been described as a liberal, a moderate, a progressive.The champion of a new, more inclusive Church that’s going to bring Christianity into the present. All the while, he’s preached a message of humility, charity and social responsibility that feels warmly sincere. His commitment to interfaith dialogue is a welcome reprieve from how conversations about religion tend to go. He’s the pope that your friends like, the pope that, of all places, the Internet seems to like. Simply put, the dude’s a rock star.
But, as he is making his first visit to the U.S., it’s important to look past the breathless reports and have a little reality check.
Pope Francis, beloved as he is, doesn’t differ significantly from the papacies of the past. On numerous occasions, he has spoken out against gay marriage (he’s described it as a “retrograde step, anthropologically speaking,” and “a destructive proposal to God’s plan”), artificial contraceptives, abortion and the lack of Christian education in schools. And, though he’s sometimes taken a more pragmatic, modern approach to 21st century issues, his outlook was articulated as well as it could be in his 2010 book, On Heaven and Earth, when he wrote: “Some things are debatable, but—again—the inheritance is not negotiated.”
Most important, Pope Francis has done abysmally when it comes to dealing with the mountains of evidence pointing toward the widespread, systemized suppression and denial of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests and bishops. During most of his 15-year tenure as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, he took no purposeful action towards eradicating the abuse. There was never a single public (or personal) apology or dollar of restitution given to a single Argentinean victim.
In fact, the UN has publicly excoriated the Church and Pope Francis throughout his entire tenure as pope over the weak, largely secretive response to public calls for improved internal policies on sexual abuse by priests and bishops (from that human rights panel: “the Holy See…has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse…and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by…the perpetrators”). Simply put, Pope Francis has actually represented a step back in this regard.
Let me make this clear: this is not a hit-piece on the Pope. On the contrary, he’s done a great amount of good. As of today, he’s more scientifically literate than the U.S. government on the subject of climate change, speaking about the urgent action that needs to be taken from both a religious and a humanitarian standpoint. His work with the poor all over the world is well documented, and it’s often at the top of his agenda when he speaks. He’s called on the Church to welcome unwed mothers, instructed his followers to be more accepting of the LGBT community and even gone after predatory forms of capitalism.
But, the wild adulation that seems to accompany his name in supposedly liberal circles these days needs to be tempered. Smiling or not, Pope Francis is, at the end of the day, a man of nuance, a man whom you may agree with or disagree with and a man of complications—in other words, just a man.
Bernstein is a member of the class of 2018.