Oh, the things a good PR team can do. Pope Francis has only been in the hot seat for six months, but he's already turning the tide for the Catholic Church. With the help of communications manager Greg Burke (formerly of Fox News, by the by), Francis is on a shrewd public-relations campaign for the Catholic Church. This was played out in his longest interview to date this week, in which he hinted at a more liberal attitude for the institution. And it looks like it's working.
The Church of recent years has been beset by controversy, leaving many devout Catholics disillusioned by the apparent incompatibility of the Church and contemporary life. It's charged with being outdated and antiquated in its approach to gender, sex, and gay rights, and is still struggling with the vitriolic — and understandable — reverberations from its many sex-abuse scandals, not to mention the GOP-esque blunders that keep pouring out the mouths of Church authorities. (HIV can travel through a condom? Islam being "evil and inhumane?" Really, guys?)
The institution has adjusted to some elements of contemporary life, albeit when it suits them: they've adopted television and radio as means of communication; the last three Popes have travelled widely; the "Pontifex" Twitter account is very active. (Recently, Pope Francis even posed for a "selfie," though he looked a little confused in the process.)
Pope Benedict was accused of consistently "treading the middle ground" throughout his eight-year papacy, neither changing policies nor too rigidly defending the ones in place, though he did make history by resigning of his own will for the first time in centuries.
With Pope Francis at the helm, the Church has clearly adopted a new approach: Francis communicates at ease, and has a more informal approach to the papacy — he doesn't live in the papal apartments occupied by his predecessors, and wears simpler, less traditional garments. He's been praised for taking the Church in a more "liberal" direction, which is a bit like when the Tea Party veers half a degree to the Left.
But make no mistake: Francis knows what he's doing. The Vatican is well aware that America is increasingly secular, with spirituality being praised over institutionalized religion. What you've got as a result is an image problem, exacerbated by the negative press surrounding the Church. With the departure of Benedict, Francis is on a one-man mission to draw disillusioned Catholics back into the fold.
It's not so much a policy change as a stylistic one, though there has certainly been an adjustment in Vatican policy as well. Francis has toughened penalties for sexual misconduct and sexual abuse in Vatican City — there are only 800 people actually living there, but, you know, it's a start — and, um, offered a respite from purgatory if his Twitter followers keep up with his World Youth Day antics online. He's publicly forgiven the gay community for their sins, and said that feeling homosexual urges isn't a sin in itself — only acting on them is.
He's approached us tricky women similarly vaguely. While he's at no point promised that woman can have a greater role within the institution, he's claimed to have opened the debate of exactly what "new role" women could have:
Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed. The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role. The woman is essential for the church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity. We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman.
This has PR-bullshit written all over it, with the "deep questions" and promises to "investigate further," meaning absolutely nothing in real-world terms. So the Pope thinks that women should be listened to. Great. He'll cross the line from "old" to "new" when he actually does something about it, and allows them to have leadership roles. Oh... Except, he's already said that "the door is closed" for the possibility of women ever being ordained: "With regards to the ordination of women, the Church has spoken, and says no."
When it comes to the issues the Church is most criticized for being outdated about, such as abortion and contraception, he recommends an approach which essentially boils down to "Let's not talk about it:"
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
Francis sounds like he's being candid by admitting what he's been criticized for, but in truth he's not just failing to make changes to the Church's stagnant and "outdated" policies on these issues — he's shutting down the debate entirely. The reason he's frequently asked about these policies isn't because the world is obsessed with them, but because the world is hoping that the Catholic Church will join this century by adopting a viable approach to them.