It didn’t take long for the media to dig up some dirt on Cardinal Bergoglio and why we should worry about his leadership in the Catholic Church. (For my own part, I wrote about his basic credentials on Friendly Atheist yesterday.)
First, his comments on homosexuality were vastly disseminated as if everyone thought there was a possible pro-gay candidate in the lot. “Same bigotry, different bigot,” they said.
Then, some people discovered that he collaborated with some sketchy fascist causes in his home country of Argentina, and the Hitler Youth comparisons started coming out all over again.
I’m not worried. I still think Pope Francis is a reasonably decent outcome.
Here’s the thing: you can’t compare him against your ideal leader or even against what you would want in a secular leader if you were voting. You have to compare him against the other possible papabili. Of course he’s spoken against gay rights; they all have. That’s where the Catholic Church is right now. If he was accepting about gay people’s right to marry, forget being popeable – he probably wouldn’t have become a cardinal.
Is it wrong and disgusting to discriminate against gays? Yes. Does that mean the new pope is bigoted and homophobic? Yes. But is this news? Not really.
But there’s still hope for the guy even though his attitudes towards homosexuality are archaic and outdated. The Rainbow Sash Movement said it best: this pope is bringing “a change not in doctrine, but in tone”. The Church was never going to do a complete 180-degree shift on gay rights, but this pope has shown (through his name change and some of his past work) humility, service, dialogue, and privileging individual spiritual holiness over political meddling. In other words, he might call for gays to turn their problems over to Jesus, but he’s less likely than, say, a Dolan or a Pell to tell Catholics they’re supporting evil if they vote for a pro-gay political candidate.
I know, I know – for the gay population of the world, it’s not enough. But if you wanted too much more from the leader of the Catholic Church, you may have gone into this with some pretty unrealistic expectations.
The most strategic move: instead of complaining of his anti-gay statements in the past, recognize that he’s held these attitudes, acknowledge that every guy in the conclave felt the same way, and then focus on reaching out to educate him because – here’s the exciting bit – LGBTQ Catholics finally have a pope who’s got a snowball’s chance of hearing them out.
As for the fascism, that troubled me at first.
Then I came to recognize that, well, this is going to sound pretty harsh: fascism is part of the Catholic Church’s psychology, particularly within the hierarchy. They wouldn’t call it that – heavens, no! – but it’s there.
The Catholic Church is authoritarian in its teaching. Catholics are expected to submit to the Church’s government structure in order to be successful and acceptable, which means that anybody who has managed to move through the ranks of the Church since, say, John XXIII will likely place a high value on conformity, obedience, rule of law, and submission to authority. A good Catholic, under this way of thinking, will ignore the voice of conscience in favour of an authority figure’s commandment, trusting that the authority figure knows best.
A fascist government doesn’t come up to your door and say: hey, dudes, I’m fascist. Mind supporting me? No, it uses propaganda and deception to convince you that you’re doing a good thing if you turn in the subversives. And if your religious worldview has convinced you to trust authority more than you trust your conscience, and to avoid thinking deeply or critically about authority figures’ requests, that propaganda will work powerfully on you, and you might not be able to parse out right away that what you’re doing is wrong. Lack of critical thinking always leaves you open to abuse.
So I basically concluded this: the difference between a Ratzinger or a Bergoglio who’s been involved in fascist causes and a papabile who hasn’t is an accident of geography. In a country with a fair and democratic government, Bergoglio likely would have felt much freer to critique the government; dissent is, after all, tolerated. In a country where the fascist government violently suppresses dissent, the pressure to conform to authority dovetails with authoritarian Magisterial values and the fact that these government authorities won’t stand for disagreement, creating a situation where supporting the fascists seems to make psychological and moral sense.
That doesn’t mean all Catholics will be fascists or that all fascists are Catholics, or even religious. What it means is that any authoritarian system conditions its members to defer to authority, which makes them extra vulnerable to authoritarian abuses.
But now there is no authority to whom Bergoglio – sorry, I mean Francis – must defer. He is the head of the Magisterium, deferring only to God. (Or, if you don’t go in for that sort of thing, then to nobody at all.) He’s already shown some of his moral leanings in small ways – eschewing a fancy archbishop’s palace in Buenos Aires, using public transit like any regular joe whose job doesn’t provide a chauffeured limo, cautiously affirming the use of condoms for AIDS sufferers. He’s taken tentative steps in new directions, and he’s shown signs that if the faithful try to tell him about their suffering under the Catholic Church, he’d probably be willing to listen.
Let’s hope for a long-term papacy, and a lot of opportunities to tell Francis what it’s like for the faithful on the ground. And let’s remember that, while he may be a long shot when it comes to making substantive change, most of the alternative choices would have been even less likely to want to listen.