The great white pope

With Pope Francis winning Time Person of the Year for 2013, Ronan Schutte considers whether this Pope is really doing anything different from his predecessorsThe Pope, as many of you will know, was elected nearly a year ago in a papal enclave. Many were stunned. It seemed an outsider and a liberal had been elected pope. Were things changing in the Vatican?When John Paul II was elected many saw this as yielding a change for the Church. However, he consistently reined in reforms. It seems too early to actually call which way Francis will go.An important job for him is to be the main PR person for the Church. Decisions to live in a small apartment instead of the usual papal quarters, as well as toning down the ceremony of the Church, have made him seem humble and have given the Pope a lot of good press.Last November he issued an “apostolic exhortation”, denouncing modern capitalism. He condemned “a financial system which rules rather than serves.” This combined with his reshuffle of the Vatican Bank, shows that Francis is trying to tackle the Church’s problems and the economic crisis.It is a departure from anti-communism to anti-capitalism and what some may see as a support for liberation theology, which sees Jesus’ teachings as denouncing unjust poverty and inequality. It seems that Francis is hugely concerned about the world’s poor and he has encouraged people to help those less fortunate than themselves.An important factor is the distribution of Catholics throughout the world. 73% of Catholics live in Africa, Asia and the Americas (about 770 million). This has policy implications, or it should have, about where the Church puts its focus.In many of these areas, the spread of evangelical churches and other religions has greatly affected the influence of the Church in these areas. These countries also face a number of different problems to the west.This exhortation outlined the failings of modern capitalism and its effect on marginalised groups. It has received huge backlash from religious conservatives, most notably in the US, as an unwelcome foray into politics and economics from a religious institution. This is despite Pope Francis not suggesting any sort of socialist or other policies, rather merely asking modern day governments to examine their consciences.While he has some liberal leanings, he also endorses many Church teachings. Given that he was elected by representatives of the Church, it would have been highly unlikely that he wouldn’t.LGBT rights are one of the major concerns for civil rights campaigners and many hope the Church will change the current attitude; the new pontiff seemed likely to be that change. Yet, as far as LGBT rights go, he reaffirmed the Church’s position that homosexual acts were sinful, but homosexual orientation was not. Hate the sin, not the sinner.At the same time, on returning from Brazil, he said, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” It’s not exactly free love but it’s as close as the Catholic Church is likely to get.At the very least, it suggests that the days of refusing giving Communion to LGBT people should be over, and that persecuting LGBT people for their own sake is not part of the doctrine of the Church.Just as the Pope doesn’t necessarily speak to the more liberal elements of the Church on these sorts of issues, this will probably do little to rein in homophobic religious extremists, such as those who pushed for the death penalty for gay people in Uganda. So has this Pope said anything new, or has he merely repackaged old doctrine in a more attractive form?The one area where Pope Francis seems to have changed the Church is in relation to atheists. He has said that if you do good deeds and have a conscience, they may go to Heaven. Given the Church of old firmly held that you had to adhere to the Catholic doctrine, this is a specific step forward. It signals a refreshing take from the highest ranking person in the Church.However, all the publicity about Pope Francis has not been positive. He has spoken out against abortion, maintained that divorced Catholics do not receive Holy Communion and urged another Bishop to speak out against same-sex adoption. He also excommunicated a priest for his position that women should be able to be ordained.The main change has been the Pope’s decision to change the conversation with regards to the Catholic Church. While he has for the most part affirmed the Church’s positions on issues like abortion, contraception and homosexual acts, he has stated that a specific concentrated focus on these issues has been damaging. The Church, he argues, should be forgiving, compassionate and healing.It really does seem too short a time to make a fully correct analysis of Francis’ time as pontiff. What he says now might not be at all relevant in a few short years. What we can surmise is that this Pope, within the constraints of Catholic doctrine, is trying to make the Church more open and embracing, and he legitimately believes the Church has an important role in trying to make the world a better place.