New Pope, Same Old Story

Habemus papam, everybody!

Yes, if you haven’t been following the news, it’s all change up at Vatican City. Everyone’s favourite ruby-slipper-wearing Emperor Palpatine lookalike Benedict XVI took the unusual step of voluntarily de-Poping himself in February, and now, after a surprisingly swift conclave, the cardinals have spoken, the white smoke has been wafted, and God has a brand new representative on earth.

Here’s what we know about him: his name is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, henceforth to be known as Francis I. He’s from Argentina. He’s a Jesuit (the religious order you may remember from all the conspiracy theories that don’t involve Freemasons or Knights Templar). He’s 76 years old, he’s only got one lung, and he looks a bit like Frank Butcher.

Oh, and he doesn’t like the gays.

 

The pontiff, formerly known as Jorge, has made his position on LGBT rights pretty clear throughout his career. He has in the past described same-sex marriage as ‘destructive of the plan of God’, and suggested that letting two people of the same sex adopt is a form of ‘discrimination against children’. Anyone hoping that a change of Pope might bring about a change of attitude will be disappointed.

Disappointed, but hardly surprised. Finding out that the new Pope is against gay marriage is like finding out that Nigel Farage is against the UK being in the European Union. Of course he is! That’s what they do! It would be considered astonishingly radical for a Pope to even hint that maybe old guys who don’t have sex don’t have any business telling everyone else what to do in the bedroom. At the current pace of change, the Catholic church will only get round to approving same-sex marriage some time in the 23rd century, by which time everybody else will be more concerned with the ethics of sleeping with versions of yourself from parallel universes.

It would be nice, I suppose, if the church would maybe change the record and go after a different variety of sexual deviancy for a change. After all, it’s not just gay sex that’s a sin. It’s any kind of sex outside marriage, or even sex between married people that can’t directly lead to baby-making. We’ve heard all the anti-gay stuff time and time again – when is the church going to go after the masturbators?

If I’ve got my theology right, they’re just as sinful, and almost certainly far more numerous. If Benedict XVI could say with a straight face that ‘the blurring of the genders’ was as big a threat to society as global warming, I’m sure Francis I could easily get away with launching a new campaign against the moral perils of bishop-bashing.

It seems unlikely, though. Francis I may be considered a radical in certain aspects, having spoken much since his election about his desire to focus on poverty, but he’s not a liberal or a progressive by the standards of anybody outside of the church. There are certainly pro-gay-rights, feminist, even socialist strands of thinking within Catholicism – but he’s not part of them, and it’s unlikely that those views are going to move into the Catholic mainstream any time soon.

The good news, though – at least for those of us living in the UK – is that none of this is going to have very much impact on us anyway. The Catholic church hasn’t had any influence on British politics since back when Henry VIII decided he didn’t care for their views on divorce and set up a new church that’d let him do things his way (a fact always worth pointing out if you encounter an Anglican who says the government has no place ‘redefining marriage’). It’s only a problem if you’re gay and Catholic, and I’m sure if that’s the case you’re already used to the awkward family gatherings, lingering guilt and latent priest fetish that I am led to believe come with being part of those two groups.

It’s a different matter, of course, if you live in a country where the majority of people are Catholics. Even then, though, how much impact the church has on your everyday life depends on culture. Being a Catholic in Australia is not the same as being a Catholic in Mexico, which is not the same as being a Catholic in Lesotho, and a lot of that’s got more to do with the society than religious doctrine. In many of the majority-Catholic nations of Africa, for example, homosexuality is illegal – but the same goes for many of the majority-Protestant or Muslim nations, too. Just look at the Anglicans: the Church of Nigeria and the Episcopal Church of the United States are supposedly part of the same denomination, yet couldn’t be more different when it comes to acceptance of LGBT people. And if the notoriously vague and wishy-washy C of E and its spin-offs can’t make their minds up, what hope is there for the Catholics?

Pope Benedict tried, and failed, to reinvigorate the Catholic church in the West, where society had moved on and left the church well behind. With his discussion of global poverty and a less Eurocentric approach, it looks like Pope Francis will be focussing more on the developing world, where Catholicism has greater social influence, but also faces some huge challenges. It is quite possible that his papacy will see real changes if he faces up to the reality of the damage caused by discouraging condom use in countries where HIV is endemic, and the difficulties of insisting on priestly celibacy in cultures where complete abstinence is seen as unnatural. But he’s unlikely to say anything new about LGBT rights, and even if he did, I’m not sure how much would change – it may be a correlation rather than a cause, but increased acceptance of LGBT people seems to go hand in hand with secularisation, rather than the particular attitude of any one religion. One man, even when he claims to be infallible, can’t change society overnight; and when society does change, all the ranting and raving of a bunch of guys in big hats won’t hold it back.