Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Pope Francis update

What does desperation look like? It looks like this:
In some ways, the "Pope Francis effect" doesn't seem very effective at all. 
Despite the immense popularity the aged Argentine has won since his election last year, not a jot of doctrine has changed, nor has the Catholic Church swelled with American converts. 
But there's more than one way to measure a pontiff's influence on his far-flung flock.
Start asking around -- here in Boston and beyond, Catholics and atheists alike -- and it's easy to find people eager to share how one man, in just one year, has changed their lives.
Short version: "There is no data so I'm going to rely on anecdotes!" And does he ever. He is Daniel Burke and he has written a long, long piece on CNN and it is full of a faith of surpassing sincerity; by which I mean Burke has a touchingly sincere faith that the plural of "anecdote" is "data".

The great liberal hope in Pope Francis will ultimately come down to one issue: Can he put liberal Catholic bums back on pews? As time has gone on, liberal Catholics have tended to go to church less and less often and, consequently, to donate less and less money. This has happened in the Catholic church even though the hierarchy of the church is dominated by people who support most forms of liberalism; the Catholic church hierarchy leans left on economic issues, left on immigration, left on crime, left on health care, left on the environment and right on sexual morality.

If you're a member of the liberal establishment that dominates the management of the church, this puts an entire way of life at risk, not to mention a steady source of paycheques and retirement benefits. Their hope is that Francis can turn things around by making the pews a welcoming for liberals. In practice this has meant, amping up the anti-poverty PR and turning down the volume on sexual morality. It's important to grasp that both moves are purely PR gestures.  The Catholic church already does more than any non-governmental agency on the planet to help the poor and it does considerably more than many governments. Changing the Pope's expensive red shoes for cheaper ones of a more restrained colour is just a gesture. On sexual morality, the church cannot make major changes to its doctrine. It just can't. There will be no same sex unions and no women priests. The only option available to Francis is a change of tone and even that has been far less significant than his friends in the press would have you believe.

And that is why the desperation creeps in. If you're a liberal Catholic, more welcoming can't mean simply improving the PR; more welcoming has to mean getting more liberal Catholics to go back to church and put enough money in the collections to support the liberal institution that keeps all those liberal Catholics collecting paycheques and looking forward to retirement benefits. The blunt but unspoken fact in Burke's article is that, so far, Francis has not done this. Expect the cries of desperation to get louder as time goes on. 

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