It's probably best to leave the context of this photo out and just enjoy it. Via Flickr user Catholic United Financial.
Half a year into his tenure, Pope Francis has proved to be very, very good at generating headlines. In the past few months, he announced that he’d be driving a used 1984 Renault around Vatican City, washed the feet of female Muslim prisoners, made remarks that seemed to indicate he’d be OK-ish with homosexual priests, got embarrassed that his old cathedral built a life-size statue of him, called people who sent him letters to comfort and advise them (including one gay Catholic), spoke out against economic inequality, and wrote an open letter in which he said that atheists and agnostics could be forgiven by God. What’s more, Francis’s second-in-command, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, told a newspaper that priests may someday be allowed to marry.
Naturally everyone, especially progressive types, is all in a tizzy. “Is Francis the Most Liberal Pope Ever?” asked an article from The Week. Chris Hayes of MSNBC was more blunt: “Best. Pope. Ever.” The consensus is that not only is Francis personally charming, he’s also willing to embrace left-wing causes that dovetail with the Catholic mission of aiding the less fortunate (a mission that, for instance, inspired nuns to get involved in 1960s Civil Rights marches). He has also signaled that he’s open to broad, sweeping reforms involving the priesthood.
If you’re Catholic, all of this is probably very important to you. You may, like writer Michael Brendan Dougherty, be suspicious of Francis as a continuation of a “larger era of the church in the past 50 years which has been defined by ill-considered experimentation.” You might, like American Archbishop Charles Chaput, be pissed off that Francis isn’t more of a hardline conservative (or you might think Chaput is way out of line).
But if you’re not a Catholic, the pope doesn’t have any say in your life. You may be more charmed by humble, down-to-earth Francis than his predecessor, who looked like a Disney villain and issued a proclamation abolishing limbo, the bit of the afterlife where unbaptized babies were sent. You might be interested in what this new pope does in the same way you’re interested in what goes on in the lives of, say, the British Royal Family or Kanye West, but why should the word of an old man in a funny hat matter?
One slightly esoteric but important answer is that whatever else he’s doing, Francis is clearly committed to underlining the niceness of the religion he leads, and that’s no small thing.
Backing up a bit: In The Evolution of God, Robert Wright’s excellent history of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, the author discusses (as the book jacket puts it) how those faiths have moved “away from belligerence and intolerance to a higher moral plane.” One example of this is how God changes from the Old Testament to the New—in the former, He’s on the side of the Israelites* and helps them conquer and destroy other tribes, but by the time the latter is written He’s a God for all peoples (or at least, all peoples who adopt Christianity). Though religious leaders have done horrible things and bigots have used various scriptures as a way to defend their ugly beliefs, in general, religions have historically moved toward tolerance. God has gone from commanding people to be nice to only their clan, tribe, or race to commanding people to be nice to everyone. Wright says that mostly has to do with nations and tribes forming alliances and trading partnerships with others—it’s harder to view the other guys as heathens who will burn for all eternity when you are dealing with them on a day-to-day basis. Thus the moral circle is expanded and enemies become, if not friends, potential allies. Writes Wright:
“The god of the Abrahamic scriptures—real or not—does have a tendency to grow morally. This growth, though at times cryptic and superficially haphazard, is the “revelation” of the moral order underlying history: as the scope of social organization grows, God tends to eventually catch up, drawing a larger expanse of humanity under his protection, or at least a larger expanse of humanity under his toleration.” [emphasis mine]
In this context, Pope Francis’s emphasizing that atheists and homosexuals are deserving of God’s love and forgiveness is part of a millennia-spanning trend. Today’s world is more interconnected than ever before—economically, socially, and politically—and intolerance isn’t just vicious and evil. it’s a short-sighted way of cutting yourself off from those who could help you in all sorts of ways. (Imagine how tough it would be for an extreme homophobe in a big city to refuse to have any contact whatsoever with gay or trans people.)
Militant atheists will of course say that religions breed intolerance and should be stamped out entirely (an ironically intolerant view), but that’s not the universe we live in. There are 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, and it can only be good for everyone when the leader of their church preaches open-mindedness and reaching out to other faiths. Francis is using his not inconsiderable platform to increase the net total of tolerance in the world. A thousand years ago popes were ordering the invasion of Muslim countries; today the pope is washing the feet of a Muslim woman. That’s progress, however slow.
Pope Francis isn’t as perfect a liberal as some would like. He holds conservative views on women, and he hasn’t indicated that homosexual intercourse and condom use aren’t sins (in other words, he’s a Catholic). And the headlines about Francis claiming that atheists could go to heaven if they followed their consciences were wrong and based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what he actually meant. I haven’t heard him ordering all the priests who sexually abused children and young men—or their superiors who covered up such cases—to be defrocked and prosecuted.
But the pope’s ceremonial, largely rhetorical role is still very important. For many non-Catholics, the office may mostly be an indicator of outdated attitudes that no one should take seriously. But isn’t it nice, then, that even such an old-fashioned figure is willing to accept, if not whole-heartedly embrace, gays and atheists? It’s entirely possible that Francis’s words will change the attitudes of at least a few bigots. That's a pretty big accomplishment.
*Update: As Wright pointed out to me on Twitter, he stresses in his book that the Abrahamic god shows compassion for non-Israelites in many sections of the Old Testament as well.
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