Pope Francis is not a progressive—he just has terrific PR

Pope Francis and his fans.
Pope Francis and his fans.
Image: Reuters
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The Pope’s arrival in the United States was met with 200,000-strong crowds, a popemobile Snapchat filter, and a level of euphoria that would unnerve One Direction. He posed for selfies with his fans, tweeted to his 7.3 million followers, and has been described as a “liberal icon” and a “lodestar to both the spiritual and secular worlds.”

The reaction was far less excitable when Pope Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, arrived in the United States in 2008. Although Pope Benedict, like Pope Francis, blessed disabled children and spoke on human rights at the UN (and reached out to non-Christians by becoming the first Pope to visit a synagogue in the United States), Pope Benedict was described as uncharismatic and referred to by an unflattering nickname, “God’s Rottweiler.”

The public’s change of heart, according to popular sentiment, is down to Pope Francis himself. He has apparently done for the Catholic Church what Steve Jobs did for Apple, modernizing the organization through the force of his personality, for which he’s been rewarded with a legion of disciples. The “Francis effect” has been credited with increasing religious observance among Catholics, and even non-believers view the current pontiff favorably.

But this adulation has very little to do with Pope Francis’s beliefs or actions, and an awful lot to do with an impressive PR campaign led by former Fox News correspondent Greg Burke, who is the Vatican’s senior media advisor.

In the past few years, Pope Francis has steered clear of controversial topics and displayed an open-minded attitude towards the most socially conservative aspects of the Roman Catholic Church. He said the Church had become “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage, and contraception, which was why he chose not to talk about such issues. Pope Francis sent a kind letter to a same-sex family and, while talking to reporters in 2013, he said: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

But the same Pope Francis has indeed passed judgement. In a letter to the Carmelite Nuns of Buenos Aires in 2010 (pdf), when Argentina was debating gay marriage he said the following:

  • “It is not a simple political struggle; it is the destructive attempt toward God’s plan.”
  • The political movement for gay marriage is “the envy of the Devil, by which sin entered into the world, which cunningly seeks to destroy the image of God.”
  • Gay adoption is discrimination against children: “What is at stake here is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of so many children who will be discriminated against in advance, depriving them of the human maturation that God wanted to be given with a father and a mother.”

He reiterated his views on marriage last year, saying, “Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity.”

The Pope’s record on several other social issues could hardly be described as “liberal” either. Pope Francis has:

Though Pope Francis was enthusiastically received at the United Nations, his policy on contraception is at direct odds with the UN’s goal of eradicating poverty. Expanding access to birth control could prevent 52 million unintended pregnancies, 14 million unsafe abortions and 70,000 maternal deaths a year, according to the Guttmacher Institute, yet the Pope will not shift. (It’s not so inconceivable that he would do so: in 1964, Pope Paul VI held a commission to debate the issue and the majority, including 60 of 64 theologians and nine of 15 cardinals, were in favor of repealing the ban.)

And though Pope Francis has approved a system of accountability for Catholic bishops who don’t properly respond to sex abuse accusations and today (Sept. 27) met with victims of sex abuse and “renewed his commitment” to treat victims with justice, he has a far from exemplary record at tackling sexual abuse within the Church. While an Archbishop in Argentina he was often quiet on the issue, and when one priest, Father Julio César Grassi, was found guilty of molesting a pubescent boy, he was not expelled from the priesthood. Instead, church officials led by Archbishop Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) commissioned a private report arguing that Grassi was innocent and which, prosecutors say, has helped Grassi avoid jail time.

In January last year, a UN report said the Vatican should “immediately remove” all known or suspected child abusers among the clergy.  The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) said the Holy See should identify those who had “concealed their crimes” so that they could be held accountable.

A few months later, Pope Francis retaliated, saying:

The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility. No-one else has done more. Yet the Church is the only one to have been attacked.

Quartz has approached the Vatican for comment, and will update this post with any response.

Despite Pope Francis’ beliefs and actions, his carefully crafted public image means he’s perceived as a fresh, liberal face for the Church. A Twitter account has boosted his public outreach, while focusing on environmentalism and poverty means there are fewer controversies about the Christian message.

There are also plenty of stories about Pope Francis’ humility. He was filmed heading out to buy his own glasses, rejected the Papal red shoes for an ordinary black pair (hand-made by a cobbler), and chose a modest black Fiat for his first journey in the US.

No doubt Pope Francis truly does shun lavish frippery, and his humble image is more than just puff. But we’d do well to look beyond these modest images and pay attention to the Pope’s policies and behavior.

After all, the word “propaganda” reportedly first entered European lexicon thanks to Pope Francis’ predecessor. Pope Gregory XV created the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (otherwise known by its Latin name, Propaganda Fide), in 1622 to spread the Christian message through missionary work. It was a decided success, and today Catholics make up 16% of the global population.

But while Pope Francis deservedly receives great respect as head of the Catholic Church, rapturous applause from non-believers is drowning out the substance of his message. Pope Francis has the power to change the world. He should be treated as an influential religious leader, not a celebrity.