We're approaching the end of the new pope's first year on the throne and he seems to be a popular guy. A genuine ascetic who sneaks out of the Vatican at night to minister to the poor. This is good stuff that looks really good in the papers. In the meanwhile he's reaffirmed the Vatican's policy on homosexuality and homosexuals, women's rights and pedophile priests.
The Vatican's problems are legion. They're hemorrhaging members, mostly among the younger generations and they're plagued by corruption. Thanks to the Age of Information we live in they can't hide these problems like they once could, so they hired a Fox News reporter (I can't call anyone from Fox News a "journalist") as a media adviser to manage their image.
Ponder that a moment. They hired someone from one of the most demonstrably dishonest media organizations to manage their image. Consider what this means for their intentions.
Obviously there's a great deal of pressure on the organization to address their problems and institute reform. Shortly after Greg Burke signs on Pope Benedict XVI, affectionately referred to by many as Pope Palpatine, steps down from the throne to live in seclusion at a nunnery. Many people saw Benedict as directly responsible for the Church's woes as he was in charge of the department that decided policy to shift pedophile priests around to avoid prosecution and intimidate families of sex abuse victims into remaining silent. Enter Cardinal Bergoglio with his lifelong message of compassion for the poor elected to take Benedict's place under the ruling name of Francis I. Pope Francis quickly shocks the world by suggesting that atheists can be good people after all (welcome to the Twentieth Century, Frank) and furthermore it's not his place to judge homosexuals (although it's still his god's place and they're still not allowed to get married or enjoy equal rights).
The world is abuzz with the news. Pope Francis is a genuinely nice guy! He urges the world to be generous and give to the poor! He denounces "trickle down" economics (again, welcome to the Twentieth Century, Frank)! He puts the golden throne in storage and sits on a wooden stool! Like I said, this is good stuff.
So here's my problem: we've seen this sort of re-branding before. Does anyone else remember "compassionate conservatism"? I was willing to give George W. Bush the benefit of the doubt when he was first elected and he gave me cause to regret it. I therefore reserve the right to be skeptical until I see action that matches the rhetoric. So what has Pope Francis I done to back up his new message? Not a lot.
He suspended but has not removed the "Bishop of Bling" Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, one of the most egregious examples of corruption within the Catholic world. As previously noted he sneaks out of the Vatican at night to minister to the homeless. He established a Pontifical Commission to study the Vatican bank problems. And he...has made a lot of speeches.
The Pope is supposed to be a spiritual leader, but he also wields considerable temporal power. He's the top executive of the Vatican and he directs policy as he chooses. He could divest the Vatican of a fraction of its incalculable wealth to fund his directive to minister to the poor, but the golden throne and billions in art remain in storage. He could change the Vatican's support of anti-gay propaganda to focus on anti-poverty initiatives. He could do so many things just to support the message he's espousing, but he's taken no concrete action on any of it.
Color me unimpressed.
Some people claim that the Pope is not the absolute ruler and can't simply force change against the wishes of Christendom. The pope's official title suggests otherwise: he's the "supreme pontiff" and "sovereign of the state of the Vatican City" which means he has absolute authority where the Vatican is concerned.
But if he pushes change that challenges the status quo he might get assassinated! Well, true. But the Church has a long tradition of martyrdom. If he's a true believer and a genuine agent of change then this shouldn't be a consideration. But perhaps that's unreasonable of me, so let me ask this: why are they spending so much money on the Swiss Guard if not to guard against that?
It's possible that Frank is just spending his first year building momentum for the change he intends to bring. If that's the case I will change my tune. However, until I see action in support of the message I will give the only judgment possible: Pope Francis' message is a whitewash for the church intended to distract from the Church's problems rather than address them. Based on the reactions I'm seeing even from some of my fellow atheists and agnostics, it's working.