Pope Francis created a flurry of excitement last week by giving an interview where the living relic of the Dark Ages said a couple of things that sounded slightly less medieval than we’re used to hearing from popes, including his suggestion that the church should shift some attention from the abortion-and-gays obsession to the project of caring for the poor. Here at Slate, Will Saletan excitedly called the pope a “liberal,” and Jessica Winter suggested that Catholicism might be developing a more people-friendly face here in the United States. Jezebel proclaimed him the “Coolest Pope Ever,” adorned his photo with red hearts, and called him “the Beyoncé of organized religion.”
Then on Friday, Pope Francis hastened to remind everyone what he really thinks about abortion. The AP reports on a meeting between your new papal crush and a group of Catholic gynecologists:
Pope Francis offered an olive branch of sorts to the doctrine-minded, conservative wing of the Catholic Church on Friday as he denounced abortions as a symptom of today’s “throw-away culture” and encouraged Catholic doctors to refuse to perform them.
Apparently abortion rights violate rad pope’s notion that “people have a dignity that is priceless”—lovely phrasing that casually excludes women from the category of “people” deserving of the basic dignity of controlling their own bodies. Well, it was fun while it lasted.
The pope’s message to the gynos should come as no surprise—it was a little puzzling why the American press got so wound up over the pope’s comments in the first place. Short of the pope actually reversing the church’s stance on things like reproductive rights or gay rights—which he is not doing—there’s no reason to think that anything the pope says really matters, especially here. Politicians like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who love to make a huge fuss over how Catholic they are, happily reject the church’s teachings on caring for the poor. The war over abortion and contraception is politically expedient, and the pope’s request to shift priorities will fall on deaf religious right ears.
Jaweed Kalem of the Huffington Post notes that much of the reason Pope Francis gets such positive attention is that he makes largely symbolic gestures of living a humble life. He quotes Miguel A. De La Torre, a professor of social ethics and Latino/a studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, who suggests that it doesn’t go much beyond that, as Francis hasn’t done anything “to change the social structures that create poverty.”
Basically: Pope Francis is good at the optics. He’s done a bang-up job of convincing people that he’s less rigid and more sympathetic than his predecessor without having to make any changes that would have real impact on politics, much less people’s actual lives. His talent at PR will probably do a lot to help the Catholic Church regain members who have drifted off in recent years or loop in some new ones, but there’s no reason to think that anyone else will benefit—or that those new members will actually find a more tolerant church in their day to day lives.