Last week, my father spoke highly of Pope Francis. He said "Me cae bien." (He's fine by me). Now, if you knew my father, this is extremely out of character. Since a child in rural Mexico, he was vehemently anti-Catholic and flirted with Evangelical and Charismatic Christian churches. And given the long history of the Catholic Church in Mexico, who can blame him for his attitude?
My father was not impressed by Pope John Paul II, and much less by Pope Benedict. But Francis? He's fine by me. I thought hell had frozen over.
But Pope Francis has that effect on people. Many of my fellow atheists and liberals have been swayed and enamored with Francis. Unlike his predecessors, Francis hails from Latin America and brings in a new perspective on a euro-centric religious organization. The actions of Francis in the early days of the papacy showed a man more committed to the poor, vulnerable, and shunned than the pomp of Benedict's red Prada shoes. Instead of an insular body out of touch from the realities of modernity, Francis showed that he was at least listening.
The amount of goodwill Francis had generated among skeptics and critics is astounding. And indeed, some of this is warranted. While the Republican party still clings to antediluvian denial on climate change, Francis's Laudato Si was a clarion call to all Catholics to combat climate change. That Francis has spoke critically on the pervasiveness of poverty was also welcomed by his nominal leftist critics. And let's us not forget his role in bridging US-Cuban relations.
Clearly, Francis is living up to the hype.
But let's be honest: has Francis change one doctrine, one tenet of Catholicism? Has Francis signal a change to redefine Catholicism stance on marriage?
But there is widespread disappointment over the meeting between Pope Francis and Kim Davis by many liberals, as exemplified here in Slate. There is a difference between giving the Pope credit in voicing concerns on issues like poverty and climate change, and idealization: the latter is inherently unstable as it ignores that Francis has never wavered from his view on religious liberty or same-sex marriage. So how can we be disappointed over nothing?
Regardless of what you think of Kim Davis and the reactionary attempts to make her a martyr, one cannot claim that the Papacy had a position resembling that of the pro-SSM side in the US. Where would anyone get that idea? Or the idea the Catholic Church was going to break with centuries of tradition over this issue? Again, the idealization of Francis led to delusions of the reality of the Catholic Church.
I do not say this to be harsh. As a former Catholic, a portion of me is still moved by Mass, by Catholic hymns, and the antiquity of the Church. I will admit that I am sympathetic to the Catholic Church, if I can never actually bring myself to believe again. Nonetheless, even my sentimentality doesn't cloud the reality of the church's stance on gay marriage, on divorce, abortion, contraception, and sex. These positions have not changed while Francis has been pontiff, and they are positions I reject whole-heartedly.
Maybe Ross Douthat is correct in saying that the West is not entirely secular. Maybe that can go some length into describing why Francis has had such a hold on even nominal skeptics like myself or my father. But even if that is the case, and even if Francis is fine by you, do not be taken: the Church hasn't changed at all.