Papal Stardom: Triumph of Upbeat Humanism, Skirting Dogma-Driven Culture Wars


Secular, progressive humanists, confounded by endlessly lethal religiosity over invisible entities, welcome compassionate humanism from any voices of good will. Today, such major truth-tellers are conspicuous by their absence, as the power elites stick to self-interested moral fudging. No surprise, then, the Francis whirlwind, in part downplaying his church’s old-time orthodoxy on sexuality, procreation, gay rights, and marriage, has wowed the west with his upbeat Christian humanism.

Shedding the rhetoric of failed culture wars, as modernity (and ex-believers) routinely trump outdated dogma, Francis skewers predatory capitalism without preachy self-righteousness — delivering a riveting, unified vision that links poverty with racism with immigration, fundamentalism with climate change and social activism (Dorothy Day). The result fosters a moral awakening reminiscent of the Dalai Lama. What humanist doesn’t embrace less time spent on “souls gaining heaven” or jesuitical fussing over alleged wickedness — and far more on how the fortunate among us, Christian and otherwise, can help uplift our brethren and countries under siege. This down to earth pontiff marries pragmatism and up-spirited messages with great finesse, plus media bombshells.

Yet, as with Obama or Putin or FOX TV, few progressives are neutral on the whole of the Catholic Church, nor its enduring status as a dominant, controlling global power. With the sweep and economic range of a major international corporation — undeterred by artificial borders or nationality — well over a billion congregants define a diverse whole, good mixed with bad, top to bottom and bottom to top. To echo Shakespeare on Cleopatra, “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/ Her infinite variety.” What an anomaly: a compassionate, cheerful reform pope overseeing the remnants of medieval entrenchment, housing a slew of reactionary prelates whose vow (especially on pedophilia) is “my church, right or wrong.”

Really, still with prohibitions against teen masturbation? Or judging all sex, straight or gay, outside marriage — as if that serves freedom or god-given, even natural joys? Rejecting homosexuality as a sinful moral choice? Standing by priestly celibacy, despite violations galore? Refusing battered wives permission to divorce? Denying priests optional marriage, despite scandals that speak to the  predatory downside from banning all sexual activity? Unlike some progressives, I cannot suspend common knowledge because one Pope speaks so feelingly, nor disregard a topdown hierarchy that anoints an infallible monarch (true, on faith and doctrine alone) by secret election of 100, rather elderly men with insular life experiences, all vetted by prior pontiffs.

What, No Doctrinal Shifts?

However bracing and inspiring are sermons (and curia reform) by this Pope, he has not changed any key doctrinal positions. So far, he’s all for reforming “outside” institutions, like capitalism, banking and government, much less so on “inside” church reform. The Church is no closer to women priests, nor their membership in the College that selects new popes, all tasked with judging birth control, abortion, divorce and gay rights. Cardinals need not be male nor priests, yet Francis refuses to violate traditions here, just as he refuses to install women to head key Vatican departments (they “must be cardinals,” he commented, with odd, circular logic). Francis has supported civil unions (not gay marriage), yet objects to gay couples adopting children. Say what? Not without his own contradictions, he accepts the sinner but stands by what many consider regressive church strictures.

Let us also remember Francis’ fervent call this week for upping Catholic missionary energy, affirming the presumption his theology is truer or more sacred than what non-believers now live by. Nor has heresy or excommunication disappeared, even prospective damnation for those who disagree strongly enough over intangible beings or invisible realms. Finally, has today’s Roman Church (or Christianity for that matter) disowned that ancient nemesis called Satan as the source of evil? Or that sins unwashed by divine grace doom some “below” to a literal, eternal Hell of punishment? I welcome the Pope’s humanism, but I still deem Bernie Sanders’ humanistic politics of commitment, tolerance and compassion to come with less baggage and/or what comes across as medieval carryovers.

Popes Pick Their Best Shots

Theology aside, progressive reformers must respect what our friends and allies hold dear; a belief system that has lasted this long reflects truths about the centrality of faith across human nature. Pope Francis wisely plays down what separates Catholicism from other major religions and teaches without shaming, articulating difficult conundrums with disarming simplicity. His unadorned, luxury-avoiding life testifies to an evolved nature: he walks his own talk. Above all, his tolerant, courageous humanism is beginning to restore the oldest institution in the west, offsetting its autocratic structure for a more bottom-up spirit that holds the individual sacred.

Nor do I question Francis’ tactical, marvelous outreach that leverages huge media prominence. Understandably, he minimizes divisive doctrines (that Catholic millions in Europe and America can’t abide), thus shifting from insular sexual fixations: what better way to both regain adherents and cultivate support congregations beyond his cathedral doors. I admire his political astuteness, knowing what to say to hostile audiences (like House dinosaurs). Yet, pushing unconditional humanism, with emphasis on individual conscience and action (“what about you?,” he asks) delivers his own contradiction. Francis’ vision confronts his own highly judgmental, conservative hierarchy that resists letting off, as it were, any Catholics “choosing” to “live in sin.” When are individuals sacred and when does the Church dictate?

And the Biggest Contradiction of All

Francis presents another looming contradiction: what high moral ground does this pontiff risk when urging dramatic changes for those outside the church (such as capitalism, politics, governance and law) while resisting long-requested, doctrinal changes on the home front? Can you push fully for ex-cathedra liberalism when your own conservative values reinforce the status quo? Does not Francis, in fact, discourage discussion on hot-button issues, like women priests and/or clerical marriage? When does Francis’ influence hit its own “reform wall” as his Church continues to reify what many western Catholics judge out of touch and out of date: on birth control, abortion, divorce, and rejection of full gay rights?

Skepticism and history aside, this Pope is still new and long may he reign, beating his over-sized, disruptive drum. His powerful, comprehensive agenda, very well summarized by Mike Rivage-Seul, promotes values humanists hold dear: in short, it is humanity, not God, who must fix our own earth. These goals both respect reason and political reality as Francis’ upbeat rebirth of Catholic humanism confronts:

  • Fundamentalists of every kind — including economic fundamentalism
  • Political polarizations that prevent opposing parties from dialog and cooperation
  • Exclusion of immigrants by a nation of immigrant descendants
  • Capital punishment and its replacement by programs of rehabilitation
  • The global arms trade and arms sales in general along with the wars and violence they stimulate
  • Violent conflict and its replacement by difficult but essentially diplomatic process of dialog
  • The human roots of climate chaos and the related problems of poverty
  • Unlimited and directionless development of technology

What’s notable to this secular humanist is what’s not here: no pie-in-the-sky payoffs, indeed nothing about heaven at all, or damnation of the soul, the nature of wickedness, even how good works win eternal salvation. Most dramatically, we fellow reformers don’t have to believe in God, Christianity or Catholicism, to endorse this agenda as critical for the future of humanity. And I do, trusting as well that Catholic teachings now under siege may well have very different articulations in 50 or 100 years.


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For over a decade, Robert S. Becker's independent, rebel-rousing essays on politics and culture analyze overall trends, history, implications, messaging and frameworks. He has been published widely, aside from Nation of Change and RSN, with extensive credits from OpEdNews (as senior editor), Alternet, Salon, Truthdig, Smirking Chimp, Dandelion Salad, Beyond Chron, and the SF Chronicle. Educated at Rutgers College, N.J. (B.A. English) and U.C. Berkeley (Ph.D. English), Becker left university teaching (Northwestern, then U. Chicago) for business, founding SOTA Industries, a top American high end audio company he ran from '80 to '92. From '92-02, he was an anti-gravel mining activist while doing marketing, business and writing consulting. Since then, he seeks out insight, even wit in the shadows, without ideology or righteousness across the current mayhem of American politics.