Just as some atheists and agnostics long to believe in God, many are more than a little keen to see the best side of the pious, as the bizarre discussion over the Pope’s alleged 'Marxism' demonstrates. Even if they themselves don’t believe a word of scripture, many liberals wish to see something of their own politics reflected in the outlook of the Catholic Church—hence the repeated references in recent weeks to the "progressive" Pope and the overrated idea of "liberation theology."
It is predictable that the reactionary politics of the new Pope should be played down by liberal Catholics in favour of his musings on social justice and global capitalism. What’s so depressing has been the extent to which liberal non-believers have fallen so hook, line and sinker for what is in reality nothing more than a clever repackaging exercise.
I say this because, apart from a few centrist musings about inequality, the Catholic Church—which Pope Francis heads and therefore has the power to change—stands on roughly the same political terrain as it did under the leadership of Pope Benedict. Pope Francis’s position on most issues should make the hair of every liberal curl. Instead we get article after article of saccharine from people who really should know better.
"Francis could replace Obama as the pin-up on every liberal and leftist wall," gushed Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian last month, while Timemagazine has just bestowed Pope Francis with the honour of 'person of the year'. Writing about the magazine’s decision, editor Nancy Gibbs said the pontiff had "done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music". "This focus on compassion, along with a general aura of merriment not always associated with princes of the church, has made Francis something of a rock star," she added.
Time famously bestows its awards not according to the merit of the person in question (both Hitler and Stalin won the accolade), but based on who captures the (predominantly American) public imagination that year. And Pope Francis has done just that, largely because liberal non-believers have been so eager to elevate him to the status of progressive pin up.
Some of the material contained in Pope Francis’s first teaching document is rightly music to the left’s ears. When he asks his flock rhetorical questions such as "How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?", he is undoubtedly onto something. But as is so often the case, the search for a hero has resulted in people switching off their critical faculties and overlooking inconvenient truths which don’t align with their worldview. How else could the Pope come out of 2013 a "progressive" icon while at the same time holding views on women and abortion that make Jeremy Clarkson look like a radical socialist?
It is possible, of course, that we simply hold religious figures to a lower standard than we do secular ones. But the Pope’s popularity among the right-on surely has something to do with the fact that women and gay people are still viewed as appendages in the struggle for a better society. The new Pope has done nothing to fundamentally alter the Church’s bigoted stance on homosexuality. He has referred to gay marriage as "moral relativism." He presumably believes that men who sleep with men are going to hell. He views the all-male priesthood and the church’s prohibition of abortion as beyond debate. This would situate him to the right of UKIP even if he were advocating the nationalisation of the FTSE 100, which he isn’t.
Pope Benedict was a PR disaster for the church. Yet under Francis little of substance has actually changed. The Catholic Church continues to vehemently discriminate against gay people and women, it’s simply sugar-coated its message with fashionable sound bites about inequality. And depressingly this has worked. Many otherwise erstwhile progressives have fallen into line faster than Danny Alexander at a cabinet meeting.
We should, however, reject the notion that someone who can rescind the Church’s stance on gay sex, and chooses not to do so, is a figure worthy of admiration. Nor, if he won’t countenance women priests, is there a reason to suppose the Pope has anything of note to say about poverty. Why waste precious time worrying about anything such a person thinks?
Aside from the fact that we still hold religious figures to a lower standard than secular ones, the fawning over Pope Francis demonstrates something profoundly depressing: in the struggle for a better world, women’s and LGBT rights are still not taken seriously.
This piece first appeared on newstatesman.com.