Lefty atheists from North London to Northern California are in outrage today at the latest shock revelations that Pope Francis is, in fact, a Catholic. “The pope played us for fools, trying to have it both ways”, thundered Michaelangelo Signorile in the Huffington Post, outraged that the Pope had (briefly) met Kim Davis. Ms Davis, you’ll remember, is the rather silly Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on ‘biblical’ grounds while herself being on a rather unbiblical fourth marriage. (Giving her the martyrdom she so transparently sought by jailing her, however briefly, was both stupid and morally wrong.)
Trevor Martin in the Guardian felt his meeting with Ms Davis left “LGBT people with no illusions about the Pope’s stance on equal rights for us, despite his call for inclusiveness”. There has never been any doubt of the Pope’s stance on equal rights for LGBT communities – he doesn’t believe in them. He doesn’t agree with marriage equality; he used some pretty salty language in Argentina when it came into force there, several years before he hit the world stage. At the same time, he seems determined to avoid wasting energy fighting a battle that has already been lost psychologically everywhere in ‘the West’ and Latin America, even where the laws are yet to change.
As it turned out, this storm in a teacup involved a certain amount of shooting first before all the facts were available (it’s always fun to see the rational and evidence-based cyberlegions of New Atheism in action). The Pope seems to have been bounced into meeting Davis as one of dozens of attendees of a Washington reception, and her attorney’s version of events many not have involved a full exposition of facts. “The pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis, and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects” said a tersely worded press statement from Vatican Press Office.
Still, this non-story tells us some interesting things. The way people want to read what they want into Francis is very revealing. For example, an old schoolfriend recently shared a Facebook meme that is typical of many: “It is not necessary to believe in God to be a good person” it began, “In a way, the traditional notion of God is outdated…” Now, I’m pretty sure Francis would agree with the first part of that statement, but the second but and most of the rest were more New Age than Throne of Peter. And Snopes quickly confirmed the meme was nonsense.
In an oddly similar vein, Francis’ statements that good atheists are redeemed through Christ and that evolution and the big bang are real were presented by much of the media as ground breaking radical departures, when in fact they were mere restatements of positions held officially by the Vatican for many decades. The Big Bang Theory was first posited by a priest, for goodness’ sake!
Francis is a transparently good man, yet it’s strange that in a supposedly post-religious era so much is vested in a Pope, the ultimate symbol of hierarchical and autocratic religious power. Those with long memories will recall how John Paul II in his early years also enjoyed such fulsome and almost universal adulation. But what is revealed by all those social media memes and bad newspaper stories is that few people are paying that much attention to what Francis is actually trying to say. His fans simply want their version of a good life validated by a good man in a white cape. They’re all sure the Pope really agrees with them. Western culture no longer seems capable of critical dialogue between people of ideological differences but common goodwill. We want to affirmed, we are sure we are affirmed, and if we aren’t, we shout angrily.
That’s a particularly profound the problem for what we once would have called the centre-left. Lefties are increasingly unable to deal with reality as it is, or form workable coalitions with people who don’t pass every section of detailed ideology tests; what used to be disease of the fellow travelling fringe has now gone mainstream.
As so many of us, me included, get most of our news about the world via social media, those Facebook memes misreading Francis as a crusading liberal-left humanist/universalist actually matter.
Francis is a conservative Roman Catholic prelate (surprise, surprise) and in political terms, a social conservative on the moderate right of the very broad Peronist tradition. When Argentina split down the middle in the late 1970s and there was no middle ground anymore, Francis was on the right of that faultline, if not entirely comfortably.
What’s interesting is that this figure on the moderate right is leading a few crusades: for peace, for not wrecking the planet’s climate and for an economy geared to serving human need rather than rewarding rent-seeking and speculation on asset prices (it may be another figure on the soft right, his counterpart in Canterbury, who makes the most significant contribution on the last of those issues).
Part of the reason why Francis has real influence is because he isn’t an identikit politically correct lefty; when he speaks on climate change, many conservative people listen who aren’t convinced by, let’s say, a demo by the Brighton branch of Anarchist Green Action. When he says he’s opposed to the death penalty for the same reasons he opposes abortion, he challenges people to rethink their views who wouldn’t be convinced by a Guardian editorial or an Amnesty Twitter campaign.
One of the dangers of social media is that it makes it too easy for us to surround ourselves with an echo chamber of people who basically agree with us. Every time you unfriend people for voting Tory (like, seriously?) or even sharing a Britain First post you are ensuring that how you perceive the world is less reflective of how the world actually is. Lots of people do this now – I’ve been unfriended by a number of right-wingers I know from church or ham radio circles, for example. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why politics is getting more fractured and extreme across the West; that’s a debate for another time.
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