Fun facts about me: My mom’s whole family is Catholic going back centuries. It’s part of our family legacy – the Veteri Ponte (shortened to Vipond) were Catholic barons in England, and depending on who was ruling and whether they were Anglicans or Protestants, we had our land granted and taken away over and over. One of my ancestors was Queen Elizabeth I’s handmaid, and apparently she was mouthy (now you know where I get it from).
Which is all to say, Catholicism is part of my identity. I was loosely raised in the Catholic church. I stopped short of getting confirmed because I didn’t want to make a promise to a god if I didn’t know that I believed in it. Later in adulthood, when I was attending a Jesuit university, I started inching further back toward it. I took classes on Catholic history and on sacramentalism, I started reading the Bible more, I grew an affinity for Graham Greene. One of my favorite novels is still The Power and the Glory, in no small part for this very twentieth-century Catholic point of view, which I still think is a beautiful way of framing Christ:
“Man was so limited: he hadn’t even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had died: the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater the glory lay around the death; it was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or civilization–it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.”
Don’t worry, I’m not about to get all Biblical on you. I became an atheist for many reasons, but especially after discovering the heartbreaking genius of Felix Gonzalez-Torres when I was 25. But what I mean to say is that if Pope Francis had been Pope when I was 21, the Catholic church might have gotten me to go through the long, exhausting, tedious process of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. I have no doubt that they’re accomplishing many conversions and returns-to-the-faith now, because the Pope has gotten amazing PR for the Catholic Church lately.
That’s the thing, though: it’s PR. When I was twenty-one, I got confirmed in the Episcopal Church instead, which some like to half-jokingly call Catholic Lite. I hated the fact that the Catholic Church positioned itself against the things I believed in most strongly — birth control, empowering women, and gay rights. Despite the Pope’s many public proclamations, nothing has changed in the Catholic church in any practical sense.
For example: Pope Francis said that civil unions may be tolerable in March, but in April he opined about the importance of “traditional” marriages, and that’s not the first time he’s said bigoted things about gays or gay marriage. He implied that he would consider appointing a female cardinal, but that was all words — the Vatican shot that down right quick. And although he’s made lots and lots of statements about a progressive economy and income inequality, the Catholic church’s stance on birth control remains the same despite airy, vague statements about “considering” “easing” the stance – even though lack of adequate birth control contributes to poverty in developing countries.
In other words, almost everything Pope Francis says that makes us swoon — it’s just words. It’s a big publicity stunt, probably to keep the flow of money coming in from America, which provides 60 percent of the Vatican’s funding. Guys, they’re sending out surveys about American attitudes on their controversial policy stances. That’s Marketing 101. They’re looking at Catholics as a focus group. They’re looking at believers as consumers.
And if that’s not the most worldly, cynical thing I’ve ever heard of, I honestly don’t know what would be. Let’s take our blinders off about the church hierarchy. It’s been in place for the last 1700 years, it’s not going to change within the course of months. The Pope, in Catholic theory, absolutely has the power to make sweeping changes — his judgment is infallible; that was established in 519 but put in paper, officially, at the First Vatican Council in 1870. But it’s no longer working as an institution of faith. It’s a machine that has to keep itself running, and unfortunately it does that by continuing to perpetuate sexist, racist, homophobic policies while speaking opposite beliefs.
I am 100 percent in support of everyone peacefully practicing whatever beliefs make them better people and positive contributors to the greater good of our global society. I love Catholicism, and I think that seeing grace in everything in the world opens up a wonderful opportunity for Catholics to be kind, caring, open-hearted people (and often, I find that they are). But that’s not how the church is handling itself. Even if faith was a door that was open to me, Pope Francis and his excellent PR team wouldn’t be enough to draw me back — only real, concrete change would be.
[Photo: Getty Images]