During his Christmas address in Vatican City, Pope Francis reached out to atheists, saying, “I invite even nonbelievers to desire peace. [Join us] with your desire, a desire that widens the heart. Let us all unite, either with prayer or with desire, but everyone, for peace.” The line received an uproarious ovation, but I wish to withhold my applause.
Which nonbelievers do not already desire peace? Does he think we prefer war, death or destruction? Why not ask us to work toward peace, instead of just desiring and praying for it?
Now, before you start jumping all over me for being too pedantic, allow me to explain why I’m so hesitant to take Pope Francis’ grand gestures at face value.
In early 2013, Pope Benedict XVI captured the public interest by resigning the papacy because “God told him to.” Benedict’s tenure as pontiff was marked by a sharp turn to the right, seeking what he called a “smaller purer church.” Compared to the much beloved Pope John Paul II, Benedict was a disaster for the church’s image. So when the papal conclave elected Pope Francis, the first non-European Pope since 1272 and a man who was renowned for his kind manner and work with the poor, the contrast was incredibly stark.
Ever since, I have watched countless liberal pundits and writers proclaim Francis a godsend for progressive values. I cannot help but be reminded of 2008’s enthusiasm for Obama’s “Yes We Can” campaign. Both generated a large amount of early enthusiasm through their eloquent pronouncements before actually making policy changes — Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, and the pope was named Time’s 2013 Person of the Year.
Let us revisit some of the pontiff’s highlights from his first year:
On May 23rd, Pope Francis suggested that “even the atheists” can go to heaven. Amid the ensuing media sensation, Vatican spokesman Thomas Rosica quietly released a statement clarifying that the Pope meant atheists can go to heaven … by becoming Catholic.
In a “surprise interview” on a plane back to Rome on July 29th, Francis said, “Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?” Once again, proponents of social justice lauded the sentiment as new gospel — forgetting to mention that Francis has never changed the church’s opposition to homosexuality. As recently as 2010, he called gay adoption a form of discrimination against children and claimed marriage equality would “seriously damage the family.”
It should have come as no surprise that two months later the pontiff would order the excommunication of Australian priest Greg Reynolds, who was advocating for gay marriage and the ordination of female priests.
Perhaps everything the pope says that sounds remotely liberal should be followed by an asterisk.
“But, Collin,” I hear you cry, “you’re an atheist! Why do you even care what the pope has to say?”
I care because the Catholic Church leads and influences over 1.2 billion (as it likes to boast) parishioners worldwide, with over 70 million in the United States alone.
I care because Pope Francis has made no effort to correct the lie that condom use increases AIDS transmission — a falsehood propagated in Africa by the previous pontiff.
I care because estimates suggest the church’s annual spending approaches $170 billion worldwide, 10 times the annual profits of Walmart. I say “estimates” because the church is tax-exempt, so it is not required to report its earnings.
I care because the Catholic Church spent over $2 million in 2012 fighting marriage equality in Maine, Maryland, Washington and my home state of Minnesota.
I care because Catholic hospitals account for 15 percent of hospital beds in the United States and many more worldwide, and the church’s stances on contraception, abortion and end-of-life care often dictate which medical interventions are prescribed.
I care because Pope Francis could change it all.
Regardless of your beliefs about the pope and his alleged hotline to heaven, he holds tremendous power over many of the people and issues I care about greatly. I hope I am wrong about Francis being purely a PR campaign, but actions still speak louder.
Collin Boots is a master’s student studying robotics from Redwood Falls, Minn. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him @LotofTinyRobots.