Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Pope Francis: a leader for believers and atheists alike (Contribution)

Pope FrancisSomewhere in Rome, my name is on a list of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. 

I'd like to think it's done with ink quills on parchment by a scrivener, but it's probably kept on an Excel sheet. 

Baptized in the Roman Catholic church, I'm still counted among its members, though I left the flock decades ago. Once you're in, il capo says you're in for life.

So the pope inflates the number of his followers. But that doesn't diminish his position as the most powerful man on Earth. He can't press a button and launch a nuke, but with unfettered authority to speak to and for a global audience that influences politics in dozens of countries, the Fisherman's Ring is the one ring of power. If anyone has a bully pulpit, surely it's him.

I've often been frustrated to see such power squandered on paeans to peace (has shaming a dictator ever worked?), sermons that coddle when they should challenge, and cover-ups of repugnant acts. Time and again we see that power corrupts, and when the perpetrators are acolytes of Christ, it's a disgrace in the truest sense of the word.

I'd never felt that I'd missed out by being an atheist, but one thing I could use is an occasional nudge away from narcissism. It's easy to lapse into self-absorption when convinced there's no master plan or purpose for life, let alone afterlife.

And I've certainly enjoyed the ride; I direct all my efforts at making the world a better place – for myself. I don't give enough to charity or volunteer as much as I could, and my sense of duty rarely extends beyond my social circle. Someone with sufficient moral stature could push those buttons, switch on the dusty machinery of my Catholic guilt, and improve my behavior and thus better the lives of others. 

That someone might be the new pope.

Pope Francis has been impressive from the start. 

The white smoke had barely cleared before he began to signal his priorities. He mingled with the crowd in St Peter's instead of lording over them from above, and he rejected the opulent house. He washed the feet of women and prisoners on Holy Thursday. He opened an inquiry into the abuse scandal that he says won't flinch, and he even had a kind word for atheists, calling us allies to "defend the dignity of man", fellow seekers of truth, goodness and beauty. 


This pope is a rebel with a cause: to alleviate the suffering of the other 1%, those at the lowest rung of society. 

It's a mission somehow radical and conservative at the same time. 

Giving the poor a better lot in life, a foundational principle of Christian faiths, has been drowned out by the din of the culture wars. 

It brings to mind that quote attributed to Gandhi:
"I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." 
With a reformist pope, things are changing and already, the humbuggery about "family values" has given way to a real issue. 

Francis is focusing on poverty, which, like death and taxes, is a scourge that will always be with us. 

But when more people worldwide have cell phones than toilets – leaving 2.5 billion people without sanitation – and we who consider iPhones a vital bodily organ can only give a callous, "Eh, whaddaya gonna do?" – it's a sign we've lost our moral compass. We should be ashamed, doubly so: of the terrible fact and of our resignation to it. By being complacent, we're being complicit, and Pope Francis knows this.

Consider a recent kerfuffle over a statue of a homeless Jesus, which was rejected by the dioceses of New York and Toronto. 

The sculpture is of a hooded figure asleep on a park bench, his identity only revealed by the stigmata on his bare feet. 

Maybe the cardinals considered it too uncomfortable a reminder of their own languishing homeless – which I imagine was exactly the point. Francis should put that thing in St Peter's Square.

Francis should be less preoccupied with ancient texts and more concerned with improving the present, especially for the world's marginalized peoples. I want a pope who gets things done, when no one else can, for people no one else helps. I want Pope Batman. "Let us never forget that authentic power is service," Francis said in his inaugural mass, urging action for "the poorest, the weakest, the least important".

How refreshing. 

Too often, religious devotion is measured by obedience to doctrine – is foregoing a burger during Lent really a sacrifice? – when it should be about outcomes.  

Bertrand Russell put it well:
"The whole conception of 'sin' is one which I find very puzzling, doubtless owing to my sinful nature. If sin consisted in causing needless suffering, I could understand; but on the contrary, 'sin' often consists in avoiding needless suffering."
Euthanasia for the terminally ill, contraception, premarital sex, divorce, abortion, same-sex marriage – all could alleviate suffering, create happiness, or both. All sins, according to the Vatican. 

It might be unrealistic to expect Francis to change any official policies, but it's tempting to ponder. The last pope was in the Hitler Youth as a kid; the current one had a girlfriend. 

That bodes a bit better for the future of a more tolerant, modern Vatican. 

On a topic like gay marriage, Francis could silence legions who cloak their bigotry in church-going finery. 

True believers evolve when they see their leaders have the courage to do it first. 

Richard Nixon opened communist China to the West. 

Bill Clinton reformed welfare. 

Bob Dylan "went electric", shocking his fringe-jacketed disciples. 

Plug in, Francis! Your Newport Folk Festival moment awaits.

I still feel that dogmatic faith anaesthetizes the intellectual curiosity that makes us human, and that it retards progress on both personal and societal levels. 

I'll never bow down in fealty to a book or a statue or a pope, even this one. 

But if Francis continues to lead by example, not by fiat, he'll can show Catholics, Christians and non-believers alike that faith can deserve respect and even make a difference. 

If not, he'll blow his chance to speak with such conviction that even heathen might hear him. 

And that would truly be a sin.