I don’t like the word evil. Honestly, I find it lazy, and I feel people use it to excuse themselves from trying to understand the abominable actions human beings are capable of. “I couldn’t commit an atrocity like that”, goes the reasoning. “That couldn’t happen here. The perpetrators were evil.” When I think about the Catholic Church, however, I find it very difficult to avoid the word. It’s of course vital to distinguish between Catholics and the Catholic Church. The vast majority of Catholics are wonderful. Unfortunately, the institution they follow isn’t. For millennia, it’s committed atrocity after atrocity. Exploiting starving peasants for the massacre of innocent citizens in Jerusalem during the first crusade, centuries of torture and execution for heresy throughout Europe, abuse of indigenous peoples in the Americas, and collaborating with Franco’s dictatorship to steal and traffic as many as 300,000 children.
It’s of course vital to distinguish between Catholics and the Catholic Church. The vast majority of Catholics are wonderful. Unfortunately, the institution they follow isn’t.
It’s a dark history, and unfortunately one which still continues today. As recently as 2009, the then-pope Benedict XVI told journalists that the HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa (home to roughly 80% of HIV sufferers) was a tragedy “that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems” – a claim firmly refuted by health officials. Equally troubling is the the epidemic of child sexual abuse, which is seemingly an endemic problem in the Church. Rather than seeking justice for victims, the Church has time and time again tried to cover cases up, often transferring or reassigning bishops rather than taking punitive action. Just this year, the Archbishop of Adelaide – one of the most senior members of the church – was convicted of concealing child sexual abuse. He remains an ordained bishop.
Change is in the air, however! Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis, has proven himself to be a modernising force, cutting a new, progressive direction for the Church. He chose the name Francis, wanting to emulate the saint of the same name, renowned for his compassion for the poor! He wants “a poor Church, for the poor”. Not so much that he’s willing to sell a fraction of the priceless art portfolio his Church holds, but enough that he’ll live in a smaller palace! He’s “a breath of fresh air”, a “miracle of humility”, and a “beacon of hope”. At least, that’s the impression you’d get from the chorus of sycophantic coverage which filled my newsfeed in the weeks and months following his election. Particularly following his “who am I to judge” comments on gay priests, it seemed everyone around me, Catholic or not, was energised and enthralled by this apparent whiplash-inducing change of stance. It made headlines, and it made a lasting impression. Unfortunately, far more of an impression than when he compared the threat of transgender people to that of nuclear weapons (an issue I only saw reported on at the time by LGBTQ news outlet PinkNews), when he negated his PR soundbite and reaffirmed the ban on gay priests, or when he told crowds that choosing not to have children is “selfish”.
As Olivia Goldhill writes for Quartz, his progressive soundbites are just that: soundbites designed to court young people, particularly in Latin America, who are far more liberal than their parents on these issues, and who are leaving the faith in greater numbers. On sexual abuse too, the pope’s words ring hollow. Just last week, in an open letter to Catholics, he acknowledged the “abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics”, but he stopped short of outlining any meaningful change. To make things worse, on his way back from a visit to Ireland (one of the countries most affected by sexual abuse in the Church), Pope Francis refused to comment on allegations from a major former Vatican official that he helped covered up decades of sexual abuse allegations against an important US cardinal.
Ultimately, I don’t blame the pope for being disingenuous. He’s watching the grip of the institution he’s given his life to weaken in the face of a generation who find its teachings regressive and far more mired in dogma than the Jesus they read about. He knows that the Church has to change or be left behind, but he knows that the Church has resisted change since long before the time of Galileo. If the only way to avoid a split and stay relevant is a bit of mixed messaging, why not? It certainly wouldn’t make him the most hypocritical man to hold that office.
What’s important is that we stop being taken in by it. The pope isn’t an insignificant, kindly old man. He’s the head of a state with enormous financial clout, and the leader of a denomination followed by an estimated 1.3 billion people. He’s a vocal and longstanding opponent of LGBT rights, and the face of an institution which callously increases HIV infections, perpetrates and covers up sexual abuse, and within living memory has backed up brutal dictatorships. Let’s not be distracted by an empty soundbite.