To Patrick Brennan’s spot-on comments about the low-information media narrative on Pope Francis, I would add two observations.
First, Michael Smerconish had it exactly backward when he said that “the treatment of women” is an issue on which Francis proved himself a “game changer” in the past year. Here is a list of some the pope’s recent offenses against feminist sensibilities. He committed gaffes, not crimes, and clearly he meant well, but still they betray a traditional view of gender differences that only corroborates the belief that the Church is inhospitable to women. (To judge from attendance figures, churches of most denominations in the United States do a better job of alienating men, but that’s a topic for another post, or a book.)
Second, it would be hard for Smerconish to substantiate his suggestion that the pope in 2014 did anything to advance his reputation for being gay-friendly. Despite Francis’s warnings about a “gay lobby” in the Vatican (and about “a Masonic lobby,” for that matter), we never stop hearing that he has changed the Church’s tone on homosexuality. His image in this regard rests almost solely on “Who am I to judge?”
In context, as Patrick notes, that remark was only an affirmation of existing Church teaching. Moreover, the teaching was already articulated more fully by Francis’s predecessor — the bad pope, according to the media script. “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action,” Pope Benedict wrote in 1986, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger. “Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs. . . . The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in work, in action and in law.”
Back in October, the interim report of the synod on the family did include a line about the importance of “accepting and valuing” not only the homosexual person but his orientation. That would have been game-changing, indeed, were the document not later revealed to be the fabrication of a few well-positioned prelates who had tried to wrest control of the proceedings and to represent their minority opinions as the consensus of the 260 synod fathers. The synod fathers were quick to object. (“It’s not what we were saying. It’s not a true message!”) Their final report amounted to a refutation of the most egregious passages in the interim report.
That whole drama is what Smerconish may have had in mind when he referred vaguely to what Francis this year accomplished in the category of “the treatment of gays,” although, in fairness to Francis, remember that there is no evidence that he contributed to the fiasco. Archbishop Bruno Forte authored the paragraphs on homosexuality, and Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri was complicit in misrepresenting them as the mind of the Church.