The times, they are a-changin’. And thanks to Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic Church is changing too. Or is it? Francis’s recent visit to the eastern United States was a virtual lovefest, showcasing the new pontiff’s determination to reorient his church—less priggish moral scolding, more commitment to care for the downtrodden and suffering. Yet Francis used the same trip to canonize Junípero Serra, a cultural imperialist’s cultural imperialist who brought subjugation and disease to the native peoples of what is now California. And before the pontiff left the country, he squeezed in a visit with Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky who refused to issue same-sex marriage certificates but also refused to quit her job because, well, unemployment is inconvenient.
I can hear the rejoinder now: “But Francis met with a gay couple too!” Yes, he did (one of the life-partners was a beloved former student of his). But the Church’s stance on same-sex marriage shows no sign of a-changin’. Francis also met with a number of women, but that’s no sign that the ordination of women as Catholic priests is on the horizon.
To me, the most positive aspect of the papal visit—and hugely positive it was—was Pope Francis’s blunt and forthright stand that global warming is real, it’s humanity’s doing, and we need to take responsibility and act to mitigate its damage now. Hear, hear. Christians have been casting off the hoary old doctrine that God gave humans the earth to use and abuse as we will for some years now—Free Inquiry covered the phenomenon in an April/May 2008 cover story—but it is still a great service for the leader of the world’s oldest and largest Christian church to put a final nail in the coffin of “subdue-the-earth” theology and commit to a doctrine of responsibility and stewardship.
But he’s still being a stick-in-the-mud on contraception. And he’s still in denial on overpopulation.
Yet there is no denying that the Catholic Church is changing, often in laudable ways, after two papacies that had seemed obsessed with stasis. But the world is changing too, with breathless rapidity. Can even a more-progressive Vatican keep up? Can Catholicism remain relevant, or is it still sliding toward history’s dustbin—if more slowly, with Francis at its head? Can even Francis cut the chains binding the Church of Rome to its more dismal historical, moral, and intellectual baggage? Those are some of the questions that the contributors to this special section will discuss.
Marquette University ethicist Daniel C. Maguire has spent decades prodding America’s Catholic establishment. (He last appeared in our pages with “Christianity Doesn’t Need God,” FI, October/November 2014.) In this issue’s “Godless Morals: The Challenge of Ivan Karamazov,” he begins by conceding that because the world is filled with evils, the traditional Christian God cannot exist. From there, he catalogues the ways that tropes of god-talk, particularly those rooted in Catholic theology, have distorted human thinking about moral questions down the ages and into our present day. Ultimately, Dostoevski’s question (articulated by his character Karamazov) of whether morality will collapse if God does not exist is vacuous. The roots of our problems—and our only real hopes for solving them—lie not in the heavens but in ourselves.
In “What Pope Francis Got Right: Undergoing Ecological Conversion,” economist and former Center for Inquiry board member Hector F. Sierra explores the implications of Pope Francis’s avid embrace of a scientific outlook on climate change, welcoming it enthusiastically while positioning it in the context of a church hierarchy that may be reluctant to follow where Francis leads—and noting that even Francis’s embrace of science considers science the handmaid of faith, an inherently limited perspective.
In “Will the Real ‘Culture of Life’ Please Stand Up?,” independent scholar and frequent Free Inquiry contributor Leah Mickens reminds us that Francis’s new directions must be understood in the context of Church history. In particular, she takes a twentieth-anniversary look back at Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which undergirds so much Catholic (and, ironically, evangelical-Protestant) rhetoric about “the culture of life.” John Paul II reaffirmed traditional (many would say, backward-looking) Catholic teachings about contraception, abortion, end-of-life care, and biomedical research. His agenda remains important, and of dire concern to secular humanists, in part because it occupies an area of Catholic teaching that Francis’s reformism has—so far—showed little interest in reforming.
Is Catholicism facing the challenge of moral modernity or succumbing to it? Read on and decide for yourself.