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The Once and Future Pope

How an imaginary 3rd Vatican Council report sparked public debate

Tears were welling up in my eyes as I finished reading the story. One of my old friends said he almost fell out of his breakfast nook from shock. Posts about the story have 10k+ shares on Facebook. People everywhere are either “liking” it or condemning it as an affront to their faith. So what generated this public outpouring? I’m referring to an article about the 3rd Vatican Council, which has Pope Francis really stirring things up with an earth-shattering pronouncement. Here’s an excerpt:

The Third Vatican Council concluded today with Pope Francis announcing that Catholicism is now a ‘modern and reasonable religion, which has undergone evolutionary changes. The time has come to abandon all intolerance. We must recognize that religious truth evolves and changes. Truth is not absolute or set in stone.’… In a speech that shocked many, the Pope claimed ‘All religions are true, because they are true in the hearts of all those who believe in them. What other kind of truth is there? In the past, the church has been harsh on those it deemed morally wrong or sinful. Today, we no longer judge. Like a loving father, we never condemn our children. Our church is big enough for heterosexuals and homosexuals, for the pro-life and the pro-choice! For conservatives and liberals, even communists are welcome and have joined us. We all love and worship the same God.’

To the casual reader, it appears that the new Pope is really setting a new tone for the Catholic Church. And for many people reading the story, the basic claims seemed plausible, albeit unexpected. It doesn’t hurt that Pope Francis made some unexpected comments during his Christmas Urbi et Orbi speech about embracing “non-believers” (aka atheists) that have also generated quite a buzz. So why did this parody story generate so much attention? (There is no 3rd Vatican Council and this story goes a good bit further than even Francis would, I suspect, be comfortable with.) I want to suggest there are several reasons why the post gained Internet attention — both positive and negative, that reflect on the state of religious discourse today.

For starters, two themes of the post headline caught a lot of people’s attention — namely that Pope Francis “Condemns Racism” and that the Catholic Church just claimed that “All Religions Are True.” Neither claim is likely to be passed over lightly, especially given Catholicism’s growing base in the global South, where communities of color and religious minorities have been the victims of Anglo-European racism and religious imperialism, and are thus more receptive to such a message from the Church.

But I suspect there is a deeper dynamic at work here, which goes to the core of Liberal universalism. For many people who grew up in the shadows of the European Enlightenment and ostensibly secular countries like the US, there is something deeply appealing about the idea of an ambiguous and universal claim that we all share one ultimate, UR “truth” at the end of the day. This “one love, peace and justice” utopianism is what drives many nominally Christian folks towards groups like the Unitarian Universalists or the Quakers and fosters the obsession with universal brotherhood (or sisterhood) sounds bites by spiritual celebrities like the Dali Lama and Thich Nat Han that many of my liberal friends are so fond of quoting. After all, isn’t the belief that all religions can be boiled down to some “universal truth” the ultimate mythic fantasy held by that growing segment of the public that polls describes as “spiritual but not religious?”

Surely the claim that Pope Francis was directing the Church to take a hard-line stand against racism (and not only racism but also xenophobia and anti-immigrant politics writ large, which remains a hot-button issue throughout Europe, esp. in relation to North African migrants) — is doubly likely to grab headlines. There are a lot of Christians — and many non-believers — who have been calling on the Church (Roman Catholic or otherwise) to take a more vocal stand against racial discrimination for many decades. And in many ways the Catholic Church has been at the forefront, at least in the US, in standing up for immigrant rights.

News reports about Pope Francis making discrete visits to minister and spending time among the poor and downtrodden have given the Pope a huge popularity bump in recent months, which for some made such a pronouncement by the Pope seem, well, not wholly implausible. When we add the recent public religious scandals in the US involving Fox News anchor Megan Kelley’s comments about “White Jesus” and the Duck Dynasty patriarchy Phil Robertson’s religious homophobia and Jim Crow apologetics in a recent GQ interview into the current media milieu — and it’s easy to see why people of faith are looking for a religious message which condemns such bigotry wrapped up in the mantle of Christianity. Of course, it’s also the reason that there has been a huge outpouring of support for Megan Kelley and Duck Dynasty by true believers, and not a few criticisms of the Pope for accommodating “sin and commies.”

Ultimately though, I think the parody article has attracted such attention because it presents a picture of the Catholic Church, and of Pope Francis — that a lot of people, Catholic or otherwise — want to see in reality. They really want to see the Pope make a statement like the ones this news parody put into his mouth. And even though I’m not Catholic, I have to admit even I was pulled in for a moment to that same dreamlike state of imagination. What if the Pope really said all of those things, and meant it.

A Catholicism to come that spoke in this kind of language would surely shake up the religious status quo and send ripples throughout Christianity.

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Chris Crews

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