The Many Faces of Pope Francis

As the arrival of Pope Francis draws near, his visit has been heralded by all sorts of papal kitsch. Apart from the strange painting of the pope being surrounded by local celebrities dressed up as farmers (a piece of work that would have been biting in insight, had it not been so sincere), several media outlets have also come out with their own T-shirt designs with sayings attributed to the popular pontiff.


People have grasped onto one particular quotation from the pope: “Who am I to judge?” You can buy a shirt with this printed on it from whichever TV channel you feel loyal to. This quote has resonated strongly with people with the Catholic Church who have been aching for any semblance of change. Pope Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, after all said that the “homosexual inclination” was an “objective disorder.” It is certainly a breath of fresh air in a Church legendary for its glacial pace of progress… if Francis had meant that homosexuals were finally accepted by the Church.

Of course, the people Pope Francis was referring to were gay priests—people already required to be celibate. And not only that, he hedged that if a gay priest were “seeking God”, then who would he be to judge him? In so many words, Pope Francis was not accepting homosexuals, rather he was describing a person who was aware that it was wrong to act on homosexual desires. Who was he to judge a contrite homosexual priest who would never again act on his homosexuality? This is worlds apart from how the phrase has been used since then.

Had people listened a little more to what Pope Francis actually said, they would have heard the following. “The problem is lobbying by this orientation, or lobbies of greedy people, political lobbies, Masonic lobbies, so many lobbies. This is the worst problem.” To be fair, I don’t think this would have fit on a T-shirt.

So, how can such an accepting message be construed from such a specific and narrow meaning? For one thing, the quote is so compact and slogan-worthy that it, like all other clichés, has lost its context. But, the far greater reason is that people are reading into Pope Francis whatever they want to believe.


You’re so vain

In a 1999 study, Raymond Nickerson of Tufts University found that people assume that the knowledge they have is, by default, shared by everyone else. And, because of this, people tend to think that other people would have the same beliefs as they do.

A 2009 follow-up by researchers from Columbia university showed that not only do people project their beliefs onto others, they particularly do so on people they admire and, especially, God.

When asked about what they thought the opinions of God, George Bush (someone with well-known beliefs), Bill Gates (a well-liked person with largely unknown beliefs), Barry Bonds (a disliked person with largely unknown beliefs) and the average American were on controversial matters such as abortion and same-sex marriage, participants in the study considered the beliefs of Bill Gates and God to correlate well with their own beliefs. That is to say, when the participants admired someone, they tended to assume that they probably believed the same things they did.

I contend that the same thing is happening with the so-called “People’s Pope.”


Holding out for a hero

On the outside, Pope Francis appears to have rocked the Church to its foundations. He has abandoned many of the luxuries of popes, such as the papal limo and the papal apartments, which people had seen as extravagant and disconnected from the realities of the suffering of Catholics worldwide. He has been seen kissing babies and taking selfies with teenagers. This pope certainly appears more in touch with believers on the ground.

And yet, after each seemingly progressive statement by the pope, the Vatican would come out to backtrack, or rather clarify. After a synod that seemed to contain language friendly to LGBT persons (“homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community”), later versions of the document came out without this statement. And, after the pope appeared to have opened the possibility of atheists going to heaven, the Vatican came out to say that people “cannot be saved” if they knowingly refuse “to enter [the Church] or remain in her.” So, yes, atheists can be saved, if they renounce their atheism and join the Catholic Church.

Lest it be said that the pope is trying to move the Church forward while he is being held back by conservative elements, it should be noted that when it comes to certain progressive matters, Pope Francis is a lot less vague than “who am I to judge” and more direct, like in calling abortion, euthanasia, and IVF “playing with life,” which is “a sin against the Creator” and in saying that children ought to have both a mother and a father. On the matter of women priests Pope Francis has said, “The church has spoken and says no… That door is closed.”

The epidemic of child rape that has plagued the Catholic Church shows quite clearly what kind of pope we really have. While the pope has criticized and apologized for those who have helped shield rapists from prosecution, he has gone ahead and appointed as top Vatican prosecutor a person who had failed to report a notorious child abuser. We see a pattern in Pope Francis’ Church—vague but impressive words, followed by clear but contradictory actions.

The fact is, Pope Francis has either been against progressive advocacy issues such as women’s rights and LGBT rights or just plainly silent about them. And in this absence of a clear narrative, people have made graven images of their own Pope Francis and ascribed to it their own beliefs, which they think the pope must certainly also believe.

The bigotry of low expectations underlies the popularity of Pope Francis. So much so that even matters such as whether pets go to heaven are misconstrued and lied about. The Church has had such a terrible reputation that even the most obvious pandering is enough to impress. This is unsurprising since the largely silent bloc of progressive Catholics have been famished for someone like Pope Francis for a long time. Even atheists have joined the bandwagon of wishful thinking. After years of burying their heads in their hands, sitting through anti-RH and anti-LGBT sermons in church, here comes the representative of Jesus Christ Himself and he seems to be the change that they’d been waiting for. Finally, the Church is going to change into the way they want it to be.


Look at all these rumors

But, this all seems to be some illusion induced by that same hunger. In the gaps of the feel-good platitudes from the pope, progressives try to find wiggle room in an institution that was never built for them. For if the Church were to surrender that maybe God can change his mind about homosexuality, maybe He can change his mind about condoms or women priests. And that’s not going to happen, not under Pope Francis and not under whoever comes after.

Compounding the trouble of people ascribing to the pope their own beliefs is a psychological phenomenon called “the backfire effect.” Researchers Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler found that when people are shown definitive facts that refute misconceptions, they are even more likely to hold fast to their false notions. In effect, this creates the whole endeavor of correcting pointless, which, in turn, makes articles such as the one you’re reading now practically Sisyphean. But, the optimist in me wants to believe, even against evidence, that through reading the pope’s actual words and seeing his actual deeds, some people will see through the many faces hiding the true one of Pope Francis.

Cardinal Tagle quoted the pope as saying that he hopes that he would not be the focus of his visit to the Philippines. It’s hard not to find this statement ironic as our traffic enforcers prepare to wear diapers in anticipation for the pope, as flights have been cancelled, as holidays have been declared, and as roads have been closed. He could easily have sent word that the Philippine government had gone overboard, but he hasn’t. No other head of state will be welcomed as Pope Francis will be. And why wouldn’t he be? No other pope in history has been as clever in creating an image. The trick was to let the people make it for him.


Image Credit: Tânia Rêgo/Agência Brasil
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil


  1. Concepts such as “backfire effect”, “cognitive dissonance”, or “apophenia” are really handy to dismiss all contrary arguments as “emotional”, “psychological”, or “illogical”. I have yet to master this philosophical sleight-of-speech. :v

    But in any case, I agree with you. The Catholic Church could not help but not be open, or it would cease to be itself. In any case, more pedophile priests were exposed and arrested during his papacy so far, than during other papacies.

    If Francis is inflexible dogmatically, don’t we expect him to? However, there is at least hope that past issues with the unbelieving world would be resolved.

  2. Instead of dedicating a mere piece of gossip for this religious figure, it is EMBARASSING that this respected organization FAILED MISERABLY to express support to their humanist brothers that were BRUTALLY MURDERED in the name of Islam.

    Im not losing hope and still waiting patiently for your EXPRESSION of SUPPORT, at least a condemnation of Islam as a religion behind all this violence.


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