From the moment the current pope took the name Francis, which I knew had to be a nod to St. Francis of Assisi (a rich man who turned to poverty and tended to humanity for the rest of his life), I figured things were about to get interesting. That’s a hell of a signal that change is in the air, and even more-so if you know that no pope has taken an original name in over 1100 years: every pope since Pope Lando (no Star Wars jokes please, no matter hard much it’s tempting you) has named himself after another pope.
As an Aside: You might point out that John Paul I injected a new name in 1978. It’s true it was a new name, but he was specifically naming himself after two different popes. He double-perpetuated the practice.
At his very first addressing of the crowd, Francis requested the people to pray he be blessed before he blessed them. That’s not selfishness, asking that he get first dibs on blessing. That’s him acknowledging the spiritual power of the individual, common person, and a statement that he is not, in fact, on high above them (even if he was on a tall balcony).
The Catholic Church is an incredibly hierarchical organization. Traditionally, priests were viewed as intermediaries between God and the common people, existing in a place of holiness that can only be reached through ordination. The pope, the head of all priests, was viewed as the closest emissary God had on this earth. While much of that was blunted at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, it is still generally understood that blessings have a sort of trickle-down nature.
But here Francis asks the people to be the intermediary. That’s a big statement.
He has criticized holier-than-thou Christians as missing the point of Christianity. He has simplified his wardrobe and living accommodations: still impressive as the his role kind of requires it, but not nearly to the degree of his predecessors.
But we do have to remember that he is a Catholic. He is the head Catholic, and while his displays are startling in the face of more traditional messages, he wouldn’t have been elected pope if he just chucked all dogma out the window.
When he calls for tolerance of gays and lesbians, for example, don’t take that to mean he approves of homosexuality. He doesn’t. What he is saying is stop being an ass about it. Stop making it out to be the worst sin ever to disgrace the face of this planet, as is fashionable at the moment. Stop sinning against the sinner.
With Francis as the face of a much kinder Church, people want to inflate him as the embodiment of their hopes and dreams. Some expect he’ll poop rainbows any day now. So when the article “Pope Francis Condemns Racism and Declares that “All Religions are True” at the Historic Third Vatican Council” hit the Internet, it went viral because it said what people wanted to hear.
Source of the Hoax
If something seems to good to be true, it probably is. This is a lesson of the Internet people need to learn. The author of this article knew what buttons to push for people against conservative religion.
The article is a hoax. It comes from a blog called The Diversity Chronicle, which sure sounds legit. It even looks legit with a snappy clean design. Their About Us page professionally states:
Diversity Chronicle is a news web site focusing on news events relating to diversity of all kinds. Our veteran hard hitting journalists are not afraid to tackle any subject from a rational, objective and balanced point of view.
However, there’s also a page marked “Disclaimer,” which states “The original content on this blog is largely satirical.”
I hate sites that do this. I really loathe them. Satire is all well and good, but when it circulates as fact you’ve done more harm than good. The Onion gets away with it because everyone knows its name and because its satirical stories are generally obviously ludicrous. The Diversity article is not.
The Imaginary Council
The article states that Francis’s latest declarations of tolerance come from the Third Vatican Council, which has just concluded. Except the Third Vatican Council has not concluded because the Third Vatican Council doesn’t exist. The First Council convened in 1868 and the Second in 1962. Also, councils are not simply the pope telling the bishops how everything will be. If it was, you wouldn’t need a council.
Then We All Sing Kumbaya
According to the article, Francis stated:
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?
Which is like saying unicorns are true because there are people who believe in them.
These unicorns also poop rainbows.
Certain things exist or don’t exist in this universe. We don’t always know which are which. Is there a god? Multiple gods? No gods? Is the world god? Does god reside in my sneakers? Is it he who tells me to eat another piece of cake? We all have our views on the topic. I do strongly agree we should all respect other people’s beliefs, but that doesn’t mean I think they are correct. I personally believe that more than one religion can be correct, and many probably have some aspect of truth to them. But that doesn’t mean they all are.
The Catholic Church, like most churches, has a solid stance on religious truth: there is one god, not many. He exists as a trinity. Jesus was the bringer of salvation. What the individual Catholic believes is much more diverse, but the Church itself has an official position on such things. Those positions sometimes change over time, but no one ever simply punts them over the fence.
What it Got Right
But there is also truth mixed into the article, which is one of the reasons it’s so effective. Ironically, some of those true statement are actually some of the more shocking ones to people who see the Church as a backward and obsolete dinosaur. For example, Francis calls the story of Adam and Eve a “fable.” Which it is. The Catholic Church does not accept Creationism and hasn’t in quite a while. In 1950, Pope Pius XII stated:
The question of the origin of man’s body from pre-existing and living matter is a legitimate matter of inquiry for natural science. Catholics are free to form their own opinions, but they should do so cautiously; they should not confuse fact with conjecture, and they should respect the Church’s right to define matters touching on Revelation. (source)
Pope John Paul II, who will be canonized as a saint in April, stated in 1996 that Pius XII:
…considered the doctrine of ‘evolutionism’ as a serious hypothesis, worthy of a more deeply studied investigation and reflection on a par with the opposite hypothesis. … Today, more than a half century after this encyclical, new knowledge leads us to recognize in the theory of evolution more than a hypothesis. … The convergence, neither sought nor induced, of results of work done independently one from the other, constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory. (source)
More definitive in my mind is what he said in 1981:
The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise but in order to state the correct relationships of man with God and with the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer…Any other teaching about the origin and makeup of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven. (source)
In short, Adam and Eve are, indeed, a metaphor, used by people 3000 years ago who had no concept of evolution or modern cosmology.
The issue of hell may also be honestly close to Francis’s heart. If so, he’s certainly not the first Catholic to express it.
The latest round of revisionism was touched off last summer by a surprising editorial in La Civilta Cattolica, an influential Jesuit magazine with close ties to the Vatican. Hell, the magazine declared, “is not a ‘place’ but a ‘state,’ a person’s ‘state of being,’ in which a person suffers from the deprivation of God.”
A few days later, Pope John Paul II told an audience at the Vatican that “rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God.” To describe this Godforsaken condition, the pontiff said, the Bible “uses a symbolical language” that “figuratively portrays in a ‘pool of fire’ those who exclude themselves from the book of life, thus meeting with a ‘second death.’ ” (source)
What it Got Wrong
There are other portions of the article, however, which are completely contrary not only to the Catholic Church but Francis’s own words. Here he states the Church will begin ordaining women not only as priests but as bishops and cardinals and hopes for there to be a day when a woman becomes pope.
In fact, while Francis does say that women should have a larger role in the Church and that men and women are equal in dignity, he has also made it absolutely clear that priesthood is a role for men. He’s even excommunicated a priest for teaching that women can be ordained.
What’s Just Ugly
And there’s the outright libelous claims of Cardinal Arinze’s response to Francis. Here Arinze calls the pope a heretic, accuses the Church of embracing “moral absolutism in favour of illegal immigration and cultural genocide against Europe” and warning “Vatican City will one day become a giant mosque if things continue in Europe along their present course.”
Kind of odd words for a guy who was appointed to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue by John Paul II precisely because of his record of working with Muslims within his own country of Nigeria.
Why do this? Because the author is appealing to those people most dissatisfied with Catholicism, Christianity, or religion in general. They paint the pope as embracing everything they do and being contrary to much the Church does. And to underline that last point, they end the article depicting a real Cardinal as a racist and bigot.
That’s not satire. That’s just lying.
Header image source: Edgar Martinez (with alteration)