Pope Francis used to work as a nightclub bouncer. Sounds a bit like the start of a joke, but it’s true. He has a Twitter account, a Harley Davidson, and he dances the tango whilst shaking his hips like Shakira. Eighteen months into his papacy and it’s apparent that Jorge Mario Bergoglio isn’t your average Pontiff, but it gets even better when he professes that evolution and the Big Bang theory may just be real. How daring. How revolutionary.
Well actually no, not that revolutionary. Often hailed as the father of modern genetics, Gregor Mendel proposed what is known today as the genetic basis of evolutionary theory as early as the mid-19th century. Mendel probably could have publicised his work more actively and been discovered earlier but as an Augustinian monk, perhaps he was well practiced in humility as well as science. And the Big Bang? Whilst the words themselves can be attributed to Fred Hoyle, the concept belongs to Georges Lemaître, a scientist who is as notable for the contradiction of being a Catholic Priest and a physicist as he is for being Belgian and famous.
So maybe there isn’t a Science versus Religion debate after all. Bergoglio endorses a scientific explanation for the universe and its inhabitants, and there is a demonstrable history of the Catholic Church actually contributing to scientific understanding. Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air down the stagnant corridors of the Vatican and we can all rejoice in a happy coexistence between science and religion. Not only that, Bergoglio is clearly of a much more liberal virtue than any of his predecessors, even going so far as to call for a global abolition of the death penalty. It’s a peachy, rosy world blessed by the Virgin Mary and everyone is going to live happily ever after.
Not quite, and I wouldn’t expect to see his holiness bumping fists with Richard Dawkins any time soon because the skeletons amongst the robes and funny hats in the divine closet are numerous and monstrous.
Put plain, this “new found” enlightenment of one of the most oppressive religious organisations still incumbent has come about far too late. It’s too late for Galileo who endured torture under Pope Paul V for being heretical enough to suggest that the Earth revolves around the Sun. It’s too late for the millions of hysterical mothers who lived a lifetime of misery believing that their unbaptized dead infants would suffer forever in Limbo. It’s too late for the thousands upon thousands of children who had to experience mental, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of those on the Catholic payroll and then witness the meticulous and systematic cover-up ordered by the highest Catholic authorities. These people I very much doubt will find any comfort in the fact the current papal administration has read a Ladybird book of Science.
“But that is all in the past!” cry the defenders of the Church as they frantically point to the many charitable works undertaken around the world. This is true, but unfortunately all that charity rarely comes for free and the Church with Pope Francis at the helm remains steadfastly and unapologetically Catholic in his teachings.
He has condemned the free distribution of condoms in countries riddled with AIDS, and remains orthodox on the teachings of sexual practice. Thousands have died and will continue to die accepting a slow and miserable death as preferable to an eternity in Satan’s fiery playground. Millions will endure abject poverty bringing up children they can’t afford to feed because their sexual activities are dictated by a group of celibates. If you are a homosexual then I’m afraid that the Vatican will still take a very active interest in what you get up to in the privacy of your bedroom and if they don’t like what they see, then you’ll be off to the sulphurous pits as well.
I am not interested in what the Catholic Church and its members think or what they believe, that’s up to them. I care about what they do and what they teach. Morality, truth and wisdom, this is where they have influence and this is where they still do – in the opinion of this author at least – great harm. Whilst Pope Francis, when compared to his predecessors, may seem like the first step in the right direction towards a Catholic Church for the modern world, I don’t think it’s enough.
The science versus religion debate is as old as it is boring, and it will go on and on maybe forever. But with religious teachers as high up as the Pope prepared to admit that the traditional teachings of the bible are wrong – or only to be understood metaphorically – isn’t it time that they admitted they are wrong with regard to areas of morality as well?
Illustration: Mariam Hayat