Catholics are used to hearing the grudging compliment “I don’t agree with you lot, but I respect that you know what you believe.” Clarity about doctrine is meant to be the Church’s speciality.
Pope Francis’s style, then, has been quite a contrast. Francis prefers a dramatic soundbite to a carefully-reasoned doctrinal statement. Offered technical advice by his theologians, he waves it aside. The latest example is the Pope’s remarks on same-sex couples: “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.”
For many conservative Catholics, not to mention Protestants and Muslims, this will seem a craven contradiction of previous Church statements — not of an infallible doctrine like that on divorce, but a very definite stance nevertheless. The Pope’s apologists will come up with ingenious explanations: they may speculate that Francis was only referring to broad legal protections, the kind which could apply to two sisters who want to avoid inheritance tax, or two gay men who abide by Church teaching and need hospital visiting rights. (Though why call that a “civil union law” as opposed to, say, a “domestic rights law”?)
All that analysis, however, misses a basic point. Francis is a man of his time – the time of populist leaders like Donald Trump, whose soundbites are as mysterious as they are provocative. When Trump says of Xi Jinping, for example, “He’s now president for life … I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday,” you have no idea whether he is articulating a new theory of American governance, trolling, or just thinking aloud. All you know is that Trump will reliably annoy right-thinking liberals everywhere.
Likewise, the Pope’s remarks will, time and again, upset a certain constituency. And although it keeps happening, it remains a surreal sight to witness the Vicar of Christ apparently going out of his way to demoralise orthodox Catholics. It makes the last four years in the White House look normal by comparison.