Democracy Lab

Does the World Need a Vatican Spring?

Pope Francis wants to reform the church. But does that mean giving believers a vote?

Pope Francis has been a busy man. Ever since his election as Bishop of Rome eight months ago, he has single-handedly managed to breathe new life into the Catholic Church. He has eschewed the sartorial splendor and lavish residence of his predecessors. He has demonstratively washed the feet of prisoners (including women, Roma, and Muslims) -- a moving spectacle that attests to his devotion to the downtrodden of the world (and also offended some traditionalists). In one of his most moving gestures, he embraced and kissed a man suffering from neurofibromatosis.

At the same time, he's made it clear that he's not going to leave it at symbolism. He has chided the church establishment for being "obsessed" with sexual politics to the detriment of its central mission of proclaiming the gospel. He has  called for a new "missionary spirit" and decried "obsolete structures." He has pushed for a law aimed to bring financial transparency to the Vatican and has set up a commission tasked with offering proposals for church reform. (Significantly, only one of the eight cardinals chosen for the group was from the Curia, the church's administrative heart -- and the home of many of its most entrenched interests.) All this makes perfect sense for a man who looked to one of the church's greatest reformers for his regnal name.

But it's Pope Francis's latest initiative that has the greatest potential to shake up one of the world's oldest institutions. Within the past few weeks the Vatican has begun dispatching a questionnaire to parishes around the world to ask Catholics about their views on family life and sexuality in preparation for a landmark synod (a church-wide conference) on those issues next year. It's the first time that any Pope has done such a thing.

It's certainly not a move that's calculated to soothe traditionalists. (The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for one, doesn't seem especially keen on distributing the survey to parishioners, and hasn't moved to post the document to its website -- in notable contrast to their British counterparts.)

For the church's many critics, of course, such a move is long overdue. Shortly before Pope Francis ascended to the throne, the liberal German theologian Hans Küng wrote an article in the New York Times calling for a "Vatican Spring." For Küng, the contemporary church is an "absolute monarchy" just like Saudi Arabia, the result of changes a millennium or so ago that bequeathed to Catholicism a "centralist-absolutist papacy, compulsory clericalism, and the obligation of celibacy for priests and other secular clergy." It's this underlying lack of opportunities for participation that has alienated believers (especially women and young people), Küng believes, leaving the church in dire need of top-to-bottom renovation: "Behind the facade," he wrote, "the whole house is crumbling."

There's no question that the arrival of Pope Francis has coincided with one of the greatest crises in the modern history of the church. The long-running sexual abuse scandal, the revelations of financial shenanigans at the highest level, and the stunning resignation of Benedict XVI, Francis's hapless predecessor, had stained the reputation of the church and left Catholics around the world deeply demoralized. "The Vatican needs purgation at the top, to enable real renewal from below," wrote Ross Douthat, also in the New York Times, shortly after Francis's election. Douthat is a conservative Catholic, one whose views ultimately diverge quite starkly from Küng's. But that gives you an idea of how pervasive the sense of the need for change has become.

Is greater democracy the answer? There are those who certainly believe so. They point to the vast gap between church teachings and the views of many believers. Recent polls show, for example, that 76 percent of Catholics in the United States believe that the church should permit birth control, while around half of them approve of same-sex marriage. Unless the church leadership becomes more responsive to such views, argue reformists, the current exodus of believers is likely to continue. To bolster their case, they argue that the early church -- precisely the church of Peter and Paul, in the first decades after the crucifixion of Jesus -- was a decidedly un-hierarchical affair, an institution where believers essentially governed themselves and ironed out their own doctrinal and political differences.

Others respond that such views are simplistic. The modern church encompasses 2,000 years of tradition and embraces 1.2 billion believers around the world. Those Catholics represent a vast range of languages, cultures, and political views. Yet they all profess a common faith in Jesus Christ as the redeemer of humankind -- a transcendent vision that you either believe or you don't. That's not really a matter of governance or political philosophy. The job of the church is to maintain this essential unity of the faith while accounting for the pastoral needs of its diverse membership.

And that's always going to be a challenge. "I think for the vast majority of Catholics there's no serious problem with the fact that it's not a democracy," says Leslie Tentler, a history professor at the Catholic University of America. "It just isn't. I think what people really resent, though, is that no one listens to people's experiences, people's values, people's doubts when it comes to aspects of the Church's teachings that do bear on their lives quite immediately."

What this should remind us is that it's problematic to treat the church as if it's just another political organization. It's not. It's a community of faith -- and that means that the things that are most essential about it ultimately don't depend on poll results. "The church is the ongoing ministry of Christ in the world," says Michael Sean Winters, a commentator with National Catholic Reporter newspaper. "When we say someone is a good pope or a bad pope, we mean that he's someone who would've been a good friend of Jesus when he walked on the earth. And that's not up to a vote."

Winters applauds the pope's move towards greater consultation as exemplified by the new survey -- a practice, Winters says, that is already well-established in the Latin American church. (Francis was a cardinal in Argentina before he ascended to the papal throne.) But Winters cautions that no one should be expecting Francis to change fundamental church teachings -- that, he says, just isn't in the cards.

What the new pope is trying to do instead is to move away from the political and ideological squabbles that those teachings have sometimes inspired in the past and to re-focus on the church's core mission of proclaiming the "good news" of Christ -- as the pope has tried to do with his public demonstration of love for the poor and the deprived. And that, says Winters, is what the papacy should be about: "There is Peter -- healing the world."

I'm not a Catholic, and I don't agree with all of the church's positions. But I'm glad that it exists. We live today in a world that's often degraded by greed, waste, and reckless consumption. We all too often demonstrate our contempt for outsiders, the weak, the poor. So I'm glad that there's someone out there who's prepared to offer a fundamental spiritual critique of our mores -- so that we don't have to leave it to the bankers, reality TV stars, or posturing politicians. A reinvigorated Catholic Church, confident in its own sublime mission but tolerant and inclusive, could serve as a powerful force for good in the world. So I wish Francis well. Let's hope he can pull it off.

Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The LGBT Global Values Gap

The world is profoundly divided over gay rights -- and it's going to get worse before it gets better.

The 2014 Olympics in Sochi don't open until Feb. 7, but they're already becoming a bone of contention. Within Russia itself, activists are pointing to problems with corruption, environmental damage, and the possible security threat from Islamist insurgencies in nearby regions. Internationally, though, concerns about the Winter Games are crystallizing around a rather different issue: gay rights.

The LGBT community and its allies are putting the Olympics at the focus of a campaign against the notorious law, signed into effect by President Vladimir Putin last year, that targets "homosexual propaganda." The law is ostensibly aimed at preventing pedophilia, since it targets the spread of "non-traditional sexual orientations" among minors, but critics note that its language is so vague as to make virtually any positive reference to homosexuality a criminal offense. Activists also point out that violent acts against gay men and women have been rising steadily ever since the law was passed amid a flurry of homophobic rhetoric from many prominent figures in Russian society.

Activists around the world are rising to the challenge. They've launched an international boycott of Russian vodka. They've aimed public protests at Valery Gergiev, the high-profile conductor of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg who has often boasted of his close ties to Putin, during his visits to the West. They plan to send thousands of gay-marriage themed coloring books to addresses throughout Russia. Some, including British actor Stephen Fry, have even called for Russia to be stripped of the Games. Others are spreading powerfully emotional videos throughout the Internet:


As if the anti-gay legislation wasn't bad enough already, it comes at a moment when Russia already seems to be bingeing on a witches' brew of intolerance and xenophobia. One particularly nasty clip currently making the rounds allegedly shows Russian kids bullying a gay black teen from South Africa, force-feeding him watermelon and forcing him to perform oral sex on a bottle. None of this seems likely to bring Russia the bounty of positive PR it was hoping to harvest from the Games.

President Putin has already responded to the barrage of bad publicity by declaring that gay visitors to the Games don't need to worry about being singled out for their sexual orientation (which would seem to imply, at the very least, that he doesn't take the laws of his own country very seriously). Meanwhile, though, Vitaly Mutko, Russia's sports minister, has made it clear that anyone who chooses to reveal that they're gay during the Olympics could very well run afoul of the law (which has special provisions targeting foreigners). One can presume that many activists will choose to make their inclinations known accordingly, turning the Games into an arena of protest. Those of us who sympathize with them will certainly find it hard to blame them for doing so.

There's one aspect of the controversy, though, that hasn't come in for much discussion. There's every indication that the fight over the Olympics merely dramatizes a much longer and deeper split between the nations of the West, where citizens are growing increasingly tolerant towards their LGBT compatriots, and a large bloc of other countries where anti-gay sentiments are, if anything, becoming even more entrenched.

Don't get me wrong: This is not to discount the forces of intolerance that, goodness knows, remain strong in various parts of the United States and Europe. But the trends are fairly clear: young people in the West, many of whom increasingly have openly LGBT friends or acquaintances, steadily demonstrate less of an inclination to demonize their peers on the basis of their sexual orientations. A remarkable 2011 study of international attitudes by the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles Law School tracks the evolution quite clearly: from 1991 to 2008, the number of Americans who described homosexuality as "always wrong" dropped from 67.4 percent to 53.6 percent. (Polls that have tracked American sentiments on the issue over the past five years show even more dramatic movement toward tolerance.)

The shift is increasingly finding expression in laws excluding discrimination and allowing for equal civil rights, up to and including single-sex marriage. (Just this week, on Nov. 7, for example, the United States Senate passed a law dramatically upgrading workplace protections for gay and transgender Americans -- another big step forward.)

Yet the situation is starkly different in other parts of the world. When, according to the Williams Institute study, pollsters asked Russians in 1991 if being gay was "always wrong," 58.7 percent of them agreed with the sentiment; by 2008, that percentage had gone up to 64.2. It's hard to see how this number is going to improve, given that the recently passed law will likely make it even harder for LGBT Russians to be open about their preferences, thus diminishing the already small number of Russians who have personal contact with (as Russian officials grimly refer to it) "people of non-traditional sexual orientations." The increasingly prominent political role of the Russian Orthodox Church, which propagates unapologetically homophobic views, is also a factor. And I question whether younger Russians -- who make up the bulk of the participants at the nationalist rallies like the one we saw in Moscow earlier this week -- are necessarily more tolerant than their elders. 

This has broader implications. If Americans and Western Europeans (not to mention South Americans) continue to believe that rights for gays are just another subset of human rights, this will increasingly bring us into ideological conflict with Russians and the many other countries (in the former USSR, Africa, and the Muslim world) that regard rights for sexual minorities as a fundamental threat. Some Russians already say that they regard gay rights (like many other aspects of contemporary liberal democracy) as antithetical to "traditional Russian values."

Moscow's stance on gay rights is already becoming a specific cause of tension between it and the country that, for a few years there, regarded itself as one of Russia's defenders in the West -- namely, Germany. (Energy politics has quite a bit to do with it, too.) The Dutch government (which also has a bone to pick with the Kremlin over its harsh treatment of Greenpeace activists) recently declared that the Russian anti-gay law may warrant recognition of asylum seekers. Just to underline the point, the United Nations General Assembly called this week for Moscow "to promote social inclusion without discrimination" during the Olympics.

Just to be clear: The West -- which, in this respect at least, really still does exist -- is on the right side of this argument; the bigots are not. And if we really care about our commitment to human rights, we should stay there. But we shouldn't expect everyone else in world to agree, which could mean some hard policy choices on the road ahead. Stay tuned.