He may be a bit of a dude, but the Pope is definitely a Catholic
IS the Pope a Catholic? For a while there a lot of people seemed to be building up the hope that actually, maybe he's not. That last guy, Benedict XVI, he definitely was Catholic and was much the worse for it.
But this new guy, Francis, he's a different story. He's a bit of a dude. He even made the cover of 'Rolling Stone' magazine a few weeks ago. 'Rolling Stone' likes him. If 'Rolling Stone' likes the Pope, then the Pope can't be really all that Catholic or they wouldn't like him by definition. That would be like expecting 'Rolling Stone' to like George W Bush. Not going to happen.
So if 'Rolling Stone' likes Pope Francis it has to be because they think he doesn't really believe what the church has always believed about things like women priests or contraception or marriage.
In fact, Pope Francis has several times now said the door is closed on women priests. He has said marriage is between a man and a woman only, and now he has reaffirmed the church's teaching on contraception.
He did this in an interview during the week with the Italian daily, 'Corriere della Sera', which coincides more or less with the first anniversary of his election as pontiff.
In the interview, Francis praised the papal encyclical, Humanae Vitae, released by Pope Paul VI in 1968 to huge uproar.
Many Catholics had expected Pope Paul to relax the church's teaching on the use of artificial contraception, but he didn't.
No other issue does more to alienate ordinary Catholics from their church than this one because the vast majority of married Catholics, including Mass-going Catholics, use contraception.
Referring to Humanae Vitae, Pope Francis said Pope Paul's "genius proved prophetic: he had the courage to stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a 'brake' on the culture, to oppose (both) present and future neo-Malthusianism", meaning the belief that the planet can't sustain a growing population.
However, in characteristic fashion Pope Francis said the teaching on contraception needs to be applied with mercy and not harshness. This is his attitude to all of the church's teachings. The interview also included what is arguably Francis's first really substantive contribution to the debate on clerical sex abuse.
He acknowledged that sex abuse by priests had left "very profound wounds" but that, starting with Pope Benedict, the church has done "perhaps more than anyone" to solve the problem.
He stated: "The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility. No one else has done more. And yet the church is the only one attacked."
That is a highly contestable statement to be sure. Pope Francis was almost certainly reacting to a recent report from the UN Committee on Children's Rights on the matter which did not acknowledge in any way, shape or form the undoubted fact that the church has done a huge amount to get its house in order.
For good measure, that UN report also used the opportunity to attack the church's position on abortion and on sex in general.
This defence of the church's recent record on child protection attracted some attention. But if Pope Benedict had said something similar there is no question that he would have caused uproar. You'd have been hearing much more about it in the media over the last couple of days.
This is the 'Francis effect' at work again. He is given much more latitude by the media than any of his recent predecessors. It means he can reiterate the ban on women priests and get away with it.
He can defend Humanae Vitae and get away with it. He can attack abortion and get away with it and likewise when he insists marriage is between a man and a woman.
What explains this? I think a big part of it comes down to the old adage about first impressions lasting. When he first appeared before the world a year ago and paid his own bills, got about in a modest car and moved out of the papal apartments, he was an instant hit.
Another reason for the more favourable impression of Francis is that his tone is generally very soft. He talks about mercy a lot and while he does not want to change the church's teachings he does want them presented and applied in a soft way. (In practice they already are).
However, the final reason for his popularity is that some people seem to think that deep down Pope Francis does want to introduce very radical doctrinal changes but has to go about it slowly and carefully in case there is a rebellion inside the Vatican.
This group of wishful thinkers believe that if they continue to praise the Pope and put him on the cover of magazines like 'Rolling Stone' he might actually become the sort of Pope they want and will introduce the doctrinal changes they seek. But what will happen when he doesn't do that? What happens when it finally dawns on them that the Pope is indeed a Catholic? If Francis is lucky, the worst outcome will be an end to puff pieces in music magazines and the like.
But if they really feel scorned, the attacks will be savage. The question then becomes, will the public stick with Francis or abandon him? That will be the real test of his popularity.