It has probably been the sleekest PR operation in a long time. No, I am not talking of Volkswagen’s broadsheet-targeted full-page apology in response to the car firm’s caught-with-the-pants-down emissions scandal. Although, God knows they could do with a little bit of celestial help right now. All puns in the previous sentence were intended by the way. Because the public relations stunt to which I referred in my opening sentence concerned the Vatican and its highest-ranking official, Pope Francis.
At some point, during the Pontiff’s whistle-stop tour around Latin and North America, I actually thought that if he had walked on water across the Florida Straits from Cuba to the United States no one would have batted an eyelid. Including yours truly, a self-declared atheist. As performances go, Francis conjured the power of 60s and 70s crotch-thrusting Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, the grooviness of disco pin-up Diana Ross and the soul-stirring consciousness of James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott Heron. I mean, Francis even brought an album out on the back of the tour. It gives a whole new meaning to Zep’s anthem Stairway to Heaven.
Before you label me a cynic, let me do that myself: I am a cynic. But not in a nasty way, at least not on this occasion. I honestly believe that it was hightime someone of Francis’ stature called a spade a spade and addressed some of our more pressing issues. The Pope did just that. He called for a ban on nuclear weapons, highlighted climate change as one of our most immediate challenges and called on international financial agencies to care for the sustainable development of countries. Along the way he even found time to almost convert the current Cuban president, Raúl Castro, back to Catholicism. Maybe the treading-on-water is not too far-fetched. The pontiff has also united – albeit temporarily – two groups that very rarely see eye to eye: believers and sceptics. The latter have had to suspend their pragmatism for the time being in order to gain some ground on their adversaries, usually those on the right side of the political spectrum and somewhat conservative on social issues, with a little help from the guy who might have God’s direct line number. Furthermore, Francis’ stand on economic, political and social matters since he assumed the papacy has been driven by an agenda in favour of gays, women and the poor. No wonder one of the memes circulating online asked the question: is the Pope Catholic?
To which the answer is: yes, he is. As mentioned before, I welcome Francis’ intervention in discussions about climate change and corporate power (and greed) but ultimately the Pope is employed by Vatican PLC, a firm damaged by decade-old allegations of child sexual, psychological, mental and physical abuse. On same-sex marriage he allegedly agreed with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licences to gay couples on religious grounds. On abortion, the Argentinean pontiff has often sidestepped the topic, focusing more on the need for mercy and goodwill.
Add to this the fact that the Pope has not executive mandate to turn his visions into reality. I welcome his ambassadorial role but I do not think that he would be given the same easy ride if he were an Obama or Cameron. Let us remember that a couple of years ago the latter found himself at the centre of a scandal when he apparently told his aides to “get rid of the green crap” from energy bills. Had it been “Pancho” saying that, he would have not come under so much fire.
This is not to say that what the Pope has done so far is in vain. He is certainly an improvement on Benedict and has set the bar really high for his successor. In being the first Latin American to have been appointed to such high-ranked position, he even makes this hardened humanist-atheist proud of his achievements. Yet, I cannot help see his role as that of a CEO on a damage-limitation exercise. I bet that the head honchos at VW must be praying that Francis soon trades his Fiat 500L for a Volkswagen, the “people’s car”. As I wrote at the beginning of this post: any celestial little helps.
Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 21st October at 6pm (GMT)