When the white smoke belched from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel and the election of a new leader of the Roman Catholic Church was confirmed, an avalanche of media attention immediately swamped any rational perception of the Pope’s role in the modern world.
I’m sure Pope Francis will do his best to uphold good moral values and ethical standards. I’m sure he will inspire others to lead lives defined by love and compassion. I’m sure he will, in the short term anyway, be a catalyst for spiritual renewal and, as he told his cardinals today in the Salla Clementina, “find new ways to bring evangelisation to the ends of the Earth”. Whatever that means.
But I’m also sure he will do nothing to help alleviate the poverty and suffering caused by his Church’s condemnation of birth control. I’m equally sure he will do nothing to address the exclusion of women from the priesthood. I’m sure he will not allow priests to marry, or recognise same-sex unions, or support social acceptance of homosexuality. One can only hope that he will at least take decisive action against the sexual abuse of children by priests.
Adherence to theological doctrine is, and always will be, both the strength and the weakness of religious faith. Theistic moral codes are derived from ancient cultures that are increasingly alien to life in the 21st century. That does not mean they are necessarily wrong or anachronistic. Religions that have passed the test of time have done so because they have been founded on timeless, universal moral and spiritual values.
But equally, the inflexibility of religions puts them at risk of diminishing relevance as human intellect and reason evolve over the centuries. How can ancient texts possibly help us address modern issues such as genetic engineering and stem cell research?
Anyway, do we still actually need antiquated belief systems to underpin moral values in society? Shouldn’t we have reached a level in our evolutionary history where we can have confidence in developing ethical codes without emphasis on blind obedience to primitive authority? Shouldn’t we free our doctrines from the chains of the past and maintain them as living documents, drawing on ancient and modern wisdom?
If only that were the case, it really would be time to send out smoke signals.