Canada
4 min

Pope Francis and the increasing irrelevance of the Catholic Church

Over my years of living in, and covering, Buenos Aires, I have photographed an equal number of midnight masses – held at the city’s main church, the Catedral Metropolitana – and gay pride marches, which begin in front of the building.
 
One event has stagnated (with fewer Argentines in attendance, little media coverage and fewer foreigners in the audience). The other has blossomed from a tense, nearly clandestine event to one attended by tens of thousands of locals that is also a major draw for tourists, influencing lawmakers and the president.
 
It is the former, midnight mass, which is increasingly irrelevant, with gay power increasing. This occurred under the watch of Argentina’s Archbishop Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who has just been elevated to the head of the entire Catholic Church as Pope Francis I.
 
There are many who hope Francis will revive the Catholic Church globally, especially in light of the sexual abuse scandals. I believe, however, that if his time in Argentina is any indication, he will continue to make the church increasingly irrelevant, especially in relation to queer issues.
 
My first time photographing Pride was in 2004, when I saw hundreds of young men in front of Catedral Metropolitana. One explained he was a “protector of the church,” pointing to red splatters of paint thrown by vandals onto its façade. The only attacks I would witness, however, were of such men against paradegoers – there was a need for a line of police and barricades to separate the two groups. That year, there were far more protectors than paradegoers. Few gay Argentines would wait on the Plaza de Mayo, the ancient colonial square of the city, which the church overlooks, for the parade to begin. It was only as darkness fell on that November night that more people gathered along Avenida de Mayo, the city’s most important processional route, as the parade made its way to the Congreso building and the political rally on the plaza before that government building. By 2010, the last time I covered the parade, it had become an official city cultural event. The rally took place on the Congreso steps, welcomed by the national government. Gay Argentines lined up by the thousands at the start of the parade, no longer afraid of the media.
 
In contrast, each time I photographed midnight mass, the church might have been full, but there was little in the way of media or foreigners. Argentine friends could never understand why I wanted to even be at the event, called locally Noche Buena.
 
This is in line with what I saw the day Bergoglio was elected pope. I was in Buenos Aires, and my immediate reaction was to head by taxi to the cathedral, assuming that thousands must be there. My driver complained the streets would be blocked off, mobs heading to pray for the “Pope of the Pampas.” Instead, we found little traffic, the streets open, and it was easy to park; there were more journalists than worshippers on the cathedral steps. Inside, yes, there was a mass and people milling about, but it was no more crowded than usual, if not less so, than when I would photograph midnight mass. Granted, more came later that evening and in the days after, but within an hour of the announcement, I was surprised by the lack of attention.
 
I believe the beauty of the Catholic Church lies in its ceremony. The ugliness of Catholicism as an organized religion is in its views on social issues. Midnight mass and the elaborate presentation of the birth of Jesus and Buenos Aires’ gay pride show both of these opposing aspects.
 
Bergoglio called the 2010 passing of Argentina’s same-sex marriage law “a machination of the Father of Lies.” The country’s legislative leaders refused to listen. The day Bergoglio was elected pope, the red paint splatters were as noticeable as any other. In a majority Catholic country, a church that is behind the times socially is not just irrelevant, but a source of hatred. That increasing disconnect between the church and the people of Argentina is something that Bergoglio must take the blame for.
 
Don’t get me wrong. I met the cardinal a few times and I am proud to say I actually know a pope. May he bring his sensitivity to the poor he showed in Buenos Aires to the Holy See. This does not change what I and millions of Argentines think of many of his policies, especially his contempt for gay men like me.
 
Argentina remains a country where, officially, church and state are not separated. Only a Catholic may be president. There is a seat in congress for the archbishop to watch over the voting of elected officials. Shrines to the Virgin of Luján, the country’s representation of Mary, adorn the Buenos Aires subway system. Yet, not any of this mattered when Argentina passed its same-sex-marriage law. This model of ignoring church vitriol and instead supporting gay citizens is spreading across the Catholic world. Even in Italy, in 2000, in the heart of the church’s jubilee celebrations, queer issues triumphed over the Catholic Church when Pope John Paul II could not stop the first WorldPride. The Vatican now is in even weaker Argentine hands.
 
With his anti-gay social policies, Bergoglio made the Catholic Church irrelevant to most Argentines. If he continues on the same path in Rome as the leader of the Catholic Church for the world, this degradation of the church’s power will only continue. People and the world they live in move on, embracing queer issues. So must the church.
 
Michael Luongo is a freelance journalist and the author of Frommer’s Buenos Aires.