There's been one of those media dances in the last few days which would be hilarious were it not so very sad.
First there was the news that Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky who was sent to was sent to jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses in the wake of the Supreme Court decision imposing same sex marriage on the country, had met briefly with Pope Francis. This provoked howls of rage from many on the secular and religious left, and accusations that the pope had betrayed them and erased all of the good words that he'd said on issues that they'd cared about, because apparently it's impossible to listen to a pope's words on helping the poor or some such issue if he's had the temerity to meet with someone you don't like for a few minutes.
Then the Vatican press office put out a statement that "The pope, the statement added, did not enter into the details of the situation of Davis, and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects." and social media erupted again, this time claiming that Davis and her supporters had lied, that the pope had been fooled into meeting with her, etc.
And as if to cap off the tower of silliness, CNN now trumpets an exclusive report that Pope Francis met with an old student of his from Argentina, who is an atheist in a same sex relationship.
Apparently, the pope is a trophy, and the big cultural contest is to figure out which team is holding the trophy.
Two things seem to be at play here.
One is that Pope Francis, while widely admired for his holiness, also seems to serve as a blank canvas onto which many people project their beliefs. Case in point, a recent survey found that 63% of Catholics who oppose same sex marriage believe that Pope Francis opposes it too, while only 36% of Catholics who support same sex marriage think that Pope Francis opposes it. (The correct answer is that he opposes same sex marriage.)
The second is that for a lot of people, beliefs seem to matter a lot less than tribal identification. Good people are on your side, bad people are on the other side. Thus, the logic goes, if Pope Francis appears to be a good person, he must be on your side and share your believes, because THERE ARE NO GOOD PEOPLE ON THE OTHER SIDE!
My cynicism seems to be kicking into higher gear as I enter middle age. I used to be kind of inspired by how societies in Late Antiquity could be torn apart by Christological heresies, with mobs fighting in the street over issues like whether Christ had a single nature which was Divine, a single nature which was human, two natures, or one nature which was both human and divine. How wonderful it must have been to live in an age when people cared so much about theological truths!
Now, I find myself wondering if many people on the ground actually could have described the theological positions at stake, or were there a few theologians fighting about the actual issue while everyone else argued based on "this guy is on my side" types of tribal identification?