Pope good at lip service but he's as reactionary as 'Rottweiler'
Come on. Let's be honest about it. Pope Benedict was a public relations nightmare for the Catholic Church. His aptitude for saying the worst possible thing at the worst possible moment made Prince Philip look like the very definition of a smooth operator.
So Catholics, in particular, and religious apologists, in general, have been jumping for joy at recent sympathetic words from Pope Francis on homosexuality, contraception and abortion and even, whisper it, the possibility that we atheists could be granted an entry visa to that place we don't actually believe exists. But the question we have to ask is: is this outbreak of papal compassion for real? Or, rather, is Pope Francis just a better spin doctor than his predecessor was? The first worrying sign which I detected is that hardline Catholics are not angered by Pope Francis's words – far from it, indeed.
Just last week, I debated this very subject on Voice of Russia radio with Peter D Williams of Catholic Voices; this is a man who opposes gay marriage and has – incredibly – likened abortion to the transatlantic slave trade.
The latest comments from Pope Francis on homosexuality, contraception and abortion have neither shaken him, nor have they changed his views one iota. Instead, he glibly points out that these are conciliatory words and do not signal any real change in policies, or in Catholic doctrine.
Any distant hope that the pope's comments might have been a precursor to a real change – to a Catholic Church that welcomes gay marriage, gay adoption and women priests, for example – were roundly dashed a few days later, when an Australian Catholic priest was excommunicated for holding liberal views on those exact issues.
Contraception and abortion are the most important human rights issues in the world right now. And that's not just my opinion, by the way; it's also rooted in hard scientific fact. Ensuring women's reproductive rights are protected is by far and away the single most cost-effective way of lifting women, their families and their communities out of poverty, out of poor education and out of poor healthcare.
Even a small step, like freeing up Catholic aid organisations to distribute free condoms, for example, would have a huge impact. Still, it is too much to hope for. The day after everyone's hopes were raised, Pope Francis urged a group of gynaecologists to refuse to perform abortions.
The single most frightening story of all, however, dates back to July this year, when Pope Francis brought in new laws for the Vatican state. Once again, the superficial story – increasing the maximum prison sentence for child sex-abusers in the independent Vatican state from 10 years to 12 years – makes great positive Press around the world.
We should first of all remember, though, that organisations representing victims of clerical abuse were not best-pleased with the changes, saying, "The Church hierarchy doesn't need new rules on abuse. It needs to follow long-established secular laws."
Secondly, Pope Francis took the opportunity to bring in a law meaning up to eight years' jail time could be faced by anyone caught stealing, or leaking, information concerning the "fundamental interests" of the Vatican.
Sneaking in one law behind another, more headline-grabbing one and making it harder for insiders to whistleblow on corrupt Vatican dealings?
Smooth-operating spin doctors, like Alastair Campbell, or Damian McBride, would have been proud to have pulled that one off.
He might have been media-unfriendly, hardline, sexist and homophobic, but at least we knew what we were getting with Pope Benedict.