Feb. 3, 2014

WASHINGTON (CNS) - The Parti Quebecois has proposed a new Charter of Values for the Province of Quebec. The most controversial provision of the bill (Bill 60) would forbid state workers to wear conspicuous religious symbols - kippahs, turbans, hijabs and large crosses, for example. There is something about religious garb that the party finds out of place in the kind of society Quebec wants to be.

Isn't it ironic, in an era when it's fashionable to impose this kind of secularism, that Esquire magazine should choose Pope Francis as its best dressed man for 2013? (Last year it was Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a movie star.)

Pope Francis is undeniably charming, but he wears a white cassock and a big cross. Neither is, as they say in Quebec, a la mode. His zucchetto would not pass muster under the proposed bill. Perhaps the folks in Quebec are just that different from Americans. Quebec looks to France for cultural cues, and the French are devoted to an ideal of laicite.

But we see a lot of that in America, too, these days. Take, for example, President Barack Obama omitting the words "under God" when he recited the Gettysburg Address for a Ken Burns documentary last fall. Or think of the stories we now hear every year about public school Christmas Concerts (excuse me, Winter Festivals) that omit any music mentioning the Lord's birth, as if Christmas doesn't count as part of our culture.

So what explains the pope's popularity, even in matters sartorial, in the face of these secularizing trends and growing public embarrassment over religiosity?

Maybe the best explanation is that Pope Francis' wardrobe has a different cultural meaning. Our trendsetters like the fact that he kept his old black shoes and that he turned down the red cape with ermine trim that some popes have worn. ("Carnival time is over," the BBC records him as saying.)

Here is what Esquire said by way of justifying its choice: "The black shoes and unadorned, simplistic regalia are just an outward acknowledgment of his progressive orthodoxy."

Pope Francis is both religious and orthodox, but it's OK because to them he seems "progressive." The Advocate - a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender interest magazine - picked Pope Francis as its Person of the Year, too, for this perfectly orthodox statement about people with homosexual inclinations: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"

Pope Benedict could have easily said the same.

America magazine printed a long interview with Pope Francis in September, in which he affirmed the teachings of the church about abortion, gay marriage and artificial contraception, but added, "it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."

The proposed Charter of Values in Quebec claims to uphold "the values of state secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men." Perhaps the real meaning of secularism, the real importance of religious neutrality, is that these ideologies fit well with our sexual politics about reproductive freedom and gender roles. Members of traditionally orthodox religions - Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Sikh - need to keep their opinions to themselves when they appear in public.

What is wonderful about Pope Francis is that he is no less Catholic than his 265 predecessors, but he seems to have found a way past all the cultural barriers. He has not changed the church's teaching at all, but he has changed the music - so said Time magazine, another publication that made him its Person of the Year.

Let us hope everyone remains this willing to listen after they have heard everything he has to say. It could be good for people of all faiths.