Earlier this summer, I wrote about some conciliatory (but ultimately meaningless) remarks from Pope Francis about gay people. Now he’s given a longer interview to the Jesuit magazine America in which he appeared to suggest that the church has been talking about abortion, contraception and gay rights too much:
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently… We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”
OK, I’ll admit it: When I read this, I felt some schadenfreude at the way this has dismayed the ultra-conservatives, the kind of people for whom the phrase “more Catholic than the pope” was invented.
However, these lofty words didn’t actually change any church doctrine. At most, the pope is saying that the church’s stance on abortion and gay marriage is still correct, they just shouldn’t talk about it quite as much. Remember, what he said is that “The teaching of the church… is clear” – which is an assertion of continuity, not a break with the past.
Now, if the church were to change its actions – if the pope told his bishops that it’s not their place to decree how parishioners should vote; if he ordered them to withdraw their lawsuits claiming that a religious employer should be able to dictate his employees’ access to health care; if he said that a religious institution has no role in deciding who can have the civil rights and responsibilities of marriage; if he said that the church will no longer stand in the way of those who seek access to contraception or abortion – if he did any of those things, then I’d be impressed. But so far, he’s only offered gauzy rhetoric.
I’m sure the Vatican knows that many of its teachings are deeply unpopular in the Western world, and that the more it insists on them, the more people it drives away. (Francis said as much in the interview, in the part about being “obsessed with the transmission of doctrines”.) Benedict welcomed this trend; he was clearly happy to push out liberals and moderates and end up with a smaller, more ideologically purified church. Francis seems to be taking the opposite tack, trying to rehabilitate the church’s image. It’s a clever PR move, and it will probably play well with the media – even Roy Speckhardt gave an interview that was much more positive than it should have been – but I bet this honeymoon will only last for as long as it takes people to realize that the church is as hostile toward women and gay people as it’s ever been. (As if to prove the point, just a day later, the pope gave an interview where he denounced abortion and urged doctors to refuse to perform them. He followed this up by laicizing and excommunicating a pro-gay-rights priest.)
To be sure, I’d welcome a church that spent less time obsessing about who’s having sex with whom and devoted more of its vast resources to helping the poor and advocating public policies that would reduce poverty. That said, as I’ve noted in the past, there’s a serious hypocrisy here: the church’s rigid opposition to family planning is a major cause of the poverty it claims to be so deeply concerned about.
One sharp example is the Philippines, which still suffers from poverty to a greater degree than many of its neighbors, thanks in part to a Catholic-dominated culture that’s ferociously resisted any effort to make family planning more available. A landmark reproductive health law that passed the legislature last year after decades of delay is still tied up in court, thanks to Catholic opposition.
As stories like this one show, lack of access to birth control traps people in a cycle of poverty because they can’t afford to provide for all their children’s needs, whereas if they had fewer children, they could invest more resources into each one. (Even the National Catholic Reporter recognizes this problem and the hypocrisy of Vatican doctrine that contributes to it.) These words by Pope Francis will no doubt be praised lavishly by people eager to believe the best about religion, but they don’t change the fact that the church’s deeds are still causing grave harm all around the world.