New Pope, Same Old Dogmas

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.

Image credit: Ralph Hockens, released under CC BY 2.0 license

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • PaulB66

    Well said. The media coverage as usual missed the point of this interview, they talked of a change of direction within the church led by a progressive pope and missed/ignored the cynical PR purpose of the exercise aimed at mitigating the general perception that the church is a morally bankrupt organisation. Smoke & mirrors.

  • L.Long

    What the pope is literally saying is that the RCC dogma has not changed…so screw you all!! Which means that anyone with a brain bigger then a nat’s ass will tell the RCC to piss off and leave! You ARE NOT going to change how they are doing business, so quit.

  • DavidMHart

    You know what they say: you can’t teach old dogmas new trickmas,
    Wait, what?

  • Ani J. Sharmin

    I often think that the words of religious leaders, and especially the Pope, are evaluated/graded on a massively generous curve. Students would love it if their professors were this generous with the grades.

    What always troubles me (illustrated by the examples you linked to) is that the real-world effects on people aren’t going to change very much. It’s all well and good for people who are in favor of a Roman Catholic Church that’s more in favor of equal rights to be excited by the Pope’s words. However, is he actually going to change the actions taken by the Church? Is he going to go to the countries that have discriminatory and harmful laws, influenced by the teachings of the Church, and say that the previous teaching were wrong? Is he going to tell priests to stop encouraging and preaching about the harmful beliefs?

    There’s also an element of privilege involved, because those who are fortunate enough to be less influenced by the Church (due to where they live, their socioeconomic status, etc.) can afford to be happy by some nice words by the Pope. Those who are not as fortunate are affected by the real-world teachings and the influence the Church has on the governments of their countries, whether they personally agree with the Church or not.

  • Figs

    I sometimes wonder if the “just words” phase is a necessary, protracted prelude to any kind of substantive change in this regard. Much as the Pope has “absolute power” over the church, I think in practice it’s the case that he’s massively hemmed in by two thousand years of precedent. And the hierarchy, more importantly, is steeped in that precedent. I don’t want to be an apologist here, because I think the post is exactly right. I just question the Pope’s ability to unilaterally make the kind of sweeping changes that are envisioned.

  • Katatonic

    I’m not up on the nuances of the Pope’s (supposed) relationship with his God but isn’t he supposed to be his God’s mouthpiece on Earth? As in: what he says MUST be the will of the Almighty because they’re BFFs?

    Ok, I know it’s all about Vatican politics but if you’re the infallible, have-the-ear-of-God boss of the world’s most populous religion and you’re not allowed to actually DO anything substantive to improve, well, anything, what’s the point?

    As with most religious groups, I’m waiting for TNG to start the humanitarian changes that would truly make the world a better place for all. The Old Guard is slowly dying out and progressive changes are being seen in unlikely places.

    Except Russia.

  • Figs

    My understanding is that the infallibility thing is grossly overstated. It’s not that everything a pope says is infallible. Inside the context of Catholic dogma, it’s when he’s speaking “ex cathedra” that he’s infallible, and that happens very seldom. Like, on average less than once every hundred years seldom.

    But even so, if this pope decided to invoke infallibility whenever he wanted, he’s still hemmed in by things that other popes have declared under the cloak of infallibility too. That’s their system, and he’s operating underneath it.

    All I’m saying above is that I’m willing to see if the rhetoric seems intended to produce a shift, or a break in the leadership, or something like that. Poking and prodding in advance of doing something more substantive (if indeed something more substantive is intended, which it may very well not be).

  • Quid

    I love how it’s taken people 6 months to begin to realize that the Pope is Catholic (surprise! just like the last 265 ones)

  • Y. A. Warren

    The Roman Catholic Church is much like Oz with all the theatrics and mind numbing rituals. Follow the yellow brick road and you end up with a bunch of scared old celibate men hiding behind castle walls. What do they know about families? The big question is why so many need to follow one person as if humans are no more than sheep (or Munchkins)?

  • Adam Lee

    Yes, it really is astonishing how many people are shocked to find that out.