Beware of the two faces of Pope Francis: he ain’t no liberal
Since entering the Vatican in 2013, Pope Francis has become something of a media darling, charming even the most secular journalists with his unfussy style and acts of humility (choosing, for example, to live in the Papal guest house rather than the palace).
His commitment to the poor and condemnation of exploitative economic systems, as well as his willingness to learn from other faith traditions, have made him so popular that he was even named Time magazine’s person of the year.
However, it seems that His Holiness has experienced a rather dramatic fall from media grace in recent weeks.
His comments following the Charlie Hebdo attack suggesting there should be limits to freedom of speech were disconcerting for some Francis fans. This week he has disappointed many women by staunchly defending the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which sets out the Catholic Church’s opposition to artificial birth control.
If some people had been fooled into thinking Pope Francis is the person sent to revolutionise the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and the family, they have now been emphatically disillusioned.
In the same address to journalists, he railed against what he called the “ideological colonisation” of the developing world, the imposition of Western values on traditional cultures.
Indeed, his words have a sinister context in that some African bishops have apparently complained about the coercive approach to birth control adopted by some institutions, which insist on the use of contraception in exchange for receiving aid.
However, for Pope to go to the other extreme and shut down the conversation about birth control is more than unhelpful – it is irresponsible.
He did offer one concession: that Catholics can use other less invasive methods of family planning such as monitoring the woman’s menstrual cycle and avoiding sex during ovulation.
To be a good Catholic, he said: “We do not need to breed like rabbits.” This casual, almost jocular turn of phrase is typical of Pope Francis; ever the shrewd politician, he knows how to use humour to lighten the mood around difficult questions.
He did it again when asked about the Islamist reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks: “If my friend says a curse word against my mother,” he joked, “he can expect a punch!”
And then again when a female journalist asked him about misogyny in the church. The Pope is reported to have said while laughing: “The fact is that the woman was taken from a rib. I’m joking. That was a joke.”
Yes indeed, a rather sexist one. Could it be that, as Jon O’Brien, head of Catholics for Choice, has observed: “When it comes to women, this pope, like past popes, has a blind spot?”
Many would argue that female empowerment is unlikely to be high on his list of priorities.
Pope Francis is a man of the people whose main concern is to represent the poor. The Catholic Church’s growth is coming from non-European countries where the so-called ‘liberal’ issues of sexual equality are considered less important.
He has just returned from the Philippines which is 80 per cent Catholic; during his final papal address to six million people, he was joined on stage by a young homeless girl who asked him why God allows young people to fall into drugs and prostitution. Pope Francis gave the crying child and enormous hug – but it was her poverty, not the curse of her gender, that would have moved the crowd.
And yet what Pope Francis has failed to see is that this little girl’s sex is hugely relevant in the battle against her exploitation.
The call to elevate women’s issues has nothing to do with being a bra-burning liberal feminist, or with imposing Western values, but everything to do with helping the poor and oppressed people he claims to champion.
So, when it comes to birth control, research has shown that when mothers have access to contraception and are educated to make responsible choices, their employment, income and education levels rise, as do their children’s.
Maternal mortality is reduced as women have fewer unassisted labours and backstreet abortions, and, depending on the method of contraception, life-limiting sexually transmitted diseases are contained.
Birth control is not the only solution, it is just one tool among many for improving women’s lives, so for the Pope to close down all conversation about it seems small-minded and very unlike the discursive, non-dogmatic approach he has taken in other doctrinal areas.
Pope Francis gestures as he talks with journalists during his flight from Manila to Rome
Perhaps he would want to focus instead on educational initiatives, for research shows that female education is one of the most vital interventions in lifting whole families and communities out of poverty. But until the Pontiff starts taking seriously the idea of women in church leadership, these initiatives will always be less effective than they could be, for the very practical reason that in many Catholic countries the poverty and exploitation of women is rooted in their second-class religious status.
Once again, this is not about having a Western liberal agenda for equality for its own sake, but about acknowledging that in allowing women into positions of influences in the church, this would raise their general status, reducing their vulnerability and poverty. Perhaps it would also help shake up some of the closed male-dominated systems which have caused some of the other worst abuses by the Catholic Church.
But instead the Pope has made it clear that there will be no further discussion of women priests. Speaking to reporters, Francis upheld the decision of his predecessors saying: “The Church has spoken and says no – that door is closed.” Indeed, far from seeing the leadership qualities in women, the Pope seems to lack the empathy and understanding which seems to characterise most of his other interactions with people, tending to focus almost entirely on the role of motherhood.
One nun, Sister Joan Chittister, described hearing a papal address in which he “concentrated almost entirely on women’s maternity, which occupies – at best – about 20 years of a woman’s life. And after that? What is her role then? Is maternity her only value, her perpetual definition? What does she do now with her personal talents, her insights, her gifts that, they tell us, are given for the sake of the world?”.
This is a disappointing assessment indeed; Pope Francis may be bringing a new spirit of openness, humility and compassion to the Catholic Church, but so far only half of his followers are benefitting.