I’ve not very religious in any religion and never spent much time thinking about papal leadership. Like millions of others, I was outraged by the extent of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy, and disgusted by the Church hierarchy’s protection of the abusers – thereby, essentially, sentencing many children to torture. (The discovery a few days ago that U.S. army officers instructed men to ignore the rape of boys by Afghan soldiers and elders shows that it is not only churchmen who are capable of such behavior.)
But Francis soon captured my respect. The issues he is fighting for are, simply, the most important world problems. First, we won’t even have a world unless leaders and influencers of public opinion act radically and quickly to reduce fossil fuel usage. As former Irish President Mary Robinson put it, climate change is the leading human rights issue. Second, we won’t have a world worth living in unless leaders and influencers of public opinion shed their obedience to capitalist profiteers and allow workers, people of color, and all women to share in the world’s wealth. Third, Francis’s insistence on welcoming and, more importantly, respecting refugees and migrants. Fourth, his warning against “every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind,” as he put it in his speech to the U.S. Congress.
The message comes not only from Francis’s words, but also from his actions. He tries to set an example by rejecting luxury and living simply. He honors ordinary people, poor people, people of color. That he does these things has given him enormous popularity in a short time. He has raised hopes.
So I was dismayed to read about feminist groups demonstrating against him. StopPatriarchy.org organized a “Procession of Unrepentant Women” (because Francis would “allow” women who’ve had abortions to repent) in New York. Ukrainian Femen activists demonstrated for gay rights – topless – in St. Peters Square. In Washington, DC, he was picketed by demonstrators calling for women priests.
Then I noticed that the strongest criticism of the Pope’s intransigence on sex and gender issues comes from Catholics. Especially nuns, who have openly defied Vatican teachings and been harshly punished for it. As Catholic spokeswoman Miriam Duignan wrote, his “words echo a brand of sexism where motherhood is presented as the only worthwhile role for women.” Above all, Catholic critics point out that people cannot, and frequently do not, actually live by his teachings. Couples want to enjoy sex, and only the 1 percent can afford unlimited children. Most women worldwide have to bring in money to support their families, and often can’t do it without controlling their reproduction. Francis ought to examine more closely the actual lives of men and women, not the view from Latin texts.
Catholic criticism does not come only from women. Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, points out that after Francis’s instruction to the Extraordinary General Assembly of Bishops in 2014 – “No one must say `This can’t be said’” – the meeting of 227 men and 25 women nevertheless clung to the ban on birth control and homosexuality. Asked if this was misogynist, the Pope replied, “The fact is woman was taken from a rib.”
These patriarchal assumptions are not only anti-woman but anti-sexual. The Pope “avoids referring to Mary … as a loving wife,” Miriam Duignan points out, because to do so “would suggest a sexual relationship that is outside the express purposes of reproduction and would prevent women from remaining chaste.” So he cannot accept equality for gays and lesbians, for they cannot be “chaste” in his understanding. Nor equality for transgender people, because he sees humanity itself as a binary, in which men go out into the world, women nurture at home.
Furthermore, this sex-and-gender conservatism undermines Francis’s own goals. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals just adopted by the U.N., which closely resemble the Pope’s views, cite gender equality not only as a principle of justice but as essential for the other goals to be realized. The Church is part of the related problems of inequality and climate change, through its ban on birth control. By excluding women, the Church remains controlled by an all-male curia dedicated to retaining their power and privilege. I’m not saying that women are immune from such motives. But as women and men are currently socialized, women would not have tolerated, let alone practiced sexual abuse. Women would, on the whole, be less militaristic and more diplomatic in resolving conflict. U.S. polls now show that women are typically about 20 percent more favorable to reversing climate change, helping refugees, reducing inequality and fighting against racism.
So while I’m not going to demonstrate against Pope Francis, I respect the feelings of those who do. People who care about preserving our world and ending violence need to keep demanding that the Catholic Church align itself with sex equality and a positive view of human sexuality in all its forms.
When my daughter was born, the seven-year-old son of a close friend – a boy well indoctrinated by his feminist mother – sent her a drawing. Printed in his child-like letters at the top was “GIRLS CAN BE ANYTHING THEY WANT TO BE.” Below, four occupations were illustrated by rough drawings, including one of a person in robes, labeled “Pope.” My husband and I laughed, loved it, framed it, and hung it on the wall. We laughed partly because the young boy didn’t realize that you had to be Catholic to be a pope, and we aren’t; I don’t know if he knew that the very idea of a woman pope was also funny. Maybe someday it won’t be funny.