Analysis Religion

Young Brazilians Hope New Pope Will ‘Modernize’ Church on Social Justice Issues

Susana Cruzalta

At World Youth Day in Brazil this year, I set out to get to know the audience Pope Francis would be addressing to find out their views on the Catholic Church’s teachings regarding sexuality, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality.

World Youth Day (WYD) was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this year and turned out to be a unique and rewarding—if mixed—experience. For instance, after standing in line for two hours at the Sambodromo, where the famous Rio Carnival takes place, I got my Pilgrim Kit—a backpack containing a t-shirt, a wooden cross, a cap, a liturgical book, and a pilgrim’s manual. The kit also contained a different kind of souvenir: a Keys to Bioethics booklet—an anti-choice publication from the National Pastoral Commission on the Family. I decided against telling them that I was attending on behalf of Catholics for Choice.

Being at the Sambodromo made me think about how Brazilians view their bodies and sexuality differently than other Latin Americans. Brazilians tend to be more open and are not ashamed of showing their bodies at the beach or at Carnival. Young people start their sexual lives at an earlier age than the rest of the continent. In addition, Brazil was the birthplace of progressive and grassroots church movements like liberation theology. With this background, I set out to get to know the audience Pope Francis would be addressing to find out their views on the Catholic teachings regarding sexuality, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality, among other issues.

When I exited the subway at Copacabana I was welcomed by a van full of women yelling, “Nossa religião é a satisfação” (“Our religion is satisfaction”). This was part of Marcha das Vadias (Slutwalk), whose participants were protesting Catholic teachings that condemn sexuality as something dirty and shameful. The demonstration was for the right of women to have control over their own bodies, for the legalization of abortion, for same-sex marriage, and for promoting respect for the secular state. (Watch the video here.)

Further on, I was greeted with the overwhelming sight of three million people gathered at the beach. I talked to some of the pilgrims, each of whom was touched by the simplicity and sympathy of Pope Francis in comparison to his predecessor. One woman pointed out that we owe this opportunity, this “miracle” of the new pope, to the humility of Benedict XVI, who recognized he could no longer lead the church and stepped down.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Susana Cruzalta at World Youth Day 2013.

Susana Cruzalta at World Youth Day 2013.

Many of the people I talked to expressed hope that the new pope would revitalize the church and close the gap that exists between the old, traditional church and the modern world. Leticia, a 20 year old from Mexico, said that the church is very closed-off at the moment, but she is positive that Pope Francis is the ideal person to change that. Some people even called the new pope a revolutionary. Others stated that under the leadership of Pope Francis, they don’t feel as ashamed of being Catholic as they had previously due to the sexual abuse scandals. They cited Pope Francis’ declaration of zero tolerance on sexual abuse and his steps to reform the curia and clean up the Vatican Bank as factors that restored their pride in the church.

Those I met from the progressive church sectors, who have been working in the shadows during the last two decades, said they have expectations that the spirit of Vatican II would be recovered thanks to the pope’s commitment to a church for the poor and excluded. Some of my neighbors in the multitude shouted, “Graças a Deus pelo papa da transformação” (“Thank you God for the pope of transformation”).

Most of the young people I spoke with said they do not see a conflict between their faith and contraception or premarital sex. Rafaela, a 19-year-old girl from Rio, said she hopes that all cardinals and bishops worldwide follow the pope’s steps and come down to the level of the people, especially by reaching out to young people, who are a majority in Latin American countries. She said she disagrees with church teachings on sexuality and is convinced she is not a bad Catholic because she has had sex before marriage and takes the pill. Rafaela said she wishes that the hierarchy would look at contraception and abortion as public health issues.

Another person I interviewed, Bruno, a 20 year old who is gay, expressed hope that Pope Francis would stop homophobia within the church. What I heard among the crowd was echoed by a survey of 427 pilgrims ages 16 to 40, which was published just this week by Veja, a Brazilian weekly. The poll, conducted with Ipsos MediaCT, showed that 62 percent of respondents believe that a Catholic who does not agree 100 percent with church teachings can still continue to be a Catholic in good standing. Further, 64 percent said they agree that a Catholic has the right to fight in order to change the hierarchy’s positions regarding abortion, sex before marriage, or same-sex marriage.

Sister Marta (not her real name), a Combonian missionary from Mozambique, expressed her hopes for a renovation of the church under Pope Francis. On contraception and the use of condoms on a continent that faces significant problems related to the AIDS crisis, Sister Marta said she was glad that Africans are far away from Rome, and thus separated “from those single men who are not directly affected by the disease and have no relatives or friends dying from it.” At an official level, she said, clergy accept the prohibition on condoms, but on the ground many sisters and priests allow and promote their use in order to stop transmission of the virus. Since the Vatican has not expressed its unconditional approval of condoms, these religious workers cannot, unlike many advocates, officially advocate for this HIV-prevention method.

In our conversation, the missionary also mentioned that humanity is very diverse and God very creative. Because God loves each of his children, there’s no reason for the church to exclude homosexuals. Sister Marta pointed out that there are gay and lesbian clergy as well, “so let’s stop the hypocrisy.” She added that the LGBTQ movement poses a big challenge for the pope because it has gained momentum in recent years. How will Pope Francis respond to their demands, she wondered—would he really be in favor of an inclusive church? This sister from Mozambique hopes that Pope Francis has the necessary forces to confront all the mighty people in Rome who oppose real change within the church. She said she is afraid that the pope is risking his life, because there’s a lot of power and money at stake for those who prefer the status quo.

The gigantic stage at one end of the beach featured a huge show, with Catholic singers from many countries in charge of preparing the crowd for the arrival of the pope. When Pope Francis began his parade along the six-kilometer beach, it was a moment of collective hysteria. He is a very charismatic man, and I must confess I was enthusiastic as well. We need to remember that Pope John Paul II created World Youth Day to offer an emotional catharsis, a big show where the pope would be received like a rock star. Pope Benedict XVI, who never attained the same star status among youth, could not follow in the steps of his predecessor. At this WYD, however, Pope Francis demonstrated that he knows how to reach the multitude with a commanding presence. Millions of people, most of them young, were yelling and many of them crying at the sight of the pontiff.

Generally speaking, WYD was a huge show with a big star, as in the early years. But this time, the audience might have been a little bit different—more diverse and open. The performance of Pope Francis during his first four months of papacy—his simplicity and his call for a church for the poor—could have been what attracted representatives from the progressive wings of the church. But this success was accompanied by some organizational failures, demonstrating Rio’s lack of necessary infrastructure for hosting massive events, which the Brazilian media characterized as a disaster. The vigil’s last-minute change of venue from the mud of a flooded Guaratiba, 70 kilometers west from Rio, to Copacabana did not discourage the pilgrims, some of them traveling up to 50 kilometers each day in packed buses and subways to attend the events. Most of these visitors slept on the beach, and they waited in hour-long queues for the portable toilets.

In return, pilgrims received the pope’s recognition of the need for renewal in the church. They heard his instruction to the bishops to embrace the poor and go out of their parishes to spread the gospel. They received his hope for a rehabilitation of politics and a more humane economic system, his appeal for government and demonstrators to take part in a constructive dialogue to achieve a more just society. They witnessed his call to young people not to give up hope and to continue fighting against corruption, injustice, and inequality—all major themes during his visit.

In contrast to his repeated allusions to poverty and social justice, Pope Francis has remained almost silent about sexual issues during his first four months of papacy, and he continued this approach at WYD. Unlike his two predecessors, for whom sexual morals were a central issue, Pope Francis has made little to no reference to abortion, contraception, clerical celibacy, condoms, or same-sex marriage. Rather, he has given signs that social justice and the reform of the curia will be the main issues during his papacy. His in-flight press conference on his trip home, during which he offered a conciliatory message to gay priests, seemed to confirm this approach.

I look upon this as a change for the better—at least it seems that sexuality will not be the central contest being fought over in the church. I do not expect a radical change within the church agenda on these matters, but I do expect a different approach, a more modern one, from a pope who knows the suffering of people.

I’d like the Catholic hierarchy to start looking at abortion as a social justice problem, because the majority of women who die from the consequences of illegal abortions are poor women. Likewise, the majority of women who have no access to contraception worldwide are poor. I can foresee Pope Francis turning his words into actions to foster a more open, inclusive, and merciful church. I do live in hope.

Will this pope bring the necessary change in order to reconcile the practice of millions of Catholics worldwide with the teachings of their church? Will Pope Francis bring a “new spring” to the church? The mud of Brazil, the home of Leonardo Boff, one of the creators of liberation theology, would be a fitting ground for these seeds of change to sprout.

News Religion

Catholic LGBTQ Group Not Allowed to Hold Events in Catholic Church

Martha Kempner

"The reality is, the official policy of the Vatican dating back to 1986 is that any group that does not adhere to official Catholic teaching on homosexuality cannot use church space," said the group's executive director.

Equally Blessed, a coalition that seeks to educate Catholics to take action on behalf of LGBTQ people and their families, was recently told that events it had planned for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia could not be held in a Catholic church.

The World Meeting of Families is a gathering of Catholic families held every three years since 1994, and sponsored by the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for the Family. This year it is being held in Philadelphia over the three days before Pope Francis arrives in that city, and will spill over into the Festival of Families and the papal visit.

Events during the meeting include daily mass, devotions, keynote addresses, and breakout sessions. There are also special exhibits and coordinated events around the city.

The events that Equally Blessed is holding during the meeting—including a workshop for parents, a reflection session for LGBTQ families, and a workshop on gender issues—were never part of the World Meeting’s official agenda, but the group had secured space at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church. In late August, however, the archdiocese stepped in and told church officials that it did not want the group using church space.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Though she was disappointed, Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, which is a part of the Equally Blessed coalition, she was not surprised.

“The reality is, the official policy of the Vatican dating back to 1986 is that any group that does not adhere to official Catholic teaching on homosexuality cannot use church space,” she told Rewire.

In fact, Equally Blessed has been refused space many times before. In a statement, the coalition noted that “this is yet another instance of the kind of exclusion LGBT Catholics and supporters have endured for decades. Bishops have refused to allow us to meet in our own Churches, retreat centers and colleges.”

The group is being allowed to meet in a nearby Methodist church. Duddy-Burke said that the fact that other churches step in “points to the disempowerment of everyday Catholics. Catholics are overwhelmingly affirming and welcoming of LGBT people. They don’t like to see us not welcomed. But they don’t believe they have the power to change that. So for the last 30 years, other churches, Methodist, Episcopalian, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, and Unitarian, have been offering us hospitality where our own church has not.”

Though the Catholic Church’s official position on homosexuality has not changed, Pope Francis has made some comments that seemed to suggest he would like the church to be more welcoming.

“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person,” Pope Francis said in a 2013 interview. He suggested that the U.S. Catholic church is “obsessed” with issues like homosexuality, abortion, and contraception.

It’s unclear if that message has carried through to other leaders in the church. The World Meeting of Families, for example, includes only one session on LGBTQ issues. The session will feature a speaker who identifies as a gay Catholic committed to celibacy. His mother will also speak as part of the session.

Duddy-Burke says his is not a representative voice.

“Our problem with this session is that the call to celibacy, the gift of celibacy, is an appropriate and healthy lifestyle for a very small minority of people,” she said. “Without addressing the possibility of living a faithful, spiritual life in a healthy and loving relationship, the church is ignoring the reality of the vast majority of gay Catholics around the world.”

A schedule of “LGBTQI-themed events” is available on the coalition’s website.

Commentary Religion

Memo to Pope Francis: Women Who Have ‘Resorted’ to Abortion Don’t Need Forgiveness

Amanda Marcotte

The Pope has made it easier for women to get forgiveness for abortions. But it's he who should be asking forgiveness, for implying that women who get abortions don't know what they are doing or why.

The “cool Pope” narrative got another boost this week when Pope Francis downgraded the level of sinfulness of abortion, which has been often regarded as if it were worse than murder in the eyes of many Catholic authorities. This shift, which allows priests to forgive women for abortions, is a big one from the previous stance that almost all women who do it are hellbound.

However, while it’s certainly nice to see the church step away from an official policy of trying to using shunning and threats of eternal damnation in an effort to thwart women’s attempts to control their own bodies, the Pope’s decision clearly leaves a lot to be desired.

It’s not that the Pope is moving in the right direction, albeit at a slower pace than pro-choicers like. His letter on this matter actually suggests that instead of softening on the issue of abortion, Pope Francis is reframing it. Indeed, he appears to be adopting the narrative concocted by American anti-choicers in recent years: that abortion needs to be banned to protect women, who are simply too stupid and childish to be trusted with important decisions such as when and if to have children.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Reading the relevant passage, you’d think that women barely play a role in the decision to have an abortion:

One of the serious problems of our time is clearly the changed relationship with respect to life. A widespread and insensitive mentality has led to the loss of the proper personal and social sensitivity to welcome new life. The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails. Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option. I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope.

“What has happened”….“The tragedy of abortion”….“not realizing”….“believe that they have no other option.” Pope Francis’ language portrays women both as children incapable of making a personal decision and as passive objects to whom abortion just happens, instead of decision-making people. His argument isn’t that women should be forgiven for abortion because it’s not that bad. (Although, as Reproaction’s Erin Matson pointed out on Twitter and for Rewire, his language still suggests that women have done something wrong by seeking abortions.) It’s that women should be forgiven because they are mental children who can’t be held responsible for their actions.

In making this argument, Pope Francis is falling in line with the stance that has become popular on the American right, which was mostly constructed to deflect completely accurate accusations that anti-choicers are motivated by misogyny. Rather than blaming women for their actions, conservatives have recently shifted to suggesting that they are “victims” of legal abortion, and that it needs to be banned to “protect” them.

There is nothing to back up this claim, of course. Pope Francis can say he meets women that were hurt by abortion all he likes, but the empirical evidence shows that nearly all women who get one feel that it was the right decision for them, even years after the fact.

Reading between the lines, though, you get the strong impression that the Pope is skeptical of the idea that women naturally want more sex than they want babies. On the contrary, he blames society for giving us ideas (“widespread and insensitive mentality”) and frames abortion as something that women only resort to under pressure.

In reality, common sense tells us that women, like men, frequently want to have a lot more sex over a lifetime than is strictly necessary for procreation, often by many, many orders of magnitude. And that means that as long as women want to have sex without having babies, many will see abortion as the best way to deal with any unintended pregnancies that result. Women know if they can have or want to have a baby. You can reduce the incidence of abortion with contraception, but you can’t eliminate this fact.

This disconnect between ideology and people’s lived realities, whether it comes from the Vatican or Congress, is what happens when fantasy instead of evidence shapes political and moral views. Where this narrative is concerned, the fantasy is that women only are having sex in an effort to please a man, and not because of any inherent pleasure they themselves derive from it. And that a woman’s reaction to an unplanned pregnancy is joy—the boyfriend is bound to produce that ring now!—but because abortion is available, caddish boyfriends, helped by money-grubbing doctors, bully women into abortion instead. And so abortion must be banned, so that women are “protected” and steered into what we all supposedly want, which apparently is shotgun marriages and not having to have all that icky sex without some babies to show for it.

It’s a narrative pushed, to varying degrees, by crisis pregnancy centers, Republican Party leaders, anti-feminist activists, anti-choicers pretending to be feminists, anti-choice doctors, and now the Pope. It’s a fantasy that ignores the fact that most women who have abortions are already mothers. It ignores the fact that married women have abortions. It ignores the fact that a lot of women have sex with—and risk unintended pregnancy with—men they have no intention of marrying or having babies with. It ignores the fact that there are couples who might eventually settle down but are currently unsure if they want to commit yet. It ignores the fact that there’s a ten-year gap between the average age of first intercourse and average age of marriage. It ignores the fact that this is a good thing, because people tend to have stronger, happier marriages if they know who they are and what they want before they pick a partner, instead of letting a stray sperm pick their spouse for them.

But above all, the line that the Pope is pushing ignores the fact that women really are the best authorities on their own lives. Women do not need to ask forgiveness for knowing what we want and making decisions within the framework of our lives. The only person here who needs forgiveness is the Pope, for daring to insult all the women around the world with his presumption that he can, without even knowing the details of our lives, make better decisions for us than we can make.