Commentary Religion

Backing Off Sexual Oppression: How the Pope Can Make Us Believe Him

Erin Matson

While Pope Francis' comments last week on abortion, contraception, and homosexuality are an important (and long overdue) first step for the Vatican, it's hardly time for advocates of gender, reproductive, and sexual justice to rest on their laurels.

Click here for all our coverage on Pope Francis’ recent comments on abortion, contraception, and homosexuality.

Ban abortion! Defund birth control! Stop same-sex marriage! At home and abroad, we hear the all-male and allegedly celibate hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church using sexual oppression to shame and dominate women and LGBTQ people, even employing secular law to violate civil and human rights.

The entrenchment of the Vatican bureaucracy in the social wars is what makes last week’s comments by Pope Francis so interesting, and complicated. He said the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, birth control, and homosexuality, and that “[i]t is not necessary to talk about all these issues all of the time. … We have to find a new balance.” He suggested that instead of focusing on rules in these areas, the Catholic Church should step back and focus on the bigger picture.

This is spectacular news, for the simple reason that change needs to begin somewhere. But while last week’s comments are an important (and long overdue) first step for the Vatican, it’s hardly time for advocates of gender, reproductive, and sexual justice to rest on their laurels.

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For one, there are good reasons to doubt Pope Francis means what he says. No matter how comparatively open, soft, and cuddly he may appear in interviews, especially in contrast to his hardline predecessor Pope Benedict, he has done nothing to change doctrine. According to Catholic teaching, abortion, birth control, and homosexual unions are still completely off limits, no exceptions, and the all-male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church is not just preaching against them, but working within the realm of secular law to repress women and LGBTQ people.

Further, it should be considered no accident that one day after his appearing-to-be tolerant comments were released, Pope Francis met with a group of Catholic OB-GYNs, telling them to refuse to perform abortions and calling abortion part of a “throwaway culture.” Far from representing a simple call to individual conscience, this directive puts women in grave danger—and not just Catholic patients in Catholic hospitals, but also secular patients in secular hospitals. Within the United States, patients may be unaware that a community hospital has merged with a Catholic facility, adopting harsh no-abortion rules that do not budge for acute, life-threatening situations. In Ireland last year, Savita Halappanavar died after being denied a life-saving abortion because, as doctors said, “this is a Catholic country.” When the highest official within the Catholic hierarchy tells Catholic doctors to refuse to provide abortions one day after his comments are released suggesting that the Catholic hierarchy stop focusing so narrowly on abortion, it seems Pope Francis is not interested in others practicing what he preaches.

Finally, the comments are muddied by the fact that earlier this year Pope Francis personally approved continuing the crackdown against U.S. nuns started under his predecessor, Pope Benedict. The crackdown was issued with the concern the nuns were focusing too much on social justice issues, including poverty alleviation, at the expense of time that could have been spent denouncing abortion, birth control, and euthanasia. Continuing the crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious does raise the question if the latest comments from Pope Francis have twisted the definition of window dressing to applying pressure upon women, behind closed doors, to focus more on abortion and birth control at the expense of social justice ministry.

But like any first step away from entrenched discrimination, it’s not surprising that Pope Francis appears instantly hypocritical. What is needed now is pressure upon the pope and the Catholic hierarchy beneath him to live up to his words. This will need to come from both inside and outside the Catholic Church. So it is up to all of us to hold him accountable for helping the Vatican back off its intense focus on oppressing women and LGBTQ people through the enforcement of unjust and outdated rules about abortion, birth control, and marriage.

While changes in doctrine and teachings lie at the core of any substantive change, there is still tremendous ability to reduce harm by following the stylistic approach outlined by Pope Francis last week. Here are several things Pope Francis could do to make us believe the all-male Catholic hierarchy will back off its sexual repression obsession and focus more on the common good:

1. Pope Francis should end the crackdown on the nuns immediately.

It makes no sense to continue punishing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for not focusing enough on condemning abortion and birth control, while telling the public that the Catholic hierarchy shouldn’t focus so much on abortion and birth control at all. In fact, earlier this week Pope Francis kept Archbishop Gerhard Mueller in his leading role at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which spearheads the nun crackdown. Thus, it appears personal intervention is required by Pope Francis to end the nun crackdown.

2. Pope Francis should open a broader conversation about the ordination of women.

An unwarranted and discriminatory obsession with abortion, birth control, and same-sex marriage has everything to do with the Catholic hierarchy insisting on cloaking its power among men who are told to abstain from sex. During his interview last week, Pope Francis is quoted as saying:

The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role. The woman is essential for the church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. … We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.

Let’s not be delusional: He is not advocating the ordination of women. However, what Pope Francis can do under this current framework is insist that women be included in these discussions about including women. Including women in discussions is far from equality, but it is an important step toward creating conditions in which women may someday be included in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.

3. Pope Francis should have the church immediately stop bankrolling anti-marriage initiatives.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, “The Church hierarchy invested nearly $2 million in the failed attempts to write discrimination into the Minnesota constitution and stem marriage equality in Maine, Maryland and Washington” during the 2012 election cycle. Herein lies an opportunity for Pope Francis to put his money where his mouth is—and take it out of people’s bedrooms.

4. Pope Francis should order the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to end its attempts to overturn the Affordable Care Act, in whole and part.

Archbishop William Lori has been leading the all-male hierarchy’s efforts to overturn and water down the Affordable Care Act’s extension of contraceptive coverage without copay to women enrolled in health insurance plans in the United States. Shortly after Pope Francis suggested that the church back off birth control, Lori said that he expected no changes in his legal and cultural efforts to undermine the health-care law. Through personal intervention, Pope Francis could lead a course correction.

5. Pope Francis should ensure the Vatican stops interfering with international progress for women and girls over concerns about abortion and birth control.

A more expansive focus on social justice, rather than doggedly pursuing restrictive rules about abortion and birth control, could help turn the Vatican from a perpetrator of global harm into a player for global good. The Vatican is known for a “my way or the highway” approach to abortion and contraception that has, for example, led it to refuse to provide referrals for abortion, and emergency contraception for sex trafficking victims. Under the new approach outlined by Pope Francis, there is room for the Vatican to either accept that its charities don’t belong in the business of “helping” sex trafficking victims with care that specifically excludes access to reproductive health care they may acutely need, or to accept that if it wishes to use government funds to provide services, it must at a minimum provide referrals to outside agencies that do offer full reproductive health care

For too long the Vatican has played a leadership role in religious right efforts to halt global progress for women and girls by either making new restrictions on reproductive rights part of the price of passage of international progress in other areas, or by insisting that anything relating to women or girls translates to “abortion” and must not move forward. Pope Francis could, for example, acknowledge that the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is silent on the topic of abortion and urge members that have not yet ratified, including the Vatican and the United States, to step up for women and girls.

In suggesting that it’s time for the Catholic Church to think bigger than abortion, birth control and sexual orientation, Pope Francis has taken an important first step toward reducing harms directly and indirectly inflicted on women and LGBTQ people around the world by the all-male Catholic hierarchy. More change will not be easy, and true doctrinal change is far from close. Yet still, there is much good he could do immediately by living up to his words, and women and LGBTQ people stand to benefit

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