Commentary Religion

‘The People’s Pope’? If By People, You Don’t Mean Women

Adele M. Stan

Members of the media and many progressives are beside themselves about Pope Francis. But raise the subject of the pope’s continued exclusion of women and the church’s opposition to any form of reproductive freedom, and you’re all but told to shut up and wait.

If the world needed any further evidence of the public-relations prowess of Pope Francis, it was granted by Time magazine on Wednesday, with a fawning profile and bestowal of its Person of the Year Award on the current occupant of the throne of St. Peter.

Explaining the rationale for the magazine’s choice of Francis, writer Howard Chua-Eoan, narrating a video produced by the magazine, says, “The fact that he’s given so many people so much hope and inspiration in the last nine months—it’s only been nine months—no one else has done that this year.”

Yet it is that very hope that fills me with despair, for it is hope destined to be dashed. Based on nothing much—just appealing optics and some pretty words—the hope offered by Francis is mere cover for an institution that models, in the guise of holiness, the very sort of patriarchal rule over half the world’s population that facilitates violence against women, as well as their impoverishment and oppression. It is a model the pope has stated he has no intention of changing.

While Evangelii Gaudium, the papal manifesto released last month by the Vatican, excited progressives with its critique of capitalism and condemnation of trickle-down economic theories, the document, known as an “apostolic exhortation,” flatly stated that allowing women to enter the priesthood “is not a topic open to discussion.” He also affirmed, in that document, the church’s strict prohibition on abortion under any circumstances, and tacitly endorsed church teaching on the sinfulness of sex between two men or two women.

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Chua-Eoan, who co-authored with Elizabeth Dias Time’s profile of Pope Francis, admits as much in the video. “Everyone’s saying he’s going to allow divorced Catholics to have Communion, he’s going to open the church to gay people, he’s going to be much more open about abortion, but he actually never said any of that,” Chua-Eoan says in the video. “He was just being more open so that these people are willing to come back to the church, without having to deal with the actual rules.”

What got people so filled with the notion that the pope represented the kind of change they could believe in was a masterful bit of public relations executed via an interview, published in English in the Jesuit magazine America, that he gave to Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica. In his discussion with Spadaro, the pope said it was not for him to judge gay people, and he urged compassion for women who have had abortions or gotten divorced. In all of his utterances since winning the papal throne, Francis has urged a change in tone, style, and rhetoric—away from condemnation of those who have sinned, and a more full-throated proclamation of the church’s longstanding “preferential option for the poor.”

I do not mean to suggest that the pope is insincere in his concern for the poor; I have little doubt that he is earnest in his desire to see the church better, and more loudly, defend them. For all I know, it may have been the pope’s exhortation that permitted Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the very Catholic House Budget Chairman, to momentarily turn his back on his Ayn Randian, Koch-backed sponsors to hammer out a budget agreement that will save Head Start. If so, that’s a good thing.

It is important, nonetheless, to note that this emphasis also serves another of the church’s needs: the remaking of its image at a time when it is losing practicing members in the more developed nations, and competing for souls with Islam and Protestant Christian sects in the developing world.*

This loss and competition is taking place against a backdrop of scandal—multiple scandals, really, that include, but are not limited to, the massive sexual abuse of children by priests long covered up by church leaders, and the pit of corruption that is the Vatican Bank. (The pope does seem to be taking serious steps to clean up the latter.)

And so we see a great public relations campaign to highlight the pope’s “humility”—his refusal to live in the opulent papal apartments, his photo ops with the poor and infirm, his washing of the feet of convicts, and even a story leaked by one of his underlings asserting that the pope secretly slips out of the Vatican at night to minister to homeless people.

Members of the media are beside themselves, as are many progressives—particularly progressive men—who gush that a new day has dawned in the church. Raise the subject of the pope’s affirmation of the church’s exclusion of women from any form of meaningful leadership, or of the cruelty of the church’s opposition to any form of reproductive freedom—doctrine that often finds its way into the laws of nations—and you’re all but told to shut up and wait.

In their Time profile, Chua-Eoan and Dias write:

Francis is aware of the liberal clamor in the affluent West for the ordination of women. He also recognizes that Catholic doctrine, as it is currently formulated, cannot be made to justify women as priests.

When I was a child, Catholic doctrine, as it was then formulated, forbade the eating of meat on Friday. To do so in conscious defiance of the rule was a mortal sin, which carried the penalty of eternal damnation, unless one confessed the sin before dying. And guess what? Today it’s okay to eat meat on Friday, as long as you substitute some other sort of penance for your indulgence. (I can’t remember what then happened to the souls of those burning in Hell for having had a slice of pepperoni on a Friday.)

Next year, an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, called by the pope, will convene in Rome. If Pope Francis has any intention of rendering Catholic doctrine on church leadership into a morally acceptable form—one that affirms the equality of all people in the eyes of God—it will come to light then. But I wouldn’t count on it.

Time magazine, in the title of its Person of the Year profile of Pope Francis, dubbed him “the people’s pope.” If by “people,” you don’t mean women, I guess that could work.

Sections of this article addressing the Roman Catholic Church’s decline in more developed nations and its teaching on Friday fasting have been revised for greater clarity.

*In Europe, the pews of Catholic churches are sparsely occupied, while in the United States, the Catholic population gives the appearance of stability, thanks to the entrance of immigrants from Catholic countries. However, former Catholics comprise 10 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Project on Religion and Public Life.

Commentary Politics

Trial Balloons and Hot Air: Don’t Let Biden and Schumer Fool You on ‘Mainstream’ SCOTUS Nominees

Jodi Jacobson

Both Schumer and Biden seem to agree that what we need to replace deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is a "mainstream" nominee for the Court. I call foul.

Read more of our articles on Justice Antonin Scalia’s potential successor here.

Over the last two days, both Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Vice President Joe Biden have weighed in on the kind of nominee they think President Obama should recommend to replace deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

And as things go, it is no accident that these two men, leaders in the Democratic Party with direct access to the president, said basically the same thing within a couple of days of each other. They are either floating trial balloons—testing public reaction—for the White House or trying to influence the president’s decision. Either way, they are using their positions and their access to the media as a way of sending a message.

And either way, I call foul.

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Both Schumer and Biden seem to agree that what we need now is a “mainstream” nominee for the Court.

In an interview on ABC News’ This Week with George Stephanopoulos last Sunday, Schumer, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he expects President Obama to nominate a “mainstream” justice, citing the potential to win support of “mainstream Republicans.”

“I think the president, past is prologue, will nominate someone who is mainstream,” Schumer stated. As the New York Times reported:

“When you go right off the bat and say, I don’t care who he nominates, I am going to oppose him — that’s not going to fly,” he said, criticizing the majority leader Mitch McConnell for pledging to block any nominee. “A lot of the mainstream Republicans are going to say, I may not follow this.”

According to the Washington Post, Biden echoed Schumer’s statement in an interview aboard Air Force Two:

“This is a potential gigantic game changer” for the philosophical makeup of the court, Biden said in an interview with The Washington Post and Politico. “And my advice is, the only way we get someone on the court, now or even later, is to do what we’ve done in the past…we have to pick somebody, as the president will, who is intellectually competent, is a person of high moral character, is a person who is demonstrated to have an open mind, and is a person who doesn’t come with a specific agenda.

These comments are so full of potentially meaningless and yet potentially profound code and buzzwords, I don’t know where to start.

First of all, what exactly these days is a “mainstream Republican” and where do they live? Is Biden referring to the senators who joined a party-line vote to overturn the Affordable Care Act? Is he talking about the “moderate” GOP party-line vote to impose a 20-week abortion ban? Which of the Republicans that voted against Obama’s nominees to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are the moderate ones? Which of the ones that have held up judicial nominees for over two years are “mainstream”? How is opposing all attempts by the White House and Democrats to pass paid family leave a “mainstream” position, especially in light of the fact that this policy is supported by a wide majority of Americans? Are the mainstream the ones that continue to block the Paycheck Fairness Act?

Second, does Vice President Biden mean to suggest that a justice who perhaps believes that women have rights to their own bodies cannot be “intellectually competent … a person of high moral character … a person who is demonstrated to have an open mind … a person who doesn’t come with a specific agenda”? Is promoting public health an agenda? Are basic human rights a specific political agenda?

Is Biden suggesting, no matter how subtly and in meaningless Beltway-speak, that a jurist who pays heed to overwhelming medical and public health evidence on the role that both contraception and abortion play in improving public health, women’s health, and infant and child health is not “mainstream” and otherwise has an agenda?

Does a jurist with roots in a specific community and with an understanding of the law’s differential impact on people of different races, classes, and privileges come with an agenda?

Given that the white population will soon be the minority, who is “mainstream,” the white guy or the person of color?

Let’s face facts: What is considered “mainstream” for both of these men is not necessarily based on the needs and priorities of the average American. Schumer is only “mainstream” in that he is a white male senator in a legislative body that is dominated by white male senators (the Senate is 80 percent male and 94 percent white) and in that he takes huge amounts of funding from Wall Street. “Mainstream” for Schumer might well be translated to mean someone who won’t seek to curb the influence of big money in politics.

Likewise, Joe Biden is only “mainstream” on many issues insofar as they can be comfortably navigated within the Old Boys Clubs of which he is a longstanding member, one of which is the Senate and the other of which is the group of Catholic Democrats that remain beholden at some level to the most-conservative U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It was Biden, who as a Catholic is highly ambivalent about reproductive health care, played leading roles in the Obama administration’s decisions on the Stupak Amendment in the ACA, and in the “contraceptive accommodations” made to religious groups, among many other things.

The carve-outs never satisfied the rabidly right-wing bishops and led to continuing lawsuits and ever greater demands of exemptions. This is not a “mainstream” position, especially if you consider that 98 percent of Catholic women (and 99 percent of all women) who have ever had sex have used modern forms of birth control. The only mainstream position on birth control and abortion is the one that recognizes both the public health and social science evidence, the rights of women as people, and the fact that an overwhelming majority of women use birth control and one third of women in the United States have abortions. There is nothing mainstream about white, religious men ignoring that fact or pretending that they know better.

The only reason they suggest that someone who does not have any record of supporting evidence or rights might (and it’s a highly questionable assumption) get approved by the GOP-led Senate is because the Republicans themselves are not mainstream by any stretch of the imagination, and are only interested in someone with an agenda to protect their interests.

In my definition, someone who, as Biden suggests, “is intellectually competent, is a person of high moral character, is a person who is demonstrated to have an open mind, and is a person who doesn’t come with a specific agenda,” is a person who recognizes that human rights, evidence, and justice should be of central concern to the Supreme Court. When I hear Biden use these words, I hear echoes of his 2007 statement that Barack Obama was the first “mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” It sounds to me that “mainstream” is someone comfortable to the white men in power.

The word “mainstream” is now meaningless. The media won’t challenge it because most of the reporters are stuck in a white male corporate bubble and spend their time at parties at the vice president’s residence. You can’t depend on them to challenge the very notion of what it means.

When you hear a white male senator or a white male vice president—both of whom have vested interests in agendas that do not represent either the interests of the greater number of people in this country, and/or also ignore solid scientific evidence—use terms like “mainstream,” know one thing: They are not swimming in the same stream as the rest of us.

Commentary Religion

Shaming Women About Having Sex Doesn’t Stop Us From Having Sex

Emma Akpan

Abstinence is a spiritual practice, and it is a fine one, but all of us do not have to adopt such a practice in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

I ask about 100 people, either by phone or by knocking on doors, the same question each week as an organizer at a reproductive health nonprofit.

“Are you a supporter of women’s health services such as breast cancer screenings and birth control?” I say. Typically people will tell me “sure,” say they aren’t interested in taking my survey, or tell me that they are already strong supporters of the movement and will fill out whatever I have for them that day.

One particular morning while out canvassing, I knocked on a door and a woman answered. After running through my usual spiel, I was taken aback by her answer. “No, I practice abstinent sex and depend on the Lord for my health services,” she told me.

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I smirked to myself as I tried to interpret “abstinent sex,” which I assumed meant that she is celibate now to strengthen her spirituality.

But then I remembered she sounded a lot like me nearly a decade ago.

When I was 14, I decided to wait until marriage to have sex. I was so proud of this revelation that I wore it like a badge of honor, as part of my identity as a teen. Sometimes I would try to determine who the virgins in my school classes were, and the non-virgins—of course, the latter were, in my mind, the bad kids.

I held the moral high ground as a “good girl.” The premise was simple: Good girls were girls who did well in school and did not pay attention to boys. Good girls were those who waited for love and marriage, and took the time in our youth to develop other interests in academia and community service (in our churches). It was as if as soon as a young woman had sex, she would become disinterested in school, church, and volunteer activities, I was taught by faith leaders to believe.

I was playing by the rules of my Protestant upbringing. I learned in church that sex was bad, unless I was married, because the Bible said so. Preachers referred to scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 6:19 (“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit that is within you, whom you have from God?”) and Galatians 5:19 (“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality.”) to support their claims that sex outside of marriage is sinful in the eyes of God and makes one dirty.

And yet, as a minister now, I realize that these scriptures do not speak directly to sex inside modern marriage as we know it, and “sexual immorality” could mean many things. For example, many biblical scholars agree that porneia, from which the word fornication is loosely translated, does not necessarily mean premarital sex. It can refer to many sins of sexuality. As Boykin Sanders explains in True to our Native Land, in 1 Corinthians 6:9 the word porneia refers to men being sexually involved with their father’s wife, and other forms of adultery.

But for many churchgoing young people, the pressures to abstain from sex, based on inaccurate interpretations of scripture by preachers and other church leaders, are compelling. For me at least, abstinence meant that I could stay spiritually and physically pure, and able to focus on things that were important to me, such as school, deciding on a career, and loving myself outside of a relationship. These are positive teachings from church, but it is also important for young people to understand that having sex doesn’t necessarily mean that we lose those parts of ourselves just by doing it.

I’ve frequently heard in church the idea that our bodies are “temples” to discourage individuals from having sex. But, I wondered, how does having sex dishonor our temples? This question made more sense to me when I learned in divinity school about Western philosophy and the idea that our bodies and souls are separate, and that in order to be a good Christian, we have to give into the desires of our spirits by denying desires of the body.

That philosophy didn’t make sense to me, because not only is it used to encourage women to be abstinent, it encourages people to pray about illness instead of seeking treatment or taking measures to be healthy (such as healthy eating, exercise, and annual doctors’ visits), encourages Christians to ignore mental health issues, and doesn’t allow Christians to grieve in their own unique ways. Growing up, I frequently heard sermons for people who were in real pain, where they were told to pray and God would give them strength. Indeed, prayer can give us strength, but prayer as a quick fix without acknowledging pain and grief can invalidate human pain.

Over the years I also came to understand that abstinence is a spiritual practice, and while it is a fine one, all of us do not have to adopt such a practice in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment. It’s actually impracticable to seek to attain the exact spiritual practice of others since we all walk different paths in life. A starving person, for example, would not be able to fast, nor would someone with diabetes or another medical condition that affects their diet. They would need to adopt other methods to practice their religion. Many people who choose not to abstain from sex adopt other spiritual practices to fulfill their religious experience as well.

Abstinence would not help me in my advocacy work fighting back against poverty, inequality, racism, and the patriarchy. Yes, I could hold the badge of honor that I was celibate, but if that was the only thing I did to practice my religion, I knew I was doing it wrong.

Ultimately, shaming me from having sex did not improve my spiritual journey, it just made me feel guilty about my own natural urges.

The first time I had sex I thought it was going to be life-changing—and it wasn’t. We did it and held each other after, and the next morning, as I usually do as a young minister on Sunday mornings, I went to church.

I always thought I would feel differently, that it would change me, or that I would feel an incredible loss. Or worse, that I would be forever attached to the person (I’m not). It was an important milestone in my life, and I was careful about choosing the person with whom I would experience it. But it didn’t change who I was as a person.

As much as I was discouraged by faith leaders from having sex before marriage, I still did it, like many spiritual women who have come before me. In fact, a 2011 study from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy revealed that 80 percent of young people who self-identified as evangelical Christians are having sex. Additionally, an overwhelming majority of African-American regular church attendees support access to contraception and abortion. Why? Because we are having sex and understand that contraceptives and abortion are essential parts of our health care.

These fights against women’s health care—such as the recent attempts to defund Planned Parenthood or the refusal of Catholic hospitals to provide basic reproductive health care and perform tubal ligations for women who need them—come down to the fact that women are having sex, and men in leadership, whether they are faith leaders or elected officials, don’t agree with it. Instead of saying they don’t agree, they depict sex as a traumatic experience and stigmatize reproductive health care, painting abortion as a sinful and regrettable act. Most recently, the Pope instructed priests to forgive women for having an abortion, suggesting their decisions about their own bodies and families were wrong.

Many people in leadership believe women should be punished for having sex. They believe pregnancy is a consequence of acting irresponsibly, so women must endure it whether they want to or not. They believe women who have had sex should be deemed ineligible for dating and future relationships. Some faith leaders believe women should be punished by experiencing spiritual turmoil and feeling separated from God. But we don’t have to—and shouldn’t—feel shame. I don’t feel bad about living out my humanity in this way.

I’m glad women are fighting back against slut-shaming. Sexuality does not have to be a secret, and religious individuals should not have to feel guilty for having sex. There are many reasons to have sex, just as there are many reasons women may opt for contraception or choose to terminate a pregnancy. For many of us, these decisions are not shameful, they are simply a normal part of being human.