I don’t expect Pope Francis to be a social liberal. I do expect illiberal Catholic doctrines to be challenged.

Last week, Pope Francis’s announcement that, during the upcoming Year of Jubilee, priests would be able to offer absolution for women who have had abortions reminded everyone how nonsensical and immoral the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion is in the first place. The Pope’s announcement came at about the same time that the Vatican issued a statement declaring that it is “impossible” for trans people to serve as godparents.

Both of these cases seem to cut against the argument that Pope Francis is the papal equivalent of a “cool dad,” who’s willing to shrug his shoulders on silly rules that don’t matter (on being gay: “who am I to judge?“) as long as we get the big questions right (on unfettered capitalism: it’s “dung of the devil” that constitutes a “new colonialism“). Saying nice things about LGBT people, one would think, wouldn’t matter much without material changes to Church doctrine, which is decidedly not-nice to people who aren’t straight and male.

Then again, maybe none of the above matters. As Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig argued in The New Republic earlier today, complaints like mine miss the point because Pope Francis has a whole world of Catholics to shepherd, and other issues matter more. As she began her post:

The American gay publication, the Advocate, named Pope Francis their 2013 person of the year.

The Advocate named Pope Francis their 2013 person of the year.

If Pope Francis single-handedly ended global poverty tomorrow through some sudden miracle, there would still be liberal malcontents prepared to attack him for maintaining traditionally Catholic views on some of the pet issues of the Anglophone center-left. Complaints about Pope Francis’s old-fashioned backwardness are especially tied up in his failure to qualify as a good center-left feminist. There is still a healthy contingent of liberal writers who call with depressing regularity for Pope Francis to think more like an American Democrat, without acknowledging the nature of Pope Francis’s special relationship with the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. If he were to abandon Catholic teaching on birth control and the ordination of women priests, his ability to influence Catholic thought on matters of capitalism and climate change would be reduced to nil.

To be clear, to the extent that the Pope is a political figure, this is absolutely correct. Pope Francis won’t get Catholics to stick around for his environmental and economic liberalism if they’re leaving over his insufficient social conservatism. And given that lesbian priests won’t be able to preside over same-sex marriages in Rio de Janeiro if the city is underwater, there’s a case to be made that a compromise of this sort makes sense.

But scratch the surface of Bruenig’s lede, and you’ll find a strain of cultural and moral relativism that seems odd, to say the least, coming from a defender of a Church that claims to trade in universal truth.

Because while Bruenig may not think that those on the “Anglophone center-left” have their priorities straight, she would probably at least concede that they have a point. While the “pet issue” of women in the priesthood, by itself, isn’t a hill worthy dying on in the grand scheme of things (although, for many, access to contraception literally is), it does constitute one block in the Jenga tower that is the Catholic Church’s case for the continued subjugation of women. And however right Pope Francis is on material issues like climate change and economic inequality — which, as Bruenig points out, affect women across the globe immensely — he can still be wrong on issues relating to how individuals live together, from contraception to abortion, all the way down to whether a gay man can serve as an ambassador to the Vatican.

Bruenig dismisses these concerns as those of “an American Democrat,” alluding to the specificity of the Pope’s critics and the presumed universality of his supporters, but she may as well have dismissed them as concerns of a non-Catholic. And that’s the point. For as much as Bruenig reads into criticisms of the Pope as calls for him to change — that he’s bad at his job — they are, at bottom, a critique of Catholicism. This is as true now as it was when Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II said and did similarly immoral things on these same issues. We can tear our hair out all we want, saying “It would be great if Catholicism didn’t teach x,” but it does; and even the Pope can’t nix nearly two millennia of precedent saying so.

Which is why that’s not what Pope Francis’s critics — at least not me — are saying. I’m not saying Pope Francis is wrong on x and should make his Church agree with me; I’m saying Pope Francis and his Church are wrong on x. Period. When I take issue with the Pope’s refusal to allow women in the priesthood, or their insistence that trans people cannot and will never be godparents, I see those as problems with Catholicism, not with whoever happens to be leading the Catholic Church at the time. Those teachings are central to the Catholic Church, and I don’t think the Pope is obligated to change them. As Bruenig points out, he wouldn’t sound very Catholic if he did. But if that’s the case, I do think the rest of us are obligated to openly question the Church’s claim that he’s infallible.

One of the great things about being a non-believer is that my morals aren’t given to me in a package. I can say nice things about Pope Francis when he does something awesome, and criticize him when he doesn’t. I can make a moral case for reducing economic inequality and for empowering women, and against those who oppose one or both of those things. Perhaps most importantly, it is not only possible but necessary for me to alter my sincerely-held beliefs if they are shown to be incorrect. This keeps me from being stuck defending someone who is obviously wrong on a basic moral question by claiming that their detractors are just missing the big picture — which, even if true, dodges the moral question at hand.

So sure, I agree with Bruenig in that I think it’s silly to call for the Pope to make fundamental changes to the Catholic Church that would undermine its central teachings regarding sexual orientation, gender and all things procreative. But that doesn’t mean it’s silly to criticize the Pope’s continued support for the Catholic Church’s central teachings regarding sexual orientation, gender and all things procreative. Those are still bad teachings, and it’s important that we are reminded of that fact as many in the “Anglophone center-left” cheer Pope Francis on for sounding a little more like them than his predecessors did.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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10 Responses to “I don’t expect Pope Francis to be a social liberal. I do expect illiberal Catholic doctrines to be challenged.”

  1. geoffreysmith1 says:

    “I do expect illiberal Catholic doctrines to be challenged”.

    Mr Green, better men than you have been doing just that for the last 2000 years. Their views were popular for a while and then they died, along with their inventors. The same fate is about to befall you.
    And AMERICAblog.

  2. geoffreysmith1 says:

    “Oh, and by the way – the Pope is not considered “infallible” in everything he says. In fact, that “doctrine” has only been invoked infrequently at most.!

    Congratulations, Frank! You got it right! Too bad the rest of your comment is baloney.
    The Church has never ‘taught’ that the Earth was the center of the universe, nor that the Earth revolves around the Sun. That is astronomy, not Christianity, which is the Church’s business.

  3. 2patricius2 says:

    Not sure what you are saying. Don’t you think any and all discriminatory religious doctrines and behaviors should be criticized and opposed? I have a problem with comparing certain forms of discrimination with others, and saying one is apples and the other oranges, or one is worse than the other. I have seen too many right wingers discount mistreatment of LGBT people, using the excuse that the treatment of Blacks and slaves was much worse than the treatment of LGBT people. As though to say that certain forms of discrimination and mistreatment were bad, and others unimportant. As though to say that certain people matter and others don’t. Discrimination runs the gamut from one extreme to another. Treating certain people as less than (whether in Roman Catholicism which has a history of gross mistreatment of women and LGBT people or in Islam which also has a history of mistreatment) in even little ways has a tendency to lead to more severe mistreatment when unchecked by outside forces.

    I cannot help but think of what Martin Luther King, Jr, wrote in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? He addressed racism, but his words apply to any form of discrimination from the least onerous to the most.
    “If a man asserts that another man, because of his race, is not good enough to have a job equal to his, or to eat at a lunch counter next to him, or to have access to certain hotels, or to attend school with him, or to live next door to him, he is by implication affirming that that man does not deserve to exist. He does not deserve to exist because his existence is corrupt and defective. Racism is a philosophy based on a contempt for life.”

    Substitute sexism, or heterosexism, or any other form of discrimination, and add “her” and “she” (and whatever other adjectives you want) to those words, and you have the same critique.

    When I was in Africa a few years ago, I saw how African Catholic religious women were treated – as servants for the men. Catholic bishops in some African nations have supported laws criminalizing same sex behavior and imprisoning LGBT people. Any institution with sexism and homophobia snd transphobia at its core, is rotten at its core. And a rot at the core – whether just expressed as women not being allowed in positions of authority or the relationships of same sex couples not being blessed, is not that far away from an institution that demeans and subjugates women and opposes all civil rights for LGBT people (as the bishops of the Catholic Church have done for many of the last years). And without the controls of civil law, there is nothing preventing the cancer of homophobia and sexism and transphobia from spreading to its logical conclusions.

  4. Indigo says:

    “Anglophone center-left”? That’s quite a mouthful. As with all critiques of Mithraic Roman Catholicism, one blind man grasps hold of the elephant’s leg and announces that it’s a tree, another takes hold of its trunk and proclaims it’s a snake, a third pats its side and insists it’s a barn. And so on . . . and on . . . and on . . . Critiques of Catholicism are the quicksand of intellectualism.

  5. Frank says:

    Catholic theology used to be a tidy system of beliefs, rules and proscribed behaviors – all perfectly logical and based on immutable premises. But that world has begun to crumble and the church is in a conundrum: like way back in Galileo’s time, when it insisted that the earth was the center of the universe. Eventually, in face of undeniable evidence, it had to change its teaching. But I would suggest that it was easier to do in the 1600s than it is today. Oh, and by the way – the Pope is not considered “infallible” in everything he says. In fact, that “doctrine” has only been invoked infrequently at most.

  6. goulo says:

    > I agree with Bruenig in that I think it’s silly to call for the Pope to
    make fundamental changes to the Catholic Church that would undermine its
    central teachings regarding sexual orientation, gender and all things
    procreative.

    But on the other hand, the church has evolved and improved its position on various “central teachings” in the past. E.g. the church seems to no longer assert the right to execute heretics/witches/etc (despite biblical passages justifying that kind of horrible misuse of power). So it doesn’t seem entirely silly to call for the church to move toward justice on some other “central teachings” as well (especially when they have less direct support from the bible).

  7. AnthonyLook says:

    The Catholic church is often a Liberal ally on economic issues, more so than on social issue. I do NOT expect illiberal Catholic doctrines to be challenged under Pope Francis nor any subsequent Pope for years to come. Former Catholic School lifetime of upbringing and former Catholic ( I made a very deliberate decision to leave at age 15; and never have regretted it), and I haven’t see any substantial change EVER and don’t expect to in my lifetime. When the Catholic Church is aligned with Liberal policies politically— I’ll take it, other than that; it is what it is.

  8. emjayay says:

    “So the way women and LGBT people are treated in the Roman Catholic
    Church or under Islamic states are issues that deserve to be criticized…”

    OK, but not even apples and oranges. Keeping them at home and covered up and illiterate and without any rights whatsoever and stoning them for what men do all the time and throwing gay people off towers is not the same as women not being in top leadership/pastoral positions and gay relationships not being officially condoned.

  9. Hue-Man says:

    He’ll be 79 in December and approaching the eternal sleep end of the mortality table. There are so many things to be fixed, he has to prioritize – child-raping priests, money-laundering vatican bank, and the intransigent power of the Roman curia are obvious fires to fight. The ship of state cannot be turned in such a short time; all he can hope for is to put mechanisms in place to make sure it doesn’t sink!

  10. 2patricius2 says:

    I think all issues are open to criticism. Just because a doctrine is religious does not make it out of bounds for criticism. I don’t think there are many who would say that female genital mutilation is okay cause it is sometimes considered a religious issue, or that racial groups should be treated as scum just because this is sometimes held as a religious issue, or that suicide bombing and religious wars are sacrosanct. So the way women and LGBT people are treated in the Roman Catholic Church or under Islamic states are issues that deserve to be criticized, and the religious doctrines that justify them also deserve to be criticized. And what Francis is going to do on any of these issues or going to do about any of these doctrines is certainly open to criticism. He may be very sincere in what he believes, and may be right about a lot of issues, and may be admired for many things, but he should not be immune to criticism.

    I am also not in agreement that while some more urgent issues are being addressed, less urgent issues should be ignored. Climate change, poverty, the death of many species, income inequality, rising seas are all issues that need urgently to be addressed. But LGBT people are affected by all of these issues, and women and children are prime victims of poverty and inequality, and all of these issues ultimately tie together. The needs of all have to be addressed. No one should be considered disposable in the process.

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