Oh, Pope Francis. He was doing so well. For almost a year, liberals all over the world allowed themselves to believe that this Pope was different, that this Pope was more interested in the loving-each-other aspects of Christianity than in stigmatising contraception and shaming homosexuals. Then, in his annual speech on the state of the world, Jorge Mario Bergoglio gave a resounding statement against sexual freedom and abortion rights, reminding us all that whatever else the Pope is, he is still the head of the Catholic Church. In other news, bears – despite a massive global rebranding effort – still shit in the woods.
Say what you like about the last guy, but at least he didn’t pretend to be progressive. Right now, I find myself actually missing Benedict XVI, with his snazzy red shoes and squinty evil grin. If you’re going to be Pope, you might as well do it properly. If you’ve waited your whole life to be despotic commander with millions of followers, you should at least enjoy yourself.
So when Pope Benedict came out against gay marriage and women’s rights, when he told the world that the “the distribution of condoms . . . aggravates the problems” of HIV in Africa, he did so while dressed as a Sith Lord going to Prom, so everyone knew where they stood. Pope Francis is different.
Looking decent and humble after Benedict was never going to be difficult, but Pope Francis knows about branding. Pope Francis knows that after a decade of scandal, the Catholic Church is in dire need of the sort of makeover that can’t be provided by the papal milliners. Pope Francis wears sensible shoes. He pays his hotel bills like an ordinary person. He once said that gay people might not be so bad, and the whole internet went wild, despite the fact that he does not support equal marriage and finds the notion of gay adoption “shocking”. Pope Francis hugs the sick. Pope Francis takes selfies with schoolchildren and manages not to look at all creepy.
Francis is the Instagram Pope. He is the Time magazine Pope, the Pope with a mission to save the reputation of the Catholic Church, and perhaps a few souls if he has time. Viral news site Buzzfeed regularly runs articles with such headlines as “19 best Pope Francis Moments of 2013” and “Pope Francis Hangs Out With a Baby Sheep, Hard to Say Which is Cuter.” All of which is totally adorable and shareworthy until he puts down the fluffy animals and starts banging on about how abortion is wrong. Way to spoil the party.
In his recent speech, Pope Francis warned us all that we’re living in a “throwaway culture”. “Unfortunately, what is thrown away is not only food and dispensable objects,” he said, “but often human beings themselves, who are discarded as ‘unnecessary.’ For example, it is frightful even to think there are children, victims of abortion, who will never see the light of day.”
The Pope, like all human beings of every faith and none, has a right to his opinion. The Pope is free to believe that abortion is wrong. I have no problem with that, right up to the point where his beliefs start to influence the autonomy of others, so the Pope’s beliefs about abortion will become relevant the day the Pope gets pregnant. Telling the world that abortion is “horrific”, however, is not a question of faith. Theological debate is not what matters here. What matters is women’s lives, and men in positions of power deciding that we don’t deserve the right to control what happens to our bodies.
What the pope says and does influences policy in Catholic countries. One of those countries is Spain, where lawmakers are voting on a plan to allow abortion only in the most extreme cases – where a pregnancy is the result of rape, or is likely to cause death or serious injury. In any other circumstances, Spanish women will be forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term and go through the pain and physical risk of childbirth. Similar struggles are going on in Ireland, the United States and everywhere that right-wing politicians are trying to rally support by trampling on women’s rights.
Right now, all over the world, women are fighting for access to reproductive healthcare. They are fighting a culture of institutional sexism and religious intolerance that holds that women should be punished for having sex with fear of pregnancy, just like in the good old days – except in cases of rape, of course, because if a woman didn’t want to have sex, suddenly abortion is fine.
This isn’t about preventing termination of pregnancy, not really, not when restricting legal abortion has so little demonstrable affect on the number of pregnancies that actually get terminated. It’s about controlling women, about shaming them. It’s about reenforcing a medieval moral code that continues to ruin people’s happiness all over the world. Every year, 47,000 women die after unsafe abortions, many of them in Catholic or Catholic-influenced states where women’s right to terminate pregnancy is restricted. Until the Pope changes his tune on that one, he’s just roleplaying progressive politics.
We wanted to believe that this Pope was different. In these anxious times, it hasn’t just been Catholics who got overexcited by the idea of a spiritual leader who could inspire the world to be better. It’s not wrong to want there to be a person like that, but the Pope is not that person, and he never was. The Pope is still the Pope, and his job involves placating conservative Catholics, deciding whose rights and autonomy can be “thrown away” to present a Papal brand the old guard can get on board with. Francis wears understated shoes and talks a good game about love and peace. But until he extends compassion to the people his Church has historically marginalised, no amount of snuggling baby sheep is going to cut it.