Pope Francis: not as cuddly as he looks. Photo: Franco Origlia/Getty Images
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It would be great to have a progressive, kind Pope. Sadly, Pope Francis isn’t it

Pope Francis has been lauded for the green focus of his latest encyclical. But in his attitude to overpopulation and women’s rights, he is justifying exactly the sort of exploitation he is supposedly against.

Isn’t it great to have a nice Pope? A Pope who speaks out against manifestly bad things like poverty, slavery and – in his most recent encyclical – the devastation of the environment by human rapaciousness? Well, yes it is. Even someone as partisan to secularism as me can see that a holy man preaching compassion and generosity is an improvement on any number of deathly reasonable atheists. It shouldn’t matter where the impulse to goodness comes from, so long as the impulse is good.

But the thing is, sometimes it does matter. Some things come so deeply embedded in a belief system that they can’t just be shrugged off for the sake of a good message, and this is how it goes with the Encyclical Letter of the Holy Father Francis on Care for our Common Home.

However much there is to applaud in the Pope’s commentary on pollution, extinction and global warming (and at times he comes on almost like a member of radical environmentalist group Deep Green Resistance), his message has a kind of original sin in it that makes the entire argument flawed beyond use, and it’s this: in its language, its analysis and its conclusions, the entire thing treats human females more like a natural resource to be judiciously exploited than like actual people with a stake in the world.

This is obvious right from the opening of the encyclical, which describes “our common home” as “like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” If the earth is explicitly female, it’s because the “we” here is implicitly not: we’re in the realm of the male default subject, and the earth is imagined to care for us because the earth is imagined to be a woman, and woman are supposed to be caring and fecund by nature.

It comes out too when the encyclical talks about “brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth” – such elegantly complementary gendered pairs, and it just so happens that in each of them the masculine part is active and the feminine passive. The sun shines, the moon reflects; the river flows, and the earth is flowed through. This kind of hackneyed thinking about what men and women are for is so obvious that is should be embarrassing, even for a religion with a substantially lousy record on its treatment of women.

But of course, it takes more than sexism to embarrass a Pope, which is why he pushes right on to condemn the very idea of population control. “Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate,” complains the encyclical. “At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health’.” (Scare quotes Pope’s own.)

Of course there is no absolute Malthusian number at which we become too many. The amount that wealthy humans waste could easily compensate for the wants of the struggling. But equally, it’s inane to pretend that the planet is anything other than finite, and the more humans there are, the more must be extracted from the finite world to support us. At some point our population will become unsustainable, even if it hasn’t already.

And here’s the other thing: the only way that we will keep driving towards that catastrophic mass of humanity is if we keep women powerless, ignorant and without access to means of controlling their own fertility. The Pope can object all he likes to aid programmes including family planning, but the truth is that this is something women actually want. Pregnancy is difficult and dangerous for the people who get pregnant. Unsurprisingly, most women would rather only do it a limited number of times – if at all.

Research by the Guttmacher institute found that one of the most important factors in determining family size is the education of the mother. This isn’t because bluestockings acquire some kind of uppity idea that they’re too good to breed. In fact, as the report explains, “poorly educated women share the same small family norm as educated women, but they are less successful at implementing it.”

In other words, to be against population control is to be against women deciding the use of their own bodies, because whenever women have choice, the choice they make is usually to have fewer children. But before women can make decisions, they have to be treated as human, and that’s something this encyclical refuses to do. Women are inert, orbiting, the medium that fosters the active life of the (male) beings who are allowed to count. It’s a belief that’s bound up entirely with domination and control; it is a way of seeing the world that justifies exactly the sort of exploitation the encyclical is supposedly against. It’s misogynistic, solipsistic and disastrous. But still. Wouldn’t it be great to have a nice Pope?

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.