Pope Francis: not as cuddly as he looks. Photo: Franco Origlia/Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle