Pope Francis's comments on homosexuality and abortion do not go far enough

The Pope has said the Church has become far too obsessed with policing homosexuality, infidelity and abortion - but bear in mind everything he did not say. Progressive Catholics should take a deep breath before they rejoice.

This piece first appeared on newrepublic.com.

It’s a sign of how cramped the public image of the Roman Catholic Church has become over the past 34 years that Pope Francis’s comments in an extensive interview with La Civiltà Cattolica could spark such a rapturous response from progressive Catholics. Yes, Francis said the church has become “obsessed” with denouncing abortion, homosexuality, and contraception. And yes, he called for a “new balance” in the church’s teaching so that it doesn’t lose “the freshness and fragrance of the gospels.” But however much those remarks signal a shift from the rhetorical style of popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, progressive Catholics need to understand that the change is, and is likely to remain, a matter of words. 

Consider what the pope did not say. He didn’t say that homosexual acts are morally permissible. He didn’t say that abortion can be morally acceptable in certain (or any) circumstances. He didn’t say anything to indicate he was interested in revisiting Pope Paul VI’s 1968 reaffirmation of the church’s ban on artificial contraception. He didn’t imply that he’s interested in revising the church’s strictures against married priests. He certainly didn’t indicate an openness to permitting the ordination of women. The interview contains no sign that the pope is willing to budge on any of the items on the progressive Catholic wish-list of reforms. 

What the pope did say, in effect, is that in recent years the church has been focusing too single-mindedly on policing sex. He didn’t say anything to imply that he disagreed with or hoped to change any of the church’s sexual teachings. He just wants to place them in a broader context. Catholicism preaches a gospel of human dignity and salvation—that, and not a creepy sexual surveillance, must come first. This is especially true if the church hopes to enjoy any success with a “new evangelization” of the Western world.

As I recently argued, rhetoric is important in the history and life of the church—especially when it takes the form of a rebuke of outspoken lay and clerical critics. (Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, spoke for many conservatives when he recently described himself as “a little bit disappointed” that the new pope hadn’t addressed “more directly the issue of abortion.” Today’s interview is Francis’s response to this view.)

Still, words remain mere words when they are unaccompanied by action—and this is something progressive Catholics need to keep in mind as they respond to the new pope. Francis hasn’t changed a single doctrine or dogma of the church, and he’s exceedingly unlikely to. By all means, reform-minded Catholics should rejoice when the pope changes the rhetorical emphasis of the Vatican. But a “revelation”? Get a grip.

Damon Linker is the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.

This piece first appeared on newrepublic.com.

Pope Francis - Jorge Mario Bergoglio - waves after his general audience at the Vatican on 18 September. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Jeremy Corbyn has lost his NEC majority - and worse could be to come

The NEC promises to be a thorn in the Labour leader's side.

Jeremy Corbyn has lost his majority on the party’s ruling national executive committee, after a longstanding demand of the Welsh and Scottish parties sees the introduction of two further appointed posts on the NEC, one each of Kezia Dugdale, leader of Scottish Labour and Carwyn Jones, the Welsh First Minister and leader of the Welsh party. 

It means that, unlike during his first year as leader, Corbyn will not have a majority on the NEC. Corbyn acquired a small majority on the party’s ruling body at last year’s Labour conference, when Community, which represents workers in steel and the third sector, was voted off in favour of the BFAWU, which represents bakers. Added to the replacement of Hilary Benn with Rebecca Long-Bailey, that gave Corbyn a small but fairly reliable majority on the NEC. (It also led to Bex Bailey, the diminutive rightwinger who sat as Youth Rep, being dubbed “Rebecca Short-Bailey” by Corbynsceptic trade union officials.) 

In practice, the new NEC is now “hung”, as Corbynsceptics sacrificed their new majority last night when they elected Glenis Wilmott, leader of the European parliamentary Labour party, as chair. Corbyn’s opponents judge that controlling the chair, which rules on procedure and interpret’s the NEC’s rules, is worth more than a majority of one. 

Divisions will hinge upon the NEC’s swing voters – Alice Perry, who is elected by councilors, Ann Black, elected by members, and Keith Vaz, the chair of BAME Labour, and the new Welsh Labour representative, appointed by Jones. Corbyn may, therefore, have cause to regret fighting quite so hard to resist the changes this time.

“All we’re asking is that we should have the same rights as Jeremy, who appoints three,” Jones told me on Monday. At an acrimonious meeting at the NEC, Jones – who has been campaigning for the change since he became leader and has already been rebuffed back in 2011 – told Corbyn that the Welsh leadership had been kept waiting “too long” for the same rights as the Westminster party. Jones, unlike Dugdale, remained neutral in the leadership race. He explained to me that “I’d expect [London] to stay out of our elections, so you’ve got to return the favour”. 

Dugdale takes a different view, and, I’m told, feels that Corbyn’s allies in Scotland have been manoeuvring against her since she became leader. She has appointed herself to sit on the NEC, where she will be a consistent vote against Corbyn.

But worse may be to come for Corbyn in the trade union section. An underappreciated aspect of Labour politics is the impact of labour politics – ie, the jostling for power and members between affliated trade unions. What happens at the Trade Union Congress doesn’t stay there, and there has long been a feeling, fairly or unfairly, that Unite – Britain’s largest trade union – throws its weight around at the TUC. 

A desire to “cut Len down to size” is likely to make itself felt in Labour.The merger of Unite with Ucatt, the construction union, takes Unite’s share of the seats on the 33-person NEC to five including the treasurer Diana Holland.  Although Unite’s total membership is larger, it affliates fewer members to the party than Usdaw, the shopworkers’ union, and the GMB do. Usdaw is a reliable block to Corbyn on the NEC and the GMB is at odds with the leadership over Trident and fracking. 

All of which means that Corbyn’s path to wide-ranging rule changes may not be as clear as his allies might wish. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.