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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Theresa May dodges difficult questions about social care and NHS in Andrew Neil interview

Prime Minister was on message but on the back foot.

Theresa May was interviewed for 30 minutes by Andrew Neil on BBC One this evening, and she managed to say next to nothing. Whether you see that as skilful politics or shameless dishonesty, there was very little that came out of this interview. Here’s the little we did learn:

The Prime Minister is assuming victory - even if she says otherwise

Although the Conservative party’s campaign has been based on trying to convince voters that there is a chance Jeremy Corbyn could be Prime Minister (to spook them into voting for May, and against a Corbyn-led coalition – a very unlikely scenario in reality), Theresa May revealed just how strongly her party is assuming victory. For example, when pressed on her plans for funding social care (means-testing the winter fuel allowance, and taxing the elderly on their assets), she could only answer that her government would hold a consultation to iron out the details. No matter how hard she tries to push the message that Corbyn is en route to No 10, if her policies are not policies at all but ideas to be fleshed out once she returns to power, this remains just rhetoric. As Neil asked about the consultations: “Wouldn’t you have done that before you came out with the policy?”

The Tories won’t lower themselves to costing their manifesto

It has always been the case that Labour has to work much harder than the Tories to prove its economic credibility, which is why in the Ed Miliband days it was decided that all policy proposals had to add up. But never have the Tories been so shameless in taking advantage of that political fact. For all the stick its received for being idealistic, Corbyn’s manifesto is more costed than the Tory effort, which May herself admitted during this interview is a set of “principles” rather than policies: “What we set out in our manifesto was a series of principles.” Where is the money going to come from for £8bn extra for the NHS? “Changing the way money is used”, “The strong and growing economy”, and “a variety of sources”, of course! At least Labour could patch together something about corporation tax and cracking down on tax avoidance if asked the same question.

Playing politics

Neil went in hard on May’s u-turn on her plan to fund social care – asking repeatedly why the Tories are now planning on bringing in a cap on how much the elderly have to pay, when originally there was no cap. All May could offer on this was that Corbyn was “playing politics” with the policy, and “scaremongering” about it. This deflection was flawed in a number of ways. First, it provided no explanation of what the policy will now be (what will the cap be? When will we know?), second, if Corbyn has been “scaremongering” it means he must have influenced the policy change, which May denies, and third, all it highlights is that May is herself “playing politics”.

Brexit is always the answer

As May cannot answer a single question about the specifics of policies or spending, Brexit is the perfect topic for her. It is a subject defined by its uncertainty and lack of detail, therefore something she can get on board with. She answered almost every question on every subject broached by Neil by asking who voters want around the Brexit negotiating table after the election – her or Corbyn.

Why are the polls closing? “...I’ve set out my vision for that strength in negotiations and that stronger plan. And the choice is who’s going to be doing those negotiations, me or Jeremy Corbyn.”

Are your policies uncosted? “...I think it is important that the country has certainty over the next five years, has the strong and stable leadership I think it needs, as I’ve just explained, particularly for those Brexit negotiations.”

Where is the extra NHS funding going to come from? “...Crucial to that, is getting the Brexit negotiations right, and that’s why this is so important. That’s why who is sitting around that negotiating table, 11 days after the election it’s going to start…”

Will National Insurance go up? “...Fundamental to that of course is getting the Brexit deal right and getting those negotiations right and having both a strong hand in those negotiations but also the strength of leadership in those negotiations…”

Will you break the immigration target promise for a third time? “...The question that people face is who do they trust to take this country though the Brexit negotiations..?”

But the soundbites must be working

A few seconds in to the interview, May had already used the phrase “strong and stable” and “my team”. While political insiders will groan and mock the repetitive use of such banal phrases, and emphasis on Brexit negotiations, we must remember the “long-term economic plan” slogan of 2015’s Tories. It worked, and clearly behind the scenes, the masterminds of the Conservative campaign believe these soundbites must be working. Theresa May is miles ahead of Jeremy Corbyn on the “who you trust to be Prime Minister” metric, which is why the Tories repeating how “strong and stable” their government would be, and running such a presidential campaign (“my team”, and May versus Corbyn) must be working.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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