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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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.