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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.