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?