Catholics Speak Out

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Pope Francis is still human

15 February 2016
Paul Collins

There is absolutely no doubt that Pope Francis has made an enormous difference to Catholicism and to how it is perceived in the wider community. Here is a man who actually believes in the message of Jesus and who tries very hard to live it. He has recovered almost single-handedly the church’s pastoral tradition and has given the moral rigorists and literalists among us the kind of shake-up that they have needed for decades. He has brought the ridiculous neo-con encouraged ‘culture wars’ and gender debates within Catholicism to a grinding halt and has re-focused our attention on what really matters – the environment, social justice, equity for the poor, unjust distribution and the obscene wealth of various individuals. He has been a real breath of fresh air.

But that doesn’t mean that he is perfect. There are some glaring lacunae in his approach and we should not gloss over these in our enthusiasm for his agenda. A couple of these issues are revealed in his otherwise epoch-making encyclical Laudato si’. For instance he is highly critical of those – like me – who say that world over-population is the key problem facing us. Francis repudiates this. ‘Some can only propose a reduction in the birth-rate...To blame population growth instead of extreme... consumerism...is one way of refusing to face the issues.’ That’s a bit rough given that most of us who are concerned about population issues also support a lowering of consumerist living standards. Francis is also critical of ‘certain policies of “reproductive health”’ and he claims that ‘demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development.’ Thus he reduces the population issue to consumerism and inequity in distribution of the world’s goods.

My response is that – pace Francis - it is obvious that numerical growth in developing countries still puts enormous pressure on food and water supplies and natural resources, which often lead to hunger and famine as well as to dire environmental consequences. Also as people move out of poverty in countries with enormous populations like India and China, their expectations increase with the result that the pressure on the environment becomes unsustainable. There is a sense in which the encyclical bypasses these questions, or says they are irrelevant. What we are probably seeing here is the influence of Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research on the formulation of the encyclical. He commented during the launch of Laudato si’ that ‘contrary to what some have claimed, it is not the mass of poor people that destroys the planet, but the consumption of the rich.’ He continued that ‘it’s not population dynamics that are jeopardizing the climate. Look at per-capita emissions…you have people in African countries who contribute next to nothing in terms of global warming.’

There’s some truth to that, but we can’t just ignore the fact that in 1804 there were one billion people in the world and in 2009 there were seven billion. Predictions are that in 2021 there will be eight billion, and in 2035 there will be nine billion. These kinds of increases cannot be simply dismissed. In all of history there have never been so many people. There is a limit to what the earth can carry; it is not infinite and, pope or no pope, we can’t pretend that this is not a fact.

One of the most unfortunate references in the encyclical is the dismissive use of the term ‘reproductive health’, casting it as a kind of UN-inspired Western plot to stop the poor having children. Presumably the pope’s criticism of reproductive health is to remain consistent with Paul VI’s 1968 condemnation of contraception in the encyclical Humanae vitae and to support the Philippines bishops who have been in conflict with the Aquino government over reproductive health legislation, and to bolster various African bishops’ conferences, such as the Kenyan bishops, who claim it is ‘cultural’ for Africans to have big families.

Dismissing reproductive health is unfortunate because all the evidence shows that it is precisely when women have access to education, security from family or spousal violence, a legal status independent of tribal and patriarchical cultural systems and a genuine access to reproductive health care, that population numbers begin to decline because women then have control of their fertility. This maintains their freedom to decide on the number of births and doesn’t involve curbing population growth by imposing draconian one child policies or sterilization. Thus some pressure is taken off the environment.

If there is one glaring omission in the whole of Francis’ papacy so far it is his failure to engage meaningfully with or recognize the contribution and status of women. While he has talked somewhat condescendingly about the so-called ‘feminine genius’, he has done nothing practical or structural about acknowledging women’s absolute equality as baptized members of the church. Also the church lags far behind the secular world and key international bodies in affirming women’s contributions to society, culture and to human and environmental betterment. This is a major blind spot for Catholic hierarchs, including Francis.

In a way this might help to explain another of his glaring failures to address an issue that is centrally important for the church – sexual abuse of children. Sure, he has set-up a committee, chaired by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and including two adult victims of abuse and, like Benedict XVI before him, he has apologised to victims. But he still seems tone-deaf on the issue. Bishops responsible for moving abuser-priests around and covering-up have not been called to account and he has even appointed a bishop in Chile, Juan Barros of Osorno who has been accused of covering up for a prominent abuser-priest in Santiago in the 1980s and 1990s. Francis obviously feels strongly about this: he told protestors to think and ‘not be led by the noses by the lefties who orchestrated this whole thing.’So the question arises as to how serious Francis is about the accountability of bishops.


The wider context for all of this is that there is a real sense in which Francis has become something of a ‘superstar’. ‘The phenomenon of a pope becoming a pop culture icon is fascinating, troubling, and not a little confusing,’ says Mary E. Hunt in Religion Dispatches (10 January, 2014). Hunt, a progressive Feminist theologian, is right to be disturbed. There is an ironic sense in which Francis is even more dangerous to the development of the local Churches and the Vatican II agenda than Popes Wojtyla or Ratzinger. He is still the Pope and, despite his humility, he still dominates the church and many people expect him to save us. The problem is the notion of a ‘pope-savior’; it gives Catholics an excuse not leave the heavy lifting to someone else.  No matter what about Pope Bergoglio, he is still pope and all of the papacy’s claims and pretensions still stand including the claim to ‘the fullness of absolute power.’ He may repudiate it in practice if not in theory, but the claim is still there for one of his successors to resurrect it.

Hunt continues: “All of the enthusiasm about Francis’ style does not change the fact that the institutional Roman Catholic Church is a rigid hierarchy led by a pope—the warm feelings in response to Francis shore up that model of church by making the papacy itself look good. To my mind, this is a serious danger.’ The modern papacy is still ecclesiologically the papacy modeled on absolute monarchy, whether it is occupied by a world super-star like John Paul, a culture warrior like Benedict XVI, or a self-confessed sinner like Bergoglio.

The pope still absorbs almost all of the Church’s oxygen. Rome and the Vatican still completely overshadow the local Churches and try to interfere with everything that they do on the home front. Bishops still act like branch managers. ‘My concern’, Hunt says, ‘is that this spate of marvelous press renders it harder, not easier, to make a case for a horizontal model of church.’ She is right; there is a real danger here.



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