My Short-Lived Hope for a More Compassionate Catholic Church

Pope Francis said he objects to “laboratories” where out-of-touch people in power develop solutions to problems they don’t understand. Yet it seems those efforts don't include a willingness to try and understand actual women’s lives.

The Roman Catholic Church isn’t just a church, it is a world power. Catholic priest via Shutterstock

Click here for all our coverage on Pope Francis’ recent comments on abortion, contraception, and homosexuality.

Pope Francis’ recent interview, published in a number of Jesuit journals, has made headlines for his honest statements about how the Catholic hierarchy is “obsessed” with homosexuality, abortion, and contraception. He also said church leaders don’t need to talk about these issues “all the time,” not because it might be moral to marry your partner or use contraception, but because these are not the most important teachings of the church, and everyone is quite clear on where the hierarchy stands.

However, while “Chill out with the gay-bashing” is a nice sentiment, it is not something that brings me a great deal of comfort in light of the immense power of the Roman Catholic Church over laws, governments, and societies around the world.

The Roman Catholic Church isn’t just a church; it is a world power. It has a privileged position in the United Nations, immense political influence in many countries, and vast financial resources. It is currently using that significant power all over the world to deprive women and LGBTQ individuals of equality, self-determination, and health care to an extent few U.S. “cafeteria Catholics” realize. A Catholic living comfortably in a liberal democracy is free to embrace the good things the church does and teaches while rejecting the bad—if he is unlikely to be affected by the bad. For instance, a Catholic who gets her good salary and health insurance from a secular company may not understand how a social worker at Catholic Charities could struggle to afford birth control, let alone how the church’s influence in foreign governments deprives women living in extreme poverty from being able to stop having children, or how the church undermines maternal health efforts like those to end obstetric fistula.

This is why I find Pope Francis’ comments regarding his conception of knowledge radical. “When it comes to social issues, it is one thing to have a meeting to study the problem of drugs in a slum neighborhood and quite another thing to go there, live there and understand the problem from the inside and study it,” he says in the interview. We can’t know what something like poverty is or how to solve it by talking about it in the abstract—in removed “laboratories,” as he puts it; we have to seek the experiences of those who live it. We can’t spout rules and dogma; we have to embrace uncertainty and focus on love. A member of his Jesuit order should be “a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking.” He recognizes having been wrong in the past, describing his leadership as having been “authoritarian” when he was younger. He makes repeated references to individual conscience and the role of the people, as opposed to the hierarchy.

I was wrong, he suggests. We could be wrong. We don’t know. We have to listen to the people affected to know. These are astonishing sentiments from the leader for life of a thousand-year-old institution that invented the concept of “infallibility.” And it’s not the sort of thing I expect to hear from a U.S. bishop or political leader.

Of course, Pope Francis is no progressive or feminist hero. He is a 76-year-old man whose list of people in whom he sees holiness starts with “a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread.” He suggests a priest counseling a mother of five who had an abortion that “weighs heavily on her conscience” should help her move on, without recognizing how much of that weight the church might have put there. (It is unclear if he is even talking about a real woman.) When he references “the sisters who work hard and live a hidden sanctity,” I don’t know if he is saying good nuns keep quiet, or acknowledging the reality that after lifetimes of service, forgotten nuns live in poverty, unable to take daily communion because there aren’t enough priests to perform the sacraments and they aren’t allowed to do it themselves.

How in touch Pope Francis is with the modern world, and the struggles of the people in it, is hard to tell. He makes vague statements about reconsidering the role of women in the church but warns against something he calls “female machismo.” Still, he endorses Vatican II bringing the gospel into the modern world. And he recognizes that older churches, and older people, try to impose their cultural models on younger ones.

What if he really means what he says about the need to “go there, live there and understand the problem from the inside”? A true commitment to this principle, led by Catholics, would completely transform our discourse on the law and the legislation that results. What if, for example, before Cardinal Timothy Dolan filed a lawsuit, he spoke to a couple who needs birth control? What if, before he used his considerable platform to call gay families an “ominous threat,” he broke bread with some? What if, before a 20-week abortion ban passed, legislators listened to the stories of women who needed abortions after that point? Or, before Rick Santorum voted to cut families off of welfare for having too many kids, he visited a new mom who’d be affected? Or, before proposing a $40 billion cut in food stamps, legislators acknowledged the struggles of those depending on them to feed themselves and their children? Likewise, instead of suggesting the detainees at Guantanamo are the worst of the worst, we might have to learn something about the individuals detained there and do even more than wash their feet.

I’ve become accustomed to seeing religion used as a bludgeon to shape the law, most recently in the dozens of lawsuits claiming there is a monolithic Catholic belief about health insurance that includes birth control. Pope Francis’ seeming return to a respect of individual conscience and acknowledgement that he may not have all the answers is shocking in this context; it is a pretty big deal. His comments inspired me to take a hard look at my own dogmas and try to discover my blind spots.

However, the Catholic leader with the most influence on our law and discourse in the United States seems to think there is nothing to see here. Cardinal Dolan does not hear the same message in Pope Francis’ interview that the church has a big problem and needs to do something about it. Instead, Cardinal Dolan hears a call for rebranding, and he has already begun work on this, cultivating an archbishop-you’d-like-to-have-a-beer-with persona while leading the charge to have the church’s most oppressive doctrine enforced by law.

In this CBS News interview, Cardinal Dolan makes it clear he does not think Pope Francis is talking to him. Cardinal Dolan does not seem to think the pope has issued a groundbreaking indictment of the church, a call for self-examination, or even a gentle suggestion that leaders ease up on talking about (and suing over) the rights of women or gay people. He seems to be saying we don’t need substantive change, just a shift in tone—less “finger wagging.” He sees no reason to halt work on getting these teachings—with which the pope says leaders are wrongly obsessed—established in U.S. law. Cardinal Dolan suggests Pope Francis is just calling for the church to revamp its marketing strategy.

I was sad to learn that Cardinal Dolan is in some ways probably right. Days after criticizing church leaders’ abortion obsession, Pope Francis told a group of Catholic gynecologists to refuse to perform abortions. He implied doctors who provide abortions perpetuate a “throwaway culture,” and are not respecting life.

These comments do not exhibit the openness to new information and uncertainty, humility, and trust in the consciences of lay people that the pope’s recent interview had led me to hope for. They dashed even my more meager hope, in the days following his election, that the new pope’s commitment to poverty eradication would leave too little time for attacks on reproductive health care. Instead, unburdened by the reality of what would happen to women if doctors listened to him and stopped performing abortions, Pope Francis gives us the status quo: Whatever the hierarchy says, and has always said, goes.

I would like to take comfort in the fact that, thus far, he is only telling Catholics not to perform abortions, rather than advocating for more laws empowering governments to arrest doctors who do. It would save thousands of women’s lives each year if the church abandoned its global campaign to make abortion a crime and just stuck to telling people it is a sin. But it isn’t only laws that prevent women from getting the health care they need. It was a court that told Beatriz she couldn’t have a life-saving abortion because of El Salvador’s Catholic-led total ban on the procedure, but Savita Halappanavar died because doctors refused her the care she needed.

In order to have compassionate laws and discourse, we have to care enough to understand and speak honestly about how our proposals are likely to work in reality. We have to learn about who they will affect. Pope Francis speaks of uncertainty. He recognizes failings in himself and the church. He sees the dangers of obsessing over “small-minded rules.” He objects to “laboratories” where out-of-touch people in power develop solutions to problems they don’t understand. And yet, Pope Francis’ instructions to doctors suggest the authoritarian is still with us, unwilling to visit the “slum neighborhood” of actual women’s lives.