Let’s begin with a qualifier: us saying the Pope is better for women than Republicans does not mean we think the Pope is some new progressive superhero. He’s got 2000 years of dogmatic baggage to contend with. He believes people — including those in third world countries where HIV and overpopulation are serious problems — shouldn’t use artificial means of birth control (condoms, the Pill, etc). Abortion, premarital sex, gay marriage are all still no-no’s. He is Catholic, after all. But what’s made Pope Francis the crush of the decade for so many liberals (including atheists like Bill Maher) is his willingness to consider the vastness of people’s experiences, to see the other side of things, to at least try not to judge, and to give up the black & white for, if not fifty, then at least a few shades of grey.
Let’s take his latest decree: for the Church’s upcoming Jubilee celebration (which will read “The Year of Mercy” on the tour t-shirts) from December 2015 through November 2016, the Pope is granting all priests the power to forgive women who have terminated unwanted or unsafe pregnancies (it usually takes a bishop for that kind of heavy lifting). It’s like the Holy Roman Empire is having a sale on abortion forgiveness! For a limited time only, you too can save your soul from eternal damnation, but you’ve got to act fast! This offer with participating priests expires on November 26th of next year. See your local clergyman for details.
Leaving alone the the absurdity of the idea that only a handful of men will now have the divine power to absolve the sin of abortion for repentant Catholic women on Saturday, November 26th but not on Sunday, Nov 27th, we can still at least appreciate the gesture. The pope wrote in a letter on the topic on September 1st, 2015, “I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope. The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented…”
He’s made it clear: abortion is still wrong in the eyes of the Church and God. But by emphasizing reconciliation over excommunication, mercy over punishment, forgiveness over judgement, all through the prism of empathy for the plights of countless women, he’s indirectly and perhaps inadvertently giving them some credit for their own tough choices. He’s offering a little wiggle room. It’s as if he’s saying, “Let’s not be total dicks about this.”
Compare this to the incredibly callous, hardline approach to abortion that not one, not two, but at least four Republican presidential candidates have taken: Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker think abortion should be outlawed in all circumstances, with no exceptions for rape or incest, and according to Rubio and Walker, no exceptions for even the health — indeed, the life — of the mother. Let’s unpack this a bit, as philosopher Sam Harris did in a recent podcast: this means that if an 11 eleven year old were raped and impregnated by her father with very good chances that either she or the fetus would die of complications, Rubio and Walker still believe the little girl should be forced to see the pregnancy through to its natural end. They believe a few cells are not just as important, but more important, than the 11 year old. Because God.
By explaining the mysterious and setting the ground rules, religion gives people comfort and purpose in a vast, chaotic universe. But its myopathy and stubbornness in the face of facts and reason have led to more harm than good. This is the 21st century, a golden age of science and innovation, and yet four viable candidates for president of the United States steadfastly believe zygotes have the same rights, if not more, than young women. It’s a sexist affront to women, reified by the fact that the majority of those running have voted against equal pay laws. Rick Santorum has said contraception “is not okay“; Huckabee thinks the government giving women access to affordable birth control means it thinks women “cannot control their libido.” Republicans are threatening to shut down the government in order to defund the one organization that does more to reduce unwanted pregnancies and prevent abortions than any other in the country. The state of Texas has already gone there, denying 147,000 low-income women their only source of medical care, with another 130,000 more at risk for losing care in the near future: we’re talking family planning, well checkups, STD tests, breast and cervical cancer screenings (a whopping 90+ percent of what Planned Parenthood does!). You’d expect this kind of stuff from a pope, but not from political leaders in a country founded on the separation of church and state.
And while Pope Francis is no liberal, he’s at least willing to tone down the rhetoric: He may not believe in artificial contraception, but he’s down with the rhythm method and doesn’t want you spawning “like rabbits” (he’s talking to you, the Duggars); he may not believe in gay marriage, but he’s open to some kinds of civil unions; he wants other Catholic leaders to stop focusing on abortion, contraception and gay issues, saying “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time”; in that same interview, he said, “I’ve never been a right winger.” (And we haven’t even touched on his call for action on climate change!)
Sure, Frank is trying to sell Catholicism to a wider audience by playing down its most divisive teachings. Some might call that cynical (“Just ignore the Man behind the curtain”). We’d call it more inclusive, moderate, open-minded and modern. The Republican presidential candidates, on the other hand, are trying to appeal to their evangelical base by playing up the most divisive issues, which is definitely cynical. We think the Pope’s got the better method for winning over the greatest number of hearts: use honey, not vinegar.