Pope Francis’ reputation as the progressive new voice of Catholicism was strengthened last week, as he weighed in on the growing Zika virus crisis. Esteemed broadsheet Teen Vogue ran with the headline ‘Pope Francis Says He’s Cool With Birth Control Now’, going on to describe how the Pope has “made history” by condoning women rebelling against the church’s ban on unnatural contraception. In fact, all he said was that “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil”, in cases such as the Latin American women faced with the Zika epidemic. And this was only in response to a question asking whether birth control might be, in the Catholic credo of “the lesser of two evils”, better than abortion as a way of avoiding giving birth to a baby infected with the virus. Inspiring.
Despite the apparent tenuousness of the link much of the media seems to find between ‘endorsing’ birth control and saying it is “not an absolute evil”, perhaps we should make allowances for those who believe the quote points to the end of the Church’s ban on reproductive rights. After all, compared to his predecessors’ opinions on the subject, Pope Francis saying that contraception is anything less than an abhorrent abomination is positively liberal. Probably the biggest controversy surrounding the Church’s stance on birth control has been in the condom ban in Africa at the heart of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
While evidence has proven condom use to drastically reduce the infection rate, and ‘abstinence only’ sex education to be ineffective, Pope Benedict XVI spread the lie to African bishops in 2009 that AIDS ‘cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems’. In his own visit to Africa the following year, Pope Francis softened the rules in a similar way to his current commentary on the Zika virus, stating that condoms could possibly be used in ‘justified individual cases’. However, the statement was as hollow then as it continues to be.
He did not lift the ban then and he hasn’t now, and while his attitude may seem progressive – that is, compared to previous Popes—it is still anti-contraception, anti-choice and, by extension, anti-women. In a world in which there are 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, 40 per cent of whom are in Latin America, having an at best ambiguous stance on contraception and continuing to call abortion ‘a crime, an absolute evil’ (as the Pope did last week) is not only ignorant, but dangerous.
The Pope’s refusal to accept birth control use for anything other than special circumstances of infection not only endangers women’s lives but betrays a fundamental hypocrisy in his own beliefs. In moves that established and entrenched his status as the ‘progressive Pope’, Pope Francis has spoken out against poverty and climate change. Yet these are two problems that could be vastly improved by giving women unlimited access to family planning resources. Giving people the ability to choose when to have children means they have better educational opportunities, and therefore a far greater chance of breaking the generational cycle of poverty. Birth control would also help to slow population growth to a sustainable level, a hugely important step which would, according to Rebecca Ruiz in Mashable, ‘directly affect our chances of withstanding climate change’. By continuing to prohibit the use of contraception, Pope Francis is willfully ignorant of the truth: that allowing women, particularly in more impoverished nations, to use birth control would help in the fight against the very issues he is passionate about. This hypocrisy reveals the extent of the misogyny in the Church.
It is interesting that Pope Francis is—perhaps rightly—viewed as progressive in many other areas, but cannot make the same advancement for women. It’s as if denying women’s rights is so ingrained in the Roman Catholic belief system that it’s seemingly impossible for him to do anything other than make vague remarks on the issue. This would hardly be noteworthy for any other religious leader; we are used to misogyny being a significant part of most religions, Catholicism included. But this Pope is supposed to be different. His record of changing the Church’s more conservative rules is extensive, having envisioned an ‘inclusive church’, holding bishops and cardinals accountable for sex abuse (for the first time), and emphasising the allegiance of his church to the poor rather than the elite. He has spoken out against the ‘cult of money’ controlling the financial system, and clashed with Donald Trump this week after calling his crazed wall-building rhetoric “not Christian” in Mexico. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, is a “big fan” (according to Allan Smith in Business Insider), calling the Pope’s views on income inequality a “very radical critique of the hyper-capitalist world system we’re living in today.” The fact that Pope Francis cannot have the same liberal mindset when it comes to reproductive rights, as he does for all the other issues he has spoken out against, exposes how entrenched sexism in the Catholic Church really is.
Essentially, it is not just the Pope himself but the entire Roman Catholic Church and belief system that needs to change its position towards women. The Pope is important because he is the figurehead and spokesperson for the organisation. Any man preaching against women’s reproductive rights is always exhausting and demeaning, but when it is the Pope— whose worldly influence is insurmountable, and who is perceived by many as a liberal icon—it becomes far more problematic. Ultimately, ‘progressive Pope’ is something of an oxymoron. The heart of the Vatican and the Catholic Church is riddled with misogyny.