In the News 2013
At The Threshold

Looking for a Pope Who Will Change Direction

Every time there’s a papal election, Catholics and non-Catholics alike turn their eyes to Rome, and sometimes wonder why they do so. Those who are not Catholic, and those who are, may feel alienated by what they hear from the Vatican when a pope is firmly in place, so why pay attention to cardinals jockeying (secretly) for power? The reason is that the person who sits on the Throne of St. Peter matters. Though he may reside in tiny Vatican City, the pope and his representatives are in nearly everyone’s backyard: through the global reach of Catholic healthcare, a privileged role at the United Nations, as the head of a church a billion strong, and because what he says generally makes the papers. And though we don’t have a vote in the conclave, when the white smoke billows out of the Sistine Chapel, we all have a stake in the result.

For example, Catholic healthcare provides approximately 25 percent of all AIDS care worldwide. Here you can see some of the best of Catholic values in practice, but unfortunately they are often held back by some of the hierarchy’s worst ideas. As pretty much everyone knows, doctors, nurses, and counselors at Catholic facilities are often forbidden to distribute condoms as part of HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment programs. So despite the best intentions of healthcare providers, and notwithstanding the fact that the money used for these programs comes from many people who absolutely know condoms are critical in the fight against AIDS, patients just can’t get what they need because the Vatican bans condoms.

Over the years, the hierarchy has had some problems articulating a sensible reason for the ban, and our last two popes made somewhat contradictory statements about condoms. The last pope, when visiting Africa in 2007, told us condoms make AIDS epidemic worse, building on the false claim made years earlier by a prominent Cardinal who claimed that the AIDS virus passes through condoms. However, in an interview in 2010, Pope Benedict made two game changing public recognitions: (1) condoms work to help prevent AIDS, and (2) the use of condoms to prevent HIV transmission is a moral choice, “a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.” Significantly, though many have tried to cover over Benedict’s guarded approval of condoms with the Vatican’s signature brand of double-speak, the pope, for his part, never retracted his words, indeed, through his spokesperson, he reaffirmed them.

Pope Benedict inched in the right direction on condom use, but dug in the heels of his famous red shoes on other sexual and reproductive health and rights issues. He has called abortion and same-sex marriage among the “most insidious and dangerous challenges that today confront the common good.” He described same-sex attraction as “a deviation” and an “irregularity.” In 2012 there was his use of the word “arrogant” to describe people who receive fertility treatments and the doctors who provide them.

Some of these themes, stable throughout Benedict’s papacy, took on a new edge when the Vatican launched its investigation into a group of nuns. Just why the Leadership Conference of Women Religious fell under scrutiny is still unclear, other than that the good sisters have apparently not devoted enough attention to anti-marriage equality and antiabortion activities. The ongoing saga is yet another example of the Vatican using women—in this case, some hard-working women religious—as the ground for its doctrinal battles. But women can be much more for the church if those at the top, starting with the pope, would only listen.
Perhaps Benedict has had to protest so vehemently against so many aspects of reproductive health because he does have a sense of just how many of the faithful believe otherwise. For instance, in the United States, Catholic women have abortions and use contraception at similar rates as other American women. In Spain, there is strong, widespread support for abortion to be legal in a range of diverse circumstances women may face. Over eight in ten Spaniards believe abortion should be legal when a pregnancy poses a serious threat to a woman’s life (87%), when it poses a serious threat to a woman’s physical or mental health (86%), or is the result of rape or incest (82%). Another 79% believe abortion should be legal if test results show fetal malformation. A 2008 opinion poll showed that nearly 70 percent of Chileans (the vast majority of whom are Catholic) said they would want their daughters to take emergency contraception after unprotected sex and more than four-fifths of urban Mexican Catholics (85 percent) think hospitals and public clinics should offer emergency contraception to women who have been raped while 73 percent think it should be offered to women who have had unprotected sex. And in a five-country survey, more than six in ten Catholics from all five countries say Catholic hospitals that receive government funding should be required to provide condoms to prevent AIDS and HIV. And, in each of the five nations, Catholics see condom use for AIDS prevention as a pro-life measure.

Pope Benedict’s many disparaging statements about women who do choose abortion mean that these Catholics’ experiences are ignored, unacknowledged and sometimes demonized. Many of these people sit in the pews, are harangued about their conscience-led choices, and feel silenced by the church they love.

Looking ahead to the next papacy, the line of those seeking a pope who will listen to them is long: women who have abortions; couples who want to use reliable family planning methods; everyone who supports the individual conscience as the proper authority to choose these services; healthcare providers; LGBT people; patients at Catholic-run facilities who need access to condoms or emergency contraception or an abortion; and the citizens and policymakers who vote in favor of these rights. A step by the new pope in the right direction for any of us in that list would definitely make the papers—and in the best possible way.

This article was originally published by At the Threshold.

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