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Conscience Magazine

Popey Changey?

By Jon O’Brien January 26, 2015

There is absolutely no doubt that even in the short duration of this papacy, Pope Francis has brought an invigorating feeling back to the Catholic church. There’s something refreshing about a pope who embraces us with a pastoral hug, rather than hitting us with a political rebuke. It should not be surprising in a church that has often felt incredibly cold—and has condemned and shut out so many—that any sign of warmth is heralded as revolutionary.

The list of Catholics who have fallen short according to the hierarchy’s absolutism is long and includes all of us. What about the people who have been divorced and remarried who are told they can’t receive Communion? What about the people who are lesbian or gay, who are told they are “intrinsically disordered”? What about the women who have made a decision to have an abortion and have been told they have greatly sinned? What about the majority of Catholics who use birth control in defiance of the church hierarchy’s claim that good Catholics should not?

Pope Francis puts a lot of weight on community and relationships. Previous papacies were totally stuck in the pelvic zone, while Francis thankfully seems to be putting a greater emphasis on social justice. It’s no surprise, therefore, when the contrast is so great between a mean church and a seemingly generous one, that this pope is the darling of the press corps and has graced the covers of publications from Rolling Stone to Time Magazine. There’s a question on the lips of everyone at every water cooler—including atheists and others totally disinterested in religion—“Is Francis really a great guy?”

There has been speculation whether the Pope Francis effect is simply a great public relations job. After scandals that have rocked the Catholic church, change was essential and urgent. However, from talking to those who have the opportunity to observe him up close, I have reached the conclusion that this isn’t all holy smoke and mirrors—it’s not without substance. There is something genuine about the man called Francis that is more pastoral and less political.

Francis’ pastoral approach is like asking someone over for dinner, but not allowing her to eat.

 I think he is legitimately concerned about peace in the world and the social justice call to heal people’s broken hearts. He speaks to those concerns in a way that we haven’t heard for a very long time in our church. I don’t think you can fake sincerity in the way that he has tried to live it. I think we should work from the premise that this is real and he is an interesting man. He’s bringing a different feel to the papacy, but based on what has actually done and what he has said, healthy skepticism is in order. The critical question is—how he is actually going to bring about change? Most importantly, how is he going to bring change for women, one of the most marginalized groups in the church.

It’s been our contention at Catholics for Choice that Pope Francis has a blind spot, and that blind spot is women. It’s not surprising when you consider that he is someone who has spent his life in a clerical hothouse surrounded by priests, an all-male world in which women are famously excluded. I think that inevitably leads to not seeing women, their needs and desires or the reality of their lives in quite the same way as those who are not part of the elite priesthood. However, if you’re committed to social justice, social justice for women should be the forefront of your mind.

And no, it is just not good enough to say that Francis deserves a break—poverty, war and immigration are the issues he is focusing on right now. All that is great. However, half of the people in our church are discriminated against solely because they are women—and women just can’t wait. There is no justice in expecting them to do so.

So far, Francis’ pastoral approach is like asking someone over for dinner, but not allowing her to eat.


There was a moment of hope at the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October, when Francis said in his opening remarks, “No one must say: ‘This can’t be said….’” After meeting on a number of issues—such as family planning, divorce and remarriage in the church, cohabitation before marriage, same-sex marriage and who can receive Communion—that hope accelerated when an interim draft of the relatio was released. The draft included a section on “welcoming homosexual persons.” When the final draft was released, however, it was revised to say only that the church should be “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony.”

Despite many people projecting their own hope for change onto Pope Francis, there was no real change to come out of the synod. After the first round of deliberations, the sad fact is that the hierarchy of the church upheld natural family planning, clung onto the failure that is Humanae Vitae and opposed same-sex marriage. To be sure, the tone is different, but it’s not real change.

The relatio is only a summary of the conversations of 253 attendees—only 25 of whom were women—during the week of the synod. It’s a beginning of a long process. The relatio concludes with, “These are not decisions that have been made or simply points of view.”

It’s fair to say that the synod participants did begin to face up to what has been going on in real women’s lives for decades, but they did not confess to the institutional culpability that they perpetuate every day. It’s clear their interpretation of doctrine hasn’t changed. To have a more pastoral approach is not without value to those who feel hurt and marginalized, but when they said “welcome gays” they did not mean the church is no longer equating “gay” with “sin.”


When Francis was first appointed, there was some media speculation that he would not oppose contraception if it would help stop the spread of an infection, like HIV. However, that’s directly contradictory to his actions when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires. There, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio clashed with the Argentinean government over his opposition to free distribution of contraceptives.

There have been also reports that Francis shows “deep compassion” for those living with HIV & AIDS, such as when he visited a hospice in 2001 to kiss and wash the feet of 12 AIDS patients. Granted, this is a warmer approach than that of previous papacies.

When he calls women theologians “the strawberries on the cake,” he is insulting their lives, careers and purpose.

However, kissing the feet of patients is not showing “deep compassion” when you refuse to give the same people the proper tools to protect themselves and their partners.

The reality is, Francis still supports the 1968 papal encyclical. In an interview with an Italian newspaper, Francis affirmed that he loves Humanae Vitae. In fact, he even beatified the pope who used it to reject the consensus that contraception was permissible. According to Francis, Pope Paul VI had the “courage to take a stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a cultural restraint, to oppose present and future neo-Malthusianism.” Unfortunately, the majority he stood against was the birth control commission’s bishops, priests, theologians and lay couples who affirmed that change in church teaching on contraception was totally possible.

Those are not the words of a pope who will spearhead real doctrinal change on contraception. Rather, he will just shore up his brother bishops. All of this is despite the fact that majority of Catholics around the world openly dissent from the hierarchy’s teaching on the issue.


Though Francis usually keeps his remarks to other social justice issues, he has taken the hierarchy’s status quo stance against abortion. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Francis wrote that “the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question.” He also said that those who have an abortion decide “to deny [fetuses] their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases.” He fails to acknowledge the dignity of women and their right to follow their conscience when making decisions about their reproductive health.

In a recent speech to the members of the Italian Catholic Doctors Association, the pope denounced individuals who are prochoice as having a “false sense of compassion.” Curiously, he said that abortion “is a scientific problem, because there is a human life and it’s not lawful to take a human life to solve a problem.” He ignores the centrality of conscience in Catholic teaching while urging doctors to take a “courageous and against-the-grain” stance to uphold the hierarchy’s position on abortion, even if it meant using “conscientious objection” to deny people the services they need.


After Vatican II, which blew fresh air through the Vatican and through our church, many Catholics have felt those windows have been firmly shut and the door barred. They have felt that the hierarchy is ignoring the realities of the lives of everyday women. It is not surprising that many in the church today, especially those who have been rejected, cast aside, and silenced by the institution, long for the hierarchy to embrace the church (and we are the church) where it really is.

In reality, what Pope Francis has said on women and issues that affect them—such as birth control, same-sex marriage and abortion—is business as usual, and not the change we’re so desperate for. We can see his utterances about women as the words of a benign aging grandfather. However, when he calls women theologians “the strawberries of the cake,” he is insulting their lives, careers and purpose. Francis is the head of a major institution, and when he talks about women in this antiquated way, he suggests that he has an obsolete way of thinking about women.

We can make the mistake of projecting our deep belief that change must come through Francis. However, he falls short of the real change that Catholics need in order to be close to the church. I really don’t know whether Francis has the leadership abilities to bring the laity and the hierarchy together for the serious work that would mean real social justice for women in the church. That’s the change that Catholics need and what our church really craves. In the interim, Catholics around the world will get on with our lives as we have always done. We will have sex with whoever we want, use birth control, have abortions, be gay. My hope is that one day, the hierarchy will catch up with us. Until then, ordinary Catholics will—I hope and pray—be the change that women need. That all of us need. We will be at the front and center of our church, leading the way for truth and social justice for all.

Jon O’Brien
Jon O’Brien

is president of Catholics for Choice, where he promotes reproductive health policies in which every woman has the right to decide the future of her pregnancy according to her conscience, and the resources and access to exercise her choice freely. A lifelong Catholic and advocate, he is a leader in developing local, national and global strategies on sexual and reproductive health and rights issues with an emphasis on social justice.