If the Pope Wanted to Help the Poor, He’d Be a Feminist

(Photo: Alfredo Borba)

Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square 

By all accounts, Pope Francis can claim his recent tour of South America as a great success. News reports were largely fawning, and the throngs who greeted him came away feeling that he heard their plight, addressed in his message decrying the ravages of capitalism.

Likewise, environmentalists of all (and no) religious convictions are enthralled by the pontiff’s evangelism on the topic of climate change, a development destined to irritate right-wing Catholics in the United States, who take with theological certainty the lies advanced by the mouthpieces of the fossil-fuel industries—those laughable claims that the warming of the earth, and all of the disruption that comes with it, have little or nothing to do with the effects of carbon emissions.

But as the pope’s messages on climate and capitalism enchant progressive types, their enthusiasm for the man in white poses a harsh danger to progress for women, and to economic progress for all people in the developing world.


WHILE FRANCIS MAY BE, as E.J. Dionne wrote in the pages of the Prospect, “a radical pope,” he is hardly a progressive. One thing he is, though, for certain: the greatest salesman of the faith since Paul of Tarsus, the man known to Christians as St. Paul.

If the Roman Catholic Church is to survive, it must grow. In the West, the numbers of practicing Catholics have dwindled since the mid-20th century, as sexual mores changed, and women made strides toward achieving equality.

Meanwhile, in the developing world, the Church faces challenges posed by the allure of other faiths.

In Latin America, the Catholic Church can no longer take its hegemony for granted: Evangelical Protestant sects, particularly in the Pentecostal traditions, have made significant inroads, especially as Catholic culture moved away from mystical practices. At the same time, Rome’s refusal to budge on its demand of priestly celibacy left the church with a dearth of priests, who alone are empowered to perform the most mystical of rites: the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of the Savior.

In Africa, Rome faces competition for the hearts of worshippers both from evangelical Protestants and the proselytizers of Islam.

Catholics in the U.S. once provided all forms of sustenance to Holy Mother Church: Unmoored from the Church’s bloody history in Europe, reverence extended beyond the faith to the very institution of the Church. Collection plates overflowed as the descendants of the working poor who fled Europe at the turn of the 20th century found their way into the middle class, thanks to labor unions and the G.I. Bill. But now, for many of those who still attend church, the faith is but an expression of culture, its more stringent and oppressive demands quietly ignored. And here the so-called “lapsed Catholic” is its own distinctive religious designation.

The American Church’s social conservatives comprise but a remnant of a once-robust church, and if their sensibilities are ruffled by the pope’s gentle language about gay people, his warnings on ecological peril, and his indictment of global capitalism, more’s the better for the Church, whose growth depends on its allure to those who live under capitalism’s boot. It is they who stand to lose the most as sea levels rise, and volatile weather threatens their way of life.

Yet the Church remains intransigent on virtually any vestige of equality for women. Ask any honest director of a non-governmental organization that focuses on economic development, and she’ll tell you that fundamental to economic progress for all people is the empowerment of women. When women can read, their families thrive; when they can control their own fertility the society benefits economically. In places where women lead throughout society, even at the micro-level (as in running small businesses), standards of living increase for all.

An institution that bars women from leadership conveys the message that women are not fully human. No leader of such an institution, especially one who has expressed his assent to that barrier, as Francis has, should ever be taken as a progressive. But with his climate encyclical and anti-capitalist rhetoric, he stirs the hearts of progressives, who then lend cover to the Church’s unendingly misogynist ideology.

Take Naomi Klein, for example. So taken was she with her invitation to address a conference at the Vatican on the subject of climate change that the Shock Doctrine author mistook her introduction to attendees as “a secular feminist” to mean something profound. In fact, she thought she was there because there aren’t enough prominent Catholics to carry the climate message, when actually she was more likely brought there to convey the message, by the fact of her presence, that, hey, the Church really isn’t so bad when it comes to that pesky women problem.

In her report for The New Yorker on her visit to Rome, she’s agog over the pope’s invocation of the language of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, particularly the part where he refers to the earth as our mother and sister. But the Church has long used the female imagery to depict non-human things (notably the Holy Mother Church, an institution whose leadership is open only to men), and has always used the image of the mother to impart the notion that long-suffering fecundity and meekness is a woman’s lot. While the pope’s revival of Saint Francis’s sanctification of nature may be unusual in modern times, there’s nothing new in its equating of women with nature. Just go to any old-timey Catholic church on May Day, when statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary are bedecked with flowers.

Were the pope truly committed to rolling back the damage wrought by global capitalism in its present, unregulated state, he would not preside over an institution that models for the world the subjugation of women, and deems that subjugation to be a holy thing. He’s already expressed his concurrence with the barring of women from church leadership by nixing the idea of women priests. There is unlikely to be any movement, on his watch, on the church’s opposition to contraception.

By all measures, Francis is a remarkable pope. But his primary aim is to revitalize the Church, not to do what it will really take to lift up the poor. For that to happen, the empowerment of the world’s women is required. And in that, the pope has no apparent interest.

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