Last week Pope Francis shocked the world with comments saying that the Catholic Church had become “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception:
“It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.
We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
While his comments do not represent a formal change in church policy, they could represent a changing tone on these issues that would be more reflective of the beliefs of its membership, particularly in the United States. Polling has shown that 82% of Catholics believe that birth control is “morally acceptable” and 63% of Catholics opposed overturning Roe v. Wade and support maintaining a woman’s right to choose. More surprisingly, perhaps, 98% of Catholic women who have had sex have used a contraceptive other than natural family planning.
Unfortunately what the Catholic faithful think and what the church hierarchy thinks are not always the same. This dynamic has played out in the United States in numerous ways with the most recent iteration being the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which among other things would ensure that women have access to birth control with no co-pay. While most Catholics find birth control “morally acceptable,” and have used contraceptives, the Catholic bishops have fought tenaciously to prevent as many women as possible from accessing this benefit.
On an international level the Catholic Church has a huge impact at the United Nations where since 1964 the Holy See, the diplomatic representative of the Catholic Church, has had non-member state status. The Catholic Church is the only religion to be granted this status, with other religions only allowed to participate as non-governmental organizations. This enables the Holy See to have a disproportionate impact at the United Nations. As most policy is adopted by consensus at the U.N., dissent by the Holy See can easily throw a monkey wrench into international deliberations. The Holy See has been particularly intransigent on issues related to reproductive rights and LGBTQ issues. Recently the Holy See almost prevented final approval of a consensus outcome document at the Commission on the Status of Women that focused on violence against women.
While I am sure the Pope’s comments do not mean a change in church doctrine, particularly in light of the comments that he made on Friday to a group of Catholic gynecologists, they may mean the Holy See will be less obstreperous on these issues. That would be particularly welcome news at the United Nations, where member countries are starting to formulate a post-2015 development agenda. The new development goals must include women’s rights and access to reproductive health services.
So will Pope Francis’s comments represent a real See-change or will we see more of the same? Stay tuned.
Posted by Jennie Wetter, Director of Public Policy