Pope Francis and the Possibility of Change

I’ve loved Pope Francis from the moment I heard NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli and the rest of the MSM stumble during the announcement of his election. There’s nothing like a dark horse taking off with the race. I loved him when he asked a blessing from the crowd before he blessed them, loved him more when a text from a priest friend asked me what I was going to do with “the fact that the Pope rides the bus” (“HE RIDES THE BUS????” I texted back, nearly apoplectic), and of course, I loved him when he walked out on the loggia with the demeanor of a guy coming to your picnic.

Pope Francis I appears on the central balcony
Hi. I’m the Pope. So nice to meet you all.
(Image courtesy of fmcmissions.com)

In spite of my natural bent toward skepticism (all that journalism training), my admiration has only grown as reports come in about Pope Francis declining to live in the Papal apartments and calling his Buenos Aries paperman to cancel delivery of his paper and celebrating Holy Thursday in a detention center for youth. The latter has caused all manner of bloggers to get their boxers in a twist over PFI washing the feet of – gasp! – a woman.

And here I must diverge briefly to yell across the blogosphere to this guy and this guy and especially this guy since he seems to think the Pope is sowing confusion instead of setting an example of priests (and bishops and popes) as servants of all the people. You know, guys, all people, even those of us with double X chromosomes. Must I remind you that Jesus hung out with women all the dang time? That the first witnesses to the resurrection were women, who took the message to the scared-poopless-in-the-upper-room men? That a woman washed Jesus’ feet at one point, causing scandal to the men around him but not phasing the Savior himself? Good gravy, guys: Please — get over yourselves.

Ah. Now I feel better. So I can get to this teeny, tiny challenge I have for the Holy Father. PFI has spoken many times since taking office that he cares deeply for two things: the poor and the environment. He has said, in essence, that we humans are not real good at taking care of the least among us or Mother Earth.

Christiana Z. Peppard, an assistant professor of Theology, Science & Ethics at Fordham University, wrote recently in a Washington Post essay that the pope is “guiding the global church towards two major right-to-life issues: poverty and the environment.” Then, for good measure, she added, “Take heed: it’s not just about prophylaxis.” Instead, she argues, it is about excess greed and the unbridled pursuit of corporate profits. I agree, but I’ll go out on the Crazy Limb here and say it is also about prophylaxis – or, in layperson’s terms, birth control. And in this lies my teeny, tiny challenge for the Pope I love.

You see, Holy Father, even if we came up with a way feed all the humans in the world (super rice is one example of this sort of thinking), we would still be failing to care for the earth because the earth can only support so many humans while she is also supporting animals, insects, oceans, forests and everything that isn’t human but – according to both Genesis and the theory of evolution – came before humans and makes life something other than this horrible struggle:

Drought in Africaeffects_of_east_african_drought

Part – not all, but a good part – of the problem with the degradation of our environment and massive poverty has to do with unbridled population in parts of the world that cannot even sustain the population they now have. And part – not all, but part – of the problem in some of those countries is that the institutional Church fights any and all efforts to give access to artificial birth-control or education about same.

Yes, I know the Church offers Natural Family Planning to these destitute persons. It is a method that is quite accurate if – and only if – a woman’s cycle is regular, her husband cooperative and – as any honest Catholic women will attest – the wife doesn’t mind the fact that she has to abstain from sex during the one time of month she really wants it. It is also a difficult method to learn, something the Church seems to ignore when offering it up to women in illiterate and starving countries. Starvation, by the way, also throws off a woman’s cycle.

Catholics are not, contrary to what some believe, told to have as many kids as we can. We are instructed to plan our families around how many children we believe we can support financially, physically and emotionally. Since Vatican II, we’ve even been encouraged to consider the impact of family size on the environment. Still, offering married Catholics only one option for contraception – see limitations above again – the Church sets itself apart from other Christian religions and negatively affects the environment by inadvertently encouraging over-population in certain areas of the world.

As Father Andrew Greeley and other clerics pointed out numerous times, the Church (sadly, IMHO) lost its moral voice on sexual matters with Catholics in the developed world when She rejected the majority recommendation of the papal birth control commission. (The sexual abuse crisis hasn’t helped matters much, either.) Married Catholics in vast numbers simply ignore what the Church says in regard to married sexuality and still participate as lectors, religious education teachers, Eucharistic ministers, choir leaders, confirmation sponsors (and more!) in their local parishes. In fact, as the matriarch of one “very Catholic” family I know said, if every man and woman in the average U.S. congregation who uses some form of artificial contraception were to abstain from Mass one Sunday, the churches would be nearly empty. Pastors don’t ask their parishioners to do this, of course, because these “contraceptors” are also the people who donate the most time and money to the parish. Such a quandary.

But Mother Church still has great moral voice regarding sexual matters in developing countries, and it is there that She could do some real good both in terms of helping the environment and the poor. Perhaps, Pope Francis will consider martial birth control education and access to artificial contraception to allow these women the choice – not the requirement, but the choice – to limit family size and, in so doing, save both their children and earth upon which they live.

I know this is a big, big can of worms. If you doubt me, just ask any of the still-living members of the aforementioned commission. And please realize I’m not a big fan of hormonal birth control because I think there’s good evidence that millions of females dumping estrogen into the water supply through their urine ain’t a good idea for our environment either. That said, there are non-hormonal methods of birth control and rumor has it scientists have been working on a male pill that will have fewer negative environmental effects. Something must be done. We can’t put our heads in the sand about the total population — humans and all the other creatures St. Francis so loved as God’s creation — the earth can safely sustain. It isn’t all about prophylaxis; greed and consumption must be addressed as well. But some of it is about prophylaxis. And it is that part the Holy Father could help with if he’s up for the teeny, tiny challenge of considering a change in the teaching on artificial contraception in marriage.

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4 thoughts on “Pope Francis and the Possibility of Change

  1. Such a great read and lots of interesting points. I’ll have to come back and click through the reference links!

    There is one flaw if your “very Catholic” friend’s argument. Pastors don’t ask “contraceptors” to abstain from Mass because they donate time and money to the parish, yes. But also because it is the mission of the Church to be inclusive and inviting of all people, including those it believes to be sinning. Even if Jesus had some kind of hard-ass birth control beliefs, even then I don’t believe he would say “Birth control? Condoms? Then you can’t come to MY church.”

    • Actually, Kyle, there are priests who do say, from the pulpit, that you shouldn’t receive communion or be a minister if you use birth control. They are rare, but they are there. And, they would argue, they are right.

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