Pope Francis, Don’t Talk to Me About Human Rights

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Oh, Pope Francis. I want to like him. Really, I do. He’s impressed a lot of progressives with his focus on economic justice. That’s an improvement over his predecessor, to be sure. But there are times when I just can’t take him seriously.

For example, Pope Francis recently visited Turkey. While there, he urged leaders to combat religious extremism. According to Raw Story, while addressing Turkish officials he said:

“As religious leaders, we are obliged to denounce all violations against human dignity and human rights… As such, any violence which seeks religious justification warrants the strongest condemnation because the Omnipotent is the God of life and peace.”

He was talking about the violence committed by terrorist groups like ISIS, but it’s hard to see that quote and not get a little angry.

There are plenty of critiques of the concept of human rights to be had. They are imperialist, for example, but if we’re going to accept them as at least aspirational goals, we can’t pick and choose. Pope Francis, however, seems comfortable doing just that.

Specifically, concerns for human rights are subordinated when it comes to the well-being of women.

As Kelly Stewart at the National Catholic Reporter points out, Pope Francis, for all his progressive cred, has been consistent in his regressive attitude toward women. In 2014, women are still considered second-class citizens in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis has made jokes about how women came from the rib of Adam and that women do actually have power in the Church because priests often listen to their housekeepers. Then there is obviously the continued opposition to not only abortion, but artificial birth control.

There was a time when I would have given Pope Francis the benefit of the doubt. He’s so great on so many other issues! Surely he’s just bowing to conservative pressure. I’m not so sure anymore.

An organization as large and entrenched as the Catholic Church isn’t likely to make sweeping changes, especially with something as engrained as its own misogyny. But I do think there are things he could do to at least show he’s trying to give women a fair shot.

First, he could take steps toward the ordination of women. After all, there is a human right to not be discriminated against on the basis of sex. According to a Quinnipiac poll from last year, this wouldn’t be too controversial. (However, that poll just covered American Catholics. The Pope has to represent Catholics worldwide.)

It would take some political bravery on his part, but the ordination of women would go a long way toward showing that women aren’t just some weird, biological necessity with no other value. In fact, if Pope Francis really want to focus on economic justice, equal treatment of women and men in the Church is arguably a necessity:

The struggle over women’s ordination isn’t a culture war issue. It is a movement that shines light on the truth that the Roman Catholic church’s denial of the full equality of women has global consequences. It seeks to dismantle the poverty, abuse and violence that are intricately tied to the systematic belief that women and men are not equal.

Women’s ordination isn’t simply about making women priests. It’s about helping church leaders recognize that if they were to include women in their leadership as their equals, they could truly be a powerful force for economic and social justice for women and children throughout our world.

Or, you know, at least stop excommunicating priests who advocate for such a change. Sheesh.

Second, Pope Francis could signal that it’s OK to ease up on shaming women for using contraception. If a theme to his papacy is mercy, then this seems like a no-brainer. Not only is access to contraception good economically – which could help raise people out of poverty — it also decreases the abortion rate by preventing unwanted pregnancies to begin with.

This can also save women’s lives. According to the World Health Organization, poverty is one of the main causes of maternal mortality. It can also insulate women from unsafe abortions that account for about 8 percent of maternal deaths.

The Catholic Church could do this and not change its stance on abortion. Contraceptives, despite what the anti-choice brigade wants you to believe, don’t cause abortions. You can still be anti-choice and pro-contraceptives. Those two stances really go hand in hand. Lest you think that this can’t possibly be a human right, I think it falls neatly under Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, specifically the right to adequate medical care for everyone, especially pregnant women and children.

This all sounds like a pipe dream. But when you’ve made it your business to cast women as naturally and perpetually subordinate to men for the last 2000 years, you need to do big things to make up for it. It’s great that we’re seeing a more compassionate and progressive Catholic Church on economic issues. We need more voices like that. However, until I see some real gestures toward gender equality, Pope Francis is not allowed to talk to me about human rights.

Mindy Townsend; Care2; 5 December 2014