Pope Francis: Government workers have a right to to refuse same-sex marriages

While Pope Francis was in the United States, he did his best to keep up his “cool dad” persona, avoiding addressing same-sex marriage and abortion for the most part, while prioritizing his more progressive messages on climate change and economic inequality.

But on his way out, Francis reminded everyone that he is, in fact, the head of the largest socially conservative religious institution in the world.

From MSN:

On the flight back to Rome, [Pope Francis] was asked if he supported individuals, including government officials, who refuse to abide by some laws, such as issuing marriage licenses to gays.

“Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right,” Francis said.

While Pope Francis wasn’t specifically referring to Kim Davis, that’s the kind of case he was talking about, and that’s the context in which the question was asked.

As I’ve written before, this is the kind of answer we should expect Pope Francis to give on questions such as these. One man/one woman marriage, with sex reserved to missionary position for procreative purposes only, didn’t magically stop being Catholic social teaching when Pope Francis assumed the papacy. Nor did the idea that God’s law supersedes man’s law. So for Pope Francis to affirm that government employees with sincerely-held religious objections to what they consider unjust laws are not only allowed but correct to refuse to obey such laws is exactly what one would expect him to say on the subject.

But this also serves as a reminder for how big of a gap there is between the Catholic Church and modernity, and how little we need to take the Pope seriously on, well, anything. Forget the social doctrines that stand in stark contrast with secular, liberal democracy; even on the issues where progressives agree with the Pope, there are better, secular justifications for Pope Francis’s positions.

Take climate. As Michael Grunwald wrote yesterday in Politico, while the Pope didn’t say the words “climate change” in his address to Congress, he made frequent references to his 184-page encyclical, Laudato Si, of which climate change is the chief subject. And while Pope Francis (correctly) considers climate change one of the defining issues of our time, his framing of the problem — along with his suggestions for solutions — make little to no sense:

Pope Francis addresses Congress, screenshot via YouTube

Pope Francis addresses Congress, screenshot via YouTube

The pope may be right that we ought to spend less time on the Internet, have fewer abortions, and develop a deeper appreciation of natural beauty, but that kind of individual self-improvement is not going to significantly reduce our combustion of fossil fuels. And while the pope is certainly right to push for more Third World debt relief and less inequality, that could actually make emissions even worse; promoting long-overdue economic growth in the developing world would help it afford to burn more coal, gas and oil.

The truth about reducing emissions is not very spiritual at all. We need clean sources of energy to become cheaper than dirty sources of energy, so that they turn into the norm rather than the exception in a hurry. Then we will no longer contribute to the warming of the planet when we drive to the grocery store or keep ourselves cool or fly across the ocean to address joint sessions of Congress. Perhaps the pope has a point that “genuine care for our own lives and our relationship with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice, and faithfulness to others,” but emissions are really just a numbers game, and the key to lowering the numbers in a meaningful way is to make green electricity and transportation cost-competitive.

Or what about the death penalty? The Pope and I agree that, yes, the death penalty is bad. And while we also agree that it is bad on moral grounds — that forgiveness and hope are better than vengeance — that moral claim is contestable. You can make an argument that there are some crimes deserving of death, and that argument will be as irrefutable as it is subjective. However, what isn’t contestable are the secular, empirical claims that a) even the method of execution largely considered the most “humane” — lethal injection — is in fact extremely torturous and painful, b) the death penalty is far more expensive for the state than life imprisonment and c) most importantly, it inevitably leads to the state executing innocent people. Great aspirations to The Good aside, the religious and moral debates over capital punishment need to give way to secular considerations over whether it is sound public policy. The Pope has neither the interest nor the expertise to go there. We do.

At the end of the day, we shouldn’t be all that surprised when the same Pope who sorta-kinda defended the terrorists who perpetrated the Charlie Hebdo massacre because you can’t make fun of faith has some illiberal thoughts and feelings about whether government employees should be able to exercise their religion while performing their civic functions. His completely predictable preference for religious doctrine over the rule of law shows that we’d do better deciding these matters for ourselves, without the aid of a religious bureaucracy that relies on a 2000 year-old moral code.

But we knew that already.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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