I don’t expect Pope Francis to be a social liberal. I do expect illiberal Catholic doctrines to be challenged.

Last week, Pope Francis’s announcement that, during the upcoming Year of Jubilee, priests would be able to offer absolution for women who have had abortions reminded everyone how nonsensical and immoral the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion is in the first place. The Pope’s announcement came at about the same time that the Vatican issued a statement declaring that it is “impossible” for trans people to serve as godparents.

Both of these cases seem to cut against the argument that Pope Francis is the papal equivalent of a “cool dad,” who’s willing to shrug his shoulders on silly rules that don’t matter (on being gay: “who am I to judge?“) as long as we get the big questions right (on unfettered capitalism: it’s “dung of the devil” that constitutes a “new colonialism“). Saying nice things about LGBT people, one would think, wouldn’t matter much without material changes to Church doctrine, which is decidedly not-nice to people who aren’t straight and male.

Then again, maybe none of the above matters. As Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig argued in The New Republic earlier today, complaints like mine miss the point because Pope Francis has a whole world of Catholics to shepherd, and other issues matter more. As she began her post:

The American gay publication, the Advocate, named Pope Francis their 2013 person of the year.

The Advocate named Pope Francis their 2013 person of the year.

If Pope Francis single-handedly ended global poverty tomorrow through some sudden miracle, there would still be liberal malcontents prepared to attack him for maintaining traditionally Catholic views on some of the pet issues of the Anglophone center-left. Complaints about Pope Francis’s old-fashioned backwardness are especially tied up in his failure to qualify as a good center-left feminist. There is still a healthy contingent of liberal writers who call with depressing regularity for Pope Francis to think more like an American Democrat, without acknowledging the nature of Pope Francis’s special relationship with the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. If he were to abandon Catholic teaching on birth control and the ordination of women priests, his ability to influence Catholic thought on matters of capitalism and climate change would be reduced to nil.

To be clear, to the extent that the Pope is a political figure, this is absolutely correct. Pope Francis won’t get Catholics to stick around for his environmental and economic liberalism if they’re leaving over his insufficient social conservatism. And given that lesbian priests won’t be able to preside over same-sex marriages in Rio de Janeiro if the city is underwater, there’s a case to be made that a compromise of this sort makes sense.

But scratch the surface of Bruenig’s lede, and you’ll find a strain of cultural and moral relativism that seems odd, to say the least, coming from a defender of a Church that claims to trade in universal truth.

Because while Bruenig may not think that those on the “Anglophone center-left” have their priorities straight, she would probably at least concede that they have a point. While the “pet issue” of women in the priesthood, by itself, isn’t a hill worthy dying on in the grand scheme of things (although, for many, access to contraception literally is), it does constitute one block in the Jenga tower that is the Catholic Church’s case for the continued subjugation of women. And however right Pope Francis is on material issues like climate change and economic inequality — which, as Bruenig points out, affect women across the globe immensely — he can still be wrong on issues relating to how individuals live together, from contraception to abortion, all the way down to whether a gay man can serve as an ambassador to the Vatican.

Bruenig dismisses these concerns as those of “an American Democrat,” alluding to the specificity of the Pope’s critics and the presumed universality of his supporters, but she may as well have dismissed them as concerns of a non-Catholic. And that’s the point. For as much as Bruenig reads into criticisms of the Pope as calls for him to change — that he’s bad at his job — they are, at bottom, a critique of Catholicism. This is as true now as it was when Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II said and did similarly immoral things on these same issues. We can tear our hair out all we want, saying “It would be great if Catholicism didn’t teach x,” but it does; and even the Pope can’t nix nearly two millennia of precedent saying so.

Which is why that’s not what Pope Francis’s critics — at least not me — are saying. I’m not saying Pope Francis is wrong on x and should make his Church agree with me; I’m saying Pope Francis and his Church are wrong on x. Period. When I take issue with the Pope’s refusal to allow women in the priesthood, or their insistence that trans people cannot and will never be godparents, I see those as problems with Catholicism, not with whoever happens to be leading the Catholic Church at the time. Those teachings are central to the Catholic Church, and I don’t think the Pope is obligated to change them. As Bruenig points out, he wouldn’t sound very Catholic if he did. But if that’s the case, I do think the rest of us are obligated to openly question the Church’s claim that he’s infallible.

One of the great things about being a non-believer is that my morals aren’t given to me in a package. I can say nice things about Pope Francis when he does something awesome, and criticize him when he doesn’t. I can make a moral case for reducing economic inequality and for empowering women, and against those who oppose one or both of those things. Perhaps most importantly, it is not only possible but necessary for me to alter my sincerely-held beliefs if they are shown to be incorrect. This keeps me from being stuck defending someone who is obviously wrong on a basic moral question by claiming that their detractors are just missing the big picture — which, even if true, dodges the moral question at hand.

So sure, I agree with Bruenig in that I think it’s silly to call for the Pope to make fundamental changes to the Catholic Church that would undermine its central teachings regarding sexual orientation, gender and all things procreative. But that doesn’t mean it’s silly to criticize the Pope’s continued support for the Catholic Church’s central teachings regarding sexual orientation, gender and all things procreative. Those are still bad teachings, and it’s important that we are reminded of that fact as many in the “Anglophone center-left” cheer Pope Francis on for sounding a little more like them than his predecessors did.


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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