Pope Francis gets it (mostly) wrong on families

I will end my visit to your country in Philadelphia, where I will take part in the World Meeting of Families. It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme. How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.

In particular, I would like to call attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young. For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions. At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.

Pope Francis, address to Congress, 9/24/2015

Many liberals adore Pope Francis. I can certainly describe him as a significant improvement over some of his predecessors.

But that’s faint praise considering what some of his predecessors did. Gregory IX started the Inquisition, and Sixtus IV instituted the infamous Spanish Inquisition. Leo X’s sale of indulgences led to the Protestant Reformation, which led to decades of extremely bloody wars. Pius XII was a Nazi sympathizer, whose silence on the Holocaust enabled Hitler to go unchecked.  John Paul II sought to contain much of the progress the church achieved with Vatican II.  His doctrinaire enforcer, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, succeeded him as Benedict XVI. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI (to say nothing of popes before them) looked the other way on pedophile priests at the same time they staunchly condemned homosexuality as “an intrinsic moral evil.”

Returning to Pope Francis, while his statements about immigration, climate change, and economic inequality are music to my progressive ears, I cringed when he started talking about the family. Because he sounded an awful lot like his immediate predecessors.

There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family. Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law.

Pope John Paul II, 2003

Education needs settings. Among these, pride of place goes to the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman. This is not a simple social convention, but rather the fundamental cell of every society. Consequently, policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself.

Pope Benedict XVI, 2012

Now, perhaps Francis, with his “Who am I to judge?” attitude has gone about as far to the left as he can realistically go on this issue, but to imply that same-sex marriage is a threat to “the very basis of marriage and family” makes him part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

A little bit right

When Francis said, “At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future,” I was right there with him.

In agrarian societies, procreation was a means to wealth. The more children, the more laborers available for the farm. But today, a large family is typically a financial liability rather than an asset. Kids are expensive, and they go to school when kids from generations before them were out working in the fields. Industrialization, child labor laws, and free, mandatory public education changed the equation dramatically.

There are, of course, people who desire to have families — even large families — but they cannot do so because they cannot afford it. Francis was sensitive to their concerns, and so am I. The cry “If you can’t afford kids, don’t have them” seems like it could be a real problem for conservatives who claim to be so interested in protecting families.

Wrong again

You might say that my less-than-ideal financial situation has dissuaded me from starting a family, and that would certainly be one reason. But it’s not even the primary reason. I just don’t want the responsibility of being a parent.

Francis’s reasoning here suggests that it’s ideal for everyone to start a family (that is, marry someone of the opposite sex and procreate with that person), and other “options” are somehow a negative thing.

Considering the pope’s views on climate change, how can he also say that these other options (like contraception) are a negative thing? The more people we make, the more energy we use and the more damage we do to the planet. If Pope Francis is really concerned about climate change, perhaps he should revisit the church’s position on contraception and recognize that being childless is a legitimate option.

An olive branch — and some stern advice — to religious moderates

Moderates provide cover for the fundamentalists.

Sam Harris

Are all or even most religious people wacky and dangerous fundamentalists? No. I have never thought this to be the case. Some people have assumed that I thought this, but they assumed incorrectly. So let me set the record straight on that.

But, like Sam Harris said, religious moderates can be dangerous in a subtler and probably unintended way.

For example, I posted a news article about Pat Robertson blaming the recent downturn in the stock market on God’s judgment for same-sex marriage and Planned Parenthood. This is obviously a dangerous notion, particularly for a man with a TV audience of about 1 million people each day. Here’s the actual footage from his program, The 700 Club.

This was the first comment on my post (edited for grammar only).

Yeah. Crazy. I get it. But people in this world abuse anything. Sex. Drugs. Marriage. You name it. But I think you want to transpose Pat Roberts, Creflo Dollar, et al to your own disdain for God and religion. Look around you. See the wonder of this world. The complexity of life wasn’t accidentally contained in the “Big Bang.” Yes, I don’t know why we are in a world w/such atrocities and inequality, but I also know the vast, vast majority of the people in this world are good. My wish for you is that you’ll stop celebrating the “fringe” and realize there ‘s a God who loves us.

And it’s an understandable response. Religious moderates tend to be peacemakers, and that’s a quality that I admire. But what responses like that do is insulate the real extremists like Pat Robertson from any kind of criticism. They say, “You shouldn’t talk about this.”

But, for you religious moderates out there, I think that’s a misguided approach. These people are making your entire faith look very bad…and if anyone should be calling them out loudly, it’s you. Because when you fail to do this, you’re leaving it up to outsiders like me who don’t really have a vested interest in drawing such fine distinctions.

In the NFL, commissioner Roger Goodell has made a point about the importance of “protecting the shield” (the NFL logo). You can decide for yourself if he has lived up to that standard, but that idea was an excellent justification for stronger policing of the league that he runs. When he comes down hard on players and even owners within the league for bad behavior, he sends a signal to the world that this behavior doesn’t represent the NFL shield. (And when he fails to do so adequately, as he did with the Ray Rice situation, he sends the opposite message to the world.)

To make matters worse for you, it’s the fundamentalists who are the most visible ambassadors for your faith. They’re the ones who make the news or have television shows. (Pope Francis is a notable exception to this, but even he is still somewhat homophobic.) If you want others to see that you’re “not all like that,” get out there forcefully and declare it. Isolate the fundamentalists. There’s nothing wrong with being vocal and forceful, even though moderates are probably less naturally inclined to do so.

This is not just true of Christianity…the image much of the world sees of Islam is ISIS, which is an unfortunate representation of a religion covering approximately 1 billion people in virtually every nation on earth.

It’s just human nature to paint groups of people with a broad brush, especially when we don’t regularly interact with them on an individual basis. I’m certainly not immune from this tendency, but I do consciously work on it. Police officers profile African-Americans, and now African-Americans are profiling police officers.