Two huge news stories this week, but I really don’t have much to say about either of them that you won’t easily read elsewhere, so I’ll be brief.
Commenting on John Boehner’s abdication, the NY Times succinctly riffed on a theme that you’ve heard from me repeatedly: Boehner’s departure “is a sorry measure of how far right-wing extremism has immobilized the Republican Party and undermined the process of healthy government.” To call Boehner some kind of moderate would be to do violence to our political language. He was one of the shock troops of Newt Gingrich’s attempted reactionary revolution of the 1990s, but now that he is no longer throwing bombs, he has become a maligned target for the right-wing fanatics that set the tone of the House Republican caucus. Boehner’s downfall to my mind reinforces the absolute necessity that the Republicans be defeated badly in 2016. Decent governance in this country will remain hobbled until the Republican Party changes in a major way. That is not going to happen overnight: it will require a succession of crushing defeats, which we can hope will begin in 2016.
What to say about the Pope that you haven’t already heard? I do like Francis. As Popes go, he’s terrific. As Katha Pollitt put it pithily, “If the world consisted only of straight men, Pope Francis would be the world’s greatest voice for everything progressives believe in.” He is not likely to change many votes in Congress, but his impassioned pleas for social justice and action against climate change will certainly make at least a modest positive contribution to debate in our country. And, while no Pope could be expected to change the Church’s position on abortion or gay marriage, his “who I am to judge” was astonishing: it effectively delegitimated clerical homophobia. Francis is a savvy politician: no pope, no matter how charismatic, can simply up-end the most powerful non-governmental organization in the world. Change comes in small steps.
So, amidst all the appropriate celebration of the wonderful qualities of this very good man, it might seem almost churlish to make much of his limitations. But, I do have to join Pollitt in pointing to one of the limitations for which he and his Church really need to be held accountable. Birth control. Not just abortion but all methods of “artificial” birth control. The Church is unalterably against it. As far as I can see, the rationale the Church gives for its position can fairly be described as a lot of mumbo jumbo. Simply put, the Church has a problem with sex, which is fine as long as it is for procreation, but not so good otherwise. The Church’s proscription has little impact in advanced countries, where most Catholics simply ignore it, but it has been somewhat consequential in the less developed world, especially Africa, where Catholics now comprise nearly 20% of the population. As Pollitt points out, population growth is a significant contributor to the global environmental problems that the Pope decries. More grimly, the Church’s unbending resistance to condom distribution and contraceptive education has almost surely made some contribution to the over 35 million AIDS deaths the continent has suffered. Now that is a moral issue.
PS I called the Church the most powerful non-governmental organization in the world, but thinking about it, I’m not sure if that is still true. It depends on how you define “power,” of course, but there may be a number of multi-national corporations which, in their impact on economic activity and even culture, and in their ability to influence the policies of multiple governments, that are arguably as powerful as the Church or more so. How do you compare Apple with Mother Church?