Pope Benedict XVI sending his first tweet. The Vatican has also hired a former Fox News executive to overhaul its communications. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI joined Twitter in an effort to galvanize the faithful and modernize the Catholic Church for a younger, increasingly secular generation, making him the last person after your grandpa to join the social networking site. The Vatican also hired a former Fox News correspondent to bring their communications strategy into the 21st century, since that network did such an impressive job during the 2012 US presidential election.
The Catholic Church is foundering, and it’ll take a lot more than 140 characters and a rightwing “news” hack to put it on a modern track.
The pope is a social issues guy, more interested in themes like “traditional” family values, gay marriage and abortion than, say, helping the poor. And the Vatican is quick to slap down anyone – but especially any women, and particularly women who have the nerve to think of themselves as equal to men – who focuses on helping the most in need, instead of crusading against abortion and gay people. As far as the Church is concerned, advocating for the equal participation of women is “radical feminism” worthy of condemnation; pushing for legislation that kills gay people is worthy of a blessing.
Yes, that’s correct: just around the same time the pope was drafting his first tweet, he met with Ugandan parliamentary speaker Rebecca Kadaga, who had earlier promised to level the death penalty for gays as a “Christmas present” to the Ugandan people (minus, one assumes, the Ugandans who will be murdered because of their sexual orientation). She received a private audience with the pope, and a blessing.
Uganda has been a target for western evangelicals who see that they’re losing the gay marriage battle in their own countries. Religious leaders and rightwing groups, including Rick Warren and the National Organization for Marriage, have gone to Uganda for years to spread anti-gay propaganda and bolster homophobia. These religious leaders position themselves as experts, telling Ugandans that gay people sodomize children, spread Aids, destroy marriage, break up families and pose an imminent threat to society – and then they feign shock when Ugandan leaders decide that the legal punishment most befitting these child-raping, society-crushing individuals is death.
In the meantime, gay, lesbian and transgender Ugandans face vigilante attacks daily, and are routinely raped, beaten, ostracized, tortured and murdered.
The pope – whose own track record on men who sodomize children isn’t exactly stellar – blesses one of the people whose hateful policies not only provide social cover and justification for that violence but, if enacted, would put state power behind the imprisonment and execution of gay people.
The Church’s obsession with policing sexuality is nothing new: in fact, it’s a centuries-old Catholic tradition for the Vatican to poke its nose in your bedroom when it feels its power is threatened. The early anti-sex crusades were focused on women – and haven’t let up. Women were ordered to serve their husbands and were barred from the priesthood. Abortion was debated in Thomas Aquinas’s day – he thought the act was a sin against the marriage, and that, of course, male fetuses were ensouled earlier than female ones – and for a long while, the Church distinguished between early and late-term abortions in terms of punishment.
But as the papal states lost territory to Italy in the late 19th century, the pope came down hard on women, declaring all abortion to be murder. The Church, it seems, is a bit like a schoolyard bully, needing to pick a scapegoat to demonstrate its ultimate authority. Women have spent the past several centuries serving as that target.
The Church extended its reach into the sex lives of its followers (and of women, in particular) again in the 1930s, when it issued its ruling on contraception for the first time ever and deemed birth control incompatible with Catholic teachings on life. Right around that same time, the Church was dealing with what it called the “terrible triangle” of anti-religious and anti-Catholic actions in the Soviet Union, Mexico and Spain. Desperate for a way to show its power and control followers, the Vatican decided that it was wrong to use anything other than crossed fingers to control the number and spacing of your children.
Here’s how successful they were: 99% of American women use birth control at some point in their lives, and Catholic women use birth control at the same rates as non-Catholics. In nations where Catholicism is deeply entrenched and abortion is illegal and birth control difficult to access, abortion rates are some of the highest in the world. The only difference is that far more of the procedures are unsafe, and tens of thousands of women die. The lowest abortion rates in the world can be found in the increasingly secular west European countries where the procedure is legal and often covered by state funds, and where birth control is widely accessible.
Realizing it was losing followers and that most women weren’t going to comply with the birth control mandate, and recognizing the social upheavals taking place through the 1960s, the Church re-evaluated its position – and doubled down. Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae restated the Church’s anti-contraception position, extended it to sterilization and threw in some claims about the natural roles of women and men. (The natural role of celibate men who spend very little time with women is, apparently, to tell all women what to do.)
The Church also took a stand against abortion again, and declared that abortion couldn’t even be had in the case of an ectopic pregnancy where the fertilized egg will never develop into a fetus. In the late 1980s, under pressure from the many nuns who have kept the Church functioning for centuries and were pushing for equal rights and recognition, Pope John Paul II asserted that women simply served a “different” role in the Church than men, but one that was equally as important. It was a nice little head-pat to Catholic women, but ultimately a condescending one: does anyone actually believe that there’s power in subservience, and that being blocked from all positions of real authority represents equal importance?
In 1995, again facing declining congregations, Pope John Paul II re-upped the Church’s hostility toward contraception, and further asserted that condoms were verboten – at the very moment HIV and Aids were ravaging nations around the world. The Church, ironically, categorizes contraception and condoms as part of the “culture of death”.
By the Vatican’s standards, taking a birth control pill or using a condom is far more deadly than contracting HIV, or executing an actual person for being gay.
As society has progressed, the Church has responded by digging its heels in to maintain outdated, misogynist social norms. And it has long used women’s bodies as a tool through which to exercise control in the face of waning influence. Now, gay people are being subjected to the same treatment. As the Church continues to recover from the international pedophilia scandal that its priests perpetrated and the entire institution covered up, and as the world’s population increasingly flees from formal religion, the pope is saying that two men or two women falling in love threatens world peace.
A Twitter feed can’t modernize an institution so out of touch with reality, with progress and with widely-accepted human rights norms.
If the Church really wants to modernize, it could take a stand for the rights of half the world’s population, and give women equal say in the Catholic hierarchy and over basic rights to their own bodies. It could promote condom use to save lives. It could take a good hard look at how its hunger for power and its authoritarianism enabled and covered for sex criminals who targeted vulnerable children.
It could back up out of our bedrooms and quit meddling in national politics, leaving its believers the right to practice as they wish, without imposing its strictures on the rest of us. It could put its enormous resources behind tried-and-true Jesus stuff like helping the sick and indigent, rather than waging battles against nuns who don’t hate gays enough.
I’m not holding my breath for any of that. But at the very least, the pope could refuse to bless leaders who want to murder gay, lesbians and transgender people for the simple crime of existing.
“Gay people have a right to life and dignity, and I oppose their persecution. #uganda,” he could tweet.
And that’s only 84 characters.
The Guardian | Jill Filipovic | 30 December 2012