The Not-So-Progressive Pope

shutterstock_310730768As Pope Francis prepares for his first-ever visit to the United States, many are looking back on his first years as pontiff and evaluating what have been, by some measure, a series of “radical,” “progressive” or otherwise surprising gestures.

From pronouncements about abortion and divorce to a denouncement of the gender pay gap, the pope has been applauded for what seem to be forward-thinking decisions. But critics say he still hasn’t done enough to advance women’s position in the church, or to protect Catholics from abuse by priests and other officials.

One of his most vocal critics is Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and a 2002 Ms. Woman of the Year. As Blaine says in the latest issue of Ms., “This pope has been good about demanding economic reform, and what he’s doing on the environment is good. On the issue of sex abuse by priests—we’re still waiting. … There have been many policies, procedures and promises for decades. We have heard this over and over again, but we haven’t seen any real change.”

The Ms. Blog spoke with Blaine about Francis’ recent moves and his upcoming stateside visit. Below, find out what she thinks is really motivating the pontiff’s “progressive” action.

Ms Blog: Broadly speaking, do you agree with the suggestion that this pope is progressive?

Barbara Blaine: He’s less conservative than his predecessor, but that’s not saying much. With so many Catholic officials, their conduct has been so egregious that the expectations bar is set very low. Thus it’s pretty easy for most priests and prelates to be more kind, open, or moderate than their predecessors were.

Pope Francis often mentions mercy. But a good leader uses both “carrot” and “stick” to influence behavior. Excessive mercy toward wrongdoers who assault the vulnerable or enable others to assault the vulnerable is problematic. And such excessive mercy continues to be the norm in the church, which essentially encourages more wrongdoing.

Why do you think he’s making these sweeping pronouncements—about abortion and the Catholic Church’s annulment process, for example—right now?

Pope Francis is a smart man surrounded by smart advisors, especially public relations professionals. We strongly suspect that they’re carefully laying the groundwork for a more successful first-ever U.S. trip by this pontiff by talking in more moderate and welcoming tones.

Coverage of the divorce announcement rarely mentions one possible motive: to slow the rapid decline in church membership. Moves to shore up the church’s dwindling base may stem from compassion or from more base considerations.

Pope Francis recently said that women’s voices should be given more “weight,” and he started off his reign by calling for a greater role for women in the church. What do you think of his statements? Do you think Francis has failed women?

His statements about women are much like his statements about abuse. Most are positive. It’s always the tangible follow-through that seems lacking. He uses his bully pulpit well. He uses his vast powers less well.

What more do you think Francis could and should do for women?

He should aggressively appoint many more women to every possible position and speaking role in the church. He should discipline church officials and spokespersons who mistakenly claim child sex crimes are inflicted mainly on boys. (Half of SNAP’s 22,000 members are women who were sexually assaulted as girls by priests, nuns, bishops and seminarians.) He should start addressing, by concrete action, the largely hidden scandal of clerics who commit heinous sexual misconduct by exploiting, manipulating and abusing women who are technically adults but who are manipulated (often in “counseling” sessions).

In terms of sex abuse by priests, what has the pope done? What else could he do?

He has made apologies and gestures. He has tweaked ineffective church policies, protocols and procedures. He’s set up a new, largely symbolic panel and pledges to set up another one. But he hasn’t seized the bull by the horns, exposed predators, punished enablers, deterred cover-ups or ordered his bishops to do likewise.

He should give police and prosecutors every Vatican file about predator priests and insist that bishops do the same at the local level. He should demand that bishops post predator priests’ names on church websites, as 15 percent of U.S. bishop have done. He should push for better secular child safety laws and make sure bishops do too (instead of vigorously fighting such reform.) And he should defrock or at least demote dozens of corrupt church officials who continue to hide child sex crimes, endanger kids, shun victims, stonewall prosecutors and exploit legal loopholes to evade responsibility for this on-going horror.

Photo via Shutterstock


Stephanie hails from Toronto, Canada. She is a Ms. writer, a master of journalism candidate and a hip hop dancer/instructor/choreographer. She got her start in feminist journalism at the age of 16 when she was a member of the first editorial collective at Shameless magazine—and she has never looked back.