Sorry, Pope Francis: Reproductive justice and LGBTQ rights are economic issues, too

The new pope's economic justice platform will continue to fall short if it ignores women's and LGBTQ rights

Published November 27, 2013 10:57PM (EST)

  (AP/Domenico Stinellis)
(AP/Domenico Stinellis)

Pope Francis issued a mission statement for his papacy on Tuesday that features an incredibly direct indictment of free market economics and growing global inequality. Agnostic or religiously indeterminate progressives of the Internet were suitably excited, as they have been before about the new pope.

Francis doesn't pull any punches when laying into those who preach the gospel of trickle down, noting in the 84-page document that, "This opinion [about trickle down theories], which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system."

His critique grows more explicit in the next paragraph, continuing:

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.

Francis, to his great credit, is taking his religiously-grounded critique of capitalism well beyond the bland reassurances of his predecessors (and his many contemporaries in church leadership) that "the poor will inherit the earth," and into a far more radical, policy-oriented place. He is using the heft of his position to pressure leaders to reform a global system that actively marginalizes billions of people across the globe.

Having the leader of 1.2 billion global Catholics get explicit about holding corporate heads and global leaders accountable for causing widespread poverty and all of its resultant suffering is no small thing. And his recent remarks have made all of the right people angry, which is also worth noting.

But Francis' push for economic justice will always fall short of its potential if it doesn't incorporate, explicitly and authoritatively, LGBTQ rights, gender justice and reproductive autonomy as part of his platform.

Pushing the Catholic Church to embrace the full legal equality of LGBTQ people or the bodily autonomy of women is not petty or nitpicking or asking for too much too soon, it is essential to achieving the pope's stated platform. Because, beyond being issues of deep cultural and political importance, they are economic issues, too.

In the same document in which he so eloquently tears down the gross excesses of free market capitalism, he remains utterly silent on the rights of LGBTQ people, who are often, it should be noted, more likely to experience poverty and homelessness than straight people in similar circumstances.

Francis has remarked in the past that the church has become fixated on its opposition to marriage equality and other issues of LGBTQ equality at the expense of its broader mission toward inclusion, but hasn't budged on the supposed sinfulness of being gay.

In the same interview for which he was widely heralded as a beacon of progressivism, he also said, "The teaching of the church, for that matter [of abortion, contraception and gay marriage], is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

But as the pope's explicit and specific critique of capitalism's excesses shows, it is incredibly necessary to talk about these things. Because widespread discrimination against LGBTQ people -- which people like Rick Santorum and others defend as a matter of "faith" -- results in widespread violence, disproportionate income inequality, job discrimination and other injustices that the pope nominally opposes.

It's great that the pope thinks, for example, that American Catholics should be less judgmental when it comes to their gay neighbors, but he also needs to take a position endorsing full legal equality, pay equity and other basic rights for all LGTBQ people. Because LGBTQ people don't need Catholics to be their friends, they need them to stop actively challenging their rights in state legislatures and at the federal level.

The pope also argues in his apostolic exhortation that women must have their "legitimate rights" respected, but goes on to state conclusively that, "The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion."

A few sentences later, he addresses the fact that the church faces a global shortage of priests, as well as a crisis of selecting priests who criminally exploit people designated to their care. But women in the priesthood -- which has already been embraced by other Christian sects -- somehow remains out of the question for this pope. Such an edict serves no purpose but to prop up outdated cultural practices that serve no godly (in this case, literally) purpose other than to keep women from holding power in the church.

By failing to allow women to enter into meaningful positions of leadership in the church, the pope is sending a clear message: the Catholic Church thinks women are great and special in their own way, just not equal to men. This is precisely the kind of thinking that supports rampant and ridiculously long-running practices of compensating women less for their labor, among other injustices perpetrated against women. Calling women an equal and a necessary presence "where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures" is a nice thought, but making women equal -- taking a hard stand on what that means in practice -- is the more necessary project.

Likewise, and as probably goes without saying here, women's reproductive autonomy is essential to their social and economic standing, a fact that has been borne out by study after study indicating that birth control and safe access to affordable abortion care are among the most important factors to achieving women's equality in education, careers and society more broadly.

But Francis' platform remains rigid on the church's teachings about reproductive rights. "Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend [the unborn], attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative," the document states. But a hardline opposition to abortion under all circumstances is precisely that, particularly when the religious lawmakers behind the recent proliferation of anti-choice legislation, Catholic hospitals and other Catholic-affiliated heathcare conglomerates are creating very real barriers to women's access to vital care, jeopardizing not only their health but, as noted before, their economic and social standing.

These issues matter. And the pope, by failing to embrace them, is standing in the way of progress by refusing to listen to the millions of Catholics who already hold far more nuanced and progressive views when it comes to reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights and gender equity than their intransigent church leaders.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

MORE FROM Katie McDonough