Religious right’s pope problem: Why Rick Santorum & co. are so desperately confused

Rick Santorum flipped about Pope Francis' birth control remarks. But they actually toe the same conservative line

Published January 22, 2015 11:59AM (EST)

Pope Francis, Rick Santorum        (Reuters/Stefano Rellandini/AP/Charlie Neibergall/Photo montage by Salon)
Pope Francis, Rick Santorum (Reuters/Stefano Rellandini/AP/Charlie Neibergall/Photo montage by Salon)

Rick Santorum said this week, in response to a question about Pope Francis’ comment that Catholics should not reproduce “like rabbits,” that it was “sometimes very difficult to listen to the pope and some of the things he says off the cuff.

“And so I just, I don’t know what he was trying to spark, but it certainly does add to a lot of controversy and confusion,” he continued. “And I know what the left will say. They will say that he is about to lead the Church in a different direction on contraception.”

The host interviewing Santorum then lamented the fact that the pope’s comments were timed to the week of the antiabortion March for Life, once again conflating two distinct, though both vitally necessary, kinds of reproductive healthcare.

But far from a signal that the pope is about to move on the church’s long-held prohibition on hormonal and other methods of contraception, his remark about the “irresponsibility” of large families appears to be right in line with Santorum’s vision for the church -- shaming and punishing women for needing essential reproductive healthcare. Particularly when it comes to his vision for social and economic justice, Francis has a blind spot large enough to fit millions of Catholic women around the world.

Rick Santorum can rest easy. The ban on contraception doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere any time soon. But this isn’t welcome news to Catholics who don’t share the conservative view held by men like Santorum, Pope Francis and New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan. And that gulf between church leadership and regular Catholics has only widened in recent years, particularly on the issues of family planning and reproductive health. And in many ways, it mirrors the disconnect between the Republican Party and its own constituents.

If you can believe it, it turns out that groups of white men who are largely disconnected from the daily struggles women experience make for terrible and unresponsive leaders on reproductive health and freedom. (I know, I was shocked, too.)

The Catholic Church’s ban on contraception has divided practicing Catholics from the more conservative ranks of the church hierarchy since the invention of the pill. (Which was, by the way, invented and promoted by a Catholic doctor named John Rock.) Since a panel of bishops, theologians and regular churchgoers first convened in the 1960s to review the church’s prohibition on birth control, the church has continued to hold a position that is wildly out of step with how most Catholics live their lives.

According to data from the Guttmacher Institute, “98 percent of sexually experienced women of child-bearing age and who identify themselves as Catholic have used a method of contraception other than natural family planning at some point in their lives.” Which is to say, contraception, even among Catholic women, is a common part of life.

The divide has been there from the start, Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, told me this week. During the 1963 commission, the Catholic couples, who, O’Brien said, were recruited specifically because they came from conservative organizations and “could be expected to mirror the hierarchy’s position [against birth control],” spoke frankly about the burden of relying on the rhythm method to avoid pregnancy.

“[The church] heard from its lay members on the reality of using the rhythm method,” he explained. “Contrary to the assertions that the church had made, that it brought couples together and strengthened families, couples testified that it stressed their marriages and drove them apart. That it made them scared to have sex because they were afraid of having another child. That had a big impact.” The commission voted overwhelmingly to lift the ban, calling the church out of touch with the needs of regular Catholics. Despite this, the Vatican ignored the recommendation, keeping the prohibition in place.

If the church’s move to target birth control despite broad public support for expanded access sounds familiar, it’s probably because you paid attention during the 2014 midterms. Or during the Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court. Or recent political efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. Or, frankly, much of the political theater that’s played out around reproductive rights over the last few years.

Polls consistently reflect the public’s support for birth control. They like it. They use it. They want it to be affordable and widely available. Despite this, the GOP has crafted an agenda that aims to put it increasingly out of reach for many Americans. The empty rhetoric during the midterms about making the pill available over the counter never materialized into an actual agenda item for the GOP, but even if it had, the party’s efforts to systematically dismantle a healthcare law (and the family planning providers) that put contraception within reach for millions of low-income Americans amounts to a de facto ban. You can’t have what you can’t afford, and for far too many women, contraception is just too expensive.

And instead of responding to the needs of the constituents who voted them in, Republicans have launched the 114th Congress with an assault on healthcare and an attempt to ban abortion pre-viability. And while Pope Francis talks eloquently and forcefully about poverty and global injustice, he leaves out the necessity of basic reproductive healthcare in helping women secure equal standing around the globe. For both of these institutions -- the Catholic Church and Congress -- conservative men in leadership positions have left millions of women in increasingly desperate circumstances.

One way to change that in the church, O’Brien told me, is to give women more of a voice. Something that Francis has, again, shown no interest in. “My hope is that Francis can talk to women who are really knowledgeable about the world, so they could inform him firsthand what it’s like to face a crisis pregnancy, what it’s like not to be able to control their fertility.

“Because it seems to me, his comment really misses the point,” he continued. “People haven’t had access to the means to be ‘responsible.’ So to make some offhand remark about rabbits really betrays an ignorance about what women face when they can’t get access to birth control.”

And yet, O'Brien remains skeptical that much will change, at least in the near term. "We have a hierarchy that is very invested, and very stubborn," he explained. The same could be said, of course, for Rick Santorum and the rest of the Republican Party.

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