Dear Pope Francis: you are half the way there

The Thinker by Rodin

Presumably Pope Francis is now back in Rome and settling in after a whirlwind tour of Cuba and the United States. He’s a pope who is hard to dislike, perhaps because he comes out of the Jesuits. For a pope he is also suspiciously pragmatic.

He was not shy expressing his opinions while in the United States. Mostly they gave Republicans heartburn as he preached to them on subjects they did not want to hear: that poor people had equal rights, that income inequality had to be addressed and that global climate change was a serious problem. He spoke passionately of the refugee crisis affecting mostly Europe and asked America to do its part compassionately. He complained that corporations were not working in the interests of the people as a whole.

Democrats did not wholly escape his preaching. He spoke passionately about the family, but his idea of a family looked a lot like June and Ward Cleaver’s and seemed to exclude marriage for same sex couples. Still, overall it was refreshing to hear messages from a pontiff that were truthful and people-centric. Francis is a catholic in the apostolic and universal sense of the word. He even acknowledged that those who do not believe in God could be good people simply by acting as good people.

It’s not enough to make me return to the Catholic Church. It’s a lost cause in my case, as I don’t believe Jesus was God, and I don’t believe in miracles, saints and most of the peculiar beliefs of Catholics. I’m too left-brained. But his words as well as his actions (like having dinner with homeless people and riding in the back of a Fiat instead of a limousine) convinced me he is a much different pope, beloved as few will be, and acting in the spirit of Jesus. Pope John Paul II was much loved and is even on his way to sainthood, but Pope Francis’ appeal extends significantly beyond the Catholic faithful to much of the world at large.

I really tuned into his message on climate change. He introduced a small ray of hope into a problem that looks gloomy at best and catastrophic to humans and most species on the planet at worst. Perhaps some of his grounding on the matter came from outside the church. Before becoming a priest, Francis worked as a chemist. He earned the rough equivalent of an associate of science degree in chemistry in Argentina. Francis understands enough about chemistry to know that when you introduce too much carbon dioxide into an atmosphere, with no other changes to the system then temperatures will increase and it will affect most living species. He sees the obvious costs of our industrialization and acknowledges that the earth is finite and we cannot continue to exploit the earth’s resources so unintelligently.

What he did not acknowledge was that population growth is a major driver of climate change. Without an end to population growth and probably a long-term effort to reduce the earth’s population, climate change cannot be reversed. Humans drive almost all climate change because we all put demands on the earth simply to survive. The problem is much worse in industrialized societies because with increased standards of living we want more stuff, and this consumption also feeds climate change.

It’s not enough to practice “natural family planning” as a population control solution. The Catholic Church advocates refraining from intercourse during a wife’s fertile period and abstinence as the only non-sinful ways to limit family size. The rhythm method of course is chancy at best, which leaves abstinence as the only foolproof and sinless methods of birth control for devout Catholics. It makes it virtually impossible to be both a devout Catholic and an environmentalist. If you are familiar with Catholic theology then you know that using birth control pills, IUDs and prophylactics are sinful.

If Francis truly wants to take a concrete action to address climate change then simply giving Catholics permission to use these and similar forms of birth control would be a huge step forward. Of course in many parts of the world, people are too poor to afford birth control, so also stridently arguing that governments should make birth control universally available for free to all citizens is as necessary as giving birth control devices church sanction. Among the many benefits will be a reduction in abortions. Children never conceived cannot be aborted.

China’s somewhat loosened one child per family policy was effective at limiting its population growth, but at a horrendous cost. It meant forced abortions mostly of females and arguably wreaked a lot of psychological damage. It’s not hard to envision a time when climate change becomes so pressing that something like this becomes policy in most countries. While it may be necessary to do this simply to survive as a species, such policies would be the opposite of humane.

This doesn’t have to happen. With over a billion adherents, if the Catholic Church were to change its policies on birth control then it would do a huge amount in the medium term to limit population growth and subsequent climate change. It would be a humane step forward. Francis has the power to do this today.

I am not a praying man by nature, but I pray that Pope Francis will see the light on this and very soon. Our future, and the perpetuity of the Catholic Church may depend on it.