Can Pope Francis Get the Catholic Church’s Mind Off of Sex?

Pope Francis wants to move away from divisive fights over sex, abortion and gay rights. Behind the scenes at the U.N., Vatican diplomats are focusing on little else.

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In August 2013, just months after being selected to lead the Catholic Church, Pope Francis told an interviewer that the Holy See's clergy and diplomats should be less fixated on questions of sexual morality and show greater concern for the fate of billions of people abandoned by a modern "throwaway" culture that pays little heed to the world's poor and persecuted.

In August 2013, just months after being selected to lead the Catholic Church, Pope Francis told an interviewer that the Holy See’s clergy and diplomats should be less fixated on questions of sexual morality and show greater concern for the fate of billions of people abandoned by a modern “throwaway” culture that pays little heed to the world’s poor and persecuted.

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods,” Pope Francis said in the interview, in which he underscored the importance of promoting peace and tackling poverty and wealth inequality. “The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

The comments marked the start of a major rebranding campaign for the Catholic Church, whose image has been tarnished in recent years by the hierarchy’s failure to crack down on sexual abuse by priests and its clergy’s reputation as hard-bitten crusaders more committed to enforcing stringent moral codes than promoting peace and ministering to the world’s neediest.

Two years into his papacy, Pope Francis has also managed to successfully restore the Holy See’s reputation as an important diplomatic player. He has cultivated a personal image as peacemaker and truth-teller, brokered secret diplomatic talks between the U.S. and Cuba, and forced the world to confront uncomfortable truths, from the Armenian genocide to the deadly exodus of thousands of immigrants into Europe. He has also emerged as a powerful voice of compassion for those long living on the fringes of the church, or at least treated as second-class citizens, including the destitute, women, and openly gay Catholics.

But at U.N. headquarters, a central clearinghouse for world diplomacy and the September destination of the first papal visit since 1995, diplomats say the objectives of the Holy See have changed little under Pope Francis, and that the pope’s envoys remains very much entrenched on the front lines of the culture wars the pope himself has suggested he wants to leave behind. In debates on issues from development to poverty, the Holy See’s observer mission continues to serve primarily as a bulwark against efforts by Western governments to expand progressive policies, including sexual and reproductive rights, that have long been anathema to the church.

Archbishop Bernardito Auza, a Filipino priest Pope Francis appointed as the Vatican’s de facto ambassador  to the U.N. last year, frequently uses the U.N. pulpit to promote the church’s conservative values, denouncing abortion and efforts to restrict population growth, and decrying the rise of artificial insemination as beneath the dignity of women and men alike. “Men are human beings, not horses, and any attempt to diminish men basically to purveyors of biological material is unworthy of their dignity,” he said in a March 19 speech at the Dag Hammarskjold Library Auditorium at U.N. headquarters. “Children must be begotten in love, not manufactured in labs.”

U.N.-based diplomats say that the pope, as well as Auza, have outlined a wide-ranging diplomatic agenda in their public statements. But they say the message hasn’t trickled down to the Holy See’s negotiators in New York. “We have been very happy to hear some of the signals that have come from Pope Francis: He has been more progressive and indicated that he didn’t want the church to be as dogmatic as it has been,” said one Western diplomat who has negotiated with the church’s diplomats at the United Nations. “But when you look at what is happening on the ground here in New York, you don’t really see that change at all.”

A review of a confidential internal negotiating text from a recent conference on the Commission on Population and Development, obtained by Foreign Policy, show the Holy See’s negotiator working to strip out references to “reproductive rights,” which the Vatican sees as a green light for abortion, and “gender equality,” a phrase the Vatican views as an implicit endorsement of transgender rights.

“We are not sure whether [the pope] doesn’t have the influence in the organization you would hope he has, or he didn’t mean it,” the diplomat added.

Indeed, there is little doubt that Francis is already walking a delicate line between conservatives who share his predecessor’s more traditional views of gay marriage and abortion and pragmatists more amenable to softening those stances.

Defenders of the pope also say the Vatican’s diplomatic activity is by no means limited to matters of sex and reproductive rights.

Pope Francis and his U.N. envoy have taken advantage of the Catholic Church’s status as the only religion recognized as an observer state at the U.N. to promote a range of other causes, from the abolition of nuclear weapons and the fight against climate change to the protection of migrants and Christian minorities in the Middle East and Africa. His role in opening the door to talks between the U.S. and Cuba stands as one of the more remarkable diplomatic achievements of the past decade.

“The word on the street is that Francis matters,” said John Allen Jr., associate editor at the Boston Globe and its Catholic coverage website Crux, and author of nine books on the Vatican and Catholic affairs. Allen said that “delegates are now constantly approached by their governments for reads on what the pope is up to.”

From Backwater to Diplomatic Hot Spot

Only four years ago, the Vatican was in danger of becoming a diplomatic backwater. Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had previously been the guardian of Catholic doctrine in the Vatican. Benedict had taken an interest in the major challenges of the day, earning the moniker of the “green pope” and playing a role in urging Iran to release 15 British sailors. But he showed less interest in diplomacy than his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who has been credited with working with President Ronald Reagan to topple the Soviet Union.

In Rome, diplomats wondered aloud whether diplomatic embassies at the Vatican even made sense, recalled Allen.

In November 2011, Ireland, a major Catholic country, withdrew its ambassador from the Vatican following protests by Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who accused the Holy See of obstructing an investigation into sex abuse. Ireland claimed the decision was designed to save money, but many diplomats suspect it was a result of the sex abuse dispute.

Vatican officials feared it was the start of a diplomatic exodus from the Vatican by governments that felt embassies weren’t worth the expense given the Holy See’s diminished diplomatic profile, according to Allen.

“There was a perception during the Benedict years that the Vatican had become less relevant,” he said, noting that the church’s Vatican diplomacy has under Pope Francis evaporated such notions. “Nobody is talking about that anymore.”

In an April interview with the Wall Street Journal, President Barack Obama said the United States consults “very closely” with the church about how the U.S. can help protect religious minorities in conflict areas.

Obama will meet with the pope at the White House in September, where he intends to discuss climate change and matters of “war and peace,” including in the Middle East, “where Christians have been viciously attacked,” the president said in the interview.

In a March speech at Durham University in England, Britain’s envoy to the Holy See, Nigel Baker, said his “embassy, and the other 80 or so resident embassies to the Holy See from governments around the world, have never been busier, because their is a real interest in and demand for our reporting on the views of Pope Francis and the Holy See on the key issues of the day.”

Other countries have sought to leverage the Pope’s charisma and influence to advance their interests. A spokesman for Israel’s foreign minister, for example, said his government is looking to expand relations with the Vatican to collaborate on countering radical Islam.

“We would like to further upgrade our relations with the Vatican, and start a broader and more significant dialogue on issues of mutual concern such as the fate of Christian minorities in the Middle East and Africa and the rise of radical Islam,” Emmanuel Nahshon, Israel’s foreign ministry spokesman told FP. “As part of this dialogue, we would like to see an official visit of top Vatican officials in Israel.”

The Israeli officials remarks follows a round of high profile Middle East diplomacy by Pope Francis, who traveled to the region early on in his papacy and invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s then President Shimon Peres to Rome to pray together for peace in the Middle East. The symbolic meeting was followed by the launch of Israel’s military incursion into Gaza as part of Operation Protective Edge. But it highlighted Pope Francis’ commitment to engaging in even the most controversial political and military crises.

“It’s the Same Hardline”

Pope Francis intends to highlight his diplomatic ambitions in a high-profile trip next September to the United Nations, where he will address the U.N. General Assembly at a Summit on Sustainable Development, which will endorse a new set of 17 development goals, known as the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. He will also back as many as 169 more detailed targets that can be met by 2030, including the eradication of poverty and hunger, increase opportunities for the education of children and women, and the promotion of economic growth that is environmentally sustainable.

The visit aims to underscore the church’s commitment to addressing “poverty and social justice” and drawing attention to the international community’s responsibility to uphold “religious freedom” and defend minorities from persecution, Auza said in an interview with the Deseret News previewing the pope’s visit

“In the Middle East, the United Nations has been in a sense powerless, it has not been able to find a way how to stop bloodshed and persecutions, especially against Christians and minorities,” he said.

Behind the scenes most of the Holy See’s diplomatic influence has been mustered to advance the Vatican’s position in supporting a traditional view of the human family that leaves little room for gays.  During negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals, the Holy See has largely devoted its energies to pushing back on efforts by Western government to expanding reproductive rights and the protections afforded women, girls, and gays. “They are focused on very few issues; the only time you hear about them in negotiations is on issues relating to abortion, women’s rights, the family,” said a European diplomat. “I really haven’t encountered them on any other issues in last years.”

A second Western diplomat who has negotiated across the table from the Catholic Church’s diplomats for years said the Vatican’s traditional negotiating positions and policy preferences haven’t changed under Francis.

“The new pope he has a different outlook on the world, which could really launch the [Catholic Church] in a whole different type of dialogue at the U.N.,” the diplomat said. “But they don’t do that. Not much has changed when you get into the negotiating room. It’s the same hardline.”

Last month, the Holy See’s diplomats continued their push to restrict sexual rights in negotiations before the Commission on the Status of Women. “The one thing they tried to do was insert the word “fundamental” before any mention of the human rights of women and girls,” recalled Shannon Kowalski of the International Women’s Health Coalition. “In their minds, this would potentially exclude reproductive rights, sexual rights or other human rights that have not been explicitly agreed in U.N. treaties. They also opposed reference to the role of women’s organizations or feminist organizations in advancing gender equality.”

In a separate debate last year on the Sustainable Development Goals, a centerpiece of the pope’s diplomatic priorities at the United Nations, Francis’s representative expressed concern that the negotiations were heading towards perilous moral waters.

“For a large number of countries, ‘reproductive health’ and ‘reproductive rights agenda infringes on their national sovereignty in the politically and morally fraught questions of abortion,” Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, the Holy See’s former nuncio at U.N. headquarters, said last May in a statement on one of the SDG’s goals.

Two months later, the Holy See issued a statement indicating that they could only partially join the consensus on the final document to be endorsed by world leaders because it included references to phrases like “sexual and reproductive health” and “reproductive rights” and “family planning.”

Vatican diplomats also sought to restrict sex education to youngsters, saying the “primary responsibility lies with parents,” a provision that would restrict minor’s access to sex education.  Finally, the Holy See’s delegation pointed out that it understands any reference to the word “gender” in a final document to mean “male or female” only, a move aimed at heading off any language affording rights to gays or transgender people that don’t identify themselves in traditional sexual roles.

They also denounced violence and discrimination against women and girls, forced marriage, and reinforced the church’s commitment to achieve equal access to education and employment opportunity, and address of unpaid care work.

Kowalski, of the International Women’s Health Coalition, said that while Pope Francis has projected a more progressive image, she has seen no evidence in a shift in the Holy See’s policies at the United Nations.

“We have really seen a continuation of business as usual,” said Sharon Kowalski. “We always saw them honing in on language about sexual rights. There have been a lot of proposed goals on poverty eradication and on reducing inequality and the Holy See hasn’t said anything. They have been quiet.”

Hanging With Ban Ki-Moon

Many diplomats say it is misleading to judge the pope’s diplomatic outreach on the basis of what his envoys do at the United Nations. Most of the serious diplomatic outreach takes place in the Vatican, they say, not in the corridors of the United Nations.

One western diplomat recalled a recent meeting between an envoy from his government and high-level Vatican diplomats eager to protect Christians. During the meeting, church officials raised a broad range of concerns, from the stalled Middle East peace process to the Iranian nuclear deal to the rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East and North Africa.

“On the protection of Christians they asked us to be open and upfront and to name the issue as a problem,” according to the diplomat. They also urged the governments to be careful not to inadvertently “contribute to the further exodus of Christians” from Iraq and Syria through overly generous immigration policies. “The main message was ‘the Christians need to return. They belong there,'” the diplomat recalled.

The deadly exodus of migrants who leave North Africa and attempt to make it to Europe is a top diplomatic priority for Francis and his diplomats. The Vatican routinely scolds European envoys traveling through Rome about their failure to do more to to address the problem. Rome’s message is a blunt one: “The Mediterranean should not become a cemetery and the Europeans have a common responsibility to do something about it,” said one European diplomat.

Francis’s personal outreach to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been particularly active. Last month, Francis hosted Ban at the Vatican for a discussion about climate change and the fate of the African and Middle Eastern refugees risking their lives on deadly boat trips in search of a better future in Europe. “They are men and women like us, our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war. They were looking for a better life,” Francis told thousands of followers during April 19 prayers in St. Peter’s Square. Next month, the pope plans to issue his first papal encyclical on the impact climate change inflicts on the world’s poorest.

Behind closed doors at the Vatican, the Pope assured Ban of his commitment to fighting climate change. But the discussions soon veered off onto other topics, including the link between migration and human trafficking and the need to tackle the root cause of poverty and inequality. They also touched on nuclear disarmament, the conflict in South Sudan, and the role that sports can play in promoting peace. “It was a really wide ranging discussion; I think there is now wider common ground bet the U.N. agenda and the pope’s agenda,” according to a senior U.N. diplomat. “I think [Pope Francis’s] heart is in the U.N. agenda.”

Francis invited Ban to the Vatican shortly after he was appointed pope, and they have met at least once every year. Last year, the U.N. held its annual meeting of heads of U.N. agencies in Rome, a gathering that brought together more than 40 of the U.N.’s top officials. The pope went around the room to shake each and chat with each of the participants.

Those early meetings led to collaboration between Jeffrey Sachs, a senior adviser to the U.N. chief on sustainable development and the director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Religions for Peace.  On April 28, they organized an interfaith conference entitled “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Humanity.”

A statement underscored the role of mankind has played in causing global warming and called on wealthy nations to underwrite the costs of developing countries trying to respond to the devastating impact of climate change. “Human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity,” it stated.

“If the pope is involved it increases the outreach,” said Janos Pasztor, a senior advisor to the U.N. chief on global warming, noting that Ban and Francis have agreed to join together in raising public awareness of climate change. “The pope is the number one potential mobilizer in the world; he speaks to 1.2 billion Catholics, plus a lot of other people.”

Who Am I to Judge?

Francis has also raised hopes that his papacy that would strike a dramatically different approach to gays than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who once signed a Vatican letter asserting that homosexuality is “an objective disorder” that reflects a “strong tendency toward an intrinsic moral evil.”

Francis has spoken compassionately about gays, suggesting the church would be accepting of them. In February, the Vatican for the first time granted VIP seats to the New Ways Ministry, a group of visiting gay and lesbian Catholics, to a weekly audience with the pope at St. Peter’s Square.

“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?,” he said in an August 2013 interview.” Last October, the Vatican issued a report indicating that “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian Church.”

The pope’s remarks were embraced as the dawn of a more compassionate church that would focus on the matters that affect all humanity.  But on the eve of the pope’s upcoming visit to the United Nations, advocates for gays, women and other marginalized groups have been disappointed on that front, saying the Holy See’s diplomats have invested most of their diplomatic resources into leading a cultural war.

In an early test of the Vatican’s tolerance for homosexuality, France selected in January an openly gay diplomat, Laurent Stefanini, to serve as its envoy to the Vatican.  Paris has yet to hear back, though the pope invited Stefanini, a Catholic who had served at the Vatican for four years, to prayer.

“The Vatican’s refusal to acknowledge his credentials was a slap,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, the executive director of Dignity USA, an organization of gay and lesbian Catholics. Duddy-Burke initially welcomed the Vatican’s stance on gays in the church as an “undeniable breakthrough.” Now, she said, she has situated herself in the “wanting to be hopeful but still skeptical camp” about the Pope’s outreach to gays and others.  “It totally gives lie to the sense that gay people are welcome in the Church.”

The Vatican’s views on homosexuality reveals a deep seated anxiety about the way that U.N. bureaucrats and Western governments have framed international discussion on development and concerns about efforts to control population.

Those concerns were heightened in debates on population and women’s rights in the mid-1990s in Cairo and Beijing, which fueled calls for universal access to reproductive health services and family planning information by 2015.

The Vatican’s principle preoccupation is less about sex than about what it views as the emergence of radical new definition of gender, which see human beings, not simply as men and women, but as individuals who can determine their own sexual identity control their natural reproductive cycle.

For the Church, this represents an affront by liberals and feminists to the natural biological order and the traditional family, headed by a man and woman, and contributes to homosexuality, abortion and the erosion of the family.

Under Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican launched an inquiry into the largest the Leadership Conference of Women Religious on the ground for promoting “radical feminism” themes incompatible with the Catholic faith. They were cited for straying from church doctrine on issues like birth control and an all-male priesthood and scolded for devoting too much time to tending the on poverty and economic inequality while remaining  silent about abortion and same-sex marriage. Last month, the Vatican reached a settlement with the nuns that effectively ended the stand off.

Pope Francis “hasn’t changed the church’s position on abortion or gay marriage but his attitude is everybody already knows where the church stands on that,” said Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who serves as a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. “We don’t have to beat a dead horse.”

The Pope is Not Waving the White Flag in the Culture Wars

Other observers say Pope Francis is facing a difficult balancing act, and that some may have had unrealizable expectations on liberal causes, including gay rights and abortion.

“The Catholic Church has always been pro-life and also in favor of peace and justice, and this is true of Pope Francis,” according to Allen. “The fact that he probably speaks more about the poor and migrants and the environment than pro-life matters is not intended to get the Vatican out of the pro-life game.”

The Catholic hierarchy is largely divided into camps: the theologians, who ascribe to a pure reading of church doctrine, and the diplomats, who think the church should be more focused on matters of peace and justice. For now, the diplomats are in ascendance at the Vatican, but the pope has had to assure the theologians that he is not rewriting church doctrine. Last August, Francis visited a so-called cemetery for “abortion victims” outside of Seoul South, Korea, to underscore the church opposition to abortion. Francis has “to convince the pro-life contingent in the church that he is not their enemy,” said Allen. “And he has done stuff to make clear he is not waiving the white flag in the culture wars.”

Photo by Vatican Pool/Getty Images

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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