When the Catholic Church eclipses the Republican Party on social policy, it’s time to start looking skyward for frogs. Yesterday, when the Vatican released the pope's latest statement offering a softer tone toward the gay community than pontiffs in the past, it suggested that the Catholic Church may have figured out what the Republican Party hasn’t yet grasped—that the fading of the institution’s flock can only truly be addressed by reversing some of the fading norms driving the flock from the fold.
And so you have, just to pick one example, failed Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli saying about gay rights, “I cannot support something that I believe brings nothing but self-destruction, not only physically but of their soul.” Versus Pope Francis saying, “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?"
Now Pope Francis has gone a step further, expressing compassion for gay families as well as families of divorce, both of which are perennial Republican targets in their puritanical and antiquated push for conservative morality. “How can we proclaim Christ to a generation that is changing?” the pope reportedly said. “We must be careful not to administer a vaccine against faith to them.” Or voting! Step aside, Reince Priebus. The pope’s words offer some wisdom for the sagging and outdated GOP.
It’s not as if I’m comparing the rhetoric of Republican Party to a liberal, feminist knitting circle. This is the Catholic Church, which still expressly believes that having gay sex is as sinful as contraception and abortion. And yet in recent years, the Catholic Church has been more forward-thinking than the Republican Party (and at times, even the Democratic Party) on issues of economic justice, immigration and the death penalty. Plus, while it wasn’t until losing the 2012 elections that the Republican Party proclaimed it was time for an “autopsy” to improve the party’s appeal to women, young people and voters of color, the Catholic Church has been actively outreaching to Latino communities since the Spanish colonization of the Americas!
To be clear, I’m not exactly praising the Catholic Church nor Pope Francis for social liberalism. The pope has said, “The teaching of the church” on issues of abortion, gay marriage and contraception “is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” And indeed the Church remains dangerously out of touch with the modern lives and needs of its flock, whether the upwards of 90 percent of Catholic women in the United States who use birth control or the 62 percent of American Catholics who support marriage equality. Still, what’s fascinating is that the Republican Party and social conservatives in general continue to wave the banner of backwards social norms despite all the self-marginalizing and self-destructive pragmatic reasons not to, while here the very arbiter of those social norms—who obviously has more reason to proselytize that morality than any political party—is recognizing the need to, at the very least, tone it down.
Certainly not all Republican political leaders fall into the offensive and out-of-date category with respect to social issues. Despite the massive rightward shift of the party in the last few years, there remain some social moderates who believe that women should make decisions about their own bodies based on consultations with their doctors, not tyrannical laws. And more Republican figures are coming out in support of marriage equality every day. Yet when conservative leaders flock to defend the ugly racist and homophobic remarks of Phil Richardson or try and dismantle Obamacare based on contraception mandates, they reveal how woefully disconnected conservative leadership is from not only the majority of Americans but the majority of Republican voters. The pope seems to realize that being so woefully out of touch, or at least foregrounding such out-of-touch stances, will only lead to emptier pews. In the political realm, it only leads to more Democrats.
As a secular Jew, I don’t know much about Catholic doctrine but I do know a ton about irony. Whether out of institutional self-preservation or a true moral searching, Pope Francis appears to be trying to project a warm and welcoming rhetoric that is often undermined by the Church’s judgmental and exclusionary beliefs. But the irony is that the centuries-old Catholic Church is even trying, which is more than can be said for the supposedly modern GOP.