by Juan Marco Vaggione
Since his inauguration as the new pontiff, Bergoglio has generated new complexities for those of us who think that it is necessary to dismantle the religious imprints on the ethical and legal regulation of sexual order. The Catholic Church, under the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, has remained attached to highly regressive positions on sexual morality and has led the opposition to feminist and LGBT rights demands. As sexuality became increasingly politicized, in the last few decades, the Vatican vehemently decided to be the moral guardian of a sexual order in crisis. It prioritized the rejection of condoms as HIV-AIDS prevention; it stiffened its own construction of sexuality in a world that was becoming more plural and diverse, and has ignored the health consequences of criminalizing the behaviors of certain groups in society, such as women who resort to abortion and those engaged in same sex relations. The Vatican’s obsession with sexual disorders in the world went hand in hand with its hierarchy’s complacency in relation to internal sexual scandals and major events of corruption. While John Paul II was, in exceptional moments, a voice opposing the effects of neoliberalism, the Catholic institution (or at least its hierarchy) was entrenched against all forms of progressivism. To many people around the world, the memory of a Catholic Church that was committed to the poor, aligned with leftist ideas and brave in the face of authoritarian governments and military dictatorships was rapidly becoming a scrap of history.
Against this backdrop, the assumption of Francis the First to power has been widely presented as the beginning of a new era that will preside over a renewed covenant between the Catholic Church and the faithful, but also with citizens at large. The gestures and statements of the pontiff, always subject to intense media coverage, have rapidly generated wide currents of favorable opinion towards the new religious leader. Since the very first days of his papacy Francis, projected great expectations of change. Combining charisma, communication, management, and novel strategic positions, the new pope seems to be dispelling the conservative Church, and opening it to a distinctive temporality. Even in the absence of major institutional changes, the new strongman of the Vatican was seen as a deep reformer. Within a few hours the new pope was seen as an alternative, as the new center of resistance against inequality and exclusion. Liberation theologians, like Leonardo Boff or intellectuals like Gianni Vitim are just two remarkable examples of acknowledged public voices that have seen in Francis I a new pole resistance to capitalism, and as the primary source of values against neoliberal globalization.
this context, deeply permeated by the desire for a “progressive” Pope, the new encyclical on ecology and the environment is has been published. The document, focusing on one of the most critical issues in today’s world, appears to dramatize the new covenant between Catholic hierarchy and the people. Encyclicals are the vehicles through which the Church seeks to impact national and international debates. Besides being religious documents, they are also political instruments that circulate the Vatican’s official position on how to instruct the faithful and influence citizens in general. The fact that the first encyclical written individually by Francis the First is focused on the environment should not be a surprise, given Bergoglio, in choosing his name as a pope, was inspired by the saint known and respected for caring for nature and the environment (Saint Francis). The document’s impact was felt even before its publication, as transcending expectations, which was expressed by many voices. After its release the effect on the public was wide and immediate. Both its main tenets and the views on the text, were unusually laudatory, which was demonstrated by remarks from progressive clerics, and extensive media reports from mainstream experts, activists, and politicians.
Without aiming at a deep and thorough analysis of the encyclical, I would like to examine some of its main contents that justify its positive impact. Like other Catholic Church documents, the text combines religious arguments and scientific reasoning. This is because the Church sees itself not merely as a religious voice but also as a public actor that must always make reference to other sources of legitimacy, such as scientific knowledge. The Vatican, the Catholic Church in various countries, and, the numerous Catholic universities in particular, are powerhouses of the production and circulation of knowledge which, inter alia, grounds the terms of the ethical debates they engage in. In the particular case of the new encyclical, the resource to scientific arguments and evidence is vital because the the environmental crisis – is subject to strong disagreements in various aspects, including the harmful effects of technology on the environment.
One of the central tenets of the encyclical is to conceptualize and propose a comprehensive ecology that does not address the problem of the environment in isolation. As laid out in the document, this integral ecology must be able to “incorporate the peculiar place of human beings in this world and its relation with the surrounding reality“; environmental problems are interlinked with a multiplicity of human and social dimensions. In particular, it proposes a connection between ecology and poverty and a vision of justice that will “hear both the outcry of the earth and the outcry of the poor”. The encyclical is also clear about the geopolitical dimensions of the environmental question and calls upon the most powerful and the most polluting nations to “internalize the global environmental costs.” Another key aspect is that it addresses questions regarding negative environmental effects deriving from the combined power of technology and economics.
However, this holistic ecology and its concerns about the “human essence” exude a position on sexuality, which is a continuation of the legacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The new encyclical not only summons the faithful and citizens at large to protect the environment but also to sustain a politics of the body that reaffirms the views of Francis’ predecessors. The text continues to criticize what it names as the “culture of relativism” as one of the main evils of our time because it impairs the access to objective truths. In the Pope’s words, relativism is also what explains why organs are trafficked and traded, and why ‘children are discarded because they do not (?) fulfill the desire of their parents’ (paragraph. 123). This emphasis in on a “culture of discarding” that now appears in various public statements from the Pope, is merely renewed semantics used to name what the Church views as the main social problems, and do not necessarily substantially differ from the notion of “culture of death” that permeated the discourse deployed by John Paul II to oppose sexual and reproductive rights.
The encyclical weaves “progressive” environmental politics with blatantly conservative sexual politics. For example, it ties its deep concern for environmental degradation with the open defense of the embryo as another imprint of nature. Francis I affirms that it is necessary to recognize “the value of the poor, of the human embryo, and of persons with disabilities” (paragraph 117) in order to hear “the outcries of nature “. The text criticizes human embryo experimentation because it violates ethical principles by disregarding the fact that “the inalienable value of the human being goes beyond its stage of development” (paragraph 136). Further, it states that the defense of abortion rights is incompatible with the environmental politics it proposes because “it does not seem feasible to take an educational path that welcomes weak beings around us, which can sometimes be bothering, and not be able to protect a human embryo, even when its arrival may cause discomfort and difficulties “(paragraph 120). Finally, the encyclical stresses the importance of the body and of its contiguity with the planet (paragraph 155). But it continues to conceive of the body as defined by its dichotomy, by its sexual difference. It explicitly affirms that an attitude that aims to cancel sexual difference is not healthy because “valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. ”
Sexuality and reproduction allow the Pope to distance himself from those environmental movements that call for limits to scientific research but that, in the view of the Vatican “do not apply these same principles to human life” (136). The encyclical defends the environment and also the Catholic values in relation to the beginning of life and sexual difference. It does not leave room for ecological conceptions and related movements that consider it to be compatible to protect the environment and respect sexual and reproductive rights. The modality of environmental protection proposed in the document antagonizes the struggles for reproductive autonomy and sexual diversity that also articulate ecological demands. This disregards the fact that various feminist streams, feminist theology among them, have come a long way in their efforts to integrate environmental concerns and the respect of and protection of sexual and reproductive freedom.
The seduction generated by the Pope’s discourses and actions appears to easily navigate these contradictions because these days the desire for a “progressive global voice” is all over the place. Francisco the First has very rapidly been portrayed as a hope against neoliberalism, as a transnational discursive alternative that emerged as an ally (if not a leader) against poverty, inequality and social injustice. And in fact, it is not wise to ignore the relevance of an influential global leader that dares to speak about the environmental crisis in its connection to power relations and capitalism. However, it is also necessary to take a critical position in relation to the “progressive” transitions made by the new Pope. These times are very challenging for those engaged in political struggles and academic debates around sexual and reproductive freedom and equality. When Bergoglio became the Pope two years ago – watching the effects of his first speeches and actions and the expectations they have enhanced – a few of us have decided that it was important to “unmask” the “progressive” new pope. It was vital to reveal his trajectory in light of his virulent opposition to same sex marriage in Argentina as a strategy to contain the expansive wave of optimism that surrounded his elections. In our view it was important to reveal the highly regressive positions in regard to gender, sexuality and reproduction that lurked beneath Bergoglio’s progressive positions in regard to other matters.
However, today this unmasking strategy seems insufficient to critically deconstruct the discourse and effects of the “progressive” Pope. We must continue insisting on the nodal meaning of sexuality as a key marker of progressive discourse on ecology, poverty, and exclusion itself. In today’s world, it is out of place to propose political perspectives that, while open on their surface, are sanitized in regard to sexuality and reproductive autonomy. Sanitized politics of the body are always connected with violence and marginalization. No progressive politics is conceivable without being grounded in the elaboration of a body, either real or imagined. The religious hierarchy may try to do this because it is convenient for its members, but this appeal should not capture the hearts and minds of others who are committed to enlarge freedom and equality in the contemporary world.
More than ever, the critical commitment of feminists and sexual diversity thinkers and activists is indispensable to continue contesting leaders such as Francis the First and the ideological adherences these leaders are able to generated. We must continue developing critical approaches that are able to go beyond the recognition of individual rights as the main road to expand freedom and pluralism, and that provide new and better tools to dismantle the oppressive and hierarchical matrices of sexuality, gender and reproduction that are sustained by powers that be, particularly the political machinery of the Catholic Church. This is not meant to change the Church and its hierarchy but to feed the hopes and actions of those who struggle for a world less unequal, who care for the environment but who are also engaged in a plural and democratic body politics. It is vital to resist the siren songs now being chanted by the Vatican and to keep disclosing the multiple risks and contradictions of the desexualized and moralistic “progressive” stances on transformation.