theguardian.com, Wednesday 26 November 2014 11.03 GMT
Pope Francis’s speech at the council of Europe, where he described the continent as ‘a grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant’
The love-in with Pope Francis is over; or at least it is as far as this Catholic feminist is concerned. On Tuesday he addressed the European parliament in Strasbourg, 27 years after a speech there by his predecessor John Paul II. That was an historic occasion, and this week’s speech was widely touted as something similar: a groundbreaking moment for the pontiff to lay out his stall on Europe and its political direction.
First came entirely laudable entreaties: European politicians, he said, should pull together a united response to assist the boatloads of impoverished and miserable people who come in search of a new life, rather than leaving them to drown on the high seas. There should be more jobs, and better conditions for workers. Europe was failing in these respects, and he wanted it to pull its socks up.
So far, so very good indeed. But then came his massive faux pas. Speaking of the need for Europe to be invigorated, he described the continent as a “grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant”, and went on to say it risked “slowly losing its own soul”.
Pope Francis surrounded by bishops
‘Few other world leaders are exclusively surrounded, as Pope Francis is, by men.’ Photograph: Franco Origlia/Getty Images
His phrase was so badly judged on so many levels, but perhaps most shocking of all is that none of his many advisers realised how insulting an analogy this was, and failed to persuade him to take it out of his speech. Any other world leader, surely, would have had someone in his entourage who was enough in touch with female feelings and sensibilities to realise that being negative about older women because of their lack of ability to bear children, and suggesting that they were no longer active, enthusiastic, lively and life-giving, was a complete no-no. But then again, few other world leaders are exclusively surrounded, as Pope Francis is, by men (many of them elderly, though I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that means they are people with reduced potency or lack of energy).
What makes the pope’s derogatory words about grandmothers all the more shocking is that he was apparently very close to his own grandmother, from whom he has said he learned a great deal; and also because he has been a witness to the formidable campaign mounted by the grandmothers of the disappeared in his own country, Argentina, during the dirty war.
From an internal political point of view, it is a bad misstep: all over the world, older women are the backbone of the Catholic church. They are its flower arrangers and cleaners, its priests’ housekeepers and its soup kitchen operators, its fete organisers and its catechists. They are also, if my parish is anything to go by, and I am sure it is, the majority of congregants at its masses: they are its spiritual well; its practical and operational workforce. Older women are a constituency that the pope insults at his peril, and he should have known that; and if he didn’t, there should certainly have been someone there to explain it to him.
Worst of all, of course, his negative labelling of older women suggests that underneath all the warm displays of touchy-feely understanding, behind his appealing reluctance to judge, and alongside his impressive championing of the rights of the poor, Pope Francis is not so very different from the other male-centric leaders of the Catholic church. The value that has been put on women through centuries of Catholic history, from the Virgin Mary onwards, has been one that is tied up with their ability to bear children: de-linking them from this one-dimensional view of what it is to be female is a move that is desperately needed in the Vatican. From the Pope’s tone it doesn’t sound as though he’s going to provoke any revolutions on that front, however mould-breaking he may be in other areas.
Most of all, though, his words suggest that he needs a smart woman to look over his speeches before he delivers them; and he might want to spend a bit of time listening to that smart woman’s views about the real lives of real women, particularly older ones, in the real world.
Fertility isn’t everything, Pope Francis, and grandmothers are one of the most vibrant forces on the planet, as the Catholic church should have discovered through centuries of its own history.
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