Sunday, July 26, 2015

Geier has not made a strong argument against the Pope

Pope Francis has taken some positions that feminists should overwhelmingly approve of, such as his opposition to capitalism -- and others that I and many others reject, such as his opposition to contraception. This raises an interesting and important question: how should feminists account for these issues when we think about the Pope? And how, in general, should we account for the virtues and failings of anyone when trying to assess their politics?

Elizabeth Bruenig takes up this question in a recent article for the New Republic -- an article that was met with severe criticism by Kathleen Geier, writing for Salon. Oddly, I find myself disagreeing with Bruenig and agreeing with Geier on several particulars -- but find Bruenig's argument far more compelling, coherent, and defensible than her critic's.

Both writers note the obvious point that Pope Francis opposes liberal feminist orthodoxy on several issues ranging from contraception to the ordination of women. The major difference here seems to be that Bruenig appreciates just how obvious this point is, while Geier wants to relitigate it. Worse, she wants to pretend that Bruenig is in fact not acknowledging the point at all -- and to that end, completely misrepresents the argument at hand.

Consider this paraphrase by Geier, for example: "Bruenig misleadingly claims that the ideas about family planning Francis expresses in his climate change encyclical are consistent with feminism." Here's what Bruenig actually wrote:
Francis's remarks on population control in his recent encyclical Laudato Si...align with the current in feminist thought that argues women should have the ability not only to delay childbirth, but to schedule it according to their own interests rather than those of employers or markets.
That claim is nothing like Geier's paraphrase. Bruenig is making an exceedingly narrow and qualified argument about particular points of correspondence, with multiple restrictive clauses. Geier can only criticize this by pretending the comparison was general, but Bruenig clearly would not have made such a general claim; on the contrary, she repeatedly rejects any "in-general" alignment, insisting that Francis is "not advancing the totality of any given secular, liberal feminism".

Instead, she continues, Francis's approach is "an approach that should appeal broadly to those interested in the intersection of poverty and womanhood." There are any number of ways that Geier could contest this claim. She could argue that any failing on any issue by Pope Francis disqualifies him from any "broad" alliance with feminists; this is a difficult argument to make in a world where even feminists can take dumb or bad positions on particular feminist issues, and it's an amusing argument to make in an article where she simultaneously defends heterodoxy among Catholics, but she could make it. She could also argue that all of Francis's positions cumulatively foster poverty rather than opposing it. Geier gets halfway there by noting that "reproductive freedom for women is associated with significantly reduced poverty"; but she doesn't bother to account for the even more significant affects the abolition of capitalism would have, and certainly never attempts to weigh them against each other.

Ultimately, Bruenig argues for a holistic understanding of Pope Francis's role in gender politics. She concedes positions that critics (including myself) will understand as failings, but insists that his considerable strengths are on balance advantageous for women, particularly in comparison to his predecessors. I think this is an extremely compelling argument given any kind of proportionate understanding of just implicated capitalism is in patriarchy and just how destructive and oppressive it has been for women.

But even if we reject that argument, it's enough to note that Geier doesn't. She rehearses the standard liberal critiques of the Pope that Bruenig has acknowledged by sentence two, and she throws in some odd jabs about data and Amy Schumer -- but she never explains how any of this outweighs or negates the genuine feminist contributions the Pope has made. Her vague concession that his anticapitalism could "end up doing real good" does not suggest that she has given the matter much thought. It is, after all, the decisive consideration of Bruenig's entire argument -- and though Geier doesn't seem to realize this, the "real good" it could do potentially outweighs her entire critique.