Of Human Life* By Carol P. Christ

Watching the last episode of the Australian series Brides of Christ in which Catherine leaves the sisterhood of the convent because of her disagreement with Humanae Vitae brought me right back to the Yale Roman Catholic chapel and the folk mass I attended regularly.  In 1968 just after the publication of Humanae Vitae, priest and co-graduate student Bob Imbelli preached a sermon on the doctrine of conscience, arguing that though it was incumbent on Catholics to think carefully about the papal encyclical on birth control, it was also the responsibility of every Catholic to follow her or his conscience on the matter.  In the episode, Sister Catherine encourages a Roman Catholic mother of six who has already self-induced more than one abortion to take the pill, but the woman decides she cannot go against the church’s teachings.  Catherine allows an editorial against Humanae Vitae to be published in the school newspaper even though she knows it will probably lead to the expulsion of one of her favorite students.

I had forgotten that Pope Paul VI issued the prohibition on birth control against the clear majorities of the Roman Catholic commissions instructed to study the matter.  In the episode, Sister Catherine, told by her bishop that she can no longer express her own opinions on birth control, tries to explain to her students that Roman Catholics cannot use birth control because it is against “natural law.”  This provokes one of the students to ask if people are not supposed to use birth control because animals don’t use it.  This question sparked an “ah-ha” moment for me.  Hmm, I thought, while “man” has invented birth control, “women” cannot use it because we are meant to remain “like the animals.” This debate really is about the question of whether women are human!

I have been musing of late on the vehemence with which the Church and churches are opposing not only abortion but access to birth control in the context of US and world politics.  Though I have been a feminist almost as long as Humanae Vitae has been in effect, I have been puzzled that so many men and women want to control other women’s bodies.  Brides of Christ made the issue clear to me: we are not talking about birth control or abortion, but about women’s minds, and whether we have the right to make decisions using our rational minds about our own lives.  This is the question and it always has been.  And the Church’s answer is that it just doesn’t trust women to use their rational capacities (with or without also consulting the spirit) to make the most important decisions in their lives.

Catherine said to one of the other nuns that Humanae Vitae’s greatest impact would be on women in poor countries because they would have fewer choices.  This was the conclusion I reached as well.  This realization was one of the three main reasons (the others being the male language and anti-Judaism in the liturgy) that I stopped identifying myself as a member of the Catholic Church.

The Vatican’s war against women’s minds, bodies, and souls continues:  birth control and abortion are still illegal in many Catholic countries; the Church lobbies against family planning policies at the UN.  The US Roman Catholic bishops continue to influence public policies in the US:  abortion coverage was removed from the health care package; Obama is being lobbied to take birth control out as well; as a “concession” to these “interests,“  the supposedly female-friendly Obama administration directed Kathleen Sibelius to overturn the recommendation of its own committee that the morning after pill become available to anyone over  12 years old (i.e. to anyone old enough to need it) over the counter.

*This essay is dedicated to the memory of my aunt Jeanne Imgram whose heart was broken by the priest who excommunicated her after she confessed to him that she was using birth control on the recommendation of her doctor who told her that her husband’s heart condition was likely to leave her as sole support of the four young children she already had.

Carol P. Christ is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement.  She teaches in the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS and through Ariadne Institute offers Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.

Categories: Catholic Church, Catholicism, Christianity, Church Doctrine, Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion, Reproductive Justice

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9 replies

  1. Carol,

    Thank you for your words, they are indeed profound and hold so much truth. There is a family on American TV that has become somewhat of a spectacle – The Duggar’s. They went on national TV to announce that they were pregnant with their 20th child (which she ultimately miscarried early in the second trimester). They are not Catholic, but have a more fundamentalist faith and put everything “in God’s hands.” When I hear that phrase it sends shockwaves through me. Its as if we do not have the ability to think for ourselves, which I believe goes along with your point.

    There are many that are ordained or vowed that silently know that the Church’s stance on birth control is wrong. They believe by using the phrase “the church says” or “the church teaches us” it lets them off the hook – I found it hypocritical. I have a friend who left the priesthood over this very issue.

    Recently the church modified their stance on condoms in Africa. The initial ruling of prohibiting them due to church teaching enraged me. Condoms, as you know, is recommended to prohibit the spreading of AIDS. But what is more frustrating is that women really cannot say no to their husband’s advances and abstain (as the Church told them to do). They could be beaten and even divorced.

    There are so many unresolved and difficult issues that diminish women, not just in the Church, but on the countries and organizations the Church influenced over the years. As I read your dedication, I am reminded about a priest to condemned a devout Catholic women for having an abortion in her teens. She never went to communion but attending mass daily. She went to her grave with the knowledge that she was damned. She never received forgiveness of the Church and therefore she condemned herself for something that occurred as a teenager. The sad thing, if the priest was more pastoral or she went to another priest, she could have gone to her grave with a sense of forgiveness and absolution of her sins.

    I wish that one of the qualities of ordination is the ability to be pastoral. This is an avenue where I think ordaining women might open up another avenue to make the church stronger.

    Peace to you this New Year,



  2. Carol, I loved reading your reflections on the issue of birth control, and I also loved being brought back to the mini-series Brides of Christ. I’m glad you found something worthwhile in it after I recommended it. :)

    I’m a practicing member of a pretty conservative tradition (Mormonism), so it’s interesting for me to think about how close my tradition came to taking a hard line on the birth control issue like the Catholic Church did. In the 50’s, 60’s and even 70’s, there was very strong language against birth control coming from Mormon leaders. But something shifted in the 80’s. Scholars of Mormonism say that while the Mormon population is very willing to follow their leaders the great majority of the time, this was one issue where the population decided to go their own way and plan their families. Then rhetoric from Mormon leaders followed accordingly. Leaders began to speak about these decisions as personal to be made within the marriage and with God. Now almost every young Mormon couple I know uses or has used birth control, with absolutely no sense of shame. Mormons still tend to have 1 or 2 more kids than the general American population, but I’m so happy to know that couples who know that having a large family is not right for them can make that decision without condemnation from our Church community. But how close my tradition came to permanently taking that hard stand against all birth control… scares me just to think about it.


  3. Thank you for this important post. Whenever I teach Intro to Christian Ethics I include Humane Vitae. I have the students read the actual document with secondary commentary from Catholic theologians, i.e. Lisa Cahill or Charles Curren, on the injustice of the document. The students by-and-large find the document puzzling since NFP is a form of birth control with the couple avoiding sex and therefore not “open to the possibility of life.” Again, more double talk from men who have romanticized what it means to have children you cannot afford, economically or emotionally.

    My own mother suffered from too many pregnancies and births in order to remain a practicing Catholic. Like many women in the 1950’s, she was not mentally equipped to have the number of children she had, but she could not see another life for herself which contributed to her alcoholism and depression. In the end her Catholic identity was thrown in her face when she divorced my father for his multiple affairs.

    I never put together the argument of natural law and women as animals before. A very interesting perspective. To-be-sure, the theological assumptions at play over Humane Vitae do place women (and even men) in categories that do not allow for the use of their conscience to guide them in decision making. The recent ruling on condoms has created a crack in the natural law argument, so it will be interesting to see what filters out from this decision.


  4. Oh, Carol. Sometimes your stories here are so heart-painful that they make me want to weep. I’m so sorry for the pointless agony your aunt endured. I’ll say a prayer for her in the new year.


  5. Wait a second…you said a priest excommunicated your aunt? From what I know of Catholicism only the pope can excommunicate anyone, and that’s only after some tribunal of cardinals or whatever convenes a “trial” of sorts, you know all Bell, Book and Candle to the end.

    This is not just a story about the atrocious consequences of an atrocious policy then, it becomes a story about Clericalism run amok too.


  6. The priest told my aunt she was not welcome in church and could not “take communion” if she continued to use birth control.

    Another of my aunts received the same message from her priest; I think in her case it was to do with not contributing enough money to a Catholilc School Fund.


  7. “In Roman Catholic canon law, excommunication is a censure and thus a “medicinal penalty” intended to invite the person to change behaviour or attitude, to repent and return to full communion.[1] It is not an “expiatory penalty”, designed to make satisfaction for the wrong done, still less a merely “vindictive penalty”, designed solely to punish.

    Excommunication can be either latae sententiae (automatic, incurred at the moment of committing the offence for which canon law imposes that penalty); or it can ferendae sententiae (incurred only when imposed by a legitimate superior or declared as the sentence of an ecclesiastical court).[2]

    Excommunicated Catholics are still Catholics and remain bound by obligations such as attending Mass, even though they are barred from receiving the Eucharist and from taking an active part in the liturgy (reading, bringing the offerings, etc.).[3] However, their communion with the Church is considered gravely impaired.[4] In spite of that, they are urged to retain a relationship with the Church, as the goal is to encourage them to repent and return to active participation in its life.”

    from Wikepedia


  8. Carol, thank you for this important post and for continually being willing to share your experiences – no doubt I have learned so much from reading them and have been able to identify with so much of what you say.

    I continue to struggle with the Catholic Church and don’t know how to pull away from it because of the ties I feel to my family. This being said, when my husband and I were married, my priest told my that I needed to quit my job (as a woman’s advocate for domestic violence victims) and take on my true role in life – to be a wife and mother. He saw no value in my work – and now I wonder if he would have seen me as having any value whatsoever since I am infertile.

    Between hearing from you and Caroline – I am dying to see Brides of Christ!



  1. 1, 2, 3, 4: FEMINISTS DON’T WANT ANOTHER WAR by Carol P. Christ « Feminism and Religion

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