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.