Women’s dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude… Then too, when we look at one of the most sensitive aspects of the situation of women in the world, how can we not mention the long and degrading history, albeit often an “underground” history, of violence against women in the area of sexuality? At the threshold of the Third Millennium we cannot remain indifferent and resigned before this phenomenon. The time has come to condemn vigorously the types of sexual violence which frequently have women for their object and to pass laws which effectively defend them from such violence. Nor can we fail, in the name of the respect due to the human person, to condemn the widespread hedonistic and commercial culture which encourages the systematic exploitation of sexuality and corrupts even very young girls into letting their bodies be used for profit. – Pope John Paul II
If the Vatican desires an unambiguous message of concern for women, then it needs to address the acts of violence committed against women’s bodies. In focusing on the end result of sexual violence, aborted pregnancies, and not addressing the violence itself, Vatican leadership fails to communicate this concern for women’s bodies.
According to John S. Grabowski in Sex and Virtue: An Introduction to Sexual Ethics, the Vatican’s stance on the human body is rooted in the first creation account in Genesis 1:27, stating that God created male and female simultaneously and in God’s image. Grabowski goes on to state that the Christian New Testament frames the teaching that each person is to be treated as both “alter ego and an alter christus.” Pope John Paul II, while writing as Cardinal Wojtyla, said human beings are God-like “by reason of their capacity for community with other persons.” Wojtyla described the characteristic of conjugal love a total love, a special form of friendship and equal partnership, and informs the Vatican’s stance on rape. He stated that If forced intercourse upon one’s marital partner is “contrary to moral order” then abuse outside of marriage is all the more destructive. Grabowski states, in that situation, the Vatican teaches that “extramarital sex is morally evil.”
Maria B. Olujic and Claudia Card examine rape as a tool of war; women were systematically raped and impregnated during the Bosnian War; their captors would detain them in camps until their pregnancies progressed past the point of early term abortion, and only then were they released.
According to John L. Allen, Jr., when the Vatican learned that women were still terminating their pregnancies, they responded by saying that the forced pregnancies should be approached with mother’s love, turning acts of violence into ones of love and welcoming. This response could have easily been interpreted as an act of complicity with those who raped these women. Though a few Catholic bishops from outside the Vatican have condemned the systematic rape involved in this conflict, the Vatican has, according to Allen, in fact, fought against the defining of forced pregnancy as a war crime, fearing the definition would lead to the right of an abortion.
In Africa, a Nairobi Catholic archbishop expressed public opposition against a women’s health bill that would legalize abortion in cases of sexual assault, incest, and rape. The bill defines reproductive health as able to have a satisfying and safe sex life and having the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when, and how often to engage in sex. Additionally, women not only have the right to a safe motherhood, but the bill also criminalized female circumcision. This bill speaks to the importance, value, and respect of the female body that Pope John Paul II called for.
Julia Hastings tells a story that occurred in 1989, where an American nun in Guatemala was abducted and systematically tortured for 24 hours. Dianna Ortiz escaped, lived, and provided her account with vivid details of what many women in that region have been subjected to. She became pregnant as a result of her torture and chose to terminate the pregnancy; she wrote in The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth what many women have expressed as mirroring their own rape experiences:
What was real to me at that moment was that something was growing inside of me – something that came from the seed of one of my torturers – perhaps all of them. …it had to be destroyed or it would have destroyed me.
Diana then recounted the sense of guilt she felt, feeling like one of her torturers, harming an innocent life. The Vatican responded by condemning her choice to terminate her pregnancy, but said nothing of the actions of those who kidnapped, tortured, and raped her.
In early March 2009, a nine year old girl received an abortion after doctors discovered that the girl was pregnant with her stepfather’s twins. Her stepfather had been sexually abusing both her and her mentally disabled sister for years prior to this incident. Archbishop Don Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, the archbishop of the local Catholic diocese, responded to the situation by announcing the mother’s and the physicians’ automatic excommunications for aborting the twins.
At the General Assembly of United Nations in 1979, Pope John Paul II stated, “What better wish can I express for every nation and for the whole of mankind, and for all the children of the world than a better future in which respect for human rights will become complete reality.” Though the Vatican has an ethical obligation to address violent sexual crimes, in order to facilitate this desire, Vatican leadership has not explicitly addressed violence against women and children that occurs worldwide. Sobrinho upheld the view that abortion is always wrong because it is incumbent to protect the lives of the innocent, no matter the circumstances. Yet no one protected the nine year old girl who suffered sexual abuse for years from a man, who the Vatican deemed responsible for creating a safe environment for her. The Vatican focused on the girl’s abortion, rather than the abuse. Sobrinho was cited as addressing the choice not to excommunicate the stepfather in saying, “a graver act than (rape) is abortion, to eliminate an innocent life.” Sobrihno’s reaction flies against the Gaudium et Spes that states “…mutilation, physical and mental torture, undue psychological pressures, all offenses against human dignity, …they debase the perpetrators more than the victims and militate against the honor of the Creator.” Pope John Paul II himself wrote, “I therefore ask that vigorous and incisive pastoral action be taken by all to overcome [discrimination] so that the image of God that shines in all human beings without exception may be fully respected.”
Rape is not a sexual act; it is an act of violence. The Vatican has spoken against abortion and birth control because, they argue, it separates sex from procreation. The perpetrators of sexual violence have already made this separation and the Vatican needs to respond accordingly. The Vatican teaches the importance of protecting innocent lives at all costs as a primary reason to the immorality of abortion. Who counts as an innocent life?
Bridget Ludwa is a Religious Studies Graduate alum of John Carroll University. She has come to identify as a nontheist, and is no less fascinated with questions surrounding feminism in religion. Bridget intends to use her experiences to become a HUUmanist minister in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, serving other nontheists in need of community and empowerment. Stemming from her military upbringing and her own military service, she is also an advocate for veterans issues by serving with AmeriCorps VISTA at the University of Akron.