If You Don’t Believe Women Are Fully Human, Can You Be a Great Pope? by Carol P. Christ

In recent weeks I have felt compelled to respond to a series of “Great Pope” photos and stories praising Pope Francis for his stands on poverty and climate change appearing on my facebook page. In every case I added something like: “Let’s not go overboard about a pope who does not believe women are fully human.”

I am referring of course to Pope Francis’s reiteration of the Church’s prohibition of women in the priesthood. But just as important–and perhaps more important–is the role the Roman Catholic Church has played and continues to play to prevent women from having access to contraception and abortion.

Control over our own bodies is a fundamental right that undergirds every struggle for women’s equality and liberation. But the pope does not want women to have the right to use contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies, nor does he want us to have the right to abortion if contraception is unavailable or fails—not even in cases of rape or incest.

When the Pope Paul VI published Humane Vitae (the Papal Encyclical on Contraception) in 1968, the priest in my local congregation at Yale University preached a sermon highlighting the importance of the Church’s doctrine of conscience. He urged us to study the reasons the Church had come out against birth control, to reflect deeply, to pray, and if we still felt the Church’s decision was wrong, to follow our own conscience.

Sadly, the Roman Catholic Church has not been content to promulgate and promote its teachings and to trust women to examine church teachings and their own conscience in regard to decisions about their bodies. In my family, my Aunt Jeanne’s “heart was broken” (my Uncle Dick’s words) when her priest told her during confession not to set foot in the church again if she continued to follow her doctor’s advice to use contraception. Her doctor had recommended birth control in light of the fact that she already had four children, and her husband had just suffered a near-fatal heart attack. She died estranged from the Church.

The Pope has recently counseled priests to be more lenient with women like my aunt: to offer them forgiveness rather than condemnation. Still it must be understood that this softening of judgment has no bearing on the Church’s teaching that the use of contraception is a sin. The harm to individual women done by the Church’s teachings is only a small part of the Pope’s problem with women. As is well-known, the Roman Catholic Church has not been content to counsel Roman Catholics on the issues of birth control and abortion.

back alley abortions The Roman Catholic Church is a major (if not the major) actor on the world stage working around the world to prevent women from having access to birth control and abortion. In many Catholic countries abortion is still prohibited, and in the United States, it is difficult for many women to get access to the legal abortions they need and want. Desperate women around the world resort to “back alley abortions for the poor,” jeopardizing their own lives and the futures of their children. The Catholic Church bears a large portion of the responsibility for this situation.

Women around the world are the poorest of the poor. Lack of access to birth control and abortion means that poor women are having children they find it very difficult to care for. The Pope is aware of this. His response has been that if poverty were ended, women could care for all of their children. While there is some truth in that statement, it glides over the fact that when women can control their own bodies, they generally choose to have fewer children. The Pope is still saying that women should not have the right to choose when and whether to have children.

The Pope’s recent statement about Climate Change has been widely lauded. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad the Pope recognizes this problem. But again, his blind spot is enormous. The sheer numbers of people on the earth are putting an unsustainable burden on the earth and the resources needed to feed and house them. Yes, people in the developed nations are using far more of the world’s resources than those in the poorer nations. But as poorer nations such as China and India develop, they are beginning to catch up with the developed nations in their demands for the world’s resources. We cannot deal with global climate change if the world’s population continues to increase.

I have been asking myself about the hypocrisy involved in otherwise liberal individuals’ adulation of Pope Francis. Two answers come to mind.

People long for a male Savior. (“If God is man, man is God.” —Mary Daly)

Women come in last.

Carol P. Christ leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter).  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess; with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions and forthcoming in 2016 from Fortress Press, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Explore Carol’s writing. Photo of Carol: Maureen Murdock.

Note: Can a person who is not a Roman Catholic criticize the Pope? My answer is “yes” because he is affecting our common world. That said, I was raised in a family that was one-half Catholic, attended mass as child and Catholic funerals, and was a practicing Catholic during my five years at Yale.

Categories: Abuse of Power, Catholic Church, Contraception, Feminism, Feminist Awakenings, General

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30 replies

  1. Approximately 602,700 abortions this year in the US, worldwide about 30,000 abortions a day. If we legalize gay marriage and truly support same-sex couples, and if we did that worldwide, those numbers would drop dramatically and we could keep the over-population in check at the same time. Besides which, it is estimated that currently, In the U.S. about 397,000 children are living without permanent families in the foster care system. I can’t imagine what the number is worldwide. But I do know that legalizing gay marriage would allow gay couples to more easily adopt and there would be far fewer orphans in need of loving homes.


    • I’m not certain how you make the leap between marriage equality, and “truly support same-sex couples” and how that would change the numbers of abortions. While adoption rates might improve, I’m not seeing a connection between that and the abortion statistics. Am I missing something?


  2. Even the small steps toward reform mean something, but of course it is not enough. It will never be enough. In my opinion, most traditional religions simply cannot reform enough to become completely fair to women. Or maybe they will, but it’s taking too long and we do not have that sort of time. I think women should try to find their due place in spiritual systems that they create themselves, instead of waiting for men to accept them fully into the traditional patriarchal religions.


    • It depends. I doubt the Roman Catholic Womanpriest movement would disagree with much of the article above. I had the pleasure of hearing a female Catholic priest speak at my church, an Episcopal congregation with a remarkable female rector. On a parish level, it seems to be treated as a private matter, at least from what I’ve seen. Officially the Episcopal church supports abortion rights, believes they are for “extreme” situations only, but they oppose any government interference in abortion access. Their are also movements amoung Catholic laity supporting abortion rights, like Catholics for Choice.

      There’s nothing wrong with finding yourself drawn to self-created spiritual systems – likewise there’s nothing wrong with those of us who are drawn into the beautiful and varied traditions of our foremothers, even as we continue to take small (and big) steps for equality.


  3. The pope can hardy condone murder which Abortion is Thou shall not kill. Jesus says even angel is. Killing. So what does ne do. Yes abstinence comes to mind and n an ideał world this would be so. I notice even though it is still against the church. But what about mens having the snip vasectomy. The woman has to do the heavy lifting and the men get away with all sorts of Stuff


  4. Oops that should be anger is kill g


  5. Thank you for this post and for connecting the dots (which should be so obvious but as you point out have been missed or deliberately ignored by the pope) between the climate crisis and women’s right to choose when or if to bear children and how many. You also point out that counseling forgiveness of women who choose birth control in certain circumstances changes nothing as it supports condemning them in principle. May eyes, ears, minds, and hearts be opened!


  6. Love the illustration, even if it take me a couple minutes to see what it was. I agree with you that this pope deserves praise to acknowledging climate change. Also for his compassion for the poor. But merely washing a woman’s feet does not elevate her to fully human status. The Roman Catholic Church needs to change. You’re certainly right about that.

    In the 18th-century Great Chain of Being, the image is a mountain. Hovering above it are the male god and the male angels (all of whom have masculine names). Sitting on top of the mountain are kings, lions, eagles, other “regal” animals. Just below them are the men of all the kingdoms of the world. Where are the women? Down at the bottom of the mountain. In the mud. So what has changed??


  7. I think people put too much of their power into the hands of the pope and other clergy. Many, if not most, Catholics today use contraception. The institutional church is still living in the days when large families were needed to provide for elders, and work the farm they would eventually inherit. I’m reminded of this whenever I pass the local RC church building and notice that the clock in the tower has read “12:50” for about 10 years now!

    Religious leaders have important things to say to us. Pope Francis has certainly moved toward a more authentic religious story – knowledge of a Divinity that is a Spirit of Love, and compassion for people and for all of creation. He hasn’t caught up to a holistic vision of women or sexuality – yet. And he’s not alone. I was sad to hear the Dali Lama say that homosexuals are not “right” (I don’t remember the exact word he used) because our bodies are made for the male penis to enter the woman’s body. In short, I think we can use our own conscience and reason to decide what is true and helpful. The days when the majority of people couldn’t read or afford hand copied books is gone. We are no longer “sheep”, or at least, we don’t have to be.


    • Yes, Barbara, Roman Catholics in the US use birth control, but today many women RC and otherwise, cannot access their right to abortion without paying a lot of money and talking a lot of time off work. This is a due to a Republican agenda with the collaboration and inspiration of the RC Church. And let us not forget that in some RC countries abortion is illegal. The RC Church is also a major player on UN committees that have anything to do with thinking about providing access to contraception and abortion in developing countries. Let us not underestimate the institutional power of the RC church worldwide!


      • True, Carol. I was only considering it from my experience as Canadian and enjoying a rather free spirit with regard to religion. Thanks for the reminder.


  8. Thanks for this post! I respond similarly to people’s over-enthusiasms about Francis, and they don’t really like to hear it. Fundamentally I think it’s because people just want to believe that everything is better now, that the church they love is really not oppressive, that they don’t actually have to up end their worldview. For myself, the “Francis effect” was the opposite of how he’s affected most. His disregard for women seems even worse given his pastoral persona and statements about poverty etc, which helped me see more clearly and finally move away from the church.


  9. I’ve always found it interesting that no one ever comments on the “Freakonomics” (by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner) observation that the crime rate in the USA precipitously dropped after abortion became legalized. Perhaps this is just a correlation, but nothing else seems to account for the reduction in criminality except for the reduction of unwanted children.
    And again, this spins into the Law and Order parties who work continuously for more guns and stiffer crime sentences yet they won’t support reproductive rights of women. It could very well be that reducing unwanted pregnancies might be the most effective preventive crime measure out there!


  10. So glad to read this editorial. The Pope has come out with some astonishingly progressive positions lately. I didn’t expect the condemnation of capitolism, the commitment to fighting environmental change, and, most surprising, the recent apologies on behalf of the Catholic church for their historical policy of genocide against the indigenous people of the new world. I am not Catholic, but this seemed unprecedented. Of course that apology would mean a lot more if the church started returning some of the land and property that they looted. But none of these progressive stances will mean anything until this Pope changes his authoritarian and archaic attitude toward women, and in particular, the work of progressive nuns in the United States.


  11. My opinion is this ~

    Either women are human beings and therefore responsible for their own actions, thoughts, and words, or they are not (according to the Church) If women are to be subjugated in any way, then stop holding them accountable for their actions, and instead, send the man to hell for not controlling and taking care of her properly.

    Yes it sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? Well, I am sorry but you cannot have it both ways. Either females are human beings or they are not and are in need of care. Make up our minds will you? Use a bit of common sense.

    Of course God holds women accountable, as much as men – perhaps more so. Women need to stop being dictated to as though they were retarded children and start being respected as human beings, and God’s children.


  12. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/07/06/colorado-larc-experiment_n_7738724.html

    “The initiative provided [young] women with free IUDs (intrauterine devices) or hormonal implants that can prevent pregnancy for up to 10 years, resulting in a 40 percent decline in birthrates among teen moms and a 42 percent decline in teen abortions from 2009 to 2013, reported The New York Times.”

    This is the kind of program that is needed, and such programs have nothing to do with abstinence, and would be anathema to the pope.


  13. Any woman who willingly supports the Catholic church and continues to be in that womanhating institution really is not a feminist in my opinion at all, merely a collaborator. I’m pretty sick of this. When are women finally going to walk out of that place? And when are women going to get it that the worst thing anyone can do to the overpopulated planet is keep having children. That is THE most environmentally disasterous thing, and the pope keeps making it harder and harder for women NOT TO HAVE CHILDREN. The lesbian movement was about women being free of all of this, that was a purpose of radical lesbian feminism. Mary Daly would just about faint to read “feminists” on this blog I think.

    I’m not holding my breathe about this, because mostly hetero women are supporting the church, and I’m pretty disgusted with it all.


    • AE, as Xochitl has written on this blog, Mary Daly was friends with radical women who stayed in the churches at the end of her life, and though she disagreed strongly with them, she also respected them. I am sure she would think FAR is not radical enough, but that is a different story. The founders of FAR believe that the voice of every woman who is struggling with the contradictions and conjunctions between feminism and religion is worthy of being heard. I agree. Even if I wish more women would leave the institutions that are oppressing them, I am also glad that some women are expressing their critique from within.

      Going ga-ga over a pope who does not respect women is another question!


    • I think declaring that everyone who seeks to reform the Catholic Church from within “really is not a feminist” is unfair and deeply wounding. And while a lot of Catholic feminists may be heterosexual, remember that nearly half of the LGBTQ+ community in this country identify as Christian, so presumably at least a few queer Catholic feminists are walking around not being feminist enough for you.


  14. Hell NO these men don’t believe women are fully human at all. Women are to be used by the patriarchy, if so-called feminists can’t even get the basics of this, well…. I give up.


  15. Mass resignation I love it. Obviously the women fought for many years within the male attrocity, Mary Daly thought the church could be reformed back in 1968 too. But really we should all know better by now. If women would JUST WALK OUT, leave the church to the men, just refuse to do anything in any male controled church even for a year it would send a message. NO MORE FREE LABOR, nor more supporting male supremacy. Would black people attend a church that refused to ordain them, a church that said they were inferior to whites? I rest my case. It’s why we will never have a true liberation of women, because too many women will go along with total subjugation and second class citizenship within male churches, and that is never ok with me. NEVER. Nope never ok. Liberal feminism got women NOWHERE. But at least one group of women is resigning en mass! Finally! Mary Daly walked out, so can they finally self respect at last.



  1. Si usted no cree que las Mujeres somos plenamente humanas, puede usted ser un gran Papa? por Carol P. Cristo | Evangelizadoras de los apóstoles

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