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.
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.