The Pope Punts and Catholics Vote with Their Feet by Carol P. Christ

Reading the receCarol Molivos by Andrea Sarris 1ntly released papal letter “The Joy of Love,” I was surprised to see that it opens a “new” discussion of marriage and the family with a very old patriarchal trope from Psalm 128:

Blessed is every one who fears the Lord,

who walks in his ways!

You shall eat the fruit of the labour of your hands;

you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you.

Your wife will be like a fruitful vine

within your house . . . (see ch. 1, pp. 7-8)

Notwithstanding the “inclusive language” translating the male generic in Hebrew as “one,” there is no way around the fact that this psalm is addressed by a male God to men. It compares women to property owned and tended by men. Nor does it provide any opening to consider the blessings of same sex marriage.

It is perhaps not surprising that a document issued in the name of the “Holy Father” who sits at the apex of a male hierarchy fails to recognize that this much-beloved Biblical image pours salt on the wounds of women. It is precisely because women have been viewed as the vine (irrational nature) and not the tender of the vine (rational man), that there is a need for new teaching on marriage and the family. Nor is the image of marriage in which only one of the partners is a moral agent one that most lesbian and gay couples would affirm.

In response to the papal letter, Ross Douthat commented:

MODERNITY has left nearly every religious tradition in the Western world divided. The specific issues vary with the faith, but there is an essential sameness to what separates Reform Judaism from Orthodox Judaism, evangelical churches from mainline Protestantism, the liberal Episcopal Church from the conservative Anglican Church in North America. In each case, disagreements about the authority of tradition, the reliability of Scripture, and eventually the proper response to the Sexual Revolution have made it impossible for liberal and conservative believers to remain in community or communion.

Douthat is is not happy about this state of affairs, but he is right that the question of how to respond to the “Sexual Revolution,” or more correctly, to the movements to recognize the full humanity of women and LGBQT individuals and couples, raises issues about the authority of tradition and the reliability of the Bible.

This brings us back to Psalm 128. Is Psalm 128 a beautiful depiction of “the joy of love”? Or is it a patriarchal image in which the joy of “man” is portrayed by reducing woman to the ontological status of a vine? And if the latter, does this not, as feminists and others have been asserting for the past several decades, place a question mark over the authority of scriptures and traditions based upon them?

Though he is not happy with this state of affairs, Douthat argues that in the new letter, the Pope endorses an uneasy “truce” between conservatives and liberals in the Church. Leaving Church doctrine intact, the Pope casts his lot with those who use the theories of “conscience” and “discernment” to soften their impact. The Church will continue to affirm that the decisions to use most forms of birth control, to choose abortion, to divorce and remarry, to have sex outside marriage, or to live in homosexual partnerships or marriages are against Church teaching. The Pope encourages both clergy and laity to make their own judgments  as to whether or not any of these decisions merit exclusion from the communion with the Church. As Douthat concludes, this ambiguous position does not provide a center that is likely to hold in a deeply divided church.

Individuals are hurt when they are excluded from communion when they follow their own consciences and make decisions contrary to the teaching of the Church. Perhaps the Pope’s new letter will ease the anguish of some of them. Others will remain estranged from a Church that continues to condemn them in its official teachings.

In focusing on individuals within the Church, the Pope chooses to ignore the on-going political impact of Church doctrines. As is well-known, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops is working to deny all women and families access to birth control or abortion as part of the Affordable Care Act. In the United Nations, the Catholic Church continues to oppose family planning. The Church opposes gay marriage not just for Catholics–but for everyone. The Church’s impact on these issues is even greater in largely Roman Catholic countries.

In Poland a right-wing government supported by the Church has proposed a law outlawing and criminalizing abortion in all cases, with no exceptions for saving the life of the mother or allowing abortion in the case of rape or incest.

The “Holy Father” has failed to open a genuinely new discussion about the full humanity of women and LGBQT people in the Church. The challenges posed by these questions will require new theories of the authority of scripture and tradition. The Pope may fear that such an opening would undermine the notion of a hierarchical church and raise questions about the very notion of a “Holy Father.” He would be right. Still, these questions cannot be avoided in the long term. In the meantime, many Catholics will continue to “vote with their feet.” (Be sure to watch!)

*When I was growing up, my father’s side of the family was Catholic. I was a practicing Catholic while studying theology at Yale. If being Catholic means that one cares enough about what the Church is doing to read its documents and respond to them (as Mary Hunt once said), I am still Catholic.

Carol P. Christ is author or editor of eight books in Women and Religion and is one of the Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in Spring and Fall: Sign up now for spring tour and save $100. Follow Carol on Twitter @CarolP.Christ, Facebook Goddess Pilgrimage, and Facebook Carol P. Christ.  Carol speaks in depth about the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in an illustrated interview with Kaalii Cargill. Photo of Carol by Andrea Sarris.

A Serpentine Path Cover with snakeskin backgroundA Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the GoddessGoddess and God in the World final cover design will be published by Far Press in 2016. A journey from despair to the joy of life.

Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Judith Plaskow will be published by Fortress Press in August 2016. Exploring the connections of theology and autobiography and alternatives to the transcendent, omnipotent male God.



Categories: Abuse of Power, Activism, Catholic Church, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General

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13 replies

  1. good to see a posting by Carol Christ, I miss reading them


  2. While I’m glad to see that the initial Pope-mania has died off as people finally – FINALLY – realized that Francis talks out of both sides of his mouth when it comes to LGBTQ rights, the willingness of liberals to give the Church a pass when it comes to homophobia and sexism continues to confound me.


  3. On the impact of Church doctrines — I remember one Catholic friend, who already had four children, complaining that if she didn’t use birth control, she could not afford another offspring, and the Church was certainly not going to offer her financial help to raise all those kids.


  4. Just a month or so after this pope was elected (by a “college” consisting entirely of men), one of my clients and I went out to lunch. This client is a gay man. Francis came up in our conversation, and my client said he was not impressed by anything Francis had said or done so far. At the time, I still had high expectations for a pope who had served the poor in Argentina and seemed to be rejecting most of the pomp and circumstance of his high office in Rome. Well, guess what–I’ve lost my expectations that anything might change in the church. It’s still highly medieval and it’s still run by men in skirts.

    BTW, what’s going to happen to those three Syrian families Francis took back to Rome on his papal airplane? Are they going to be housed in or by the Vatican? Abandoned somewhere in Rome? What will happen to those six children?


    • According to reports, they will be eligible to apply for asylum in Italy (as they arrived before the new agreement between Turkey and the EU) and they will be temporarily housed and helped by a Catholic Charity in Rome.


      • I should add that the Pope’s visit here in Lesbos was viewed favorably though not necessarily with great enthusiasm by people working with the refugees. His goal was to call upon Europe to do more to help the refugees and to end war.

        According to reports, the detention camp was cleaned up and some of the detainees removed so that the camp would look more humane to the Pope and the Patriarch and the press.


  5. It’s been decades since I took the Vatican as a “guiding star” but have some thoughts on this.

    First, the psalms were not written for or by a society like ours. Marriages were largely arranged for family benefit, not romantic love. There was no social security or pensions so elderly people depended on their children to provide care in old age and death. Property was family inheritance and children maintained it. Therefore, children were seen as a divine blessing for the family, labour in the fields and security in old age. To use the psalm without situating it in the culture that birthed it leads to all sorts of mis-readings. Cardinals in the past have not usually been appointed for their scholarship or holiness, but for political reasons.

    Second, the RC structure is embedded in a hierarchical patriarchy that has existed for 2,000 years or so, since Constantine took over and church leadership forgot Jesus and adopted the structure of empire. Putting Francis within that situation I’m inclined to be somewhat appreciative of his efforts. Using a sledge hammer to force change doesn’t usually work. I think he is a man with a good heart, trying to lead an international institution while hobbled by cement blocks of history – his own included. I’d like to see people give him some space to grow, while revealing to him how women experience life and Church. Voting with our feet is one way, but most of all, helping others (male and female) to take responsibility for their own relationship with what is holy and not blindly following any leader. But as long as people accept that “father, mother, rabbi, minister, politician, etc knows best”, and lay down their freedom and responsibility at the feet of someone else, some will gladly assume the mantle of “authority”.

    My biggest disappointment was hearing the Dalai Lama condemn homosexuality as “unnatural” because the penis fits into a vagina. I wish some people would recognize that deep intimate relationships are more about love and commitment than genitalia.


  6. Glad to see your read of the Pope’s visit to Lesbos. Played well here that he took refugees back to the Vatican. Will be interesting to see what happens to them. The sheer power–economic, social, now media– of the Catholic Church remains unparalleled in the world of religion despite its fall from grace in the eyes of so many. That alone makes it worthy of attention whether we are adherents or not.


  7. Hi Carol,

    I found your post to be especially relevant to my life because I have grown up in a Christian household, however my sister belongs to the LGBTQ community. We are 1 and 1/2 years apart so we are very close to each other and she has had a great influence on my life. My parents have always taught us to be accepting and love everybody no matter what their skin color, sexual preference etc. however when my sister came out they were not accepting of her sexual preference, specifically same-sex marriage, and I was at a crossroads in my life. I thought to myself how can we be accepting of all people when we do not give certain people rights just because of their sexual preference. I am a devout Christian, however I do not agree with the churches view on same-sex marriage and their view of the LGBTQ community in general. Just as I came to a crossroads in my life of whether to accept my sister and support the LGBTQ community I believe the Vatican and most other major religions will have to make that decision eventually. Instead of tip-toeing around the subject they will eventually have to make the decision sooner or later and for my sisters sake I hope they choose wisely. Thank you Carol for the very informative and thought-provoking post.



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