This is going to be a long one, and should probably be broken into two parts, but it is also something that cannot be completely divided. And Mom, this is another one you’re going to want to skip, if you’re still reading this.
One quick note. A few days ago, regarding Cecil the lion, I wrote something like, “It’s a f***ing lion,” and I realized later that sounded like something it was not. I did not mean to say, “who cares, it’s only a lion.” What I meant to say, and this is a distinction with a difference, is that people were extremely upset about the life of one lion, while so many people are suffering and dying, and people don’t seem to notice. I did not mean to imply that the lion’s life did not have any value, because that is not what I believe. What I do believe is that we ought to be at least as concerned with hundreds of thousands of people as we are with one animal who, given the opportunity, would devour my organs without a second thought.
I’ve been thinking about writing this post since I began, and about not writing this post since soon after. I am not less concerned about writing this post, though perhaps more convinced that no one cares what I say, but I do feel it’s more important to say it than I once did. Being Catholic is part of who I am, and being a woman is also part of who I am, so reconciling those, both in my own life and in a more objective, universal sense, is important to me.
I want to be clear about what I am doing and what I am not doing. I am writing about my own experiences as a woman and as a Catholic and as a human being. I am not writing about what any other person has experienced or ought to experience. I also do not see myself as some kind of philosopher king (or queen), and I do not imagine college students will one day read what I write and think, “Wow, yeah, that’s profound,” or that large numbers of people will read this and suddenly be convinced. I do hope one day my own children might find some use for these writings, whether it’s to better understand where they come from, or who I am, or maybe even for some guidance (even if it’s a guide for what not to do).
The first time it occurred to me, in any meaningful sense, that there might be some tension between the Church and women I was a junior in high school. My religious education instructor, at a small Catholic school, in a small(ish) midwestern town was and is a wonderful woman, dedicated to her job,* and determined to make teenagers actually think about what they are doing. I remember feeling like I was surrounded by a lot of sheep. No one seemed to want to think for themselves. Most of their parents were Republican Catholics, and most of them planned to be Republican Catholics, probably after attending the large state school and returning to that same small town. There is nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but that didn’t work for me. I needed to think it through, and at least feel like I was deciding for myself. And maybe that’s not even fair. Maybe everyone was thinking as deeply about these things as I was, but they just didn’t feel the need to talk about it. How should I know? I only know what it felt like at the time.
That was the year we were confirmed as Catholics, and it was something I took much more seriously than my classmates (seemed to). It was not something I wanted to do unless I was really ready to commit. I thought about it, prayed about it, studied other religions, studied Catholicism, discussed it with my priest and my instructor, and really worked through it, or at least started the process of working through it (it’s a life long process, for at least the bad Catholics).
One morning, because this instructor thought it was important to challenge us (she was one of those rare instructors who likes to be challenged and likes to challenge others – a true gift, at least in my opinion), she asked me to talk to our class. She asked me to stand up, in front of my peers, tell them I wasn’t sure I was ready to be confirmed, explain why, and ask them to convince me.
Looking back, I can’t believe I did it. I wasn’t someone who did debate or theatre or forensics, and although I tried to get along with everybody and knew everyone in my class, I wasn’t extremely popular or anything like that. But I did it. I didn’t have anything prepared. I just stood up, and asked my classmates to explain to me why they were choosing to be confirmed, and why I should do the same. The only advice my instructor gave was an example of a very basic, simple question: Why does the Church say God is a Father. Or, to put it another way, why do we pray to God the Father, and not God the Mother?
And as I asked that question, partially because I had no relationship with my father to speak of, but mostly because it really seemed like a good question, I really felt it. Why do we pray to our “Father?” When I thought about it, it was something that had troubled me in the past, I just could never quite identify what it was. How was I supposed to pray to and trust a spiritual father when my own real father wasn’t trustworthy? How was I supposed to picture a loving, forgiving father, when my own father was neither? Why did the Church require me to believe in a spiritual Father? Why couldn’t it be a mother? Mary is important and wonderful, but why can’t “God” be a mother?
Of course, my seventeen year old peers couldn’t answer these questions, although to their credit many of them tried, even beyond “because that’s the way it has always been,” or “because my parents are giving me an amazing confirmation present,” and all of them took the opportunity to at least think about what I was saying. Come to think of it, to this day, I don’t have, and have not heard, a perfect answer to that question. Finding an answer is not in the cards today, at least not for this post.
Fast forward about five years to the first time I was accused of hating women, in my Constitutional Law class, while we were discussing Roe v. Wade. I was aware of the existence of the case before that day, of course, but I had never actually read it, or the cases that came before it.
I’m not sure what my views on abortion were before that day, or even walking into class that day. I had always believed that life begins at conception, and I believe that still, but I think my position was sort of along the lines of, “it’s really complicated, maybe sometimes it’s only a little bit wrong, and sometimes it’s really wrong, but it’s not my place to judge anyway, and it’s something people have a constitutional right to do, and it’s important to protect constitutional rights and protect women,” which is to say, I didn’t really have a clear position. I knew some of the buzzwords, found a way to link them in a way that at least sounded coherent over cocktails, and that was plenty. Until it wasn’t.
I didn’t have an agendum, I wasn’t looking for trouble. I simply asked the professor, in my naive way, where this “right” (to have an abortion) could have possibly come from. I didn’t see it anywhere in the Constitution and I didn’t remember seeing it identified in any other case. When I read the case the first time I thought I must have missed something. I wasn’t that great of a student and I was still learning how to read cases. Surely I missed something. People talk about this absolute right, guaranteed by the United States Constitution, so where was it. Nowhere. It was, essentially, made up.
Now, before you slam your computer shut or add me to some list, I am not, here at least, making a value judgment about whether the right ought or ought not to exist, only observing that it does not exist, in an obvious or objective way, on the face of the Constitution. That made me uncomfortable. I actually felt like I had been lied to, or tricked, and that, ladies and gentleman, was actually the beginning of my road to becoming conservative, but that’s another story for another day.
That was not the first or last time someone assumed I must hate women because I don’t think Roe v. Wade was a properly decided case. The assumption, though, becomes indisputable fact in some minds when people find out I am a practicing Catholic with four children. There could be no other explanation. I think Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided, I’m Catholic, I have what may as well be eight hundred babies, and I probably think women are only “valuable” as baby factories. Right?
I’ve heard it many times, and I’ve seen the look many more. I nod my head. I try to be patient. I try to be calm. I try to be kind. I try to explain.
It may be a good time to try again.
Pope Francis recently announced that any priest, anywhere in the world, will have the authority to absolve a woman for the sin of abortion during this year, a special Year of Mercy, and and when he is here, this issue is likely to come up.
To demonstrate what a bad Catholic I am, the most surprising thing about any of that to me, was the fact that priests did not already have that authority. I certainly believed they did. That’s how it’s supposed to work. We weak Catholics do wrong, we go to a priest and confess, we are absolved. Alec Baldwin’s character on 30 Rock actually has a great bit about it, when one of the other characters is deciding whether to become Catholic (he does not become Catholic, because he later learns about the soul-crushing guilt that comes along with it). Anyway, it was news to me.
First, I want to write briefly about artificial contraception generally. Once upon a time I took it. I hated it. I stopped taking it because it was clearly bad for my body and my mind, and I don’t like taking medications. None of that, by the way, should matter, but I know that it does. I guess having taken it myself somehow makes me more qualified to write about it, or maybe it lowers me down a level so it doesn’t sound like I’m standing on a soapbox. Whatever.
Later, when I learned and understood what the Church says about artificial contraception it made sense, and eventually, when I married my husband and discovered what healthy love (and sex) looks like, it made much more sense. Of course, that’s a lot easier for a married woman to say. The Church has no problem with a married woman having sex with her husband, and we love and want children, so we’re in good shape. Easy. Convenient. The Church teaches that I should do exactly what I want to do anyway.
Not quite so easy for people in different situations. I know. I’m not going to debate any of that here. Whether abstinence is a practical approach to sexual education in modern society is very much up for debate. Still, I hope my children understand that sex is a serious thing, before they have it. Of course, I don’t think any of us know how serious of a thing it can be until we have it the right way, which necessarily means having it with the right person, but you understand my point. Sex is a serious thing, and not just because of the potential physical consequences. It is an emotionally serious thing.
This is what I do know. We could all stand to be more careful about what we put in our bodies. That is not some kind of innuendo. I’m talking about artificial contraception. We try to eat organic, we try to eat real foods, and even our vitamins (Standard Process) come from real food. I don’t feed my children antibiotics unless they are actually sick with something that needs to be treated with antibiotics, and we don’t give them other medications unless they are medically necessary. I plan to continue that approach.
So when people say the Catholic Church hates women because it is “anti contraception,” which is itself a gross oversimplification of what the Church actually teaches, I try to explain all of that. I try to explain that artificial contraception is not good for women. I don’t need to get into the morality piece, because the science is clear. There is a lot of information out there, from a wide variety of sources, most of them not associated with the Church, and many of them openly hostile toward the Church, and they all agree: artificial contraception is not good for women.
Do women have a right to make that decision for themselves? Sure. Although I’m not sure there is a right to do that under the Constitution without the Court’s decisions. The bigger problem is that objective information about artificial contraception seems to be slow to make the rounds. I’m not a conspiracy theorist by any means, but there is a lot of money to be made on those pills, and they appear to be an easy solution. They might be an “easy” solution in some ways, but easy is not always best.
Who are the pills really good for? The people who sell them, and men. Men are the only people having “consequence-free” sex (there is no such thing as consequence-free sex, but that’s the favored term) when contraception is involved. They aren’t putting harmful chemicals in their bodies. That’s left for women to do.
The Church says what it says about artificial contraception, whether you agree or disagree, because the Church cares about women. The Church is concerned about the “throw away” society we currently live in (more on that tomorrow), and concerned that women are being disproportionately harmed. Because they are. How this gets turned around to make it seem like the Church hates women really is beyond me.
Discussing available alternatives is beyond the scope of this post, but there are many articles out there that do so, a lot of them on “whole-living” websites. How practical they are is up to you to decide, but the main point I want to make here is that artificial contraception is not good for women, and saying so does not mean the Church hates women, and it certainly does not mean that I hate women.
Second, and more controversial still, abortion. I dread writing this. My palms are sweaty and my fingers are shaky. But it’s important to say this.
The Church believes life begins at conception, as do I. That means that abortion is the equivalent of murder.
Stop thinking about all of the responses and objections to that statement and just let it sink in. To Catholics, a life is a life, and ending it is murder. When that is the starting point, things tend to look pretty clear. Should murder be legal? Well, what kind of question is that? Still, some say yes, and some of those people are Catholic.
Every year a group of Catholics coordinate trips to Washington D.C. where they march and talk about overturning Roe v. Wade, but I don’t think very many people actually think that’s going to happen. These are people who genuinely want to help. They see it like this: I am going to march to try to remind people that these poor innocent babies are being murdered every day and no one is doing anything about it. It’s a black or white, very simple issue to many of these people. You may disagree, but their position is not about hating women. It’s about saving lives and souls. They are not out there trying to hurt anyone. They really believe they are helping.
“What about the life of the mother?” you object. “Why don’t they care about her?” Well, they do. How can it be good for a woman to murder her own child? And there are countless testimonials, delivered regularly, by women who have had an abortion, who say they will never forgive themselves, and will never feel peace.
Abortion is a terrible, ugly, horrible, scarring thing, for any woman to endure. For people who participate in that march (and for those involved in similar projects), they believe they are trying to protect women. Because, the thinking goes, no woman, if she understood what was at stake, if she understood the pain she would feel after, could possibly choose to have an abortion.
You might disagree, call that paternalistic, although, because many of the people involved are women, there is something almost ironic about using that term. Dismissing these people as simply “hating women” is as cheap and transparent as it is flawed.
Now, there are a small group of people who identify as Catholics who go much too far. They stand outside of abortion clinics with signs and yell angry things at doctors. They align themselves with certain extreme groups of Protestants and lose focus on help and love, and instead get pulled into something that is really about anger and hate and fighting.
I pray for those people, and I hope you will too, but they do not speak for the Church, and they do not speak for me.
I am Catholic and this is what I believe. I do not speak for the Church, but this is what I believe.
I believe we need to take better care of people. All people. We need to take better care of men, women, and children. We should work harder to support any person who is vulnerable, especially new and expectant mothers, and we should focus on appreciating all life as a true miracle.
I do not think we should shut down every abortion clinic in this country overnight. That would not help anyone. For one thing, the potential lives saved would be outnumbered by lives certainly lost.
I do think, as a matter of Constitutional law, that regulating abortion clinics is and ought to be a matter for individual states, but that is a transition that would need to be made slowly and with great care.
I think that if we began to truly value life, the demand for clinics would fall significantly, and eventually, almost disappear. If we all truly believed that every life is a gift, every life is a blessing, and every person has the potential to offer something unique, the world would be a different and a better place.
I’m sure my position will be dismissed as naive, and perhaps it is, but dismissing my position as naive is the easy solution, which is exactly the problem.
*Sadly, doing her job well was made much more difficult when someone stepped in and decided that things should be done in a way that required less thought. Someone who, in my opinion, was allowed to flash around some money and tell people how things ought to be done, which was simply and conveniently his way.