Toward a Pro-choice Ethic for
By Melissa MacCrae, Brewer, Maine
Catholic church theology has a negative
impact on the welfare of women.
INTRODUCTION -- TRADITION IN
I approach this study as
a feminist and former Catholic, who recalls nothing of the positive attributes
some other women claim for their affiliation with the church and its long-held
traditions. From my birth in 1958, I remember living by the church's prohibition
against eating meat on Friday. And its rule that women and girls cover
their heads when inside God's house. Bishops serving in the United States
in the early 1980s received permission to relax those traditions. A 1983
revision of canon law literally lifted the veil from women that had been
a visible sign of an invisible order established by God, according to Paul
in his first letter to the Corinthians. And while universal Catholic law
required abstinence from meat on all Fridays, on Fridays outside of Lent,
faithful Catholics could choose either not to eat meat, or perform some
other act of penance by saying more prayers, or showing acts of mercy.
During Lent, however, abstinence from meat remained the rule. Those who
refused to abide by this rule, though, could be guilty of committing a
sin of rebellion and pride.
Still, these shifts from
church tradition offer hope in the church's own ethic to respond to and
heal its troubled people, particularly liberty-seeking Americans. But the
church not only stopped short its move to bend tradition toward modernity,
it actually intensified its oversight of laws governing procreation, family
planning and abortion that has had the deleterious potential to affect
the lives and well-being of half of God's creation: women. In this time
of scientific advances and greater understanding of human reproduction,
the church lags woefully behind. The faithful face theological and social
concerns that question the extent to which Scripture and church dogma can
or should guide their lives. In the first centuries of the Christian era,
women who had abortions were to do private penance for a sin against holy
matrimony (the same punishment prescribed for eating meat on Friday).
Today, abortion is punishable by excommunication.
Current discussion of choosing
a gay bishop to lead the Episcopal Church in New Hampshire and other shifting
sands of religion force the faithful to rethink other church teachings,
such as those of Jesus, that moved not to exclude but to embrace the disenfranchised.
Women have led the ranks of the disenfranchised since Eve. Women of all
faith traditions deserve an ethic of procreation that honors, not enslaves
them. This study aims to delve into biblical, historical and theological
elements of church doctrine that address women and how the church itself
can learn from women. For guidance, I chose to follow the lead of Christian
ethicist Beverly Wildung Harrison, who in 1986, also felt so compelled
to give voice to "women's right to the condition for procreative choice,"
(emphasis in original) ... to present "a forceful caveat against much that
passes as unquestioned wisdom in Christian tradition and teaching -- on
women's nature, on procreation and on abortion." (1986, Harrison ix). "The
devaluation of women as full, morally competent members of the human species
is a moral ill that afflicts both men and women. The question properly
framed for women within the context of social reality asks: How do I manage
this power of procreation that is mine by virtue of having been born female?
Among other elements,
a pro-choice ethic must:
-- Champion the legal right
and moral responsibility of women and their partners to decide whether
and when to have a child;
-- Eschew coercion.
-- Value women as morally competent
members of church and secular society.
-- Acknowledge and respect
women's life experience.
-- Support the view that reproductive
freedom is a matter of faith and morals;
-- Clarify and support all
options open to women who experience an unintended pregnancy, including
childbirth, adoption and abortion.
-- Challenge whatever causes
-- Embrace and celebrate sexuality
as a God-given gift.
-- Seek and promote justice
-- Challenge religious teachings
that diminish the lives of women.
-- Hold the church accountable
for its teachings about reproductive health that jeopardize women's lives.
-- Inject language and customs
of secular culture into the teachings and practices of Catholic and other
This discussion arises during
a time when talk of sex dominates the pulpit. This time of significant
church turmoil surrounding what has been revealed to be widespread and
long-term abuse of children by Catholic priests has been painful for some
and cathartic for others who for so long were buried beneath a truth that
couldn't be told. Leaders of other faith traditions including Southern
Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Evangelical Lutherans, and conservative
Judaism are wrestling with the push by gay men and lesbians who want to
live openly and become more involved in their communities of faith. By
replaying the glacial shifts in some faith traditions beside the snowball-like
response to current events, the faithful actually can find peace in accepting
the inevitability of change, and get behind religious movers who are working
for that change.
While Roman Catholicism is
not alone among religions that aim to insinuate themselves into what should
be the private procreative lives of their parishioners, the focus of this
study is Catholic women. This paper aims to critique the church's misogynistic
bias, the biblical, historical and
theological elements of church
doctrine that address women and how the church itself can and should learn
I. FROM BROKENNESS TO WHOLENESS:
REIMAGINING A PRO-CHOICE ETHIC
Religion. It's a powerful
institution -- with both life-affirming and detrimental implications. In
most religions practiced worldwide, including Christianity, women remain
on the margins. And pronouncements about women's sexuality are made in
some cases solely by men who can neither marry nor know what it's like
to support a family. I envision a world where procreation is truly a choice.
But now that science and technology have made pregnancy virtually avoidable,
at least in theory for some women, others who insist on maintaining control
of procreation use all the social, financial, political, and religious
muscle at their disposal to maintain the status quo. While the world today
bears little resemblance physically or spiritually to biblical times, the
Bible still is used by those who oppose women's rights to illustrate the
folly of those who would attempt to confound "nature." Many biblical
stories reveal a bent toward vilifying women, treating them not as equal
partners with men, but as unclean beings that must be controlled. The stories
of biblical mothers like Sarah, Leah, and Rachel, for example, are full
of instances that play up instances depicting women's betrayal and legerdemain.
In biblical times, the begetting of heirs had primacy over men's lives
and that of the women whom they used to support their procreative ends.
While the need to produce large families to guarantee a family or tribe's
survival still may exist in Third World nations, the church's insistence
on perpetuating God's order that Eve and Adam be fruitful and multiply
has no place in more advanced societies in the twenty-first century. In
fact, having too many babies is always dangerous to women. Those who would
today rely on biblical passages to support references to males' supremacy
in matters of procreation actually limit themselves and their partners
to see that sex that is less than mutually fulfilling. Both parties, not
just the man, have a right to good sex.
II. WHOSE HISTORY?: RECONCEIVING
CHRISTIAN TEACHING ON ABORTION
Despite what we learned from
elementary school through high school and into college, there's more than
one side to history. We do know, though, that to the victor go the spoils;
that means the vanquished lose their voice. That concept resounded loud
and clear in a class I took last summer on the complete gospels. David
Trobisch taught us how to read the canonical version of Matthew, Mark,
Luke and John's tales of Jesus's life from birth to death to resurrection.
He also let us in on a secret: we learned about the Other gospels,
those ragged, rejected attempts to record history on pottery jugs and other
available surfaces. Shards of broken glass are all that remain of some
of those records kept by groups known as Jewish Christians, who lived in
the early years of the Christian era. What better way to deny the existence
of competitive faiths than to destroy any and all record of their existence?
Evidence of a Fifth Gospel also has been found. The first fragments of
the Gospel of Thomas were discovered in 1898-1904 in Oxyrynchus, Egypt.
A complete Coptic manuscript was unearthed in 1946 in Nag Hamadi, Egypt.
According to our guest lecturer and expert on Thomas, Rick Hubbard, we
know that Thomas' writing enjoyed some special status among a group who
held Jesus in high esteem, exemplified by the prologue that states "Whoever
finds the meaning of the hidden words of the ėliving Jesus' will not ėtaste
death.'" The "sayings Gospel" also is noteworthy, because it was recorded
in writing, it was carefully bound and the title is unique.
So why are these seemingly
incongruous details important to writing a liberating pro-choice ethic
for Catholic women? Because connecting the dots between fragmentary
details such as these reveals the existence of a heretofore untold story,
a different view of scripture. These untidy shards of history are dangerous
to those whose truths depend on preserving the status quo. Knowing these
new stories could cause a rift in our belief systems, much like the shift
that occurred with the birth of Christianity and the canonization of the
New Testament. To further extend this argument, I think of how hard the
church worked to pressure Galileo to recant his "truth" that the sun, not
the earth, is the center of the universe. But science and a willingness
to accept the truth eventually won the day, and the church survived what
some feared would be a scripture-shattering event. The point is, God gave
humans -- woman and man -- intelligence and the free will to use it. Yet,
without hope and a future vision, humanity surely will perish. So
it is important when we attempt to rehash historical occurrences, and even
papal pronouncements, that we keep in mind the cultural conditions
in play at the time of the writing, and not attempt to superimpose modern
constructs on them.
Alluding to historical discoveries
helps us locate ourselves in the present while challenging us to remain
open to new truths that claim part of the past. As in biblical times, men
in the church hierarchy still are making policies that deeply affect women's
lives. "Marginal communities have rediscovered that the biblical God is
a God of liberation whose passion is for justice shared across all the
earth. ... This liberating God, much to our amazement, delights in our
sexuality and our dignity as splendid body-selves in community with other
body-selves." (1996 Ellison, 63) Unlike American secular society, where
women theoretically have a voice in politics, the Catholic church allows
few women's utterances to intrude on its deliberations. Women remain on
the margins of Catholic life. Our social institutions, religions, mores
and customs have been "shaped inherently to control women's procreative
power." (1983 Harrison, 2) Yet, "[n]o source is inherently authoritative,
but is declared trustworthy by those who discover its value and draw upon
its power. ... A liberation ethic assumes that no source for ethical insight
... stands alone or is exempt from moral scrutiny in terms of how it impacts
the lives of women ..." (Ellison, 63). Modern reproductive and contraceptive
technologies can put women in charge of their fertility. If women can rethink
their prescribed roles and reclaim their power as owners of the means of
production, they could teach others of the joy of uncoerced sex and childbearing.
More good sex. Catholic women, alongside other women on Earth, should enjoy
the freedom to design their own destinies and truly follow their consciences.
But, "the dominant Christian tradition leads people to believe that sexuality
is a dangerous, alien force having greater significance than other aspects
of human life. This will no longer do." (Ibid., 64) At least in Maine,
many Jewish, Protestant, and Unitarian-Universalist churches stand
in communion with their female parishioners in matters of choice. Each
church's stance on the most private of women's concerns speaks volumes
about how that church generally values woman and considers her right to
self-determination. We must reclaim what is authentic and life-affirming
from these faith traditions. A pro-choice platform says less about accepting
abortion as sometimes the least damaging choice for women than it does
about treating women as responsible adults. A pro-choice agenda gives voice
to woman, so long silenced in patriarchal halls of misogyny at the Vatican
and beyond in the corridors of the U.S. Congress. Men who claim to love
justice must, then, open their hearts and minds to the other half of God's
creation, that part of God's plan that assures the perpetuation of humankind.
III. WHAT IS THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
I thought I understood the
church's position on abortion and reproductive choice until I considered
the question carefully. On what grounds does the church's opposition to
abortion and contraception stand? What are the underlying ethical, theological
or other principles at work here? I understood that Catholics absolutely
oppose abortion, and for that matter most methods of artificial contraception.
I came across an article on the Internet by Pax Christi USA, a chapter
of the international Catholic pacifist organization, that after a 1989
Supreme Court ruling on abortion, reaffirmed the "Seamless Garment" ethic
it adopted in 1981 that "opposes not only abortion but also the death penalty,
war, the nuclear arms race and anything that threatens life," while it
also "reaffirms its goal to work for the full and equal participation of
women in the church and society." (1989, Pax Christi) But women cannot
fully participate in either the church or society unless their right to
self-determination, including reproductive civil rights, is recognized
and honored. Mary Hunt frames the issue in a theopolitical perspective
"that incorporates both religious insight and claims about the divine [alongside]
a concrete praxis for social change." She bases her thesis on a Catholic
feminist framework for "just good sex" that should be "safe, pleasurable,
community building, and conducive of justice." Hers is a "contribution
to a global, interreligious conversation in which women's bodies, women
ourselves, and women's sexuality are valued." (2001 Hunt, 158)
A. Church Chronology in Brief
Learning that the church hasn't
always maintained a strict view on abortion offers hope for Catholic women
and their male partners. Church debate on abortion began from the early
days of Christianity, as it continues today. Still, since no pope has declared
his prohibition of abortion to be infallible, Catholic theology opens the
door for women and men to follow their personal conscience in moral matters,
even when their conscience is in conflict with hierarchical views. The
view that abortion is a sin akin to murder evolved within the last 150
or so years. Until then, accepted church doctrine allowed for early abortions,
or before the point when the fetus becomes a human being, according to
the non-medically trained churchmen. (1996, CFFC)
The church has remained anything
but silent on the issue, and persists in developing doctrines on human
procreation without seeking the wisdom of persons schooled in the science
of reproduction. A brief synopsis of the ups and downs of church theology
on abortion illuminates the importance of religious and lay people's efforts
to continue the debate with open hearts and minds. (Ibid.) The following
chronology details the Roman church's stance on abortion and is adapted
from an article published by Catholics for a Free Choice in 1996:
-- In its infancy, Christianity
fought to distinguish itself from pagan religions that calmly accepted
contraception and abortion. Early leaders proposed ideas not only about
contraception and abortion but also on marriage and procreation. They taught
that "sex even for reproduction was bad and sex for pleasure heinous."
-- The debate on "hominization"
or the point where a developing fetus becomes a human being, found its
genesis around 100 C.E.
-- Later, St. Augustine, circa
354-430, condemned abortion, but held that the practice was not homicide.
The consensus at this time was that abortion was a sin requiring penance
if it was intended to conceal fornication and adultery.
-- After the fall of Rome and
the establishment of Byzantinism, or the doctrine that the state is supreme
over the church in ecclesiastical matters, circa 675, illicit intercourse,
or sexual intercourse not intended for procreation, was a greater sin than
abortion in the western church.
-- The eighth century saw signs
of recognizing "women's circumstances," and the idea of delayed "hominization."
"But it makes a great difference on whether a poor woman [has an abortion]
on account of the difficulty of supporting [the child], or a harlot for
the sake of concealing wickedness."
-- In 1140, the church accepted
the Gratian code, which affirmed that "abortion was homicide only when
the fetus was formed."
-- The influential Council
of Vienne in 1312 stood behind St. Thomas Aquinas's confirmation of delayed
hominization, though he opposed abortion "as a form of contraception and
a sin against marriage."
-- In a 1588, reacting to prostitution
in Rome, Pope Sixtus V's bull "Without Restraint," proclaimed that the
penalty for those who used contraception or abortion would be excommunication.
-- A mere three years later
in 1591, Gregory XIV, who succeeded Sixtus at his death, relaxed his predecessor's
rules, which he felt were too harsh and "in conflict with penitential practices
and theological views on ensoulment." That pronouncement lasted until 1869.
The church was still teaching delayed hominization, sure only that hominization
occurred sometime before birth."
-- Pope Pius IX in 1869, set
aside previous church teachings and questions on hominization, ruling that
abortion at any stage was homicide, and was first to endorse the doctrine
of immediate hominization.
-- The new code of canon law
adopted in 1917, enlarging the church's prohibition, and required excommunication
for both a woman who aborts a pregnancy and for any health-care providers
who participate in an abortion.
-- By 1930, Pope Pius XI issued
his encyclical "Of Chaste Spouses" that condemned therapeutic abortion.
-- The Second Vatican Council
in 1965, declared "Life must be protected from the moment of conception.
..." Abortion now is condemned on the basis of protecting fetal life, not
as concealment of sexual sin.
-- Later in 1974, the Sacred
Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith stated that "one can never claim
freedom of opinion as a pretext for attacking the rights of others, most
especially the right to life." The church altered its position here asserting
that the fetus is a human life from the moment of conception, if not necessarily
a full human being.
Church hierarchy today prohibits
abortion in any manner, even in cases of rape or for the purpose of saving
a pregnant woman's life.
B. Only God is infallible
The following brief overview
of writings on so-called papal infallibility is meant to underscore what
I interpret as the level of fear, rather than faith, upon which the Catholic
church bases its doctrines. Neither the pope nor the church is God. Infallibility
may be understood as the "Church's inability to err theologically whenever
it makes a definitive judgment about the Deposit of Faith or truths necessary
to defend it ..." (1989 Kaufman, 2-3.) The very development of the
so-called doctrine of papal infallibility was not born from justice-seeking
men, but actually represented a desperate attempt to strengthen the papacy
and to shore up a faltering church. The doctrine actually grew from a disagreement
between two branches of the Franciscan order debating the proper understanding
of St. Francis' teaching on poverty. A leading theologian of the time wrote
that Nicholas had been "unerring in faith and morals." (Ibid.) The thread
by which the church held on to its power during the time of Pope Nicholas
was so fragile, he decreed that if any future pope tried to alter his teachings,
he would be named a heretic, and thus revealed not to be the true pope.
This autocratic ruling was "developed to limit ability of future popes
to change teachings of their predecessors." (Ibid.) Of course, humans'
need for power and control began to chip away at the foundation of the
church. The church could do nothing more than to wait and watch the radical
times of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. The mid-1860s
ushered in a wave of politics as liberal Catholics pushed the church to
be more responsive to and to meet the "challenges of the age," and "sought
recognition of religious and civil liberties and separation of church and
state." (Ibid., 3, 5)
At Vatican I, Pope Pius IX
and his defenders in 1870 wrestled with opponents over a definition of
infallibility. The result of the match was a reining in of papal power
to define infallibility. "Not only must the pope make clear that he intends
to define, but he can define only what is already contained in divine revelation
or is essential to safeguard that revelation as such." (Ibid.) So I shouldn't
have been shocked to learn that papal infallibility has been used but twice:
Pius IX's definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and in 1950,
the Assumption of Pius XII. (Ibid.) It is noteworthy that neither definition
was needed to mend the rents in the church fabric, but rather remain as
"serious obstacles to reunion with the separated churches."(Ibid.) More
recently, on July 25 1968, Pope Paul VI unveiled his encyclical letter,
Humane Vitae "On the Regulation of Birth," in response to then current
events that the church no longer could ignore. Rather than showing mercy
on married couples wrestling with church doctrine on "the most serious
duty of transmitting human life, accompanied by not a few difficulties
and distress," he instead ladled on a heavy dose of guilt. He eschewed
the logic employed by those who considered their use of artificial contraception
to be the lesser of two evils. No good can follow a person "even when the
intention is to safeguard or promote individual, family or social well-being."
(Humane vitae. no. 14) My mother reminded me recently of another Catholic
family who lived on our street. Ginny and "Doc" Smith were good Catholics,
who brought forth a new baby nearly every year. Ginny experience severe
difficulty in her last pregnancy, which ended in a miscarriage. Her doctor
suggested that Ginny might consider becoming a Methodist. She had no idea
what he meant.
To illustrate further how
church doctrine can be harmful even to the most faithful, in 1986 a highly
respected priest and teacher of moral theology at Catholic University was
slapped down by Pope John Paul II, for his dissent against so-called moral
teachings of the church that banned homosexual acts and artificial birth
control, "even though that status had never been solemnly proclaimed."
(Kaufman, 2) Father Charles Curran's dismissal for disagreeing on what
he considered to have been noninfallible teachings spotlights the church's
transparent intent to silence any who would question its authority.
C. Catholicism goes to America
It is ironic that scores of
early American settlers who left their homelands in search of an idyllic
locale where they were free to worship as they pleased, only to end up
holding intolerant views of others' beliefs. Some had left nation-states
governed as a theocracies, such as Rome that fomented some of the world's
bloodiest battles waged by soldiers armed with both holy books and weapons.
Indeed, the Bible itself may become a weapon in the hands of those who
would invoke its wisdom to the detriment of others. For instance, rather
than relish the gender equality bound in the first creation story found
in Genesis 1, some traditions emphasize Genesis 2, and interpret Scripture
to mean that woman was born of man merely to bear children and serve man.
Alternatively, textual clues in Genesis 1:27 "allow freedom in the interpretation
of male and female. The human creation ... is not delineated by sexual
relationships, roles, characteristics, attitudes, or emotions. ... the
context itself identified two responsibilities for humankind, procreation
(1:28a) and dominion over the earth (1:26. 28b), but it does not differentiate
between the sexes ... The use of ėmale and female' in 1:27 does not itself
signify the potential for human fertility but rather indicates ... the
uniqueness of humankind in creation. (1978, Trible, 19)
But to less discerning readers
of the Bible since the time of Eve, women have born the brunt of those
who would use religion and the Bible to curtail the free will she earned
at birth. Still, an ocean away from the Vatican, some American Catholic
women's actions recall Eve as they rail against those who would bind them
to their fecundity, on their journey toward learning and justice. Eve's
memory inspires creativity and re-visions a Catholic church, in which women
have a place beyond servitude. Eve stands for the Mother Church, whose
doors are open to all whether Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist.
Her experience teaches us that we, women and men, are all one. No longer
is it necessary (even to perpetuate a family's lineage), given greater
life expectancy and reduced rates of infant mortality, to be fruitful and
multiply as God decreed in the beginning. Science and Charles Darwin gave
humans a new way to consider their origins. I walk a tightrope here claiming
that science and religion can co-exist within discussions of procreation.
God gave humans free will and a conscience. Still, a new dawn broke for
women with the advent of safe, reliable contraceptive drugs and devices
in the 1960s. Meanwhile, no longer must many "barren" women remain childless
or like Hannah or Sarah to rely on divine intervention to conceive thanks
to new reproductive technologies. The church risks its credibility and
authority, particularly over American Catholic women, who practice birth
control. I am reminded by the oft-used quote by Lord Acton in a 1887 letter
to Bishop Mandell Creighton. "Absolute power corrupts absolutely."
The church puts itself in
a big bind in its attempts to restrict the rights of women of reproductive
age to choose when or whether to have children. The lack of unanimity among
bishops at Vatican II and beyond on the question of birth control reveals
a rent in the fabric of church hierarchy. (1998 Kaufman, 13) That lack
of closure on broad moral issues of contraception and even abortion leaves
faithful Catholics adrift. So where does an American Catholic woman turn
to discover the moral options she has within the church? "Catholics have
the right to know that no church teaching on moral issues has been defined
and to know the options when genuine doubt exists about the binding character
of any teaching." (Ibid., 17) The ancient ethicist and theologian Augustine
of Hippo once said: "In faith, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in
all things, love." (Ibid.)
Faithful American Catholic
couples wrestle with the practical issue of birth control and their need
to limit the size of their families. The words of Paul VI cloud their consciences:
"Each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life."
(Humanae Vitae, no. 14)
Still, dissent among growing
numbers of high ranking church fathers gives hope that the issue won't
easily be dismissed. (Ibid., 27) The church can no longer (if ever) ignore
the damaging effects the church's stance on reproductive freedom has had
on its own decline.
"The faithful are reduced to living
outside the law of the Church, far from the sacraments, in constant anguish,
unable to find a working solution between two contradictory imperatives,
conscience and normal conjugal life." -- Maximos IV Saigh at Vatican II
I submit that a woman can
be pro-choice and still remain a faithful Catholic. Though I'm appalled
by the church's disregard of women's perspective in the discussion and
regulation of sex, for some Catholic women, the argument goes far
beyond and outside discussions of contraception and abortion. Catholic
women just want to be heard. They want to be considered as much a part
of their parishes as their fathers, husbands and sons are. They want their
views known. They want to be ordained as priests.
IV. RECLAIMING EVE
In the beginning, humans were
the shining stars of God's creation: male and female God created them.
God called the creation of humankind very good.
But the Bible presents two
distinct creation narratives: One story depicts woman and man as equals;
in the other, woman is limited to being man's helpmate. The first couple's
connectedness thus is shattered in the second story where Eve is sentenced
to be ruled by Adam, her husband. The Catholic Church clearly invokes the
teachings of Genesis 2, in stacking the divine deck against women and their
precious gift of bearing children. "But the picture of Eve as temptress
that has served sexism so well ... is an unkind one to men as well. If
woman is by nature a calculating temptress who requires control, then man,
who fell to her simpering wiles without a whimper, is, by nature apparently,
an unsubstantial, unthinking, sniveling weakling who doesn't qualify to
be in charge of anything." (1996 Chittister, 1) Feminist theologians
are called to re-vision biblical stories such as this that deny women's
experience. Catholic women are right to reclaim their birthright as co-equals
with men, particularly in discussions of sex and procreation, while they
remain faithful to their church and God.
Eve, as the first feminist,
wasn't satisfied simply to accept what she was told, so she embarked on
a search for wisdom and learning. Eve's name in Hebrew, Khawwah means mother
of life. (1998 Lebowitz, 86) The biblical mother of us all has taken it
on the chin for millennia, as the cause of the first couple's fall from
God's grace. I tend to believe, though, that Eve's straying from the path
of virtue was part of God's plan. "Eve is our sign of life in abundance.
To both women and men alike Eve is the proof that life can go on, whatever
its struggle, whatever its fragility. ... It is in Eve that the virtue
of hope becomes real." (Chittister, 2) The genesis of human life necessarily
began a chain reaction of wonder. All humans are individuals, each with
their own DNA. A human tapestry began with the first parents and their
offspring; and their offspring, we're told, were fruitful and multiplied.
Threads became cloth, a human tapestry that covers the Earth. But God knew
-- as human parents come to know -- that God's offspring were born to live
beyond their parents. Even mother birds push their chicks from the nest
when they're ready to fly. I believe God meant for humans to learn from
life. From their success and failure. I read the creation story to mean
that human sexuality evolved from tasting forbidden fruit. Some women,
and especially mothers like Eve, are still blamed for their children's
misdeeds. But if not for their mothers' curiosity and creativity, lots
of kids would go hungry, particularly those outside the First World.
Breaking down long-held and
religion-fostered stereotypes of womanhood into biological and social dimensions
can help cut through the cloth of misunderstanding. "Eve is God's proof
that God has plans for all of us that will not bow to the chains of those
who have no plans for us at all." (Ibid., 2) I'm convinced that by experiencing
Eve through their lives, women can learn more about themselves and grow
closer to God. God's daughters are born to become nothing if not fully
human, self-consciously sexual beings. But that sexuality must be cultivated
as the fruits of the divine first garden were, not diminished by words
written and spoken by men who fear women's procreative power. Sex is exploration.
Sex is play. Sex is an important part of healthy relationships. Sex shouldn't
be regulated and rationed to be invoked merely to make more mortals. We
also must embrace loving relationships that extend beyond a so-called heterosexual
norm. Juice from the fruit of divine wisdom flows through all humans' bodies.
It inspires love and care for others that's certainly divinely inspired.
Cullen Murphy raises important
questions about the place of women in the Bible and in our secular world.
The development of the Bible as we know it occurred throughout three millennia,
incorporating four distinct intellectual revolutions that have had "civilization-shaping
consequence." (1998, Murphy, xi.) The first revolution, of course was in
the hands of God's chosen Israelites; Christianity claims the second revolution,
as it added stories called the New Testament, with distinct links to the
Hebrew Bible. The third phase, the Reformation exalted Scripture and pushed
its availability to believers in manifold languages through Western society.
Scientific advances and the age of Reason sparked the fourth revolution,
which began during the Enlightenment and continues today. The period is
noteworthy in its bent to counter the Bible's authority "as an explanatory
or descriptive text and therefore perhaps also its authority as a prescriptive
one." (Ibid.) Feminists, then, may hold the keys to the fifth revolution.
Feminism, using its own distinctive
hermeneutics of suspicion, questions the "truth" that women played no role
in the development of the good book. They wonder whether parts of the Hebrew
Bible and New Testament actually were penned by women. They seek to reclaim
the silenced voices. Murphy invokes feminist biblical scholar Phyllis Trible's
wisdom: "The Bible ... is an inscrutable and sometimes antagonistic visitor.
Only wrestling with it offers hope of a blessing. And even then you may
find yourself walking away with a limp." (1984, Trible, 4; in Ibid. xii)
In terms of women and the Bible, "the writing on the wall is there to be
read. And more and more of it appears with every passing day." (Ibid.,
xiii) "The icon of Eve is stark and continuing proof that truth dies where
women are subjected and dominated and oppressed and made invisible and
struck dumb. Where women are not both seen and heard, God is only partial,
insight is only partial, truth is only partial. ... Eve is an icon of strength
and hope ... and she challenges each of us to be the same." (Chittister,
V. BEYOND SILENCE: WOMEN SPEAK
No paper pushing women's inclusion
in the church could be complete without women's voices. I looked so forward
to hearing Catholic women's views to complement my research. I imagined
responding to them with ideas for some constructive change agenda they
could adopt for their lives if they so chose. Having sought their wisdom
reminds me that democracy and theologizing work best when many voices are
heard. Catholic women, like women of other or no faith tradition, do not
fit easily into a one-size-fits-all box. In fact, each woman may choose
to maintain her Catholic connection quietly in an effort toward change;
to bump noisily against the hierarchy as she works diligently to shift
the church's theological underpinnings; or simply to disregard the parts
of Catholicism that don't fit for her. The women who form part of this
study incorporate their own ethic into their everyday lives. These "chosen"
women, though, speak for themselves and not for the whole of womankind,
who all deserve the respect they earned at their birth. Each woman who
lives in poverty and clings to the church for her salvation, while she
watches a succession of children die from malnutrition and diseases that
have been eradicated in other parts of the globe deserves to be heard.
Likewise, any woman who disagrees with the church's teaching that she must
submit to her husband rather than follow her own heart has earned the right
to force the church's accountability, force it to show mercy, not disdain.
As long as the Catholic Church clings to its archaic hierarchal model that
fails to incorporate women's voices, my work stands incomplete. Advances
in modes of communication show the world continually being transformed
without missing a beat, and women are at the helm of the newest means to
share news. For instance, I talked to Dawn face to face on my back deck
after lunch one summer day. And since Brenda moved to Boston to pursue
her Ph.D., e-mail became the perfect medium for exchange. As with
communication, one discovery leads to the next. Religion became more accessible
when the printing press came on line in the eighteenth century, churning
out Bibles faster and faster. Western women particularly know too much
to be fooled. They know when they're being manipulated. As the church's
emissary, the man wearing the cassock must be accountable to his flock.
The church risks its future when it turns a deaf ear to women's words.
Dawn Gagnon and Brenda Crudo enthusiastically
support this study and gave their permission for their words to appear
DAWN GAGNON ON BALANCING
I met Dawn Gagnon, a reporter
with the Bangor Daily News, several years ago. Within our conversation,
I came to realize that the similarities between us are greater than our
differences. I have a new appreciation of how different communities, cultures
and religions deal with similar issues. I'm grateful for Dawn's candor
and her willingness to spare a few minutes to share her Catholic connection
with me to further the ends of this project.
"You must submit to your husband."
The priest serving the church in St. Agatha spoke those words to then Dawn
Daigle as she and her fiancee sought the church's blessing on their marriage.
But Dawn also wanted to be free to pursue a career.
Dawn Gagnon, a 39-year-old
wife and mother of two teenage boys, and reporter was born Catholic -- French
Catholic from St. Agatha, in the heart of Maine's St. John Valley. Dawn
and her family are descended from a remnant of Acadians who were scattered
in the midst of their eviction from Nova Scotia by the British beginning
in about 1755 for refusing to fight their French Canadian countrymen, the
Quebecois.The French-speaking families were dispersed; their property reduced
to ashes. News stories written in Portland newspapers in the late 1800s
reported the group as being shiftless. They were looked down upon
for the size of their families, and how they clung together in close-knit
extended family enclaves. (I think that's called survival.) Dawn's story
brought me back to what I've learned in Seminary about biblical times.
One of the more brutal things that could descend on a culture or race is
to be separated -- scattered so they could not regain a foothold in society.
It's no wonder that these dispossessed Acadians, who survived and made
their way to the St. John Valley near what is now Madawaska, have remained
close -- forever protecting and respecting their French language and their
Roman Catholic religion. And it's no wonder that scant evidence exists
of a pro-choice presence among Franco-Americans. Even when Dawn visits
her old home in the County, she feels peer pressure and is not openly pro-choice.
Dawn's mom and dad met at
Our Lady of Wisdom, a Catholic boarding school in the Maine town near the
Canadian border where they still live. But later the couple briefly moved
to Portland -- she studying with the Sisters of Mercy and he at Southern
Maine Technical College. They married in 1963. "Mom had three children;
only one sister is actively involved in the Church," Dawn said. Like a
lot of "good" Catholic girls, Dawn "flirted" with becoming a nun. "I was
in church all the time," she said. "Being in church made me feel peaceful."
The church was like a siren, its sense of organization and sense of constancy
kept drawing her back. "I'd always know what to expect," she said.
But eventually when she turned
18, she shifted gears and set her sights on becoming a journalist. Meanwhile,
she fell in love with and was engaged to a man who was a Congregationalist.
Her beau was willing to convert to Catholicism, but over time, they grew
apart as they realized how little they had in common and how dissimilar
their backgrounds and goals were. Dawn excelled in the University of Maine's
rigorous journalism program that required her to live on the Orono campus,
hours away from her home in Aroostook County. While on campus, she rarely
if ever attended Mass. After college, she moved home and went to church
"once in a while." Then she met Rick, her husband to be. "He had grown
up Catholic; we had the same French Catholic background," she said. "It
felt more normal."
The couple didn't have a
church wedding, because Dawn was pregnant. Instead, the couple were
married at Lakeview, an inn in St. Agatha, by a notary public who was her
sister's father-in-law. Still, when Jacob was born, he was baptized in
a Catholic church, not in St. Agatha, but in Van Buren. Her second son,
Isaac was not baptized. "I need deadline pressure for everything! she laughed.
"I never got into the habit of going to church with my children. I feel
guilty, but my kids are not interested." Jacob is 14; Isaac is 13.
"If the church wants to keep
people, they have to change, she said. "The church can't ignore such huge
social changes." Dawn sees change beginning in the way non-Catholic people
are reacting to the priest abuse scandal; by bringing it out in the open.
"There's enough victims to form another church," she said.
But whether change occurs
depends on the successor to the current pope. So, what does the Catholic
church need to do to survive? "We need Vatican III; they need to listen
to women; and they must recognize the drastic changes in society." News
of a new priest being transferred to nearby Hampden has Dawn thinking about
the church again. "I'd like to go back to church," she said. "But I don't
want to raise my kids in a church where women are to be seen and not heard."
BRENDA CRUDO: ON FINDING HER
I first met Brenda, a
lifelong Catholic until recently, in my first year at seminary in a class
on systematic theology. From that time on, in other classes and in our
private conversations, I've been impressed with her drive to understand
her faith and accept God's call, wherever that leads. That call has
led her to put her questions about and problems with the Catholic church
into action. This September, she will be ordained as an Episcopal priest,
while she also begins a 7-year-long course of study in Counseling Psychology
and Religion at Boston University that will lead her to a career as a professional
counselor. Any attempt to paraphrase Brenda's passionate responses to my
questions would have been for naught.
The Q and A format best honors
Q. Describe your
life as a Catholic woman.
A. My life as a Catholic
woman has been tumultuous. I have always felt a special relationship with
God, ever since I was little. I loved going to church. I used
to pray all the time, and feel that God truly heard me. I went to
a Catholic college, Boston College, because I felt God was calling me there.
Ironically, it was there that I learned about the atrocities and abuses
committed by the Catholic church against women. And it was then,
junior year, that I left the Catholic church -- much influence from feminism.
But I also appreciated the way the Catholic church, as an organization,
fought against social poverty and worked for the poor.
That is why after my senior year I volunteered with a Catholic agency,
the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. I thought that year would be my spiritual
growth year, but it wasn't. I think I went to church twice.
Although I met amazing men who were priests and I so enjoyed talking with
them, I could not stand the blatant sexist language and how only men served
at the altar. When I decided to initially go back to grad school in Berkeley
at the Graduate Theological Union, I conscientiously chose the Jesuit School
of Theology to be my school of affiliation. Again, the Jesuits tend
to be grounded in a strong theology of social justice and I wanted to study
ethics. Here, during my second year, I became involved in the school
liturgy and was the student who prepared for the liturgy on Wednesdays
at 12 for the students. I loved preparing the altar and making the
handouts. It was fulfilling. I enjoyed lecturing, but in my
heart, I still only saw a man consecrating the host. But they were
basically good guys and the school was very liberal. Once we [she
and her husband Toma] moved to Maine, I could not find a church that fed
me. In Bangor, I found them all to be conservative; we even went to Ellsworth
and Orono to find a church. We went to the Newman Center [on the
University of Maine campus] for a little and then left after about four
months. Then we went nowhere. It wasn't until I started at
BTS that I realized just how "Catholic" I am, theologically and socially.
I think very differently than most Protestants that I met. When I
say differently, I don't mean better, I mean my way of thinking about God,
who we are and how we are to live here on earth is much different than
a lot of the folks I met. It became most apparent in my Systematic
Theology and Worship/Liturgy courses. My belief in the saints, the
power of miracles, the power in the unknown, emphasis on tradition, natural
theology, death, etc. I could go on. It was during my mentored
practice at the Newman Center that was the breaking point of me leaving
the RC church. I had been attending the Newman Center for mass for
about a year, and I decided to do my campus ministry site there.
However, in February before the fall semester, I had met with Fr. Kevin
at St. John's Anglican church about ordination and the Anglican church.
He gave me a book about RCs who left the RC church and felt more at home
in the Anglican church. However, I was not ready to make the switch.
I felt that my RCism ran deeper than my religious affiliation, but also
was part of my Italian heritage. I felt I would be disloyal if I switched.
However, by the end of my semester at the Newman Center, I realized that
there is no place for a married woman in the RC church. I will always be
second fiddle. Even though I have the skills, abilities and knowledge
and faith, I would never be allowed to reach my full potential that I feel
God is calling me to.
In essence, I realized that the RC church wants women to remain child-like.
And you know what, I was not willing to do this any longer. I think where
a lot of my strength came from was participating in therapy and getting
to understand who I am and empowering myself in finding my own voice.
Once I found my own voice, I realized the dysfunctionality that exists
within the church structure and within the relationships it expects you
to maintain and I no longer felt I needed to be a part of this dysfunction.
That is why I left and will be received into the Anglican church in Old
Town on the 21st of September. Women are recognized as being called
by God, just like any man, you don't need a penis to be called by God or
to be an adult.
Q. Discuss how you reconciled
the church's teaching on birth control and abortion with your own conscience.
A. I think the discernment process
in the RC church is one of the most hidden theological ideologies that
is kept from the ordinary lay community. I think parishes tend to
spew "rule based" theological ethics to its parishioners. I bet they
think the average lay person is unable to grasp this "radical" concept.
NOT!!! How I reconcile abortion and contraception is through an informed
conscience which is done through the discernment process -- it is right
in the Catechumate. It basically states that after you have informed yourself
through reading experts, asking friends and family, praying to God, and
really feel you have truly informed yourself as much as humanly possible,
you have the ability to make a decision based upon your conscience even
if it is against the church's official teaching. The loophole is
that if you have made a decision in "good" conscience you are not culpable
of having committed a sin. I do not say this flippantly. I
truly believe that any ethic choice takes time and much research (both
pro and con), conversation with loved ones and prayer.
Q. What attributes does
the church possess that hold women in its grasp, despite its teachings
that may undermine their well-being?
A. For me, the Liturgy is the most
important aspect of the church. So many times during liturgy, I cry
or have these epiphanies. The standard RC mass, as well as the Episcopal,
is so rich with tradition and beauty, smells and bells. I am so moved
by mass. I think it is the continuity of the RC and Episcopal church
that touches me. It is knowing that all over the world, the liturgy
is basically the same, we all say the same prayers and this has been over
thousands of years. I remember going to St. Peter's Cathedral in
Rome and praying in the chapel and there were people of every nationality
and color, and the one common thread is that we were all Catholic.
There is a universality with the Roman and Episcopal church that I find
so much bigger than me or even the little church I go to every Sunday.
There is a sense of belonging to something that's beyond individuality.
It is very socialistic and I like this. I think before ordination
became something that I felt God was calling me to, I could reconcile remaining
with the RC church because I was very much fulfilled by the liturgy by
being a parishioner. My relationship with God has become so strong that
regardless of the patriarchy that exists, I was not going to let the patriarchs
take my tradition and church away from me... it is my church just as much
it is theirs. God gives the church to all of us. However, when
I felt the stirrings of the spirit calling me to ordination, I knew that
I would seriously need to look at leaving. This, not coincidentally
I believe, happened at the same time that I was having a not so good experience
at the Newman Center, and so, I knew that when I walked out of my mentored
practice placement, I knew I was also walking out of the RC church for
good. I could no longer be who they wanted me to be; I needed
to be myself -- the Catholic woman who believes in contraception, abortion
rights, gay rights, and the ordination of women. I need to be true
to myself -- I had grown up.
Q. What first sparked your
move to the Episcopal church?
A. Talking with other Anglicans
at BTS sparked my interest. I always thought I would have to start
the Women's Roman Catholic church. Little did I know that there was
a church out there with an almost identical liturgy as RCism, but they
respect and honor the dignity of women. I went to a mass at the Friar's
bakery and from then on, I was totally interested. However, like
I said above, it took me 11 months of discernment to make the final break.
And being received in the Episcopal church, took me about 4 more months
to finally accept. I am very excited now.
Q. What are your thoughts on
your forthcoming ordination as a priest?
A. God, God is the only reason
I have thought about ordination. I truly feel called. It was
confirmed when I saw the ordination of Leslie and Jan to the deaconate
at St. James in April and when the female bishop approached, I cried and
cried. It happened again when the bishop laid her hands upon them
to bless them. I am not much of a crier, but I am so moved during
the liturgy that I know it is more than just my wants or needs. The
Spirit truly stirs in me.
Q. What wisdom do you care
to share with Catholics or other women, who may be questioning their own
A. Prayer is so important.
I did not realize this until one and a half years ago. Developing
my relationship with God helped me to hear God's call about what I needed
to do. I left the RC church so many times and then this last time,
I thought I would stick it out and fight from within. But then, as
I developed a stronger faith and relationship with God, I truly believe
God guided me elsewhere, to a place where I no longer have to bang my head
against the wall and where I can be myself. I do not believe God
wants or calls us to suffer. Our faith should bring us joy, happiness,
praise and honor and comfort, not pain and anguish. That is not to
say there won't be pain, there will be, but we should be fed by our faith,
we should find strength. Therefore, for some Catholic women, staying
within the church may feed them; it did me for a while. But for some
it may not and it is then that we really need to listen to God. God
is so awesome. It was a long road getting here, but I know God was
with me the whole way. God is always here, we just need to listen
and ask questions. And we are smart enough to know what God is telling
VI. CONCLUSIONS ON HOPE
This study began with an
inquiry on how women can respond to the Catholic church's history of marginalizing
them. It ends with a message of hope. Women themselves are locating creative
and faithful ways to be liberated from the church's misogynistic legacy,
while they embrace the church as a source for strength to resist oppression.
For women, such as Dawn, Anne and Brenda, the very dearth of church tradition
that captures women's positive attributes forces some to work within or
to move beyond church teaching. Mere words cannot express the joy
I feel from having embarked on this project, which unwittingly became a
journey into my own past. Even after hearing the words of a few women with
Catholic connections, I remain at peace with my decision to have left the
church. Still, with Dawn and Brenda's voices echoing in my ears and heart,
I feel a confirmation for my plan to give voice to that which has been
kept silent for so long. This work has questioned what I knew and what
I thought I knew about what it means to be a Catholic woman. It challenged
me recapture all that I know to be worthy and life-giving about women's
work all around me that aims to respond to the misogyny they encounter
in the church. They face the pain of their marginalization in profound
ways, each woman representing a tiny bit of colored glass mirrored in God's
love. By denying women their rightful place, the church reveals a hostility
toward women. But the church also denies itself the value women can and
do lend to the faith in kaleidoscopic proportions. Women aren't merely
blue, they're periwinkle, they're azure. Women are not merely red; they're
crimson; they're scarlet. Women are not merely yellow; they're lemon, they're
champagne. But in the church's eye, women are equated with bad sex. The
church sets a woeful place for women at God's table when it not only denies
her, but it also wastes its power by resorting to sexual control over the
private lives of its parishioners, and women in particular. Finally, the
church errs in relying solely on the past and on male clerics to make declarations
that affect modern women and men. The church's so-called ethic is flawed
in its fixation on the negative aspects of sex. The church overlooks a
bounty of women, who are specially suited to advise it on matters
of sex and procreation -- the very view the church has for so long ignored.
But as Marvin Ellison suggests, the larger moral issue here is "not simply
to add women ... into an otherwise unaltered tradition." (1996, 66). Radical
change is called for. Brenda Crudo imagined herself as founding a Women's
Catholic Church. Dawn Gagnon waits for a day, maybe Vatican III, when the
church finally hears women's voices.
But other women's voices
are heard today in Maine, where a new brand of Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist,
UCC Christianity, Anglicanism and Judaism have begun to bloom. They offer
hope as they respond and adapt to and actually mitigate the influence mother
churches born oceans away have on social policy that has a negative impact
on the welfare of women. The plethora of female pastors leading Maine churches
affirms their place in their respective denominations. From the seed of
radical discontent with church teaching that marginalizes women grows the
new face of religion. They serve as positive role models for their women
parishioners. They lay claim to ground that before was the bastion of men
only. They recall the radical roots from which all their traditions were
born. They know that at one time, Christianity itself wobbled on infant
legs to establish its credibility more than two thousand years ago. Life
goes on in Maine, and religion always has played a big role. As the faithful
here have witnessed, including women in their church traditions honors
God's creation. I reject some traditions' requirement that women must forever
submit to men, as the myth of Eve's "fall" was meant to portray. I believe
Eve lives in all women everywhere on Earth. When women can reclaim Eve's
gritty determination to seek wisdom and wholeness, a wonderful world
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