Tags: "Catholics and Contraception: An American History", contraception, ct, Leslie Woodcock Tentler, the Affordable Care Act, the contraceptives mandate of the Affordable Care Act, The Grail Movement, the Hobby Lobby case, the rhythm method, U.S. Catholics
A while back, I mistakenly thought a Catholic Studies scholars’ group I belong to was going to read Leslie Woodcock Tentler’s Catholics and Contraception: An American History (Cornell 2004) so I sent off for a copy from Amazon. (Someday I am going to analyze my addiction to Amazon Prime, but not today.) The brand new hardback copy of Catholics and Contraception (C&C) that I received cost $2; lucky Tentler and I aren’t in this business for the money.
Truth in advertising requires me to admit that I spent most of the 60s and 70s in Catholic women’s schools and then living in residential communities of the Grail, an international women’s movement; we had more arguments about lesbianism than about contraception, and I was more upset by the Vatican rejection of women’s ordination in 1976 than by Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical condemning artificial contraception. When I finally got married, at the age of 47, I had already undergone a complete hysterectomy. Of course, I had school friends with seven or ten or twelve siblings, and I got to know the mothers of such families in the Grail. But generally speaking, contraception was not my issue.
C&C examines contraception in U.S. Catholicism from 1873 to 1970, with an epilogue addressing the following three decades. My initial inclination, after finishing the book, was to go on a rant about how these men–popes, bishops, and priests for the most part, along with the occasional male lay leader– could have dared to tell married couples, and women in particular, what they must do with their sexuality. But this would have been a projection of the current situation onto the past. The striking point I took away from C&C is how very much has changed in an astonishingly short period of time. As Tentler notes, according to a study done in 1970, fully 78 percent of U.S. Catholic women aged twenty to twenty-four were limiting their families by a means other than abstinence or rhythm; during the controversy over the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptives mandate, I in turn read that 97 percent of Catholic women surveyed reported having used artificial contraceptives at some point in their lives. But before the 1960s, this was much less the case.
A good deal of this change Tentler attributes to the “non-reception” of Humanae Vitae by the vast majority of American Catholics, (as well as the Vatican II emphasis on freedom of conscience, and the sexual revolution). Not all aspects of these changes were positive, in Tentler’s estimation, leading as they did to sexual promiscuity, high rates of divorce, and out-of-wedlock births. Ultimately, we learn, the Vatican decision to condemn contraception based on little more than the pope’s “no” undercut massively the church’s own authority. More’s the pity, Tentler suggests, since many of the positive aspects of Catholic teaching about sexuality and marriage went down the tubes along with the ill-advised encyclical.
Yet it’s not only what Tentler says about the effects of Humanae Vitae that I found fascinating. I also learned much that I had not known about Catholics and contraception in the century before that encyclical. I had no idea, for example, that a number of moral theologians had initially condemned rhythm–the only contraceptive method (besides sexual abstinence) that the church eventually allowed to couples attempting to limit the size of their families. These earlier moral theologians believed that even the rhythm method would create a “contraceptive mentality” in users. And Tentler would seem to agree; after the failure of rhythm, Catholic couples often did move to the pill.
I was also initially annoyed by Tentler’s extensive attention to the experience of priests and bishops regarding contraception. The first five chapters draw to a considerable extent on interviews Tentler did with these men, as well as on archival material by and about them. “A book about contraception according to Catholic priests. Thanks a lot,” was my first response. Yet Tentler’s research on the clergy demonstrates what a mess the question of contraception was for almost the entire American church, not married couples only. Many priests were reluctant at best to question laypeople in confession about their use of contraceptives, even when bishops demanded that they do so. And Humanae Vitae only exacerbated the crisis of priestly morale and identity that occurred after Vatican II, especially among younger men; fully 50 percent of American priests disagreed with the substance of the encyclical. This surely contributed to the departure of a large number of American men from the priesthood in the decades that followed.
But Catholics and Contraception does more than fill readers in with details about the past. It also provides an essential context for the current, seemingly endless disputes over the contraceptives mandate of the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, the Supreme Court is expected to issue their decision on the Hobby Lobby case any day now. But the context Tentler provides is particularly important in relation to the claims of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other conservative Catholic groups that the contraceptives mandate is a violation of Roman Catholic religious freedom. But it’s not only non-Catholics working in Catholic institutions who will be deprived of free contraceptives under the ACA if the mandate is gutted; most sexually active U.S Catholics working in those institutions will be as well. The Roman Catholic religious freedom under consideration in these cases is that of the 447 Roman Catholic bishops in the U.S. and the relatively small number of priests, nuns and laypeople who agree with them on this issue. The institutional church has never afforded the vast majority of Catholics “religious freedom” regarding the use of contraceptives. Most days I doubt it ever will.
Tags: aneurysm, cradle Catholic, Eileen Holohan, impermanence, interdependent origination, kidney mass, NY Presbyterian Hospital, pneumonia, Sister of Notre Dame de Namur
As you probably know, I am far from being a Buddhist. I am, in fact, a “cradle Catholic”–baptized a few weeks after birth and then processed up through the massive parochial church and school system in post-war Philadelphia. When I fall, I mutter “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” on my way down.
Lately, through, I have been thinking about the Buddhist concept of impermanence. Impermanence (anicca), as Paul Knitter explains in Without the Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, means that everything that exists is in constant movement–constant flux. It’s closely linked to another Buddhist concept, interdependent origination (pratityasamutpada), which means that everything changes because everything is interrelated.
I began thinking about this toward the end of April. At the beginning of April, Keith, my husband, developed a cold, which got a lot worse after he preached six times during Holy Week (!) and then drove up to see the grandkids in Massachusetts the weekend after Easter. When I finally got him to a walk-in clinic over on Atlantic Avenue, the osteopath took several X-rays and announced that Keith had an aneurysm in his aorta and that we should go directly to the emergency room at nearby Methodist Hospital. We did, and sat there for five hours, during which time the doctors took more X-rays and announced that it could be an aneurysm but could be a number of other things and that Keith should go to his GP for a cat-scan. The next day we did that, and the following day the GP called to say that what Keith had was pneumonia; he prescribed some antibiotics.
But the doctor also told us that there was a “shadow” on Keith’s kidney, and that after he got over the pneumonia, he needed to get that checked. So ten days later Keith had an MRI up at New York Presbyterian, and the next day the doctor called to say that Keith had a “mass” in his kidney that would have to be removed. We scheduled an appointment with a renal surgeon immediately.
That same night, the hard drive on my computer crashed. I have had a personal computer since 1984, and never before had anything crashed. The next day, the phone rang and a voice that sounded familiar but subdued informed me that a dear friend, Eileen Holahan, with whom I had spoken two weeks before, had fallen in the parking lot of her apartment building, hit her head, lost consciousness, and died a week later, never having regained consciousness. The voice sounded familiar because it belonged to Eileen’s sister, who had come across my phone number in Eileen’s address book. Eileen had been a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur at my high school in the early 1960s; singing in the glee club that she directed is one of the happiest memories of my adolescence. Eileen was 85 years old, but she was in good health. I really couldn’t take in that she was dead. And her funeral was the same day that Keith had his appointment with the surgeon, so I couldn’t go, something I still regret.
Keith had his surgery last Friday, and it went really well. The growth was such that the surgeon had to take out only ten percent of his kidney. And although it’s highly likely to be malignant, they got the growth quite early–thanks to the nitwit aneurysm diagnosis and the case of pneumonia that required the cat-scan. No chemo or radiation will be necessary. How often do you get to be grateful for having caught pneumonia? Keith is home now, feeling stronger by the day, walking around the block morning and afternoon. And even before his surgery, Keith drove me over the Apple Store on 14th Street where I got my hard drive replaced.
But as I said to a friend, I feel as if I’ve seen a ghost. The ghost of impermanence, and its twin, interdependent origination. Everything out there is in motion, bumping together, and making the future a lot less certain than it seemed. I am trying to be grateful.
Tags: Deacon Greg Kendra, Dorothy Day, Francis Cardinal Spellman, Janice Sevre-Duszynsk, Julie Byrne, Roman Catholic WomenPriests, The Catholic Worker Movement, The Deacon's Bench, the neo-Thomist Revival
When I started blogging, back in 2009, the young publicist at Columbia University Press who got me started told me that blogging means having a conversation with other bloggers. From his point of view, what you’re reading may not be a blog at all, just a writer’s webpage, since I rarely respond to another blogpost.
But that may be changing. A while back I subscribed to a blog on the massive religion website Patheos, The Deacon’s Bench, by journalist and Roman Catholic permanent deacon Greg Kendra. Often the deacon’s posts are primarily quotations from and links to other posts about Catholic happenings. But Kendra usually makes pretty clear his opinions about said happenings, sometimes in just a few words.
Deacon Greg, as he calls himself, is clearly a good man, and a competent journalist. But I am considerably to his left on most issues, so it’s not unusual for me to find myself talking back to him as I read his posts, or do the dishes, or walk around Brooklyn. On May 29, for example, Deacon Greg posted an article “Catholic Worker Hosts ‘Women Priest.’ What Would Dorothy Day Think?”, including a long quote from the Columbia Missourian about Roman Catholic WomanPriest (RCWP) Janice Sevre-Duszynska celebrating the Eucharist at St. Francis Catholic Worker House in Columbia, Missouri.
Now Deacon Greg makes it pretty clear what he thinks about Catholic women’s ordination, posting, for example, links to various bishop’s announcements of the excommunication of recently ordained RCWPs, or about an RCWP deacon repenting and renouncing her ordination. I wasn’t surprised, then, that he followed the news about the RCWP Catholic Worker liturgy with a long 1966 quote from Dorothy Day about her unflinching obedience to the Catholic Church. Yet Deacon Greg knows very well that when Cardinal Spellman, in 1951, ordered Day to take the word “Catholic” out of the title of the newspaper she had founded and in which she had criticized the cardinal for breaking the cemetery workers’ strike, Day respectfully declined.
There were, of course, no ordinations of women during Day’s lifetime, so we don’t really know how Day would have reacted to them. She was certainly an orthodox, even rigid, Catholic on sexual matters. Yet she also had little time for clericalism; a friend who worked on the The Catholic Worker while Day was alive tells of Day once getting really angry because there were three articles by priests in the previous issue. Not for nothing was Day one of the most influential Catholics in the history of the American church.
It’s also the case that Day’s legacy is vastly more complex than her journalistic statement of obedience suggests. The Catholic Worker is not only Catholic, but anarchist. Dorothy Day may have pledged obedience to the Catholic Church, but Catholic Workers didn’t always obey her, or each other. On more than one occasion the level of conflict at a Catholic Worker farm was so extreme that Day was forced to sell it and start another farm a few years later. Some years ago, the daughter of a dear Catholic friend of mine, now deceased, left the church and married a Jewish Buddhist. One of her daughters recently spent several meaningful years at a Catholic Worker house in Chicago. And for more than a decade, my friend Karen Lenz edited EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference, even as she “led” the Philadelphia Catholic Worker (if anybody can really be said to lead a Worker house).
What Deacon Kendra and a lot of other institutional Catholics don’t get is that the orderly Catholic/non-Catholic, form/matter world of the neo-Thomist revival no longer exists (if it ever did). As the postmodernists taught us, there isn’t just an inside and an outside anymore ; there are multiple complex phenomena that hover at or beyond the margins of supposed discrete spaces, making contemporary conversation enormously complicated. Because of this, my colleague Julie Byrne will soon publish an ethnography of an independent Catholic church, to be titled “The Other Catholics,” and Roman Catholic WomenPriest liturgies are often more pious and orthodox than the Masses at my parish church here in the Diocese of Brooklyn. This is also why, from time to time, I intend to write back to Deacon Greg, to complicate the supposedly neat Catholic categories he takes for granted.