“Good Catholics” and Reproductive Choice

March 6, 2015 at 12:17 pm | Posted in Catholicism, The Hierarchy, Uncategorized, women | 2 Comments
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The following is a slightly revised version of a review that appeared in the fall 2014 edition of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.

Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church. By Patricia Miller. University of California Press, 2014. 344 pp. Hardback: $24.47. Kindle $19.22.

As I began writing this review of Patricia Miller’s Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church, historian Timothy Kelly’s review of Miller’s book appeared in the National Catholic Reporter.

I agree with much that Kelly says. In Good Catholics, Miller argues convincingly that the organization Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) —now Catholics for Choice (CFC)— “served as an effective counterbalance to the (United States Catholic) bishops in the public arena.” Her analysis focuses primarily on public debates about abortion, though she also explores theology and ethics, popular responses to the abortion controversy, and the history of CFFC/CFC.

In the first part of Good Catholics, Miller uses the activities of four early Catholic feminist theologians—Rosemary Radford Reuther, Jane Furlong Cahill, Mary Daly, and Elizabeth Farians— as a platform for the rest of the book. All four challenged women’s subordination in the church as the secular women’s movement was challenging it in the rest of society. They were also founders of the movement for women’s reproductive rights. In 1964, for example, Ruether, identifying herself as a “Catholic mother,” published an article in the Saturday Evening Post expressing her belief in birth control. In 1971, Cahill, a Philadelphian, defended the morality of abortion at a state hearing in Harrisburg, after which Archbishop Krol called her “the abortion woman.” Farians and Daly were equally feisty on reproductive issues. All four of them were involved in the founding and early activities of CFFC/CFC. (Three also helped start the St. Joan’s International Alliance, the women’s organization that preceded the U.S. Women’s Ordination Conference and Women’s Ordination Worldwide).

The passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973 marked a new era in the fight over U.S. reproductive rights, and public challenges to the bishops’ position on reproductive rights by CFFC drew some thousands of U.S. Catholics to the organization. Then, in 1982, Frances Kissling became president of CFFC. But in Miller’s telling, it was the 1984 NY Times “Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion” that really set off the battle between the American bishops and the pro-choice movement.

The second half of Good Catholics documents the history of that struggle, up to and including the bishops’ recent attacks on the contraceptives mandate of the Affordable Care Act. I found especially sobering Miller’s discussion of the alliance between the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Religious Right, undercutting as it does the church’s emphasis on social justice and the common good since before the New Deal. CFFC/CFC has played a crucial role in opposing this alliance, making politicians and the country aware that the USCCB’s stance is not the only Catholic position.

Miller would seem to draw at least two conclusions from her narrative of “the battle over abortion in the Catholic Church.” The first I agree with as far as it goes: from Cahill and Ruether to the contraceptives mandate, “the debate had really been about women and sex.” I would add that the Catholic institutional fixation on controlling sexuality is also about the church’s loss of secular power since at least the liberal revolutions of the mid-19th century, but that’s another story.

 I find Miller’s other conclusion, about the impact of the Catholic reproductive rights movement (and therefore CFFC/CFC) more problematic. In the last chapter she writes:

“It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this alternative theology (of reproductive rights) to modern Catholics and their ability to grapple with issues of sexuality within the context of their religion—especially because they have been abandoned by the hierarchy on the issue…. (as Louis Utley of Merger Watch said) … having a progressive voice representing 98% of Catholic women is extremely helpful.”(266).

Let me be clear here: like Miller, I am grateful to CFFC/CFC for providing an alternative Catholic voice on reproductive rights in the public arena. As the hierarchy has moved steadily to the right, trying to identify contraceptives with abortifacients, for example, I regret not having supported the group financially over the years.

But on the ground, beneath the public conversation, where “modern (U.S.) Catholics” “grapple” with sexuality, the situation is much more ambiguous than Miller acknowledges. Even if 98 percent of Catholic women report having used contraceptives at some time, it doesn’t follow that they consider themselves “represented” by the reproductive rights movement. Indeed, among U.S. Catholics, even liberal/ progressive ones, CFFC and reproductive rights, or at least, abortion rights, have been marginalized for a long time.

Kelly acknowledges this in his NCR review, suggesting at the end that Miller’s book “will likely give off sparks.” I am reminded here of an experience I had on the national Women’s Ordination Conference board about a decade ago. There had been some kind of crisis—a fire, maybe—in the WOC office, where the board usually met. Francis Kissling, who had been a friend of the leaders of WOC in its early days, offered to let us meet in the CFFC offices nearby. But at least one, and possibly two, board members adamantly refused to use the offices of CFFC for a meeting. Let me be clear here: CFFC had not asked WOC to endorse their position; Kissling had simply offered the space when it was needed. But some members of the Board refused to set foot there. And the rest of the board gave in. A friend who’s involved in the national leadership of Dignity also assures me that abortion and contraception are never mentioned at Dignity meetings. (A member of the  current Women’s Ordination Conference staff wrote to tell me, after this article was published in EqualwRites, that this is no longer the attitude of the WOC board).

Some of the reaction of WOC board members may have been strategic, not wanting to get a single-issue organization off track. Myself, I suspect that it’s more than that. Catholics may well use contraceptives and have abortions at the same rate as the rest of the country, as some polls suggest. And a considerable majority indicate in such polls that they support reproductive rights.

But it’s not just Catholic “attitudes” or what we write in a private poll that’s significant. It’s also what we’re willing to stand up for and speak out about in public. Patricia Miller may argue that we cannot overestimate the impact CFFC has had on “modern Catholics…and their attitudes about sexuality.” But who wants to risk being shamed by the local archbishop, or even by other members of whatever liberal Catholic group we’re active in?

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2 Comments »

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  1. Wasn’t this in NCR, too?

    Like


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