Pope Francis and Catholic Gender Ideology

February 27, 2016 at 5:17 pm | Posted in Catholicism, feminism, women | 4 Comments
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As Pope Francis’s various trips and the Synod on the Family recede into memory, disagreements continue concerning his positions on certain issues. Did the pope’s comments on religious freedom in the United States signify support of the USCCB religious freedom campaign? Will the pope, in his forthcoming apostolic exhortation on the family, permit divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion? Do his comments about the use of contraceptives in relation to the zika virus signal a change in Catholic teaching? Does “mercy” extend LGBTI Catholics?

The public statements and actions of popes are significant, of course. But they can also be confusing and inconsistent, especially when the pope in question is more pastoral than ideological. So it can be helpful to move beyond the ambiguity of public comments to examine papal writings. Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s June encyclical, sheds light not only on his position on the environment, but on gender and sexuality as well.

At one level, the pope’s encyclical on the intrinsically connected issues of environmental degradation and poverty may seem to reinforce the institutional church’s fierce condemnation of contraception. A week after the encyclical was issued, for example, Jamie Manson, writing on the National Catholic Reporter blog, singled out overpopulation as an issue that is “woefully underdeveloped in the encyclical.”

Manson finds problematic, in particular, Pope Francis’s suggestion that rising population is “fully compatible with an integral and shared development,” as well as his claim that blaming “population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some is one way of refusing to face the issues.”

Manson by no means disputes the Pope’s assertion that a radical change in consumerist mentality is fundamental to feeding the massively expanding populations in the Global South. But she explains that these are long term goals, whereas increasing access to reproductive education and contraceptives will have a much more immediate impact on those who suffer some of our world’s worst deprivations.

The statistics and reports Manson cites in her article are compelling. I join her in wishing that the Catholic Church would lift its ban on contraceptives and thus greatly improve, and sometimes save, the lives of poor women globally.

But Manson’s assertion that Pope Francis wouldn’t be breaking radically new ground by changing the church’s teaching on birth control is problematic, even naive. It’s likely that Pope Francis shares the teachings of his predecessors on contraception, abortion, gay marriage, and other sex/gender issues, but whether he does or not, changing such teaching would risk starting a civil war in the church. Indeed, Ross Douthat speculated in the New York Times in September that Francis intends to start a civil war in the church over divorce and remarriage.

To understand why explicit changes in Catholic teaching on contraception, divorce, and gay marriage, never mind abortion, are currently off the table, it’s helpful to recall that at Vatican II the church made some historic concessions to “the modern world.” These include acknowledging the right to religious freedom and abandoning its claim that it is necessary to be a Catholic in order to be saved.

But no institution willingly gives up power. So instead of abandoning its claims to absolute truth, the church shifted its claim to such truth from the area of doctrine to that of “faith and morals.” “Morals,” within this new economy, are obligatory for all because they inhere in what the church calls the natural law. Thus the post-Vatican II church placed increasing emphasis on sexuality and gender.

Here in the United States, the increasing focus on sexual teaching came about gradually, with the bishops appointed during and soon after Vatican II also speaking passionately on justice, peace, the environment and the poor. Yet in the years that followed, the emphasis of the institutional church in the U.S. and elsewhere shifted steadily toward sex/gender teaching.

In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis does not change Catholic sexual teaching in light of the environmental crisis. Doing so risks, among other things, massively shifting attention away from that crisis to pelvic issues, the last thing the pope has in mind. And indeed, Pope Francis does refer occasionally in the encyclical to the harms of abortion and lack of respect for life.

What’s remarkable about Laudato Si’ is that in it Pope Francis connects abortion, population control, and lack of respect for life with a range of other sins against creation. That is to say, he stresses the integral connection between “the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the poor… buying the organs of the poor for resale, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted. This same use and throw away logic,” Pope Francis tells us, “generates so much waste because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary.” (123)

Progressive Catholics are not the only ones critical of Laudato Si’, of course, and critical even of the implications of Pope Francis’s words for the absolute truth of Catholic sexual teaching. In an article in the New Yorker about her participation in a two-day Vatican conference about the encyclical, environmentalist Naomi Klein reports on a fear among conservatives in Rome that the encyclical’s discussion of “planetary overburden will lead to a weakening of the Church’s position on birth control and abortion.” She also quotes the editor of a popular Italian Catholic web site: “The road the church is heading down is precisely this: To quietly approve population control while talking about something else.”

Other conservatives are subtler in their critique of Pope Francis’s handling of Catholic sex and gender ideology. In a column ostensibly praising Laudato Si’ that appeared in the July 22 issue of the Brooklyn Catholic newspaper, the Tablet, the Bishop of Brooklyn, Nicholas DiMarzio, writes that “the environment that is most dangerous to human beings and the one which causes the most direct threat is the misunderstanding of contraception and population control.” A reader might be excused for concluding, in the context of an article praising the encyclical, that this is something Pope Francis says, or at least suggests.

But Pope Francis most certainly does not say this in Laudato Si’. Rather, he says that there is an integral connection between the dangers of abortion, contraception, climate change, other environmental destruction, and the oppression of the poor. That is, he dismantles the ideological hierarchy of recent decades, in which popes and bishops declared sex and gender offenses more grievous than any others and made social and environmental justice optional.

This is surely not the full change that Jamie Manson and I and many other progressive Catholics would like to see happen. But it’s a change of some considerable significance nonetheless.

This post is the revision of an article that appears in the February 2016 issue of EqualwRitesthe newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.

 

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Not a Real Feminist

February 17, 2016 at 12:29 pm | Posted in feminism, Hillary Clinton, New York Theological Seminary, Norman Gottwald, women | 6 Comments

By now, you’ve probably heard about young women not supporting Hillary Clinton in the presidential campaign. An article in the New York Times today explores the issue, explaining that in New Hampshire, Clinton won by 11 points among older women, but lost by 59 points among “millennial voters” (though it’s not clear if the author means millennial women voters). HC lost them by quite a lot, in any case. The article also reports on the attitudes toward Clinton of younger women at Penn State, one of whom says she couldn’t even “tell you what a feminist is.”

The young woman may be an idiot. Or she may be reflecting the fact that what feminism is has never been all that simple. I became involved in Christian feminism in the early 1970s at Grailville, the farm and program center of the Grail, an international Catholic lay women’s movement. Along with Church Women United,the Grail had co-sponsored one of the first programs in feminist theology, “Women Exploring Theology” in 1972. The pioneering feminist theologian, Elizabeth Schuessler Fiorenza, has written that it was at that week-long program that it first occurred to her that theology was not just something created by men.

I had begun spending summers working at Grailville while I was teaching the fourth grade in the early 1970s, and during the summer of 1974, Eleanor Walker, one of the leaders of the Grail, sent for me and asked me to put together an inclusive language prayer book for the Grailville community. I had been taking care of the chickens at the time, and Eleanor said something to the effect that I didn’t seem to be very good at it, that the prayer book might be a better use of my talents. The Grailville community used the prayer book, including my inclusive language paraphrase of the Psalms, for a number of years thereafter. As a result of the prayer book, I met several theologians with whom I later co-authored three professionally-published books on feminist theology, spirituality and worship.

The truth is, I wasn’t all that interested in feminism when I started working on the prayer book. I had joined the Grail because it seemed to me to be an astonishing embodiment of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, especially the renewal of the liturgy. Grail liturgy, music, and arts more broadly were more beautiful than anything I had experienced previously. I was hooked.

Furthermore, my own working-class background and tendency to analyze as well as sing complicated my feminism from the beginning. After I joined the Grailville staff in 1975, a Catholic nun, Sister of Loretto Ann Patrick Ware, was leading some kind of program at Grailville–I forget what, a program just for Grail members, I think. At a meal during the program when Ann Pat and I were sitting together, she responded to something I said with “You know, you’re not a real feminist.”

She was right, if, by real feminist she meant one accepting the clear, “women are this, men are that” binary that Mary Daly and a number of other second wave feminists seemed to advocate. (One of the most helpful things I ever read about the early Catholic feminist tendency to binarize was an article by Beverly Harrison about how Mary Daly’s feminism was basically a reversal of the the hierarchical neo-Thomism she had learned getting her first Ph.D. at St.Mary’s.) One of the events I remember most clearly during my years at Grailville was Katie G. Canon going nearly berserk over the black maid of one of the (white) workshop leaders of Seminary Quarter at Grailville when we were having a meeting at the workshop leader’s home. Eventually, Seminary Quarter moved to Atlanta, at least in part because Loveland, the town where Grailville was located, was too (that is to say, almost entirely) white.

Another experience that illustrates how I am not a real feminist (of a certain sort) occurred after I moved back to New York City from Ohio. I was attending the first meeting of a women’s liturgy group in an apartment in one of the high rises across Broadway just north of Union Theological Seminary. We were explaining why we had come. An extremely well-dressed woman in the group said she was there because “men write history and women don’t.” I said, “You clearly never met my working-class father. He hardly wrote sentences.”

The facilitator of the group replied “Don’t contradict her. She’s sharing her experience.” I pictured the previous speaker on the moon, looking down and counting (experiencing?) all the men and women who were writing history at the time. I was ecstatic when, in 1994, Mary McClintock Fulkerson published her brilliant feminist theological study “Changing the Subject,” in which she argues compellingly that “women’s experience” is the beginning of the conversation, not the end.

My reference to my father in that encounter up near Union Seminary in 1983 or ’84 was not coincidental; I grew up in a working class household, and my father was for some years the president of a union local. When I decided to get a seminary degree, I opted not to go to the Ivy League Union, in part because it was way too expensive, but also because the students in the courses I audited there seemed privileged beyond belief, although feminst theology was an important part of  Union history and curriculum. Instead I attended a Black/Latinx/Korean night school, New York Theological Seminary, where we all ate the bagged lunches we brought with us while the professors lectured. And my class consciousness was only intensified by the Hebrew Bible courses I took there with the great Marxist scholar, Norman Gottwald.

Subsequently, when I was the president of the board of the Women’s Ordination Conference in the early 2000s, I met with the leaders of several national Black Catholic women’s organizations about working with us, they told me in no uncertain terms (alas) that they had more important issues to contend with. And when RCWP Bishop Patricia Fresen said, in an address at a conference celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Women’s Ordination Conference in 2005, that the exclusion of Catholic women from ordination is just like apartheid, I nearly had a heart attack. Except for the hundreds of thousands of Black people killed and imprisoned in South Africa, I thought. Whatever feminism is, it’s “pas si simple,” as the French say. It’s complicated.

This brings me back to Hillary Clinton. If she gets the Democratic nomination, I plan to support her ferociously. All of the Republican candidates would be catastrophic if elected, especially the current front-runners. I am trying to decide when the right moment might be to shift my support to HC to prevent such a catastrophe. But up till now, I have been supporting Bernie, and I am deeply grateful to him for raising issues that a good number of second wave white feminists didn’t pay enough (or any) attention to. Can he get elected president? We’ll see. But at least one older U.S. feminst hasn’t transferred to the HC camp yet.

 

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