Catholic Sexual Incoherence

January 20, 2015 at 12:34 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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Well, according to the Boston Globe’s John Allen, Pope Francis, during his visit to and trip home from the Philippines, “rebooted the debate on sex” in the Catholic Church. This is so because on Friday night, February 16th, in Manila, the pope spoke out, in a talk to 20,000 Filipino families, against the “ideological colonization” of the family.  “Ideological colonization” is, apparently, a term that conservative Catholics, especially RC bishops in Africa, use to describe the West forcing contraception  and homosexuality on their  cultures as a requirement for economic assistance.  And a few days later Francis defended Pope Paul VI’s heroic condemnation of artificial birth control. These statements by the politically astute Pope Francis, we learn, are aimed at reducing opposition among conservatives before the October Synod on the Family by distinguishing between these implicitly central issues of Catholic sexual morality and the question of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving communion.

I am intrigued by this distinction between divorce, gay marriage, and contraception. To begin with, there’s the fact that Jesus actually does say some fairly negative things about divorce in the Gospels, whereas he has nothing whatever to say about gay marriage or contraception. And biblical scholars are not all that sure that even the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is about the evils of gay sex. The RCC has never felt compelled to base its teaching in scripture, of course, but it’s worth mentioning that scripture does not seem to be on their (our) side on this one.

Then there’s the matter of divorced and remarried Catholics being excluded from communion but Catholics who use artificial contraception not being excluded. Well, you may say, of course they’re excluded too; using contraception is a mortal sin, so everyone who uses it is excluded.  The trouble is, during the uproar over the contraceptives mandate in the Affordable Care Act, 97% of U.S. Catholic women (who were or had been sexually active, one assumes) reported using contraceptives. Within the margin of error, that could actually be all U.S. Catholic women–and the men in their lives too, I guess! (Oddly enough, a third of those reporting contraceptive use opposed the contraceptives mandate–I guess either they’re rich or they repented after menopause.) The upshot of all this is that a whole lot more U.S. Catholics break this ostensibly much more serious tenet of Catholic sexual morality than get divorced. And given the number of U.S. Catholics who go to confession these days, I’d say that a whole lot of these folks are taking communion despite the disciplinary ban on same.

Now truth be told, Catholic parishes don’t really want to know about any of this stuff. I’m reminded here of the daughter of an old friend who was doing the marriage prep program at the Yale Catholic Center and said to the priest, “So Father, is it a problem for you that my fiancé and I have been living together?” To which the priest replied, “Not as long as you’re not so stupid as to ask me.” I myself have registered at a number of Catholic parishes in the twenty five years that Keith and I have been together, and nobody ever asked about my marital status, much less whether I use contraceptives. The Catholics were doing “Don’t ask, don’t tell” long before Bill Clinton.

Let me be clear here: I am totally in favor of divorced and remarried Catholics taking communion. Contraceptive users as well. And gay Catholics of all sorts. Even Protestants and nones when they come to Mass. Everyone who thirsts, let them come to the waters.

But the notion that Pope Francis is distinguishing divorce from gay marriage and contraception so as to placate the conservatives is laughable. Truth be told, the church has or will soon have vastly more complex problems related to sexuality to deal with than these three. For example, does the Pope agree with the Ayatollah of Iran that transgender surgery is a good thing because it cures homosexuality? Can transgender men be admitted to the priesthood? Are seminaries testing to guarantee that men about to be ordained aren’t genetically female? And will Pope Francis mention in his upcoming encyclical on the environment that chemicals  seeping into our groundwater are resulting in the births of increasing numbers of intersex infants?

Hold onto your hats.

Catholics and Contraception: A Page Turner

June 28, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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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.

Terry Gross Interviews Bishop Blair

August 2, 2012 at 11:04 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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On July 17, Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air, interviewed Sister Pat Farrell, the (soon-to-be-former) president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Then, on July 28, she interviewed Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, one of the US Catholic bishops appointed by the Vatican to shape up the LCWR over the next five years.

Responses to the two interviews mirrored the polarization in US Catholicism. Conservatives said Gross was much too easy on Sister Farrell, much too hard on Bishop Blair. Liberals found the bishop harsh and authoritarian.

This may come as a surprise, but I found the bishop benign compared to what I had anticipated. He issued no anathemas, nor was he rude to Terry Gross. He was kind of like your uncle who has worked  in middle-management at an insurance company for forty-five years and reads the New York Post. Not one original thought issued from his mouth during the entire interview. His performance illustrates one of the reasons college-educated US Catholics are leaving the church in droves–sheer boredom.

Lest my “radical feminist” friends think I am being too kind here, let me also say that I thought Terry Gross was entirely too easy on the bishop. One instance in particular comes to mind. Here’s that part of the interview:

GROSS: On a related note – and I’m not attributing this to the LCWR – but I think the issue of contraception is an issue that has driven many women away from the Catholic church. And many women within the Catholic church don’t follow the ban on birth control. And I think it’s fair to say, many women are confounded by the idea that they have to follow the rules set by celibate men who have no idea what it means to be pregnant, who have no idea what it means to have a sex – to know that every sexual encounter with your husband might result in a pregnancy; and that it’s very – it’s very challenging for many women to live in that kind – to live with that kind of rule, that every sexual encounter with your husband might result in a pregnancy.

BLAIR: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: That would affect every aspect of your life, of your family’s life; of your health, of the finances of your family, of your ability to work, just of your ability of other children to maybe go to college because there wouldn’t be enough money if there were nine children, as opposed to two children. So on like, every level, every sexual encounter has the potential of affecting your future.

Now – and just on a practical level, this is why I think many women either leave the church, or stay and just don’t follow the church on that teaching. So I’m wondering if you think about that; and what you think about, when you do think about that.

BLAIR: Well, let’s begin with a little history. Until 1930, every Christian denomination was unanimous in condemning contraception. And I remember once seeing that in 1930, when the Anglicans did abandon the teaching – they were the first, I think, to do so – it was the Washington Post that editorialized that this would be the death knell of marriage as a holy institution and would lead to indiscriminate immorality; and legalized contraceptives would create all kinds of problems. Now, 40 years later, in 1968, when Pope Paul VI reaffirmed this received Christian teaching about contraception, he pointed to some of the consequences of separating intercourse and the procreation of children. He said there’d be a gradual weakening of moral discipline, a trivialization of human sexuality, the demeaning of women, marital infidelity often leading to broken families, and state-sponsored programs of population control based on imposed contraception and sterilization. That was in 1968.

Now – I think – 40 years later, it’s pretty clear that all of those things are happening. You know, we live in a world of divorce and broken families, cohabitation, recreational sex, fornication, promiscuity, pornography. And so you have to ask yourself, what are the consequences of this contraceptive morality, or contraceptive practice? But let’s be clear – the church recognizes that couples can have valid reasons not to have children at certain times in their married life. But what is the method, if you have valid reasons not to have children at certain times? People often scoff that the church condemns so-called artificial means but accepts natural family planning. You know, after all, the desired effect is the same, no baby. But…

GROSS: What is natural family planning?…

I, personally, was shocked that Gross allowed Blair to ignore her question as she did. The bishop basically said that contraception in and of itself has caused the decline of marriage. Gross completely failed to bring him back to the actual situation of women who cannot support six, eight, ten children. And both of them seemed unaware of research done right there in Philadelphia (where Fresh Air is produced)  that  William Julius Wilson discusses in the current issue of The Nation. It seems that increasing income inequality, at least for many low-income women who simply cannot find “marriageable” men because of the severely reduced employment opportunities for low-income males, has a stunning impact on the rate of marriage. This, of course, is the sort of thing that US Catholic Sisters spend entirely too much time on.

As the interview ended, I had a vision of the hierarchically-led US Catholic church of the future: a few million frozen-eyed zombies marching forward chanting: “Marriage exists only between one man and one woman. Contraception is abortion. Only people with male genitalia can be ordained. Marriage exists only between one man and one woman. Contraception is abortion. Only people with male genitalia can be ordained. Marriage exists only between one man and one woman. Contraception is abortion. Only people with male genitalia can be ordained…”

Then I fell asleep.

The Seven Deadly Sins

May 1, 2012 at 9:45 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments
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The “seven deadly sins” have a long history in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Rooted in the Book of Proverbs, they were consolidated in the 4th century by Evagrius Ponticus, a monk, and reconfigured in 590 CE by Pope Gregory I; Dante likewise included them in his Divine Comedy.

The seven deadly sins have had a very long run. In parochial school in Philadelphia in the 1950s I memorized the pre-Vatican II version and I still know it by heart:








But since Vatican II, as you perhaps know, very much has changed, including a shift from a broader notion of the Catholic Christian faith to a narrower and narrower fixation on sexual morality . Appropriately enough, the seven deadly sins have been reconfigured to reflect these changes. Now they are:

Abortion, even if mother and child will die without it;

Gay sex and marriage;

Failing to work actively against these first two sins;

Use of artificial contraceptives;

Women getting ordained, or even discussing the possibility;

Spending too much time on justice and peace;

Advocating for health insurance in a country where millions don’t have it.

I trust that those of my readers who are Catholic will take note of these changes and behave accordingly.

What the Catholic Church Condemns

February 14, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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You have heard a great deal lately about the Catholic Church’s adamant opposition to the mandated provision of free contraceptives by Catholic universities, hospitals, and even business owners under the federal Affordable Care Act. As I am writing, Brian Lehrer is discussing on WNYC the similarities and differences between New York state’s mandated contraceptive coverage and the Obama administration’s mandate. It’s been hard lately to turn on the radio and not encounter a discussion of this issue.

While all this is happening, I go on reading. Just now I’m a third of the way through James M. O’Toole’s The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America (Harvard 2008). O’Toole is discussing the ways in which the popes, in the first half of the 19th century, became “increasingly more enthusiastic in their denunciations of the ‘rejected innovations’ of modern life.” Among these, Pope Gregory XVI condemned railroads, calling them not “roads of iron,” but “roads to hell.” He also condemned freedom of conscience and of the press. (89)

Some will point out that none of this was infallible teaching; neither, as I have explained, is Catholic sexual teaching. The United Nations has stated that the global population will reach 10 billion by 2100. Since we lack the will to feed our current population of nearly 7 billion, assuming that we’re going to feed 3 billion more seems, to use a popular Catholic term, imprudent. Let me be clear here: I also believe that we in the US must radically change our life styles, consume less, reduce our CO2 emissions, live simply so that others may simply live.

At the same time, eventually, my church’s opposition to contraceptives is going to seem as inconceivable (no pun intended) as Gregory XVI’s condemnation of railroads. If only the Vatican and the hierarchy would grasp this before its stance causes more harm than it already has.

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