Sunday, January 20, 2013

In Defence of Catholics and Choice

Yesterday's Pro Choice Planning day afforded me the honour of meeting many speakers and activists. I was able to put faces to Twitter handles and meet in person people I already considered friends. Geraldine Kennedy was kind enough to say she enjoys my blog. I remain starstruck. Still, of all the people I spoke to that day the one who's been most in my thoughts is Brigid.

It's not her real name. I recall our longest conversation: she took me aside and with near painful shyness said she'd rather not have her picture taken, "in case people back home found out". Before that I'd offered her a newspaper. She seemed to have arrived alone and made quickly for the rear row of seats. I read her as nervous; a woman of my parent's generation in a room that at the time leaned heavily towards those in their twenties. She seemed determined to do something but worried of ramifications. We'd been briefed of potential anti abortion disruptions.

She sat quietly through the initial presentation. Then came questions and answers, with her hesitantly raising her hand and then thinking the better of it. A few questions from others saw her resolve returned and she asked for the microphone. Finding her voice she told us she is a mass-going Catholic, how she is pro choice, and how hard it can be for her believing abortion to be a matter of personal conscience in a setting so hostile to the expression of such views. The Irish Pro Choice movement does not do free buses;  Brigid had travelled considerable distance at her own expense to be able to freely state her position.

64% of the population want legislation on X, and 84% of the population consider themselves Catholic. One does not need a degree in statistical analysis to discover that the majority of those opposed to Youth Defence et al's resistance to legislation are Catholic, and it's a fact I'm afraid we often forget. There is justifiable anger at Catholic bishops and the wider hierarchy, but too often it is overlooked that ordinary Catholics who make up the body of the Church share these feelings.

There is an opinion promulgated by Youth Defence et al that to be a true Catholic one must accept with joy the edicts of the hierarchy. But is this the case?

The association of Catholic Priests funded the following excellent survey of Irish Catholics. Contraception and abortion were not covered directly, but we can judge general compliance with the hierarchy's rulings from other areas:

  • Only 12% of laypeople believe their views are sought by the hierarchy on important issues in their diocese
  • 87% believe priests should be allowed marry
  • 77% support the ordination of women
  • 72% believe married men should be eligible for ordination
  • 75% feel the Church's teachings on sexuality are irrelevant
  • Only 18% agree with the hierarchy on homosexuality
  • 87% believe that divorcees should be allowed receive communion
Suffice it to say accusations of sheeplike following of orders seem unfounded.

I am grateful to the Association of Catholic Priests for funding this survey. They are a fascinating group. While I feel I would always have found myself an atheist, had their voice been heard during my childhood I imagine leaving faith would have been a much slower process. Who are they? Representing over a thousand of Ireland's roughly 4,500 priests, they are a significant and energetic minority, and, to my mind, a great voice for liberal Catholics. 

I do not wish to misrepresent them, and will not try to misconstrue their words to imply they are as a block pro choice. I'm sure a great many of them would describe themselves as pro life and my selection of articles is not designed to represent all views in what is a diverse organisation welcoming of discussion. Rather I seek to showcase some of their arguments for freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and freedom of choice.

Liberal Catholics Expect Freedom of Speech and Conscience

Father Kevin Hegarty is an excellent writer. I enjoy his Mayo News column, where he writes eloquently and with prodigious knowledge on history, politics and Theology. It's beyond my powers to adequately summarise his excellent article on free speech and conscience but I hope these short paragraphs from it will whet your appetite to read further:
"Last year [Pope Benedict] sent a team of apostolic visitors to examine the Irish church in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals. In the summary of their report issued recently, the visitors have a cut at liberal Catholics. They noted that a significant number of Irish Catholics held views at variance with “the teaching of the magisterium”. 
They should be accorded full marks for their powers of observation. The many liberal Catholics in Ireland hope for a church that is open to married and women priests, a rethink on the issue of contraception as exhorted by Humanae Vitae, and a reversal of the harsh insensitivity of the teaching on homosexuality. 
We have come to these positions as a result of honest and honourable reflection. We are not seeking change for the sake of change. We believe that such reforms would aid the emergence of a church that is more humane, relevant and inspiring, a church released from the clammy grip of clericalism. 
Nor are these sincerely held views at variance with the fundamental doctrines of the church as the visitors claimed in their report. These doctrines relate, for example, to the humanity and divinity of Christ, the resurrection and the sacraments. 
I am not aware of any priest in Ireland who publicly dissents from these beliefs."

Have We The Right To Insist No Woman Can Ever Have An Abortion In Ireland?

Those new to the work of the Association of Catholic Priests will be struck at first by the fact that this article is written by a woman. Jo, the author, has two sons and looks back on her life, deciding that she could never have considered abortion for herself. But then she lists and is thankful for all the benefits and good fortune she has enjoyed - a loving partner, good health, a strong support network and comfortable income. When contrasted against all that could go wrong in life, could she deny this choice to others?
But what of those who are not so blessed in the circumstances in which they become pregnant?  What about the woman who is raped; the stressed out mother  who’s already at her wit’s end looking after young children, who’s partner has left and who has no support system to fall back on? What about the victim of incest? What about the teenager who’s terrified about what’s happening to her body?...
Is it truly right and morally justified to demand that such women carry a burden (literally!) that they find unbearable? If every moment of every day is spent in horror and anguish that the ‘growth’ inside them is something they cannot bear and that will have consequences for the rest of their lives, have I the right to say “You must do so”? ...
What I'm feeling quite strongly right now is that, while I don’t think I could ever have an abortion myself (it’s irrelevant at this stage of life anyway!) I haven’t the right to insist that the society I live in demands that no woman should have access to abortion within its boundaries even if her conscience is quite clear about the morality of so doing.
 Again, I encourage you to read the entire article. And do consider leaving a supportive comment.

Abortion: Is Rational Debate Possible?

I mentioned that it would not be possible to represent fully the entire spectrum of views held by the ACP's diverse members. Here I'll present some quotes from a member who opposes legislation on X. While naturally I disagree, there is much to like in this article and I feel the author is someone open to hearing the views of others. Do read it in full.

She starts with a discussion of the Catholic Hierarchy's response:
The leaflet “Day for Life” earlier this year by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference states:
“Our public representatives now face a critical decision. They can preserve current medical practice …or they can choose to introduce abortion to Ireland for the first time”.
This seems to ignore the following:• There has always been abortion in Ireland. Women have been known to drink gin and get into a steaming hot bath when faced with an unwanted pregnancy. I am old enough to remember when a body was found in Hume St., Dublin. She died due to undergoing an illegal abortion.• We also have abortion under another guise, the “morning after pill”.• Many Irish women go to England for abortions.
Later, her reasons for opposing legislation are discussed. But crucially she recognises that it is the will of the Irish people and must be respected:
I agree with the view of the Catholic Bishops that once abortion is introduced, “even for apparently very restricted or limited situations, it becomes more widespread than was first intended.” Be that as it may, I believe that a woman is entitled to choose termination when the foetus has no chance of surviving outside the womb.
Others argue that it should be more widely available and the court ruling in the X case included the risk of the mother dying by suicide. I am wary of legislating for abortion in such cases because I believe that the threat of suicide can be used as emotional blackmail... 
I am not at all sure that we can dismiss the judgement of the Supreme Court as “deeply flawed”, just because we disagree with it. I would much prefer if the judgement had not included suicide but, as a citizen of a Republic, I have to accept it.

That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church

Matthew 16:18, for those unfamiliar. The verse is said to describe the appointing of the first Pope. It's a delightful pun: Peter is derived from the Greek Petros, meaning rock. I'm not a Christian but I've spent a considerable amount of time trying to better understand the faith. Competing religions two millennia ago were often exclusive - designed for the rich, for men, or for those of defined heritage. Christianity differed in that it embraced the poor, women, slaves and those of low status. Jesus is said to have spent his time with lepers and the disabled in a time when disease and disability was considered a punishment for sin. His last meal is described as including a group that would become scared and confused following the crucifixion. At the table Judas was included. As was Peter of course, a man who would deny Jesus three times. A man who misconstrued Jesus's intentions in the Garden of Gethsemane, removing the ear of a guard which Jesus patiently reattached while chiding Peter. A flawed human, a sinner, one who misses the mark and needs correction from others.

To me this is the model the Catholic hierarchy should take. I think they should listen more to the body of the church. But I digress; I suspect I am low on their list of authoritative sources of hermeneutics.

If you are pro choice and Catholic, do consider dialogue with the Association of Catholic Priests. You may find yourself discussing with someone that disagrees, but you will be having a discussion.


majo rivas said...

Geoff, maybe you should consider adding more reactions. "I fecking loved it", or the more PC "Brilliant" might help!
P.S. Love the the pie charts!

Geoff said...

Ha! Should really do some housekeeping. Thanks for the comment!

Galactor said...

Is this a case of religion becoming merely a badge of association?

We know from the recent UK census that many people identify as Christian whilst what they actually believe would not really qualify as such.

We know that religion works very hard tugging at people's sense of community and the drive and innate desire we all have to be good, responsible and caring people. Unfortunately, religion has to make the claim that you need religion in order to be good and you can find Sophisticated Theologians even argue that even though a non-religious person might coincidentally perform good acts, these acts do not count because they are not done from a religious perspective.

This pernicious strategy serves to paint the non-religious as immoral and it makes it difficult for some who wish to identify as say, Catholic, to actually leave religion or dissent.

It must be hard to be amongst a community which encompasses your life but that has such backward, archaic practices and norms that go against your own sense of fairness, morality and humanity.

The Plath Diaries said...

Thank you for writing this article. As someone who identifies as Catholic it has been a very upsetting journey to realise that the Church I once held so dear has no tolerance for Choice.

I stopped going to mass regularly about eight years ago (I'm 27) and this Christmas I did not go because my mother told me of a homily given by a priest where he told of a local pharmacist who gave up his job rather than administer the morning after pill. Combined with the homophobia that runs ride through the church, abuse scandals, the role of women within the church... I just don't feel that there is a place for me within it.

I keep my faith at home and pray regularly. In my heart I believe that the Jesus I read in the bible would support equality and choice. He loved women, made us in his own image, equipped us with thought and loves us no matter what. This is the Jesus I pray to. The man who spent time with the downtrodden and understood the problems of life. The man who valued woman and did not dictate to them.

Galactor said...

It pains me somewhat to respond negatively to The Plath Diaries whose own moral code seems to be happily gaining ground upon a religious mindset so bereft of any sense of humanity, but I must say that it is not difficult to argue that Jesus was a misogynist and someone who had his followers abandon their families.

The Jesus that you believe cares for women is not from scripture but from your own moral code that is likely to have come from an innate sense of compassion and empathy for others fed by our evolutionary past and the culture and community in which you grew

Do we really need Jesus to say it's all right to plead for equality?

Geoff said...

Hi Maeve,

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. Would you consider contacting the Association of Catholic Priests? I think they'd be open to you.

Jill said...

Geoff - another interesting post in light of your last one on emotion...

I give Brigid a tremendous amount of credit for not shying away from the immense struggle of trying to align her faith with her conscience. My story does not matter, other than to say I have been there and it was far and away the most painful thing I have ever been through. She has my prayers.

The survey you cite Geoff is interesting, although hardly surprising. I'm not sure you translated it all correctly though - there is no teaching in the Catholic Church that prohibits communion solely because someone is divorced. This doesn't change your point for including that particular fact or that indeed 87% think that remarried divorcees (without an annulment) should be allowed to receive; but it is a common misconception that gets incorrectly perpetuated and can cause a lot of unnecessary pain.

But now I am left to point out that the Catholic Church is not a democracy. She doesn't do referendums or poling to come to her teachings (although there is more discussion and input from the laity than most probably would realize). I'm not sure I understand what's so bad about this. What is the point of a religion (note, not a faith) if there isn't some underlying principles that you choose to follow? If you want to follow your own thinking on things, you aren't interested in a religion so much as a community. Understandable and necessary, but not the same thing. I understand that some people feel culturally Catholic, but the fact remains she is a living breathing vibrant church still. The hierarchy not only has a right to determine her principles, with respect to Father Hegarty she has a right to demand her priests teach her truths.

Jill said...

With regards to the abortion debate specifically - the Catholic Church (and many other religions) insist upon upholding a moral ideal. I personally say thank God. All we seem to do these days is rationalize away our principles. If something is right, it is always right. This does not mean that the Church, or I personally as a follower, do not understand reality or lack empathy. What this does is challenge us to find better solutions. Can't medicine do a better job in treating at risk women? Can't society do a better job at caring for women who do not feel they can afford a child, or who think their circumstances otherwise allow for it. Can't we ask men and women to take responsibility for their actions (please be fair and recognize that the vast majority of abortions are for "social" reasons). Even though all these things are hard, can't we try to do this because the alternative is to take innocent human life? I know many who are pro-choice disagree with me about the humanity of a fetus. But the Catholic Church position is clear - from conception, to natural death. This will not change no matter how many lay Catholics disagree.

I note something I hear a lot in what Jo wrote - that while she could never personally have an abortion it might be ok for others who have essentially less fortunate circumstances. I wonder why Jo would never have an abortion? Is it because she recognizes something fundamentally wrong with it? And if that is the case, why is it ok for others to do so? As a Catholic I feel it is my job to get off my ass and change those circumstances to the best of my ability, so that no woman is less fortunate than I and has to consider something that I personally am above doing. When you take the attitude that Jo does, you have Planned Parenthood sites overwhelmingly located in minority neighborhoods and rational people scoffing when they see women on welfare who are pregnant.

Jill said...

There has always been abortion and there always will be. This argument holds little weight with me. Just because I don't want to see women having unsafe procedures in back alleys doesn't mean I then think it's ok to then essentially sterilize the issue. When abortion becomes as standard as it is here, it loses some of it's impact. I've talked with enough women to know there is danger of the "best" solution to a real problem being the thing that haunts someone for life.

Yes Jesus forgave Peter when he missed the mark. I believe he does the same for us whether we've had an abortion or cheated on a test or talked back to our mothers. Note though, that Jesus didn't change the mark. He is patient with us while we fail but He doesn't change his principles to suit our feeble humanness. The Catholic Church is trying to create the Kingdom of God here on earth. It only makes sense they demand we live up to that as well.

Forgive me for this ramble and if you've made it this far, thank you for reading.

droid said...

Just want to say thanks for this one. The 'Association of Catholic Priests' survey in particular is an invaluable nugget. Well done for digging it up.