cover of Culture Wars by Marie Castle

(excerpted from Culture Wars: The Threat to Your Family and Your Freedom, by Marie Alena Castle)

 

“[Mother Teresa] was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life  opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the  empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.”

—Christopher Hitchens, The Missionary Position:  Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice

 

It is impossible to talk about religion-based laws without discussing the people most severely victimized by them—women, half the world’s population. They are the childbearers, so you’d think that would count for something in terms of decent treatment, but it doesn’t. Largely if not entirely because of that primal function, women have been the object of male dominance, abuse, and social control throughout history and across almost all cultures. With some exceptions, women have existed as men’s property from the time people figured out where babies came from. Was subjugation of women considered the best way to relieve male anxiety regarding paternity? To establish unquestioned heirs? It seems likely, but who knows for sure?

Regardless, women traditionally have been culturally limited to bearing children, and not allowed to do much else. The social reforms of the 1960s did begin to remove that limitation, however haltingly. Although “women’s lib” was ridiculed routinely, increased higher educational opportunities received support—by attaching those opportunities to motherhood. I often heard the argument in those days that an educated woman would be better able to raise children to be productive citizens. That always reminded me of the story of Moses, who was allowed to lead his people to the Promised Land, but for some arbitrary reason was condemned to see it only from afar and never go there himself.

When sex discrimination was included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a last-minute amendment, it was greeted with laughter. Sen. Howard K. Smith, a Virginia Democrat and an opponent of the Civil Rights Act, proposed it. His motives were unclear. There was speculation that he thought his amendment would kill the bill; however, he had always been a strong supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, so perhaps (as others speculated) he only wanted to embarrass fellow Democrats from northern states who opposed women’s rights in deference to male-dominated, sexist, labor unions. But the Civil Rights Act passed, and additional protections for women’s rights followed. Whether they’ll continue to hold is uncertain, given the misogynistic aspects of the culture war.

Religions seem always to have played on and reinforced misogynistic prejudices, assuming the right to control women’s childbearing function as a social necessity, with no consideration given to what women themselves might want or need. Irrational—even punitive—views of women have become so embedded in theology and in our laws that one could argue that controlling women’s sexuality and childbearing role has been the primary purpose of most religions. The contrived justification for such control is the Bible; and some of its interpreters go even further than it does:

  • Be fruitful and multiply. (Genesis 1:28)
  • Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. (Genesis 3:16-God’s punishment of Eve for seducing Adam into eating the forbidden fruit)
  • You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s. (Exodus 20:17)
  • Women will be saved through childbearing. (1 Timothy 2:15)
  • No gown worse becomes a woman than the desire to be wise. Men have broad and large chests, and small narrow hips, and are more understanding than women, who have but small and narrow chests, and broad hips, to the end they should remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear and bring up children. (Martin Luther, in “Table Talk”)
  • Married life presupposes the power of the husband over the wife and children, and subjection and obedience of the wife to the husband. (Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii)
  • “However we may pity the mother whose health and even life is imperiled by the performance of her natural duty, there yet remains no sufficient reason for condoning the direct murder of the innocent.” (Pope Pius XI, Castii Connubii)
  • “Man was made to rule, woman to obey.” (Augustine, De Genesi)
  • “[I]n divine matrimony man receives by divine institution the faculty to use his wife for the begetting of children.” (Aquinas, Summa Theologica)

This is all mythical nonsense, of course, but the restrictive and demeaning attitudes toward women reflected in these passages remain much the same today around the world. Only in recent times, particularly since the 1960s, have patriarchal cultures and the religions that support them been forced in some places to loosen their control of women. These pockets of enlightenment, where women are free to make their own social, educational, economic and childbearing decisions, are the secular democracies.

The Last Stand

But not all of them. In the United States, the fight to maintain control of women continues, carried on by the Catholic hierarchy, the Mormon hierarchy, and Protestant fundamentalists. This fight has become increasingly fierce, although it’s concentrated primarily in one area. Control of women is no longer about opposing women’s right to vote or get an education or pursue a high-level career or (to some extent) practice birth control—religious misogynists have lost those battles. What is left now is their last stand: women’s right to abortion, to have the ultimate control over their own bodies. The Catholic-fundamentalist-Mormon coalition will not concede that right.

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Roe v. Wade decision, and on November 20, 1975 the United States Catholic bishops, acting in defense of papal authority, issued their “Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities.”1 It signaled the start of the culture war, and within a few years drew in Protestant fundamentalist allies—notably the Moral Majority, founded by Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich in 1979—acting in defense of biblical authority. The Pastoral Plan was not a reflection of either group’s desire to “save innocent pre-born babies”—as the hysterical anti-abortion rhetoric would have it. Catholic-dominated countries in Latin America (where abortion is illegal) have abortion rates much higher than in the United States,2 yet there is no campaign to stop them. Before Roe v. Wade, there were clandestine abortion clinics all over the United States, and doctors willing to do abortions in their offices. I knew about them and knew how to find them, as did most savvy women who were willing to ask around, yet there were no Catholic or Protestant campaigns to stop them (other than an occasional dustup somewhere by a vote-pandering politician). The reason is that they were illegal. And that is all the anti-abortion movement cares about, as will be explained below.

The following quotations expose the fundamental, governing rationale for the bishops’ Pastoral Plan: the protection of the Catholic Church as an institution and the credibility of the pope as the infallible representative of God on Earth. The quotations are from The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy, by Stephen D. Mumford.3 This highly readable book spells out in great detail the plans and strategies the United States Catholic bishops implemented to bring about the culture war that has fragmented our society.

The book begins by describing the failed efforts of the Nixon and Ford administrations to implement the recommendations of National Security Study Memorandum 200 (NSSM 200) for controlling population growth. NSSM 200 detailed the security threat to the United States of uncontrolled global population growth. It urged efforts to free women economically and socially through education, and to make family planning options available to them. It emphasized that population growth could not be controlled if abortion was not among those options. Mumford carefully documents the Catholic bishops’ efforts to derail the Study. They were successful, and the study was shelved permanently by the Reagan administration. Because of Mumford’s thorough documentation—including reproduction of original texts—his book is arguably the most important ever written on the cause of the culture war and the social-economic-political dysfunction that has ensued. Consider the following:

In his book, Persistent Prejudice: Anti-Catholicism in America, published by Our Sunday Visitor [the leading Catholic newspaper at the time] in 1984, Michael Schwantz summarized the position of Catholic conservatives on the abortion issue: “The abortion issue is the great crisis of Catholicism in the United States, of far greater import than the election of a Catholic president or the winning of tax support for Catholic education. In the unlikely event that the Church’s resistance to abortion collapses and the Catholic community decides to seek an accommodation with the institutionalized killing of innocent human beings, that would signal the utter failure of Catholicism in America. It would mean that U.S. Catholicism will have been defeated and denatured by the anti-Catholic host culture.” (p. 124)

In April 1992, in a rare public admission of this threat, Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, delivering a major address to the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, acknowledged, “The fact is that attacks on the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion—unless they are rebuffed—effectively erode Church authority on all matters, indeed on the authority of God himself.”

It is important to note here that, as Mumford says, laws outlawing abortion “. . . need not be enforced to meet the needs of the Vatican. The Vatican requires only that the civil law not conflict with canon law. Then papal authority and civil authority are not pitted against one another. It is only legal abortion that threatens papal authority.” (pp. 310–311)

I encountered this view myself several years ago when I was deep into organizing for abortion rights here in Minnesota. The anti-abortion man leading the anti-choice forces told me that if abortions were outlawed the Church would have no interest in enforcing the law because all it cared about was having the law validate Catholic doctrine.

And for that we have been dragged through decades of social and political chaos with no end in sight. Even birth control, long considered a basic, settled right, again became a major controversy in 2012 with the presidential candidacy of Rick Santorum, staunch Catholic, father of eight, and a reputed member of Opus Dei, a secretive, authoritarian Catholic society.

Mumford describes how the problem of papal infallibility and institutional authority surfaced in 1964 when Pope Paul VI authorized the Papal Commission on Population and Birth Control to see if there was a way to approve contraceptive use. (p. 126) The Commission met until 1966 without finding a way to do this consistent with Catholic doctrine. The commission’s lay members voted 60 to 4 in favor of approving contraceptive birth control, and the clerical members voted 9 to 6 in favor. Even though it undermined papal infallibility, the commission’s majority voted that way “because it was the right thing to do.” (p. 124) However, the minority (which included Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II) prevailed to such an extent that Pope Paul VI, in his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, reinforced the condemnation of abortion and contraceptive birth control as well as his claim to infallibility. Here is an excerpt from the minority report:

If it should be declared that contraception is not evil in itself, then we should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches in 1930 (when the encyclical Casti Connubii was promulgated), in 1951 (Pius XII’s address to the midwives), and in 1958 (the address delivered before the Society of Hematologists in the year the pope died). It should likewise have to be admitted that for a half a century the Spirit failed to protect Pius XI, Pius XII, and a large part of the Catholic hierarchy from a very serious error. This would mean that the leaders of the Church, acting with extreme imprudence, had condemned thousands of innocent human acts, forbidding, under pain of eternal damnation, a practice which would now be sanctioned. The fact can neither be denied nor ignored that these same acts would now be declared licit on the grounds of principles cited by the Protestants, which popes and bishops have either condemned or at least not approved. (quoted by Mumford, p. 126)

In other words, the Vatican found that it had dug itself into a hole and decided the only way out was to keep on digging. This would not be a matter of concern—or even noteworthy—if Humanae Vitae applied only to Catholics (most of whom have ignored it). However, in the Vatican’s worldview, Humanae Vitae applies to everyone, and governments have the duty to enforce its view of morality. Monsignor John A. Ryan, in his 1940 book, Catholic Principles of Politics, explains the matter:

If there is only one true religion, and if its possession is the most important good in life for States as well as individuals, then the public profession, protection, and promotion of this religion and the legal prohibition of all direct assaults upon it, becomes one of the most obvious and fundamental duties of the State. For it is the business of the State to safeguard and promote human welfare in all departments of life. (quoted by Mumford, p. 114)

The Power of a Living Fossil

Any rational, thoughtful person would want to dismiss such an absurd, arrogant claim out of hand, but that would be unwise. As Mumford explains in detail, the U.S. Catholic bishops have such a high level of organizational expertise, political shrewdness, public relations skills, and talent for negotiating alliances with religious-right fundamentalists that they have now brought those “state duties” alarmingly close to realization.

This is truly bizarre. The Catholic Church has no real power, only a perceived power because of its 2,000-year history, ostentatious papal encyclicals, impressive cathedrals, colorful rituals, magnificent music, and priceless works of art. Or perhaps it’s the Vatican’s seemingly bottomless pockets and ability to make common cause with Protestant extremists. A Feb. 21, 2012, fundraising letter from Americans United for Separation of Church and State noted this:

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a study last year [2011] that showed lobbying expenditures by religious groups have increased about fivefold since 1970, with $390 million now shelled out annually. Most of these groups are ultra-conservative and are working around the clock to convince politicians to make their theology the law of the land.4

When the bishops announced a new lobbying group in 2011, religious right activists were ecstatic. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, wrote, “I welcome their renewed commitment to the fight before us. We are united in the fight for faith, family and freedom.”

Evidence of this “conviction” was that the Catholic bishops spent $26.6 million in 2009 lobbying Washington. Of the top 15 groups the Pew Form lists, 10 are religious right organizations or are aligned with the Catholic hierarchy.

Yet all the evidence from surveys and church attendance shows that most Catholics have little or no interest in papal restrictions on sexual matters, and they dismiss the pope’s pronouncements. Almost every Catholic I know fits this description. They remain Catholic out of habit or because they think of the Church as a social welfare service that feeds the hungry and shelters the homeless (see Chapter 8 for what is really going on) or because they love the pageantry or for other personal reasons. Catholics will turn out in massive numbers to see the pope, listen to him rant about abortion and birth control, then go home and guiltlessly engage in all kinds of non-doctrinal, essentially harmless, sexual and reproductive “sinful” behavior.

So what explains the political power of the Catholic Church? Single-minded dedication and organizing ability, which can outweigh almost any majority opinion. Mumford explains it in describing the Church’s initial failure to get a Human Life Amendment passed:

In September 1991, Catholic activist William Bennett, former Secretary of Education, and other Catholic “conservatives” announced the formation of Catholic Campaign for America. Creation of this organization even 20 years ago would have been unthinkable. For nearly 200 years, Protestants have warned that the Vatican plans to create such organizations in the U.S. and that American democracy was threatened. One needs only listen to what these Catholics are saying now to understand that the strategy Stephen Settle described in the National Catholic Register is being implemented—and to recognize that this minority, with its “stamina, smarts and perseverance” intends to impose papal law using any means necessary and to “co-opt” our democratic institutions. (p. 172)

Although Catholics are no longer a reliable voting bloc, politicians seem to tremble at the thought of opposing the bishops’ imperious anti-abortion demands. None of them have the courage to stand up for the victims of religious tyranny. Oh, some of them speak legalistically, and almost apologetically, of defending Roe v. Wade as the law of the land. But none of them, as far as I know, defend the women that ruling is supposed to protect. Their support of reproductive rights is too pro forma to inspire confidence. What might be the impact on how women (and the men who love them) vote if a candidate said something like, “Of course I support Roe v. Wade. I support it because I respect women. They’re childbearers, but they’re not a public utility for us to regulate. I respect their intelligence and their ability to know what’s best for themselves and their families. They don’t need me or any legislative body to make their personal decisions for them.” Sounds like a vote-getting speech to me.

 


 

1. Stephen D. Mumford, The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy. Center for Research on Population and Security, 1996.
2. See http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals. The overall abortion rate for Latin America is 37 per 1,000 women of childbearing age. For the Caribbean it is 50, for Central America it is 30, for South America it is 39. (Data are from 1995 but more recent figures show little change.) For North America, where abortion is legal (though not easy to access), the rate is 22 per 1,000.
3. Mumford, op cit.
4. Barry W. Lynn, Executive Director, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, fundraising letter, Feb. 21, 2012.

 

Comments
  1. Abrahamic religions aren’t kind to women. That’s for sure, even if many pretend they are.

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    • Quite true. What I’ve never understood is why women, overall, seem more religious than men. They’re the ones being most oppressed by the churches, but they’re still generally the ones filling the pews. Drop in at any Catholic mass and check out the ratio of women to men. It’s simply amazing.

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  2. […] Women and Religion: An Abusive Relationship […]

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