‘God is concerned with the health of women’

The Christian Century spent much of last week eagerly reminding us that its very name is a relic of the past. Like the Religion News Service, it spent the week playing ring around the collar — rallying to support the Catholic bishops in defense of the proposition that clergy unable to command arbitrary obedience from their flocks should be able to conscript civil law to compel such obedience.

The Century and RNS produced a series of hand-wringing articles by men. Old men. Lots of old men. All assuming that the bishops are the rightful and exclusive arbiters of “what Catholics think” and all assuming that women’s health, if worth anything at all, is worth far, far less than the bishops’ authority and sensitive sensibilities.

The Century begins to redeem itself today by turning to the Rev. Carol Howard Merritt, who is neither old nor male. Merritt offers a different perspective than the old male pundits. This is partly because she is a woman and thus, for her, the subject of women’s health is urgently concrete and not just an occasionally intriguing abstraction for political musings about the balance between different forms of male power.

But it’s mainly because, unlike the Catholic bishops and the various old men reflexively siding with them, Merritt bases her argument on a story about Jesus from the Bible:

This week reminded me of the story of the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. She maneuvered through the crowd that swarmed Jesus, reached for the hem of his garment, and was healed. She wasn’t supposed to touch him. According to the law, she was unclean. Yet, she did and the bleeding stopped.

… This week has been dominated by religious voices speaking out against contraception. I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise since Christianity has been controlled by men for over 2,000 years, and there has been a strong belief in both Catholic and Protestant traditions that women were created solely for childbirth. But there are way too many voices, speaking in the name of God, who target health services for women, and especially poor women.

As people of faith, we need to make our voices on behalf of women clear.

I believe in religious freedom. I believe that Muslim women should be allowed to wear a burka if that is her choice. I believe that a Catholic woman should not use contraception if that is her choice. But I resent the loud and constant religious voice that threatens the rights of women.

There is another voice. We aren’t hearing it much in this national dialogue, but there are women and men of faith who believe that women are created for more than bearing children. We support contraception and women’s healthcare.

God is concerned with the health of women. God cares about teenagers who end up in a lifetime of poverty. Jesus healed the bleeding woman two thousand years ago, and I think if he walked the streets today, he just might hand her a packet of pink pills.

On the one side of this dispute are the religious authorities who cite religious law to proclaim the woman unclean. On the other side of this dispute are those who say and show that her health is more important than any such religious rule or authority.

Jesus made it very clear which side he was on. Jesus made it very clear whose side he was on.


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  • Nathaniel

    Unfortunately, Jesus never seems to be around to settle these disputes, and yet everyone remains convinced that they can speak for Jesus.

    If the dude really had something to say, you think he could speak up for himself. 

  • Anonymous

     That’s sorta the point here, I think. He did.

  • Dan Audy

    That has to be the thing that drives me the craziest with the Evangelical’s ‘biblical innerancy’ is the fact that the Bible is very clear about who Jesus sided with and then they ignore those massive and clear parables and focus on some side comment that is extremely open to interpretation (though they insist theirs is ‘obviously’ the correct one).

  • Guest-again

    ‘All assuming that the bishops are the rightful and exclusive arbiters of “what Catholics think”…’
    Ask Luther how that works.

    But I begin to understand what has bugged so much about these posts – criticizing the Catholic Church is both easy and necessary, and something that needs to be done on many levels, the most recent in a long line being to hold the Catholic Church accountable for its widespread criminal activities and conspiracies in terms of child abuse.

    And criticizing the Catholic Church for what it is is equally fine – that is why Protestants, for example, aren’t Catholic.

    But criticizing the Catholic Church for the fact that it is Catholic seems more than a bit misplaced. The bishops are the men who decide who is Catholic, and that is the rule that Catholics follow – those who don’t aren’t Catholic.

    They are welcome to be Christian, of course. Which then leads to the more than fascinating question whether Catholics can be good Christians in terms a bible authority Protestant would accept. The answer, for those who are Catholic, is no, they can’t – since it is the bible authority Protestants who aren’t good Catholics.

    Note the name at the beginning – millions and millions have died since his time, and at this point, the split is pretty clear. And criticizing either side of that divide for being what it is, and not what it does, seems pointless.

    The bishops decide what is Catholic – that is the rule of game in terms of the Catholic Church. Only Catholics need to accept it.  

  • Flying Squid with Goggles

    I think the notion that Catholicism is defined by obedience to bishops is a bit antiquated. This is the 21st century, and amongst other things the protection of priests who are sexual predators demonstrates that the bishops are neither inerrant nor trustworthy beyond oversight by others.

  • Matri

    The bishops decide what is Catholic – that is the rule of game in terms
    of the Catholic Church. Only Catholics need to accept it.

    And right now, they are defining Catholics as misogynist. What if a Catholic doesn’t accept?

  • Dan Audy

    And right now, they are defining Catholics as misogynist. What if a Catholic doesn’t accept?

    Ultimately, I think you have to leave the organisation.  When you are part of a rigid hierchical organisation and you disagree with the core tenets as dictated by the people who get to make those choices you can either accept those decisions quietly, accept those decisions while disagreeing loudly, or leave.  However, disagreeing loudly is not going to actually change anything because organisations have an immense structural inertia that prevents almost anyone who disagrees with the current leadership from ever achieving meaningful position and power.  The Roman Catholic Church is and has always been misogynistic and it isn’t going to change anymore than the KKK is going to stop being racist because those who control and define the organisation have made that part of its purpose.

  • Guest-again

    ‘ I think the notion that Catholicism is defined by obedience to bishops is a bit antiquated.’
    Tell that to the pope – the one that decides who can become a Catholic priest, which just happens to be the basis for becoming a bishop (hint – homosexuals need not apply, and they will be rejected if found out). It is more or less a take it or leave sort of game, which is a real problem. Or not, if one feels that a shrinking Catholic Church is a good thing.

    ‘And right now, they are defining Catholics as misogynist. What if a Catholic doesn’t accept?’
    Nothing. Catholics are not provided the privilege to decry what the bishops decide in terms of changing those bishops, at least in terms of how a heirarchical structure works. And those who do not agree, especially in public or active forms, are generally referred to in other, century old terms – ‘protestant’ being a polite one in the U.S., ‘schismatic’ being a rude one, and ‘heretic’ meaning that the person holding those beliefs is utterly out of bounds (let’s just avoid the term anathema for now). Nobody elects a bishop – it has never happened, it is not happening
    now, and without getting too strange about the future, the church that
    calls itself ‘Catholic’ in the future won’t be holding elections either. It is a take it or leave proposition. Those who leave it are no longer Catholic.

    Andrew Sullivan is a good example of this – he feels himself Catholic, though he knows he is violating major parts of doctrine in how he lives married to another man, and his public advocacy of same sex marriage is in opposition to current church teaching. This makes his ‘Catholicism’ extrremely precarious, at best. It is possible that his words and deeds will lead to the heirarchy changing its position to reflect a changing world. It is equally likely, considering the direction the hierarchy has been moving for several decades, that he will be removed from communion unless he publicly renounce his defiance and sins.

    Of course, Sullivan also exemplifies the dilemma that Catholics face – either accept what the bishops decree, or become something other than Catholic. Those are still the rules, set by the people in charge of setting rules for the Catholic Church – no one needs to play by them.

    Again – there are so many good reasons to criticize the Catholic Church (so very many). It is just strange to criticize it for being what it is – a heirarchical power structure composed of men – as compared to its often disgusting actions. Remember, just before the split into two slacktivist forums, that a certain group was opposed to calling out the Catholic hierarchy on child abuse? You know, such talk panders to prejudice, wasn’t fair to the tender sensibilities of good Catholics, just didn’t have the right tone, etc.? After all the facts have been presented, one hopes that such simpering inability to deal directly with what an ugly organization the Catholic Church can be would no longer be in question.

    And that is the difficult truth for Catholics to deal with – blaming the bishops is convenient, but the only reason they have power is that they have followers. Followers to whom the word ‘Catholic’ often seems to be more important than considering what it has come to represent in the eyes of many victims.

  • Julezyme

    Said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s all about controlling the means of production.

  • Those are still the rules, set by the people in charge of setting rules for the Catholic Church

    To a large extent, they’re only in charge of the Catholic Church because the rest of the CC have let them be in charge. If the rest of the CC suddenly decided “hey, wait a second, these guys are loony, we don’t want them in charge of the whole CC”, they can’t necessarily just say “well, WE want us in charge, and we’re the ones in charge! ha!” and smugly get on with what they’re doing.

  • Guest-again

     It occurs to me, some Americans may not really understand how the Catholic Church (or any other state church) works, broadly speaking, since in much of the U.S., the presence of the Catholic Church is fairly minimal, compared to areas where its reach is broad, and often dominant.

    In Germany, since 15 years or so, nursery school space is now mandated to be available for all children between 3 and school age. One of the major providers of these nursery schools (accurately called ‘kindergartens’) in this region is the Catholic Church. It takes in public money, and to an extent, has to follow certain laws – no discrimination in accepting children, for example. But it has also ensured that the only person responsible for hiring and firing the people paid by the church to run the nursery school is the bishop responsible for that region. Period – no appeal, no possibility for that authority to be contradicted, even by the state that is paying the main cost of the nursery school’s operation.

    That same authority runs to determining who teaches the state funded religion classes. And to keep this a bit balanced (Germany is like the U.S. in one major way – it is a two party nation when it comes to religion, and though the differences are as real as between Republicans and Democrats, they are also as trivial in the end), let’s turn to the other major church. The Lutheran church in this region cleared a cool 25 or so million marks per year back in the mid-1990s – that’s right, the Lutheran church was paid by the state to run Lutheran religion classes in public schools – but those teachers, all public employees paid through public funds, are only allowed to teach religion when the church they belong to says they can (which doesn’t mean they lose their job, as they can also teach other classes, it must be pointed out).

    Well, in theory, such religious authority can be disputed, of course. But a funny thing about how church authority works here is explained by this little anecdote concerning state funding and tax collections for the two churches, and audits – for a couple of weeks in the late 1990s, it was suggested, considering just how much money the state collected on behalf of churches, that an audit might, just perhaps, be in order.
    The suggestion died quickly – mainly along the lines that the churches were offended by the merest hint that such institutions, connected as they are to god, suffer the very affrontery of having anyone even question their dispensing of the money they were given.

    I can think of any number of terms that describe both the Catholic and Lutheran leaders responsible for denying the state the ability to see what happened to the money the state provided, but the single most accurate one is ‘bishop’ (though since a couple of the Lutheran ones were female, at least not every single one of them was a misogynist in that particular case).

    ‘To a large extent, they’re only in charge of the Catholic Church because the rest of the CC have let them be in charge.’
    This could chase its tail forever – and yet, it is the very crux of the matter. However, there are a number of terms for those people who don’t let the Catholic heirarchy speak for them in matters of the Catholic Church. The one term that is absolutely not allowed to be used, however, is ‘Catholic.’ Maybe the future will be different, though if the past is any guide, the future will still include a church run by men in flowing robes and velvet slippers standing on top of women – forever.

    There have been any number of attempts to change the Catholic Church and the power of its heirarchy – those with the greatest resonance are generally grouped under the broading heading of ‘Protestantism,’ since they were unsuccessful in actually changing the Catholic Church.

  • Mackrimin

    If the rest of the CC suddenly decided “hey, wait a second, these guys
    are loony, we don’t want them in charge of the whole CC”, they can’t
    necessarily just say “well, WE want us in charge, and we’re the ones in
    charge! ha!” and smugly get on with what they’re doing.

    This has happened, they did, and the end result was a large portion of the CC splintering off and forming the Protestant movement.

    But suppose all the laity suddenly rose up and overthrew the hierarchy (in practice this would mean leaving the CC and finding a new one). Would the end result be the CC any more? It would no longer have the defining and distinguishing feature of CC – a hierarchical power structure – so how would it differ from various protestant churches?

    I suppose CC could make a switch from being structured like a feudal kingdom to a constitutional monarchy, but frankly, I find it more likely it continues as is: fancy rituals, abuse of whatever power remains, thankfully impotent declarations attempting to abuse power that no longer exists, and rank-and-file membership who continue supporting the whole circus because they’re used to calling themselves Catholics and don’t want to stop.

  • Tonio

    Contraception has benefitted billions of women by enabling them to conceive only when they choose to do so and enabling them to pursue roles in society besides mother. Yet the bishops label it as immoral. Reducing access to contraception causes much suffering for women, yet the bishops label this action as moral.

    Similarly, legalizing same-sex marriage harms no one and benefits gays and straights by ensuring equal treatment under the law, yet millions of people view legalization as immoral. Keeping it illegal harms gay couples in numerous ways yet opponents insist this action is immoral.

    Did they come from a Bizarro universe or did I step into one?

  • Tonio

    Uh, I meant “yet opponents insist this action is moral.”

  • Anon Collie

    The thing is, what allows many Catholics like yours truly to feel like we can still be Catholic even when we do have disagreements with Bishops comes down to the “mandate of conscience.”

    Put simply, any Catholic with a well formed conscience, and considering in what the Church has to say on any given moral matter not only has the ability, but the duty to follow what they believe to be just. While this is intended to challenge the church for its own good, Bishops don’t like to be challenged by priests, and even less so with layity.

    This sort of thing is why the “good” Catholic orders or at least the ones who consider themselves to be nice, holy and orthodox (Legion of Christ, and to a lesser extent Franciscans), have problems with the ones who do challenge the Church from time to time – mostly Jesuits in that respect.

    And wouldn’t you know it, I just happened to be working for a Franciscan-educated department chair last semester, who was a Biblical Literalist and didn’t like the idea of bringing human culture in to explain theology like I did, so he turned around and denigrated and ultimately fired my Jesuit-Educated behind for doing much of said challenging.

  • LE

    Said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s all about controlling the means of production.

    QFT although I’m not sure this is what Julezyme meant by it.

    To say that Catholics who disagree with the Church hierarchy should just leave and go find a christian church that’s more amenable to their beliefs is to fundamentally misunderstand Catholic theology.  As usual it’s more complicated than that.  Devout catholics believe that Apostolic descent of the bishops authority is what gives the sacraments validity.  As much as any individual Catholic may believe that the bishops are misguided (or to be less charitable – wrong, bigoted, and misogynistic) to leave the Church is to cut oneself off from the sacraments, and that is not done lightly.  It’s a Catch 22 for a lot of Catholics, and it’s one of the reasons there are so many of what JPII derided as “cafeteria Catholics” – people who don’t want to leave the Church, but who’ve needed to come to their own moral understanding of what they can and cannot accept from the leaders of their faith.

  • Sheila

    Yeah, it’s kind of like saying “If you don’t want a monarchy, move to a country that doesn’t have one”.

  • Sheila

    And by that I mean, it’s your country, it’s part of who you are. If you moved somewhere else, you wouldn’t be a ____anymore, not really.

  • Christian Demographer

    If a Catholic hospital can care for multifaith patients and honor their choices without claiming exception, why is honoring multifaith needs of employees a problem?  

  • FangsFirst

    I’m not going to actually ask the question again, but this is the essence of my pondering the definition of “Catholic,” and how one actually differentiates it from any other denomination/sect/splinter/part/whatever of Christianity if one removes the hierarchy. Not stubborn abstract-ness, but “I thought hierarchy defined it?” in response to the claim that it does not–and then wondering how, then, it was at all different, or in any way meaningful…except on a personal level.

  • Lizzy L

    It is not accurate that “the bishops” define what Catholics believe, and all of us must follow or leave. There are five human streams into Catholic doctrine and belief: the Pope under some very specific circumstances, the bishops acting collegially (which means that one bishop is not speaking for the whole Church), theologians (Thomas Aquinas, for example, was never a bishop), the sensus fidelium, (literally, the sense of the faithful), and what each Catholic possesses, indeed, each human being, our conscience.

    These five streams are always and have always been in tension, sometimes working with, sometimes against each other. Historically, sometimes one, sometimes another, has been is the ascendancy, but at the moment, despite the bishops’ very loud voices, as far as the folks in pews go, in my opinion they are not much being listened to.

    Through each one of these paths — and they are all necessary — Catholics believe that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit. But all Catholics, even the bishops, know that human beings are flawed and our understanding of God’s will is often imperfect.

    I ain’t leaving.

  • Anonymous

    But that’s not the way cultures work.  The authority has the power to kick people out, sure, but if they just kick EVERYBODY out, it isn’t like this is still culture A and that (which is composed of the same members of culture A – minus one cranky chieftain) is now culture B.
    One of the the unique things about the Catholic hierarchy is that’s is so invested in it’s own infallibility that it goes to great intellectual length to never change it’s mind (or at least, to have plausible deniability about it – just ask the current Pope about Galileo.)

    Talking about how “cafeteria Catholics” aren’t “real Catholics” (even though, apparently almost all Catholics are in fact “cafeteria Catholics” because they don’t obey everything “The Bishops” say) misunderstands how cultural identification works.  A culture set it’s own criteria for membership, and if all Catholics are in fact cafeteria Catholics, then that’s what it means to be Catholic, regardless of what the old men say.  They can gripe about it all they want, but they’re outvoted approximately a billion to one.

    It’s like griping about people using “beg the question” to mean “raise the question” – sure, sure, sure is USED to refer to a tautology, but now (almost) everybody uses it to means the latter.  They’re not wrong.  YOU ARE.

  • Lori

    If a Catholic hospital can care for multifaith patients and honor their choices without claiming exception, why is honoring multifaith needs of employees a problem?  


    Power, advantage and control. 

    If a Catholic hospital ignores or tries to control the needs of too many non-Catholic patients it will soon cease to be a hospital. People will complain and even if options are limited and patients can’t refuse to go there, the place will lose its licensing and that’ll be that. Even if some Bishops did want to use the hospital as a means of control over patients they really can’t because patients are clients and thus the source of the money. 

    It’s a whole other matter when one is talking about employees. As long as the law allows it the boss has a lot of control over employees. The Bishops are power-holders in a hierarchy, but their power just doesn’t mean what it once did. They can’t actually force the laity to follow them and it’s totally obvious that when it comes to BC they aren’t. Trying to exert power where they can, the Bishops control their (indirect) employees.   

    I think the Bishops were also pretty clearly working the political angles. Birth control has become another link in the anti-woman chain that bind Catholics to the sort of Evangelicals who would still be raging anti-Papists if it weren’t for the anti-choice movement. That alliance works for the Bishops in a lot of ways, so it’s in their interests to maintain it. The Bishops also bought themselves some chips with the GOP by giving them a weapon they could use against “Obamacare”. From the looks of things in Milwaukee they’re going to need those chips, so I suspect they consider this controversy to be faux-outrage well-spent. 

  • Guest

    I am not Catholic, but my local Catholic hospital honored my request for a tubal ligation after 3 problem pregnancies, one live birth.  My husband and I had to go for counseling with one of the sisters first. This was in the 70s.

  • Anonymous

    This quote by the recently beatified Cardinal Newman seems hugely apropos, and I wish to God the bishops would pay a little attention to it:

    If I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink – to the Pope, if you please – still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.

    (Here’s the quote in context, from his 1900 Letter Addressed to the Duke of Norfolk)

  • Guest

    According to your logic I wonder if Jesus would have performed an abortion or two as well…

  • Anonymous

    Guest, he was a good Jewish boy, and there’s nothing in Jewish law that forbids abortions. 

  • Tricksterson

    Your mistake is assumimg that the bishops oppose contraception despite it enabling them to concieve by their own choice and allowing them to pursue roles other tham motyher in society.  It’s precisely because of this that they oppose it.  Same thing with gay marriage.  Homosexuality, according to their reasoning is inherently evil and therefore gays and lesbians deserve to be punished and in fact should be grateful that their even allowed to exist.

  • PurpleGirl

    Well, as more mergers occur between Catholic hospitals and secular ones, the Catholic ones are saying that the acquired secular hospital HAS TO sign on to the directives from the Catholic hospital and stop doing a range of procedures. One blogger I read mentioned that there is a dust-up in Tennessee over this right now.

  • Guest

    With all do respect, Rev. Carol Howard Merritt, is intellectually dishonest. Her points are based on feelings and not reason. Religion, or more to the point Faith, is a matter of the heart, which no person can force upon another. I am a Catholic woman, who is a mother of eight children, and you got I do not use artificial contraception. I also work, outside the home, because I choose to do so. I homeschool my children because I like it. I have never in my life felt like  I was made only for childbearing, probably because know one, especially my husband treated me so. I will make it clear, these are mine and my husband’s choices. Yes, our choices because we made the commitment to each other in marriage and we both had something to do with bringing the eight children into being. But before these choices were our choices it was my choice. My choice because I believe the Catholic Church is the Church founded by Jesus Christ and is the abode where the graces for my salvation abide. I also firmly believe the the Pope and the bishops, as successors of the apostles, have the authority to make statements on issues of faith and morals, and with all my heart I say credo to these doctrines. I say credo because it is a personal faith I hold. 

    If a woman doesn’t believe this, she doesn’t have to be Catholic. It is her choice. But if she still has the inner desire to remain Catholic but struggles with certain doctrines, she needs to be honest with herself and either say the Church has the authority and therefore I give my assent of faith, or in all integrity say I do not believe and therefore I am not Catholic. I understand this interior struggle may take time to resolve, but in the process do not point a finger at the Catholic Church and her bishops as she teaches what she has always taught. She is only being faithful to her mission given to her by Jesus Christ over 2,000 years ago. 

  • Anonymous

     [The Church] is only being faithful to [its] mission given to [it] by Jesus Christ over 2,000 years ago.

    And where, pray tell, did Jesus Christ say a single word about contraception?

  • Shallot

    Excuse me, but I don’t see how your first two sentences have anything to do with the rest of your writing.  I’m glad that you have a faith that you value, and I have respect for someone who lives consistently with her beliefs.  If you freely choose to let the bishops be the final arbiter in your morality, that’s fine.  I am not attacking your beliefs.

    That said, you give no evidence that Rev. Merritt is doing anything dishonest. She is interpreting events based on Scripture, just as many theologians have done since the beginning of the church.  Jesus didn’t lay out the theory of a just war, for example–Augustine and Thomas Aquinas did.  Jesus also didn’t discuss contraception.  Can you show where her reasoning is faulty, or where she stops reasoning and switches to emotion?  Or is there another problem that I’m not seeing?  She’s not Catholic, so it’s not like she’s under your church’s authority.

    The other point I wanted to make was, while I have no beef with what you and the bishops believe or even how you (personally) live, I can and will criticize your *actions*.  Remember the old saying, my right to swing my fist ends at the other person’s nose?  I oppose anyone who acts to impose their religious practices in the public sphere, even people of my own denomination.  I can also point out the differences in what people say and what they do.

    Since you don’t have any other posts, I’m guessing you just popped in and won’t be back.  But if I’m wrong, I hope we can have a great conversation.