(This is the second in a series of pieces about unconventional families in the church)
“This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:18-19)
Freely, Mary agreed to bear the Son of God, even knowing that this could lead to disgrace or even death, since in Mosaic law her situation could have been interpreted as adulterous, and punished by stoning. Perhaps knowing and trusting Joseph was a factor in her consent. Perhaps she knew her parents would be supportive even if confused (they were saints, after all). In some civilizations today, as you may see here, Mary still would have faced stoning – though, at last, more countries are making it illegal to execute women, for any reason, while they are pregnant.
But that doesn’t mean that outside Iran and Somalia, the rest of us should congratulate ourselves on our valuing of pregnant women. Being pregnant outside marriage has carried a stigma in almost every culture. Even today, post-sexual-revolution, there is shame associated with pregnancy beyond the accepted socio-economic contexts. This is true in secular society: poor pregnant women are regarded as leeches on society, irresponsible, not useful cogs in the liberal capitalist machine. One would like to imagine that Catholic pro-life circles would do better – especially with the image of Mary the Mother of God at the ikonographic heart of our artistic imagination. But, it seems this is not always the case.
Here are a few stories of women who experienced single pregnancy as Catholics. I will let them speak for themselves:
Genevieve: Half the people that I knew at [my catholic college] were kind about it, and the other half charitably assumed I WAS married (as evident by their surprise that I was planning my wedding). [There was this] really amazing and faithful parish that I wanted to be a part of, except there was at least one priest there (maybe the pastor at the time), who was not very understanding. I went to him for confession while I was pregnant and not exactly married (civilly for insurance reasons, but not in the Church at that point), laid out my situation and confessed to on-going trouble with sexual sin. He laid in on me about how disappointed God was with me. I started crying because… pregnant, and he didn’t stop until I finally asked point blank for my absolution and fled. Never went back to confession at that parish.
Anne: I was raised Catholic, went to a Catholic college, but then made a number of bad choices. I was living a pretty wild life, but even while I was sleeping around, I refused to use birth control. I was too Catholic for that! I used natural family planning to know when it was not a good night for a fling. I was just trying to pull myself together, when I got pregnant. Not because NFP doesn’t work, but it requires discipline, and I didn’t have much of that. I was terrified. I had managed to keep my crazy shenanigans secret, but being pregnant and unmarried would be impossible to hide. I knew my family would be supportive but didn’t expect much from the community they lived in, where female sexual transgressions were the unforgivable sin. Being pregnant didn’t feel like something to rejoice over. It felt like visible shame, punishment. Obviously abortion was out of the question. But there was that time of uncertainty, between the missed period and the delayed dreaded pregnancy test. During that time, I took several herbal concoctions that would help “bring on my period.” I knew that they were also abortifacients. I just refused to think of them that way. Nothing happened, though, and finally I took the test, and began to find peace with the life inside me. But then I had a miscarriage – painful, bloody, and complicated. And I wondered afterwards whether those herbal concoctions had killed my baby. And I wondered how my life might have been different if I hadn’t been terrified of being judged by all the good Catholics I knew. I should have been more courageous. But it’s weird that pregnant women would have to be courageous standing up against Catholics.
Cynthia: I guess my big thing was that I had already had an abortion, so I was surprised by the shaming for actually having a baby. Like hiding at an out of town Planned Parenthood was actually more acceptable than having a baby, because it seemed to allow the congregation to continue pretending that unmarried people didn’t ever have sex? Then I was no longer allowed to be a lector. Because? Allegedly, my “job” was sitting with my baby. Never mind that other women could do this and leave their children in the pews with a sitter (and seriously, it’s not even a long time that I would be away). I felt like I was constantly getting a lot of grief from people, if I didn’t knuckle under and be appropriately contrite. I didn’t get prenatal care for the first several months because I had no money and no insurance and didn’t even know about any services for unwed mothers. Not one person at Church offered me a word of encouragement. In fact, once I made it clear that I would also not be giving my daughter up for adoption, I got so much bad mouthing that I left the parish and went to the Native American parish (I knew people there) and got much more support. But I was really soured on Catholicism for much of my daughter’s youngest years.
Kate: The night I took the pregnancy test, I was staying overnight in a dorm at the Catholic startup college I’d gotten kicked out of after carrying four beers across a parking lot owned by the school. The next day, I was informed that I was banned from campus – not because they knew I was pregnant, but because I was a bad influence. Getting kicked out of college had left me with no place to go. I was hundreds of miles away from home, with no money. I’d moved in with my brother, who lived with my boyfriend. I should have gone home, but didn’t want to admit I had failed so badly. It was a mess. I felt totally rejected by the school and therefore in many ways by my faith, since the school was so overtly “Catholic”. It was very confusing to sort out what the Church taught, and what the school taught. I was just beginning to pull my life together, break up with my boyfriend, and actually planning to move to Peru to volunteer in an orphanage, when I got pregnant. I was 20 when I was kicked out of school, and had just turned 21 when I got pregnant. Getting pregnant truly felt like the end of the world, falling off a cliff. Contemplating telling my parents and then all of my siblings was the hardest thing I had ever faced in my life. It was incredibly painful. I felt like a failure and knew I was a horrible example. Returning to my home parish and being obviously pregnant was also very, very painful. I constantly imagined the conversations other people were having about me in their kitchens on Sunday after mass. I never considered abortion. I always knew that I was responsible for getting pregnant, and for the resulting life of the child within me. Deciding to give my child up for adoption broke my heart, but I believed then and do even more so now, that it was the best decision. The Catholic understanding of the redemptive power of suffering helped me tremendously throughout the process of adoption. When I was pregnant I visited crisis pregnancy centers, all of which were staffed by Protestants. In the years after my adoption, I volunteered at several different centers, which were doing amazing work supporting women in crisis pregnancies, which were always staffed by Protestants. I never met any other Catholics. I am sure that Catholics are working to support women who are pregnant, unmarried, and contemplating adoption- but I’m not sure how.
Catholic communities have a responsibility to reject the standards of the world which has always rejected, accused, and punished unmarried pregnant women and their children. While on a theoretical level we aim for this, too often an ethos of bourgeois respectability, fear of corruption, takes the place of genuine Christian love. Bad catechesis may be part of the problem. If we mistake religion for ideology, and the gospel for a set of rules, then it’s easy to scapegoat those who might have broken the rules. Especially if the rules are associated with a financial plan.
A few thoughts:
First, it is the responsibility of the Christian community to welcome and support the mother and child, not to nose into the private matter of how her pregnancy came about. Especially if a woman has been the victim of rape, abuse, or manipulation, it is very damaging for her to experience the prurient judgment of outsiders. But even if she has not, there is no good to be gained from lecturing. If the immediate response of the community to a pregnant woman is judgment, gossip, and suspicion, how can this community expect the woman not to be tempted by abortion? If a woman chooses to raise her child, she should be supported. If she chooses adoption, she should be supported.
This means friendship, welcoming. It can mean spiritual guidance, but spiritual guidance is a delicate business and let’s face it: most of us are not called to be spiritual directors. We should be very hesitant about offering advice, even advice from our own experience, because every situation is unique. Priests especially need to remember that as celibate males they probably have very little idea of what a woman in such a situation is experiencing. The church may need to become more open to the idea of women as gifted spiritual directors, in cases like this. If a woman chooses adoption, remember that this is going to be a very hard time for her; she will need care and possibly counseling. She can’t be dropped right after she has made the approved decision, but will need communal recognition that she is a loving and often grieving mother.
Support also means material support. The church in the developing world seems to be better at this, sometimes, from what I hear. Women religious are especially good at it. But what about parishes and dioceses and Catholic schools? Shouldn’t a woman be able to look to her parish for the aid she needs to be able to get through a pregnancy? Catholic employers especially must be lavish in giving women medical coverage, the maternity leave that is their due, parking spots for pregnant woman, safe places for nursing, affordable child care. Catholic colleges, check out the resources provided by Feminists for Life, to determine how pro-life your campus truly is. And put some serious energy into correcting those areas where a pro-life ethic is lacking (diaper decks? maternity housing? nursing rooms?). When the church can not provide this, we should be very encouraging of social welfare programs that pick up where we fail.
And we must never withhold support on the basis of certain conditions. If we do that, we are saying not only to the woman but to her unborn child: you have value only if you live the way I want you to live. This is not pro-life.
Christianity is not respectable anyway, so we should stop trying to make a suit-and-tie business out of it. If a school or organization’s top priority is marketing respectability by means of a pure image, so that “bad influences” are shunned and marginalized, especially in order to increase profit, then they should stop calling themselves Christian or Catholic.
The situation of Mary of Nazareth is wholly unique, but to the outside observer, had Joseph divorced her for getting pregnant outside the acceptable marriage bond, how would she have seemed very different from the women who have shared their stories here? It’s a shame that the veneration of Mary often is embroidered with a subtle rhetoric of shaming of other women, because Mary is not our enemy; she is our advocate. She knows our suffering. In a way, every pregnant woman is for us an image of Mary Theotokos. If we are to see the face of Christ in everyone, where else is Jesus so clearly present in the paradox of his vulnerability, even his invisibility, as in the unborn child of an unmarried woman, in a culture that despises her?
Image credit: 13th-century icon of the Great Panagia from the Saviour Minster in Yaroslavl. Public domain, USA. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oranta.jpg