The Vatican’s Risky Sexism

The archaic politics of the Catholic Church threaten both women’s lives and the church’s own survival.

Rev. Harry Knox and Jessica González-Rojas

The Vatican joined with Russia and Iran at the March conference of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in a regressive effort to protect religious traditions that violate the rights of women. (Trishhh / Flickr / Creative Commons)

This year the March celebration of Women’s History Month ends with a bang, in Passover, Easter, and the birthday of longtime women’s rights ally and social justice champion Cesar Chavez. This month also brought a new pope whose approach to women’s rights, in contrast with Chavez’s advocacy and the continuing shift within America’s Catholic laity, is less than enlightened on the equality and health concerns of women.

Yes, the sanctity and safety of women's reproductive decision-making are at stake in the church's treatment of women in its ranks, as are the rights of girls and women in the church's lobbying for laws to limit access to contraception and reproductive healthcare. But so is the integrity of the church itself.

Regressive stands by the Vatican have far-reaching policy impact in the United States and worldwide. Their fallout is especially hazardous for Latinas, who face disproportionate barriers to accessing reproductive and other basic healthcare.

Much has been made of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s commitment to social justice and humility in ascending to his role of Pope Francis. Yet the failure by faithful observers and the press to connect these important concepts to the realities of women’s lives threatens to reduce them to empty pious rhetoric, like more white smoke from a chimney.

While the lofty and admirable principles of solidarity with the poor and aversion to the trappings of privilege that Francis has demonstrated in Argentina have been widely covered, we’ve heard less about the reality of his intense opposition to condom availability and women’s access to reproductive healthcare. That disjunction in Francis’ principles, and the gender bias it reflects, deserves scrutiny because it marks the fundamental challenge facing the institution the pope now heads, which has more than 1 billion adherents and inroads to government around the globe.

For Catholic Latinas in the United States and Latin America, the opposition to contraceptive use voiced by Catholic bishops is wildly out of step with what women are actually doing. In the U.S., 96 percent of sexually active Catholic Latinas have used a contraceptive banned by the Vatican, including 90 percent of married Catholic Latinas. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 72 percent of women and couples use contraception, and about 11 percent would like to but lack access.

Access to contraception for many women requires social, political and economic resources that may be hard to come by. This gulf widens when some religious leaders actively oppose policies to make contraception more affordable or widely available. Poor women bear the brunt: Women living in poverty in the United States are four times more likely to have an unplanned pregnancy than women of means, and this trend is mirrored in Latin America. Political opposition to family planning and the lack of access to safe, legal abortion in Latin America — and, increasingly, in the U.S. — threaten a comprehensive, realistic approach to women’s health and rights.

Denying the linkage between family planning and the well-being of women and girls excludes them from basic standards of social welfare and human rights. The question of whether this problem will be aggravated or ameliorated during Pope Francis’ papacy holds huge implications for women’s power in the U.S. and much of the world. A recent study by the Guttmacher Institute confirmed what women already know: that being able to plan their families improves nearly every measure of women’s welfare, from educational attainment, workforce participation, and economic stability to mental health, happiness and the physical health of women and their children. For better or worse, millions of women’s ability to get the very tools needed to plan their pregnancy hinges on support or opposition from religious leaders.

This problem is by no means limited to Catholicism. But it reflects a striking dichotomy between the church’s head and its hands: between male dispensers of doctrine and a heavily female corps of workers in the community. Because they did not shape it, women often chafe against that doctrine.

One especially cruel impact of that doctrine appeared this month in debate over universal standards in stopping violence against women. In the two-week conference of the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women, which ended March 15 in New York, the Vatican sided with notorious foes of human rights Iran and Russia to oppose a strong statement against abuse and rape and to allow consideration of religion, custom or tradition to exempt men from prosecution in certain cases.

On the domestic front, leading Catholic organizations, instead of supporting civil rights and women’s health or politely demurring from the fight, are taking up the rhetoric of religious liberty to assail them outright. According to a report this month by Dr. Jay Michaelson for Political Research Associates, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Knights of Columbus have allied with religious conservatives to undermine Roe v. Wade and block key parts of the Affordable Care Act by turning the First Amendment from a shield against government intrusion into a sword for lashing out at public policies they construe as depriving them of a license to dictate sexual behavior.

These political efforts to restrict access to women’s healthcare will not gain the church goodwill from the rapidly growing population of U.S. Latinos. Latinos overwhelmingly support a woman’s ability to make personal decisions about her health and her family and will feel the bite of these restrictions more intensely than most.

And this is social justice for a new century?

Women’s ability to speak for themselves, much less to seek or gain leadership positions in the church, is a bellwether for a host of other concerns now vexing this pope due in part to his predecessors’ vehemence in suppressing debate about them. In the United States, the clampdown on discussion has had two effects. It has marginalized the very leaders whose ministry speaks most to ongoing social change and the needs of parishioners in navigating it. And it has hastened the exodus of female talent, a cornerstone of the church’s civic and political strength through the last century, while alienating a new generation of potential women leaders.

Catholic women scholars put this conflict in clear terms this month in a powerful moral statement framed by the question Where is the other half of the conclave?” Mary E. Hunt, Donna Quinn and Carolyn Kellogg noted that countless Catholic women are meeting their spiritual needs with resources from outside of clerical hierarchical structures … in the message of Jesus focused on equality and community.”

Reporters and editors have given short shrift to this conflict by viewing it solely through the lens of abortion politics. Yes, the sanctity and safety of women’s reproductive decision-making are at stake in the church’s treatment of women in its ranks, as are the rights of girls and women in the church’s lobbying for laws to limit access to contraception and reproductive healthcare. But so is the integrity of the church itself, its leaders, and their claims to be defenders of human rights, in the full dimension of that term.

Church women are stepping up to advocate integration of leadership and reexamination of policies banning contraception and abortion. Whether this pope deigns to use his power to increase or to de-escalate the drive to silence their voices will speak louder than any words. By his acts can we measure his humility as a man vested with immense decision-making authority over a church that denies women’s leadership. By his deeds can we assess his devotion to social justice, no less for women than the rest of humankind.

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Rev. Harry Knox is president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and was a member of President Obama’s first Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Jessica González-Rojas is executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and an adjunct professor in Latino and Latin American Studies at the City University of New York.
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