So the Pope washed the feet of a couple women last week, but that doesn’t change the Catholic Church’s centuries-old policies against women.
I saw a picture this week of the new Pope hugging a disabled child on Easter. Just a few days before, he washed the feet of two Italian prisoners, one of whom was Muslim, and the feet of two women. Church conservatives were furious, so these must be good moves for the new pontiff, showing some humility in the highest levels of the church. However, no amount of symbolic decency can make up for medieval Church policies that continue to oppress and demean women the world over.
In my opinion, women in the Roman Catholic Church are treated no better than breeding farm animals. They cannot rise to real positions of leadership in the church, and church dogma insists that women’s sexual health, happiness, and freedom do not belong to women themselves. Yet many American Catholics (particularly liberal ones) seem content to ignore the extreme positions of the church on matters of birth control, abortion, and women’s rights.
My very close friend is Catholic. We’ve known each other through high school and see each other often even now as be both approach (or exceed) 40. As of late, he’s been getting more devout in his Catholic faith. He wears a button that reads “support our priests,” and he’s a member of the Knights of Columbus, which advocates for the Church. Even as he grows as a Catholic, he’s also been married for 15 years yet has only one child. Either he never has sex with his wife, or he ignores his own faith’s strict prohibition on birth control.
In fact, 82% of American Catholics say that birth control is “morally” acceptable, according to Gallup. This is only slightly behind the 89% of Americans overall who approve of birth control. Official Catholic policy still forbids birth control just as the vast swaths of American Catholics collectively shrug and do whatever the hell they like. It would be easy to dismiss as silly except that these policies have real repercussions on real people both in the U.S. and in other parts of the world.
Even if many members of the faith have “moderated” in America, some have not, and they wield outsized influence. In addition to the leaders of the church, several Catholic politicians make outlandish statements often and their voices matter. Who can forget when Rick Santorum blasted birth control as a “license to do things in the sexual realm”?
Many Americans seem all too willing to ignore some of the repugnant teachings of the church, and they either don’t know or don’t care about the real-world effects of the Catholic Church abroad. There is a human cost to forcing women to give birth. The World Heath Organization estimates that 800 women a day die from easily preventable complications of child birth. If people think the number is shocking or exaggerated, they should pick up a copy of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. The book explores the topics in shocking depth.
I often wonder if the Church would change its positions about women if priests could marry. All these ill conceived policies are created by men who never touch, kiss, live with, or love women directly. I wonder how much this organization could improve if it were led by fathers and husbands.
Of course, misogyny is only one of many sins (if I may borrow a word) of which the church is guilty. Of course gay rights and the systematic abuse of children are two other issues that spring to mind, but birth control and abortion should be enough to drive thinking feminists screaming from the church. I often wish I were Catholic only so that I could resign from the faith in protest.
Every person who calls himself or herself a Catholic gives the organization credibility. “Moderate” church members like my high school pal are powerless to tame the extreme elements of the faith, but they still throw their lot in with people who would enslave their daughters. I just don’t get it.
I’m also afraid of sounding preachy, but I had to say something after watching the media orgy over Pope Francis in the American media. We are fawning over him, over his every meeting and fashion choice. Precious few stories make note of the systemic oppression of women in Catholicism and the humanitarian cost of church policy.
Humble Pope notwithstanding, the Catholic Church should shed its outdated attitudes or conscientious Catholics should leave the faith en masse. I occasionally nudge my friend about issues in the church. I’ll tell him that he is directly helping to keep some people in poverty, but he will just make some joke about hell in reply. Because he’s Catholic, he tells me that hell is not fire and brimstone, but rather hell is the “absence of the divine.” But from where I’m sitting, that sums up the Church as it exists today.
Edwin Lyngar is a writer and author living in Reno, Nevada. He graduated from Antioch University in 2010 with his MFA in creative writing and also holds an MA in Writing from the University of Nevada, Reno. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Bellingham Review and Ontoligica. He blogs about parenting, family life, and writing at www.edwinlyngar.com and is in the process of finding a home for his first book, a memoir titled Guy Parts.