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Soraya Chemaly Headshot

I'm No Longer a Catholic. Why Are You?

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There are so many perspectives on the Obama/Catholic Church contraception debate that it is hard to keep track. But, after you've stripped it all of its partisanship, wonky indignation and misleading religious angst, what you are left with it whether or not you really think women are equal and how much that equality means to you personally.

At its core, this debate is about control. And not just birth control. Either you are willing to support and participate in a culture in which men, refusing to accept women as fully human, use a perverted claim of divine right to control women and their bodies, or you don't. For me, equality -- for everyone -- and the way I want my children to understand their place in the world outweighed my commitment to a faith, which, no matter how much real good it does in the world, does more harm by its failure to recognize the fundamental humanity of its female adherents. This isn't about freedom of religion; it's about freedom from religion.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, in a now much quoted study analyzed in the Washington Post, "Data shows that 98 percent of sexually experienced women of child-bearing age who identify themselves as Catholic have used a method of contraception other than natural family planning." Catholics are also more likely than non-Catholics to support Obama's insurance provisions, even prior to any accommodations. There are organization like Catholics for Choice who are clearly committed to Catholicism, but in defiance of bishops.

Catholic lay people, modern members of a pluralistic democracy, are not adhering to the beliefs of their church fathers, who continue to tell them that using birth control is a sin. Survey after survey shows that they believe that contraception (and other progressive social issues) is a matter of individual and private choice. Catholic women and men understand the conflict between the primacy of conscience and obedience to Church authority -- and are choosing their consciences. In the words of one Catholic woman, "I will start paying more attention to the bishops' position on birth control on the day a Catholic bishop becomes pregnant."

When I was a student at Georgetown University, a Catholic (albeit Jesuit) school, it was impossible to get birth control. Except that it wasn't. Any girl or woman who needed it could walk into the life-saving midwifery office on campus, talk to a practitioner and secure her contraceptive of choice. We were just not supposed to talk about it and were expected to quietly skulk about, so as not to jeopardize the efforts of the only people on campus, who happened to be Catholic women as well, who understood our need.

Personally, I have never been interested in skulking. So, I went home to my Catholic mother and told her I needed birth control. She took me to her doctor, but not before asking me not to ever again put her in a position where she had to lie to my father. I never lied to my father (much to his dismay no doubt) and didn't expect her to, but she, like many women in her position, was ill-equipped to deal with that dilemma. She asked me not to tell him. He was happy, I am sure, that I waited until getting married to have children, however. Hear no contraceptive evil, speak no contraceptive evil, see no contraceptive evil.

This happened during a time when I was deeply immersed in studying the church, its history, theology and bioethics. And, herein lies the true problem: When you educate people, they start believing what you teach them about the importance of equality, empathy, freedom and truth. Liberal Catholics, feminist nuns and the faithful LGTB work hard to change the institution, stay true to their church and value it for all of the good that it does. Indeed, there are congregations led by married ex-Episcopal priests. There are Catholic communities who support excommunicated Catholic priestesses. For me, it was not tenable to do these things and stay Catholic -- it gives too much power to men who ultimately do grave and deep harm to the very people they claim to be helping.

But, the ability to walk away is a real and tangible privilege. I could seek spiritual and material options. I had an understanding-if-startled family, was educated, could support myself, was healthy, had no children. I was reliant on the church for nothing. That is not the case for many, including non-Catholics, who are closely tied to the church through culture, conscience, faith, marriage, need or employment.

Religious institutions are subject to secular law all the time in this country. Polygamy, practiced by some Mormons and Muslims, is a case in point. If Catholic bishops were genuinely panicking about a War on Religion, then they would have to start with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. These two alone constitute a virtual encyclopedia of Catholic error and "immorality" in their cherry-picked personal and political practices. What about war? What about government programs for the "food stamp" recipients? I actually laugh out loud every time one of these men says the words "entitlement programs." It would be humourous, if it weren't so bizarre.

This galvanization of bishops is nothing new where women are concerned. That's because the Catholic hierarchy, men for whom reproduction is as alien as menstruation -- another fully human process they have no part in, really believes that women's bodies are the living manifestation of their inferiority and the way in which God choses to punish them for their original sin. This is not unique to Catholicism and this post is not an indictment of the faith -- just to its leadership's insistence on misogynistic interpretations of how that faith is to be manifested. I could say the exact same thing of any of the Abrahamic faiths in their conservative orthodoxy.

It is hard to describe exactly how cognitively disjunctive being Catholic and female can be. In the first place, you are expected to accept your female second-class status, an all male priesthood and complementarianism, as good for you. Second, you are supposed to pretend that that gendered hierarchy has no influence or implicatons for life outside of the church, which of course it does. Third, any in-depth study of Church doctrine reveals the degree to which biblical hermeneutics and theologies codifying attitudes of virulently anti-female Church Fathers continue to inform the Church now. In this way, even if priests know not to quote St. John Chrysostom or St. Jerome in Sunday masses, women are still an "inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation ... a fault in nature," "the root of all evil," who, according to St. Clement of Alexandria, "should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman." I'm not going to even quote Origen, Tertullian or Aquinas. These men lived during various dark ages, but they could just as easily be shacking up in the Vatican today. Very little has changed since in that sense, and virtually nothing since 1975, when Mary Jo Weaver wrote, "New Catholic Women," about Catholic women "defecting in place."

Messages, both subtle and blunt, about the subordinate nature and role of girls and women are enshrined in an all-male clerical hierarchy and conveyed to children in schools and churches. What do girls (and boys about them) learn about about their abilities, their roles, their spiritual characters, their inherently weaker souls, their tempting sexuality, their handmaiden-ness? Girls and boys know that dangly bits, compared to compassion, honesty, divinity and humanity, can't be that important. Until we teach them that they are. What are the effects on girls and boys when they see that women are considered not fit or allowed to mediate sacraments? Some believe they can offset these messages through their own example. Kids might indeed do what you do and not what you say, but I think it teaches them that girls are "equal enough," should be obedient and should stop asking for more. It also teaches them to operate in personal ways that keep women's decisions "private" and not political and public. Enough with the adapting, peace-keeping, silent majority.

The 1976 Pontifical Biblical Commission, composed of ordained biblical scholars, found no scriptural justification for banning women from the priesthood. But churches that systematically strip the feminine from the divine have little interest in welcoming serious feminist theological scholarship and exegesis regarding Marian devotions, women religious figures or the authority of Christ. They'd rather fetishize early Christian doctrine formulated by men, obsessed by dualism, who hated women and despised their own sexuality. It goes without saying, even though I'm about to say it, that the church hierarchy's misogyny is the foundation of its homophobia and that its fixation on a twisted, fourth century understanding of sexuality is the root of its abuse of children. Somehow, I am supposed to ignore the horrific aspects of church history, doctrine and theology while simultaneously revering its traditions and submitting to a deeply corrupted authority. Damn that Enlightenment.

But seriously, how obviously violent do things have to get before we learn the lesson that powerful, all-male environments with perverted notions of sex, sexuality and gender have damaging and corrosive effects on the whole society? I have no doubt that the same could be true if the genders were reversed, but that's not the world we live in.

For me, it's simple. Why on earth would I continue to pay any attention to men -- and they are all men, even when they have conservative lay women fighting their battles -- who expect me to not only believe wrong, perverted, ideas about me, my gender and sexuality, but also ask me to transmit that information to my children? To stick with the pre-modern theme at hand, I'd sooner flay myself.

It is entirely possible to worship in environments that do not either actively or tacitly marginalize, subjugate and demonize you. I have close and dear friends and family who do not feel the same way as I do and continue to work within and around the parameters set by the church. I respect their decision to do that. For them, the issue is of equality before God and on Earth, is negotiable. For me, it isn't. You?