Pelvic Zone Issues

Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church
By Patricia Miller
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014, 332 pp., $34.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Mary E. Hunt

Competition is keen from some Mormons and evangelicals, but the Roman Catholic Church takes the prize when it comes to thwarting women’s reproductive justice. Patricia Miller, with a journalist’s eye and a historian’s training, chronicles movements of “good Catholics” to counter the institutional church’s power, both political and theological. That US Catholic women now use birth control and have abortions in virtually the same numbers as other religious people is one measure of change. Another measure, perhaps more important, is that the official church has been thoroughly discredited, due to priest pedophilia covered up by bishops.

Miller’s detail-dense prose makes her book a serious study instead of what could have been a partisan puff piece. Having been involved in Catholic feminist efforts for years (including a decade on the board of Catholics for a Free Choice), I, like Miller, know many of the players and events quite well. Still, I learned a great deal from this book, in which the author concludes that “the forty-year fight over reproductive rights had never been about abortion; it had always been about women and sex—specifically, the ability of women to have sex without the consequence of pregnancy.” (By implication, queer sex is also off limits, but Miller would need another volume to unravel that saga.)

Women’s power to make decisions, to be priests, to function as full human beings is simply anathema to male church authorities. Miller captures the widespread commitment to change that is the work of many different people and groups. Progress is slow; backlash is virulent. These days, fewer and fewer people seem to care. With this study we can see why: religion can be a dirty business.

The abortion battle is really only the latest skirmish in an ongoing struggle for women’s equality. The Catholic manifestation of that has been almost exclusively in what the prochoice Catholic theologian Daniel C. Maguire terms “pelvic zone” issues. The first half of Miller’s book traces the history of birth control and abortion from the early 1960s through the 1984 presidential election. The second half focuses on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which has developed as a powerful lobby. Its recent, muscular opposition to the Affordable Care Act made the bishops’ politics crystal clear.

As contraceptives became widely available in the 1960s, a number of courageous and creative Catholic women began to question their tradition’s antisex teachings. On April 4, 1964, theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether published “Why I Believe in Birth Control: A Catholic Mother Speaks Out” in the Saturday Evening Post, one of the first articles in the popular press naming the problems faced by Catholic women who wished to have careers as well as families. Their faithful efforts to use natural family planning were all too often rewarded with another child, and childcare was, and remains, primarily a woman’s task. Gradually, Catholic women joined others in taking control of their own reproductive lives, incurring the wrath of some parish priests and being told by others that they should follow their consciences but not discuss this publicly. Neither approach was acceptable in the long run, as both discrimination and duplicity eroded people’s respect for the clergy.

Miller points out that Catholic women organized from the mid-twentieth century on. Theologians Mary Daly, Jane Furlong Cahill, and Elizabeth Farians, groups like the Ecumenical Task Force on Women and Religion, the NOW Women and Religion Task Force, the National Coalition of American Nuns, St. Joan’s Alliance, and eventually Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) gave the institutional church a run for its money.

Miller points out that Catholic women organized from the mid-twentieth century on. Theologians Mary Daly, Jane Furlong Cahill, and Elizabeth Farians, groups like the Ecumenical Task Force on Women and Religion, the NOW Women and Religion Task Force, the National Coalition of American Nuns, St. Joan’s Alliance, and eventually Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) gave the institutional church a run for its money.

Humanae Vitae, the 1968 papal encyclical that continued the ban on so-called artificial birth control even though Pope Paul VI’s own handpicked committee had voted against it, was the last straw for Catholic feminists, who had been hoping for something better. Many theologians opposed the ban, while many laypeople simply washed their hands of clerical counsel. The “contraceptive mentality” condemned by the bishops was simply common sense to those whose lives were most deeply affected. Thus the gap between lay and clerical Catholics began to widen and deepen. That process continued, Miller reports, through the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, with the bishops realizing that they were on the losing side of an important cultural shift.

Roe was not the end of the road on abortion, but rather a catalyst for long years of institutional Catholic Church opposition. The Catholic bishops backed the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which continues to limit Medicare funding for abortions, and asserted themselves as representing tens of millions of people. However, CFFC embodied another Catholic constituency. In 1982, the group hired a new director, Frances Kissling, who develop the organization into a powerhouse, making it into an important voice in the larger prochoice movement, which raised moral questions about women’s well-being and abortion.

During Kissling’s more than twenty-year tenure, CFFC grew from a small, informal, underfunded group to much larger, highly professional, well-endowed organization with global reach. Affiliate groups emerged in a number of countries, including Brazil, Mexico, and Poland. Their programs addressed local and national issues from the perspective of those whose lives were touched directly by legal and theological matters. Feminist theologians, notably Ruether, played significant roles. They refuted the claims of those who would relegate women to second-class status in the name of the divine. Thus empowered with new theological concepts and self-understandings, Catholic women became a force to be reckoned with.

In the US, the 1984 nomination of Geraldine Ferraro, a prochoice Catholic, as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate led the bishops to ramp up their opposition. CFFC answered them with an ad in the New York Times signed by theologians, nuns, and priests, which claimed the right to discuss abortion without censure. The Vatican realized that the genie was out of the holy water bottle. Many signers paid high prices, in Catholic academia, in their own orders, and in the wider community, where they were sanctioned. Nevertheless, the movement of Catholic support for reproductive justice was well underway.

Meanwhile, the bishops joined forces with antichoice groups from other religions to beef up their lobbying efforts, aware that they no longer held the uncontested right to the word “Catholic.” CFFC and other Catholic organizations, such as the Catholic lesbian and gay group DignityUSA, Catholic Organizations for Renewal, and the Catholic-rooted Women’s Ordination Conference, to name just a few, emerged as a new face of Catholicism. Although Miller passes over it, the Women-Church Convergence, of which CFFC is a member, is the coalition of progressive Catholic-rooted feminist organizations that brought women’s religious communities into the fray. These groups formed a countermovement that continues to erode the authority of the bishops and offer alternative Catholic spaces for worship, fellowship, and action.

Miller sketches the contours of the Vatican’s many attempts to keep women out of power worldwide. Both at the UN International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo in 1994, and the Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing in 1995, the Vatican made common cause with other conservative countries to prevent consensus on reproductive justice. Their attempt to have CFFC denied accreditation as an nongovernmental organization only served to heighten CFFC’s profile. It launched its own “See Change” campaign, to contest the Holy See’s claim to nationhood and its resultant participation in world forums, where it touts its antiwoman agenda.

The turf battle over who owns the company logo flared again in the effort to pass the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010. In the years leading up to the congressional vote, the USCCB tangled not only with proponents of the bill, claiming that it would include abortion coverage, but also with its own people, notably the Catholic Health Association, led by Sister Carol Keehan. She and Sister Simone Campbell, director of NETWORK: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, published a letter indicating that the bill would do no such thing. They assured Catholic members of Congress that they could vote for the ACA and remain in the good graces of the Catholic community, despite the bishops’ insistence to the contrary.

When the successful bill was signed, it was the nuns, not the bishops, who were credited with delivering the Catholic votes. Miller does not point it out, but some more progressive Catholics wished that the nuns had said that in their view the government should provide funding for abortions lest women who are made poor be left out. Alas, that remains to be done. But an important shift in public perception of just who was a “good Catholic” was in the record books.

Negative repercussions for women religious ensued. The bishops assessed correctly that women religious had eclipsed them in the public eye, and especially in the view of many decision makers. One Vatican department put the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in receivership, with three bishops vetting their every move. Another department raised serious questions about the writings of the ethicist Sister Margaret Farley and the theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson. The bishops began revving up their machinery to oppose marriage equality.

This book ends with the election of Pope Francis, at a time when the future direction of the Catholic Church is unclear. Miller concludes on an optimistic note, quoting the pope as stating, “Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed.” While affable and arguably far more progressive than his two predecessors (although the bar is low, as both of them were archconservative), he has shown no signs of understanding, much less accepting, women’s full personhood. He has made banal jokes about women, reiterated the ban on women priests, and failed to lift the sanctions against the nuns. I find little reason for optimism, my own or Miller’s.

In subsequent writing, especially on ReligionDispatches.org, where Miller publishes frequently on related themes, she seems increasingly realistic about the uphill struggle at hand, more consistent with the data she offers in this book. I marvel at her equanimity in rehearsing some of the egregious antics of the prelates, which Mary Daly, for one, long ago eschewed in favor of outrage. Miller’s real service is in highlighting the proud history of feminist-led dissent against the outmoded views of women enshrined in laws and policies around the world. With this helpful history, “good Catholics” and their colleagues have more tools to dismantle them.

Mary E. Hunt is a feminist theologian. She is the codirector of WATER, the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual, in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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