Last summer, after years of excruciating menstrual pain and anemia caused by excessive bleeding, I saw a gynecological specialist. He ordered an M.R.I., suspecting the cause was endometriosis. I instinctively grab my rosary when I’m anxious. For days after the test, I moved bead to bead, praying that the radiologist would find signs of disease so that I could find appropriate treatment. But the test showed a perfectly healthy uterus.
Normal or not, my symptoms continued to worsen, to the point that the doctor agreed that the answer to ending my pain was a hysterectomy. I was 43 years old. As a longtime advocate for women’s equality and reproductive freedom, I was surprised not to encounter the resistance so many women face from the medical community and society when I made this choice. Women are often told that they will regret losing their ability to have children. My doctor understood I knew what was right for my life, my body and my health. It felt like a miracle.
And yet after I scheduled my surgery, I was haunted by a Catholic teaching about women formulated by Pope John Paul II as part of his larger “theology of the body.” He was deeply concerned about the rising threat of feminism — particularly the growing movement in Protestant denominations to ordain women to the priesthood — and needed to articulate why Catholic women could not enjoy roles equal to men’s. He formulated the phrase “feminine genius” to explain that women’s most essential purpose and their fulfillment are based on their biological capacity to nurture, gestate and give birth. By extension, then, a uterus is God’s way of showing a woman that her primary role is to be a mother, literally and figuratively.
I have spent nearly 20 years of my life as a Catholic theologian, lay minister and activist struggling against these insidious papal teachings. I was the last person, I thought, who would ever be vulnerable to John Paul II’s attempt to limit women’s power and potential with theological gymnastics. Yet I still struggled to shake that deeply ingrained notion that I was throwing away God’s most important gift.
Even among those of us who boldly proclaim our dissent from Catholic teachings on abortion, the church still holds great power. That power has been on display since President Biden, a devout Catholic, won the 2020 election. The U.S. bishops immediately fell back on the trope of threatening to deny him and other elected officials, like the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, access to communion because they support abortion rights. Though these punishments have long existed as idle warnings, the issue recently escalated: The U.S. bishops plan to vote at their next assembly in June on whether they can formalize this response. To its credit, even the Vatican, under Pope Francis, has expressed reservations about the American bishops’ latest maneuver.
The U.S. bishops’ abuse of the sacraments as a tool of intimidation has major political repercussions. It’s no accident that Mr. Biden still has not uttered the word “abortion” since his election and his administration often uses euphemisms like “women’s health care,” “choice,” “bodily autonomy” and “reproductive rights.”
This is unfortunate, because Mr. Biden is in good company. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey affirmed that 68 percent of U.S. Catholics don’t want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. And Catholic Americans get abortions at the same rate as other Americans.
Abortion isn’t the only issue where there is a chasm between what the clergy preaches and what the laity believes and practices. The Catholic Church is the only major religious institution that opposes the use of contraception and reproductive technologies like in vitro fertilization. A 2011 Guttmacher Institute study found that 98 percent of sexually active American women of reproductive age who identify as Catholic have used some form of contraceptive at least once in their lives, and a 2013 Pew survey showed a scant 13 percent of U.S. Catholics believe that in vitro fertilization is morally wrong.
The hierarchy’s influence over its flock has been slipping for decades, which why it has cleverly pivoted to lobbying lawmakers. Catholic organizations have spent years in the Supreme Court making claims to religious liberty that have stripped away U.S. women’s rights to free contraceptives, workplace protections and access to health care. When Catholic leaders flex their considerable policy muscle, their doctrines affect us all, Catholic and non-Catholic.
Unlike other religious leaders, members of the Catholic clergy, as an all-male, celibate group, do not have wives or daughters to give them a sense of women’s experience. Yet their pervasive theology shapes policies that cause women untold suffering. It’s the basis for the hierarchy’s demand that a woman be forced to carry a pregnancy to term, even one that resulted from rape or one that threatens her life. It’s also the specter that makes women forgo hysterectomies because, we are told, it’s better to endure suffering than lose the possibility of giving birth. Women, in other words, are reduced to vessels, one in which the potential, theoretical life that might be is privileged over the living, breathing person at risk.
But Catholics should ask themselves whether the church’s anti-abortion fight is less about babies and more about controlling women’s fertility and, with that, women’s freedom. Bishops have notably little to say about methods to control male sexuality. They never turn vasectomies into a culture war issue. Though Catholic health care plans take pains to excise contraceptives from their coverage, treatments for male impotence are not prohibited, even though there is no certainty that men will use those drugs with their wives in order to procreate — the only kind of sex that the church condones.
Understanding the motivations behind these doctrines is important, even for the unchurched, because giving pregnant people the legal right to have control and agency over their bodies translates to other aspects of their lives, namely the capacity to claim political, economic and social autonomy.
Virulent anti-abortion rhetoric from on high has kept the majority of pro-choice Catholics silent — including the president of the United States. Now that the Supreme Court, with its six Catholic justices (five of whom espouse extremely conservative religious views), has decided to take up a case that is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, there has never been a more urgent moment to speak out boldly as people of faith who support the right to access abortion.
We must reject the silencing and stigma that church leaders use to seal off any questioning, dialogue or education around this issue. Catholics, in particular, must push through our conditioned discomfort. Members of a privileged, patriarchal caste of religious leaders are the only ones who benefit when we are afraid to say the word “abortion” in our affirmation of reproductive rights.
When my pathology report came back after my surgery, I discovered that my “perfectly healthy” uterus was in fact riddled with endometriosis and cysts. The initial tests the doctor conducted were unable to detect what I knew instinctively: A hysterectomy was a necessary and potentially lifesaving operation. My prayers were answered through medical intervention.
I’m grateful the pangs of religious guilt did not keep me from a procedure that has transformed my health and my quality of life. But I realized that if someone like me, who has made a career out of boldly proclaiming my dissent from church doctrines on sexuality and reproduction, can still be susceptible to its manipulations, who among us isn’t?
Jamie L. Manson is the president of Catholics for Choice and has a master’s in divinity.
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