Culture Wars and Women’s Bodies: Why the Catholic Church is Implicated in the Politics of the Far Right
In 2017, Antonio Spadaro SJ, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, and Presbyterian pastor Marcelo Figueroa, editor of the Argentinian edition of L’Osservatore Romano, co-wrote an article on America’s culture wars titled “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism.” The article provoked widespread debate, but today it seems even more relevant and accurate in its analysis than when it was first published. It refers to “an ecumenism of hate” expressed in a “xenophobic and Islamophobic vision that wants walls and purifying deportations” that finds common ground around issues such as “abortion, same-sex marriage, religious education in schools and other matters generally considered moral or tied to values.” Over and against this “ecumenism of conflict,” the authors posit Pope Francis’s “ecumenism that moves under the urge of inclusion, peace, encounter and bridges” in which “the contribution of Christianity to a culture is that of Christ washing the feet.”
The American Right enjoyed inordinate influence in the Vatican under the last two popes. Notwithstanding significant disagreement when it came to American military interventionism, from the early 1990s, America’s culture warriors successfully focused all the hierarchy’s moral energy on opposition to abortion, homosexuality, feminism and gender theory, just as in the 1980s they had successfully focused its energy on opposing liberation theology. Francis has done much to change this power imbalance, and the hierarchy is becoming increasingly representative of the diverse cultures and contexts that make up global Catholicism. He has revived the vision of Vatican II and shifted the emphasis away from doctrinal absolutism around issues of sexuality and gender to focus on social and environmental justice and a more pastorally sensitive approach to the existential realities of living and loving. It is clear from the hate-filled campaigns they have launched against him that the erstwhile power brokers of American Catholicism are not pleased.
However, in one important area nothing significant has changed, and that is in church teachings relating to female sacramental, sexual and reproductive embodiment and the role and representation of women in the Church. Catholic teaching remains rooted in the belief that men have God-given authority to exercise control over women’s bodies, including the exclusion of the female body from the sacramental capacity to represent Christ. An exclusively male hierarchy continues to promote its teachings on sexuality, abortion and family life without any public engagement with women. Francis seeks a church whose guiding model is that of dialogue, but we have yet to see any meaningful dialogue between the Catholic hierarchy and women.
It is hard to overestimate the extent to which this plays into the hands of those who seek to co-opt the Catholic Church into the service of the nationalist and racist ideologies spreading through the western democracies. The control of the female body underlies every quest for racial, religious or national domination, for it is through women’s bodies that genealogies of race, religion and nation are perpetuated and the “purism” to which Spadaro and Figueroa refer is promoted. The recent television series based on Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is a chilling reminder of the association between political tyranny and reproductive control.
Some years ago, I wrote a journal article analyzing the influence of the Holy See on the United Nations around issues of gender and sexuality. I pointed out how a powerful alliance of conservative Catholics and evangelicals, improbably supported by some Islamic theocracies, exploited the Holy See’s membership of the UN to block the promotion of sexual and reproductive rights. These attempts by the Holy See to inhibit international development policies relating to women’s rights are symptomatic of the extent to which the Catholic Church is implicated in the rise of a global political agenda of the Right that finds common ground in the impetus to control female bodies through its opposition to reproductive rights.
The Church’s moral teaching on abortion could find a coherent place within a wider pro-life ethos if women were full participants as active agents and not simply passive recipients of church teaching, particularly around reproductive and sexual teachings that impact directly upon female lives in complex and sometimes tragic ways. Church teaching shows a shocking disregard for the many ways in which women and girls suffer as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. Abortion is still too often presented in absolutist language which takes no account of factors influencing abortion decisions, including consideration of the social and economic conditions needed to promote maternal and infant flourishing. Nowhere in church teaching is there any sustained discussion of maternal mortality, despite the fact that nearly 300,000 women and girls die every year as a result of complications arising from pregnancy and childbirth (including unsafe abortions), 99 percent of them in the world’s poorest communities.
No matter how much Francis changes the men at the top, no matter how passionately he promotes his vision of a poor church of the poor in the context of the all-encompassing environmentalism of Laudato Si’, his efforts will fail as long as the Church in its institutions and teachings continues to uphold the idea that men are divinely authorized to rule over women’s lives. Remove that distorted ideology, and the collusion between Catholicism and the demagogues of the Far Right will become more difficult to sustain. Only through gender inclusivity can other forms of inclusivity be truly embraced and expressed.
Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London.