Given the official church positions on abortion, sex and sexuality, why don’t pro-choice and pro-LGBT Catholics leave the Catholic Church?
Living in NYC, where religion is passé and holiday dinners, décor, and ugly sweater parties sometimes seem the last vestiges of organized religion, this question is a reasonable one. But for those whose identities were formed as a part of Catholic households or Jesuit-Catholic universities and school systems, the issue is not so cut and dried. Recently, liberal practicing Catholics, and Catholic theologians have sought to clarify the very misunderstood and diverse church positions on issues of sex, sexuality, gender and reproductive rights. Clarification aside, has Catholicism become the religion of the right? Is the Catholic Church exclusively pro-life and anti-women?
In their recent documentary titled The Secret History of Sex, Choice and Catholics, Catholics for Choice decided to explore Catholic social teaching on sexuality, reproductive, rights, women, and the LGBT community. A few distinguished theologians and philosophy professors spoke to clarify church teachings on these issues. For these people of faith, there is very little if any conflict between being pro-choice, or LGBT and Catholic. Here’s why.
1. Church positions have changed through its history.
The official church position, and the ideas and writings of Saints, theologians, Bishops, and teachers on issues of sex, sexuality, and reproductive rights have not been remotely consistent since Augustine wrote in fourth and fifth centuries C.E. Augustine viewed sex as a carnal sin to be avoided in all cases besides procreation. This view was shared by others like Pope Gregory IX, who wrote in the Decretals of 1230 that contraception and abortion are “homicide.”
However these views are actually in the minority of Catholic teaching. Indeed throughout its history, abortion and contraception were both widely used methods of birth control, and were also both preferable to the even more widely practiced infanticide, which was later banned resulting in a high incidence of abandonment. The bible does not even condemn abortion. The commonly held view within Catholicism can be seen in the writings of a sixteenth century Jesuit theologian named Thomas Sanchez.
In his book The Holy Sacrament of Matrimony Sanchez wrote that if even the mother’s reputation was at stake should the child be taken to term, that might justify an abortion. He saw the right to life of the mother and all that encompasses, including family, community, and partner — as of greater weight than the life of the fetus. Sanchez even implies that in the delicate case of woman who is engaged to marry, but is pregnant by some other man, for the sake of the new partnership, the fetus could be legitimately aborted.
2. The majority of practicing Catholics (and even the church hierarchy) don’t agree on official church position.
Upwards of ninety percent of practicing Catholics disagree with the church position on abortion, contraception and sex, despite prominent theological texts like Aquinas’ position on sex as discussed in Summa Theologica. The position most widely held by Catholic laity, and in fact upheld during the Vatican II Council votes, is that sex is a legitimate expression of love, which does not necessarily have to have anything to do with procreation. Fifty-four of those included in the council’s vote on issues of church policy were in favor of changing the church position on contraception and abortion. Unfortunately, a minority who opposed altering church doctrine convinced Pope John Paul that his infallibility would be questioned should he submit to the Council’s change. And so the nearly unanimous vote to change was vetoed.
3. You can’t create a progressive and inclusive Catholic Church if you’re not part of the community.
Many church teachings are already written with compassion and common sense, but unfortunately they’ve been hijacked and politicized by conservatives and small groups of noisy parishioners who would prefer a conservative and exclusive church. Take the Catechism of the Catholic Church #2358, which calls for “every sign of unjust discrimination” towards gay and lesbian people “to be avoided.”
Yet, the Catholic Church openly discriminates against celibate gay men who apply for the priesthood. In fact several Catholic institutions of higher education reserve the right to discriminate based on sexual orientation. Given the gap that exists between Catholic social teaching and the institutional discrimination that occurs falsely in its name, it seems necessary that LGBT Catholics and pro-choice women remain part of the community, if for no other reason than to help effect progressive change.
Ultimately, the same question could be asked of people who belong to a variety of faiths. Organized religion is fraught with anti-female, anti-LGBT leadership. LGBT Muslims, Jews, Protestants and Hindus could all be asked the same question; Why not just boycott organized religion?
Many people ask themselves this very question and decide that organized religion simply does not fit into their lives, which is totally understandable given the overt sexism, racism, and homophobia that exists in some religious leadership and in many religious communities.
However, those whose religion is deeply rooted in family and background, the answer is simple: as all parts of our socially constructed identities, we hold on to our traditions and faith, hoping that in some cases we can use their rationale to appeal to the better angels of everyone’s nature and form a more inclusive, compassionate society.
Additionally, perhaps since the Catholic and Christian communities have such an influential place in American politics it would be arguably undesirable if not irresponsible to let those who are less progressive take control without a fight.