Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Why Women Are Inferior

Of course they aren't, but I just wanted to get your attention!!

As this birth control episode continues to unfold in this political season, I've searched for the deeper reasons behind it all.  It can't just be that Catholic hospitals don't want to pay for some prescriptions of birth control pills for non-Catholic women.  That's not worth the hassle or politico-religious fallout and backlash.  There has to be a deeper logic here, a fundamental worldview at stake that, while perhaps unspoken, is still active and operative.

Saint Thomas Aquinas
So as I've looked around, reading this and that about the older Conservative/Catholic views on such things, it's become clear to me that the views of Rick Santorum and the Catholic bishops (all men, of course) represent a very old and ancient attitude that's been around for centuries, even millenia.  We saw it manifest some days ago very clearly in the Republican hearing on the issue, chaired by Congressman Darrel Issa, where there were no women allowed to speak.  It was all male religious leaders, talking about how being forced to provide women the choice of securing birth control pills with their insurance coverage was an aggressive oppression of religious freedom!

Then I found a book at the library by one of my favorite writers, Garry Wills.  Wills is a Catholic historian and intellectual, who in his youth was a Catholic seminarian, then writer for William F. Buckley's National Review magazine, the fountainhead of the current Conservative movement in America.  Then he changed his mind.  The book I found is entitled Papal Sin and is a recent study (and critique) of the modern Catholic papacy.

After a long explanation of how the Catholic Church was poised to change the traditional position on birth control in the 60s (but then was prevented from doing so by a few ├╝bertraditional Vatican insiders), Professional Wills goes on to get to the heart of the matter in a discussion of women's ordination on pp. 107-108 (not birth control, but I think it covers both issues really).
There were, over the centuries, only two reasons given for excluding women from the priesthood--that they were inferior beings unworthy to hold that dignity, and that their ritual impurity kept them from the altar. The first argument came mainly from pagan antiquity, the second from Jewish temple practice....

Thomas Aquinas was not a lone voice but the articulator of a consensus, when he gave the primary motive for refusing ordination to women: "Since any supremacy of rank cannot be expressed in the female sex, which has the status of an inferior, that sex cannot receive ordination." Saint Bonaventure agreed: since only the male was made in the image of God, only the male can receive the godlike office of priest.

Why were these men so sure that women are inferior?  Aquinas had Aristotle's assurance:  'In terms of nature's own operation, a woman is inferior and a mistake.  The agent cause that is in the male seed tries to produce something complete in itself, a male in gender.  But when the female is produced, this is because the agent cause is thwarted, either because of the unsuitability of the receiving matter [of the mother] itself or bcause of deforming interference, as from south winds, that are too wet as we read in [Aristotle's] Animal Conception.'

In Aristotle's physiology, the male seed is the formal cause of conception; it is active, with the noble elements prevailing (fire and air).  Woman is only the material cause of conception, passive, with the lower elements prevailing (water and earth).  When the formal cause succeeds, it produces a male that looks like the father.  When it flounders in the passive receiving muck (which Aristotle associates with menstrual blood), it produces (in descending order) either a male looks like the mother, a female that looks like the father, or a female that looks like the mother.  Since the female, when she is conceived, is actually a failed male, a deformity, it takes longer for her to be formed in the womb, yet she emerges from this longer process smaller and weaker than the male....Her very makeup makes her less capable of reason and virtue and discipline than the male--in Aristotle's words, "more shamless, lying and deceptive"--leaving her unstable and inconstant, a prey to the passions, less able to control herself and others.  Saint John Chrysostom said women are just not smart enough to be priests.

Aristotle's was not the only classical form of misogynism that Christianity inherited, but was a pervasive one because it was so impressively argued.  It was based on scientific experiments like the dissection of pregnant animals.  This led to its being echoed, implicitly if not expressly, in part if not in whole, by a vast range of ancient authors.  It was passed to the Eastern church through Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215) and to the Western church through Tertullian (c. 155-c. 220).   Clement wrote that "A woman, considered what her nature is, must be ashamed of it."  Tertullian said that women, continuing the role of Eve the temptress, are "the gateway through which the devil comes."
This is what we don't understand or remember these days: that the older view of women, which denied them cultural/political/legal/religious equality with men in all kinds of ways, and left them powerless and oppressed in their lives, existed because, a long time ago, Western civilization had become convinced that women were truly inferior.  (Though, as you can see if you read the gospels carefully, Jesus himself treated women in a powerfully equitable way.) And it is only the recent feminist movement of the last 150 years that has convinced us otherwise.

Except that some people aren't really convinced yet.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Why Did Traditional Christianity Oppose Birth Control?

In my last post on the origins of birth control, I sketched out how birth control became common in America, including in the life and marriage of yours truly.

Pope Paul VI, author of 'Humanae Vitae'
Now I want to try and explain why it was that, prior to the 20th century, birth control was opposed by most churches and most societies around the world, and why the Roman Catholic Church in particular still remains a ferocious enemy of most forms of contraception.

The current argument of the Roman Catholic Church against contraception is easier to understand, so let me begin there.  You can actually read their explanation in about 30 minutes or less in the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, which Pope Paul VI promulgated in 1968.  Let me quote the crucial sentences:
The Church...in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.

This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act....The fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. We believe that our contemporaries are particularly capable of seeing that this teaching is in harmony with human reason.
Marital sex--and there should be no other kind, from the church's point of view--must always be open to conception and new life, because of the 'law of nature'.  Therefore, as another Catholic website put it,
Christians have always condemned contraceptive sex. The early Fathers recognized that the purpose of sexual intercourse in natural law is procreation; contraceptive sex, which deliberately blocks that purpose, is a violation of natural law.
It's pretty much as simple as that, as least for Catholic bishops.  Because it opposes God's will as expressed and known through natural law, any form of contraception (with the exception of the rhythm method) is 'intrinsically evil', both inside and outside of marriage.  The church has no alternative but to oppose by all its means--including legal means and the use of the state power--the use of contraception by everyone at all times.

While most Catholics today are probably familiar with this argument, they probably don't agree with it--studies show that the vast majority of Catholics (anywhere from 75-98%, depending on the study) approve of and use contraception.  Non-Catholics however, especially in non-Catholic countries like the US, are probably no longer familiar with this Catholic teaching and need to be reminded of its 'severity'.

For most non-Catholic Christians, the third decade of the 20th Century seems to have been the turning point when it comes to their view of the morality of contraception.  Before that time, most Protestant denominations opposed contraception.  After that time, most Protestant churches left the issue of contraception up to their members to decide on an individual basis, with their personal conscience being their moral guide.  Why this huge shift?  Well, it's difficult to know for sure, but here are a few possibilities.

First, since the traditional Christian opposition to contraception had very little direct basis in Scripture, and since Protestantism is particularly reliant upon Scripture for its theological and moral views, the foundation for Protestant opposition to 'contraceptive sex' was actually quite weak.  If it wasn't stated forthrightly in the Bible, then it became much more of an optional issue.

Second, traditional cultural opposition to contraception was closely connected to the status of women in traditional society.  As long as women were seen as subordinate to men, as long as women's place was understood to be in the home as wives and mothers, and as long as women did not have political equality, then it was easy to ignore the issue of contraception and 'reproductive rights'.  But as soon as women began to struggle to free themselves from these traditional roles and understandings, then the contraception issue would naturally arise as a part of the struggle for women's rights.  As the last post showed clearly, Margaret Sanger--the founder of the birth control movement--was also a part of the larger feminist movement.

Third, liberal Protestant theology, which came to dominate most of Protestantism in the first half of the 20th Century, was basically an attempt to reconcile traditional Christian thought and action with the forces of modernity, such as science, reason, and progress.  What could be more modern than the struggle for women's right, including access to contraception?  It was natural, then, that Protestant Liberalism would seek to accommodate itself to feminism and contraceptive freedom.

Finally, prior to the 20th Century, contraception was difficult and crude, so it wasn't so much an issue for most people.  Many people didn't really even understand how sexuality worked, so they didn't know how to prevent pregnancy.  Condoms were primitive, largely ineffective, and hardly available.  But once new forms of contraception became readily available and inexpensive, with the advent of rubber condoms, effective diaphrams, and in particular, oral contraceptives in the early 60s, it was a far different story.  Traditional taboos, and hoary theological doctrines put forward by celibate men in red hats, couldn't contain the flood of interest in, and demand for, contraceptive protection against unwanted pregnancy.  In particular, the always pragmatic American Protestant tradition quickly caved in the face of this overwhelming flood.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Origins of Birth Control

This post has to do with the origins of birth control in America.  And since birth control is ultimately a very personal thing, I want to begin with a personal 'confession' of sorts.  Mary Beth and I have been together as a  loving and committed couple for 40 years this April, and for virtually all of that time together (except, obviously, for the three times we wanted to have children!), we have used some form of artificial birth control, right up to the present moment.

Margaret Sanger, 1922.
Why have we done that?  The primary reason is that we wanted to be responsible: to ourselves, to our parents, to our children, to the society around us, and ultimately, to God.  And in trying to be responsible by using birth control, we believe that we have also been doing the right thing, that we have been behaving morally to the best of our ability.  It has not been a flippant or casual decision but rather seriously considered.  And looking back, there is nothing we would do differently.

So when the Catholic bishops refer to birth control as 'intrinsically evil', or when Presidential candidate Rick Santorum refers to birth control as 'harmful', then we just shake our heads, because it doesn't fit our personal experience.

There is this huge disconnect here that needs to be pondered.

Serious birth control is a 20th century invention, of course.  In my reading on the subject, it seems to have first become a movement under the leadership of Margaret Sanger, the feminist and founder of the American Birth Control League in 1921, which later was renamed Planned Parenthood.  When people speculate on the reasons for her (at the time) radical views, one thing that stands out is this: her mother, Anne Purcell Higgins, was a devout Catholic who went through 18 pregnancies (with 11 live births) in 22 years[2] before dying at age 50 of tuberculosis and cervical cancer.

The following incident shows what she was trying to do: "On October 16, 1916, Sanger opened a family planning and birth control clinic at 46 Amboy St. in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, the first of its kind in the United States.  Nine days after the clinic opened, Sanger was arrested for breaking a New York state law that prohibited distribution of contraceptives, and went to trial in January 1917.  Sanger was convicted; the trial judge held that women did not have 'the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception.'  Sanger was offered a more lenient sentence if she promised to not break the law again, but she replied: 'I cannot respect the law as it exists today.' She was sentenced to 30 days in a workhouse."

Back in those days (sounds like the Middle Ages, doesn't it), there was a culture-wide consensus, it seemed, that birth control--and all that went with it--was bad.  However, only 25 years or so later, things had clearly changed, according to Charles Panati in his fascinating Sexy Origins and Intimate Things: "By the 1940s, over 80 percent of American couples regularly bought condoms."

 By the early 1960s, oral contraceptives had been developed, along with IUDs, and it became commonplace for sexually active women (which is most women)--whether married or single--to use some form of artificial birth control.  In addition to that, the Supreme Court overturned all state laws prohibiting the sale of contraceptives in their Griswold v. Connecticut decision of 1965.  So it seemed that intentional birth control, using whatever devices or technology was readily available, was winning the day by the middle of the 20th century, this despite the increasingly hostile attitude toward birth control of the Catholic bishops, expressed in the Humanae Vitae encyclical of 1968.

Mary Beth and I came along in 1972, just as all this was gathering momentum.  To us, birth control seemed like the obvious and responsible thing to do.  It still does.

So why do the Catholic bishops (and other faiths too) continue to oppose the use of artificial birth control as an evil and immortal practice?  And why do we consider it to be the opposite?   I'll leave that issue to another post.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Rise of Rick Santorum

Once again, we have a new leader in the Republican race for the 2012 Presidential nomination: Rick Santorum.  He is the 11th Republican to lead a national poll in this 2012 election poll (the others are Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Donald Trump)!

Other than Ron Paul, Santorum is the last of the candidates to take the lead over Mitt Romney.  Just when it looked like Romney was finally vanquishing his rivals, after rolling over them in the huge state of Florida, Santorum came roaring back in the mid-western states of Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado.

So who is Rick Santorum?  He is a 54 year-old native of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, educated in Pennsylvania universities, and he has served as a US Congressman (4 years) and a US Senator (12 years) from Pennsylvania.  In the course of his Senator experience, he rose to the number three position in the Senate Republican leadership.

Santorum comes from solidly middle-class roots, with an Italian immigrant father who came to this country the hard and honest way.  Like Romney, he has a law degree and business degree.  Unlike Romney, his professional training is solidly middle-class:  Penn State, not Ivy-League like Mitt Romney.  No silver spoon here.

Unlike the quirky Gingrich, Santorum is a life-long Roman Catholic who leaves no doubt that he is a cultural conservative when it comes to religious and ethical matters.  He has been married one time and has eight children, all of whom have been home-schooled.  Here is how Wikipedia describes him:
In his 2005 book, It Takes a Family, Santorum advocates for a more "family values"-oriented society centered on monogamous, heterosexual relationships, marriage, and child-raising. He is pro-life. He opposes same-sex marriage, saying the American public and their elected officials should decide on these "incredibly important moral issues", rather than the Supreme Court, which consists of "nine unelected, unaccountable judges.”
Somewhat like Ron Paul, but only on the other side, Rick Santorum seems to be a person of integrity who doesn't change his positions easily, particularly on cultural and foreign policy issues. Besides being a very conservative Catholic in his social views, but he is also a foreign policy hawk. To take one example, Santorum is only one of two Senators to have voted against the nomination of Robert Gates to be Secretary of Defense by President Bush. He "stated that his objection was to Gates's support for talking with Iran and Syria, because it would be an error to talk with radical Islamists."

If Santorum were to become President, there seems to be little doubt that besides remaining in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we would also be attacking both Syria and Iran, and sooner rather than later.

Santorum was a a supporter of President Bush's torture policy, going so far as to say in 2011 that John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war, did not understand how the process works.  Here, it seems to me, is a man who is ideologically confident!

Rick Santorum has a pleasant demeanor in his media interviews and even in the debates, showing a quick smile and basic courtesy.  Yet behind that exterior lies a tough, conservative mind and soul.  He seems totally committed to his Catholic cultural conservatism and his neo-conservative hawkishness.

The one area of his thought and policy where he might different from the areas is in economic policy, where he seems more open to government interference in markets to enhance the opportunities for manufacturing.  He seems genuinely concerned about the working class voter.

Santorum is a welcome addition to the Republican field.  Compared to the other three men left in the race, he just seems more normal, like someone you'd have a beer with at a local tavern in Pittsburgh.

But, even though I'm a Pennsylvanian myself, I still can't imagine myself for him.  He is such a conservative in both cultural and foreign policy issues, that it seems to me that he would be the return of George W. Bush, only worse.