One of the websites I check each morning is Radio Vaticana, for its summaries and excerpts from Pope Francis’s daily homilies at the chapel in the guest house where he lives. No complete transcripts are ever available, and his remarks are mostly off the cuff. So there’s a stronger element of uncertainty in interpreting Francis’s homilies (e.g., “Was that an allusion to this-or-that issue?” “Is he indirectly challenging this-or-that practice?”) than there was in Benedict’s, which were always carefully and deliberately composed.

Today’s lectionary readings were from Tobit and the Gospel of Mark, in which Mark has the Sadducees ask Jesus about the resurrection with respect to a hypothetical woman who’s had seven husbands die in succession.* Francis commented:

“The Sadducees were talking about this woman as if she were a laboratory, all aseptic – hers was an [abstract] moral [problem]. When we think of the people who suffer so much, do we think of them as though they were an [abstract moral conundrum], pure ideas, ‘but in this case … this case …’, or do we think about them with our hearts, with our flesh, too? I do not like it when people speak about tough situations in an academic and not a human manner, sometimes with statistics … and that’s it. In the Church there are many people in this situation.”

I thought back to several summers ago when I was cataloging a collection of books for my university’s library. In the cataloging room, there was a shelf filled with old medical ethics manuals for Catholic physicians and nurses, discussing in minute detail whether pain medication was permissible for women in labor (usual answer: no–because it would prevent Eve’s curse from taking effect), whether one should let a woman die when the head of the child she’s delivering gets stuck (mixed answers nowadays, but almost always no in older manuals), and whether douching after rape in order to prevent conception was permitted (not if too much time has passed, because then you’d be interfering with nature).

To be sure, I am not objecting to rigorous moral analysis, and I am no fan of blanket dismissals of careful thinking as “too academic”–being an academic myself. But all forms of systematic analysis, all schools of thought, all disciplines, have a special obligation to those whose voices they have silenced, to those lives they have crushed. Paying attention to those who have been hurt by your tradition isn’t a lessening of rationality, a caving to “emotional” arguments; for Christians, it is a form of loyalty to Christ. One has to wonder what was going through the heads of the men who penned these old manuals–and I mean that sincerely, not as a throw-away exclamation. What was going through their heads, and through the heads of the seminarians who were trained with these texts? Were women, actual women, part of the thought process? Or were “women” largely hypothetical, a special complex thought experiment that you couldn’t do with male bodies? Reading through those volumes that summer was one of the first “light bulb” moments I can remember in my thinking about women, theology, and my own Catholic faith. And when the story about the woman with the fatal pregnancy at the Catholic hospital in Phoenix broke shortly after–complete with the diocese’s medical ethics director stating, “It is not better for a woman to have to live the rest of her existence knowing that she had her child killed because her pregnancy was high risk”–that was a turning point.


*With these kind of readings, it’s vital to remember that Jesus’s arguments with “the Jews” would have been intra-Jewish debates–not debates between a proto-Christian (Jesus) and a monolithic, supposedly cold and legalistic Judaism. Further, their genre is polemical. They weren’t written for the purpose of giving an accurate picture of first-century Judaism, but to prove that Jesus’ interpretation of the law was superior and to carve out an identity for his followers over against their competitors. I say that because it’s very common for Catholics, especially progressive Catholics, to slam conservative Catholics as “Pharisaical.” If you’re one to do that, I’d encourage you to substitute the word “Jewish” next time and see how it sounds (“What a Jewish thing to say!” ” “The bishops are acting like a bunch of Jews!” “You are such a Jew!”).

4 thoughts

  1. Your thoughts on the old medical ethics manuals were of interest to me. The evolution of thought and theology in the church has come a long way in some respects. However it has not come very far in other areas as you noted with the ethically issue of saving a woman’s life during childbirth if the pregnancy is life threatening. (Yes, always try to save both but if you can’t always save both the baby and mom)

    That part of your post led me to wonder what the Catholic internet would have looked like a century or more ago. Would there be arguments about why women should not be able to vote, be educated or own property or why NFP is immoral? Surely there has always been division in the church. Did they used to argue that you should not have sex during pregnancy or that unitive sex was sinful? (It seems I have heard that from the church fathers)

    I hope 100 years from now Catholics will be able to look back on what the controversies were and be able to say we have grown and evolved. I know this comment may not be about the main purpose of your post but hat ethics manual got me wondering.

    1. Really fascinating question, Z! I have no idea what the internet would have looked like back then. Would there have been more voices from the margins, and would they have been listened to by broader society? Maybe a century or two from now, blogs and facebook threads will look like the manuals do to us.

    2. (And yes, you’re right that that opinion is very common among the early church fathers. Clement of Alexandria, for example, is one.)

  2. Thanks for the reply Sonja. I just got it today. I thought I signed up for replies but I am have not checked the right box. I recently read a blog dedicated to proving that NFP was immoral. Including testimonies from couples who used to be NFP promoters and teachers and now believe it is wrong. They have seen the light: NFP is immoral and no different that artificial birth control. (I actually agree with that but don’t agree they are both immoral) It is interesting how we have moved forward but also how people are clinging to ancient sexual laws and understandings even with all the info that we have available.

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