Sex And Social Justice At the Synod on the Family

The Synod of Bishops on the Family has begun.

Pope Francis convened this synod nearly a year ago in order to address “concerns which were unheard of until a few years ago,” including but not limited to phenomena like “the widespread practice of cohabitation, which does not lead to marriage…same-sex unions…marriages with the consequent problem of a dowry, sometimes understood as the purchase price of the woman…an increase in the practice of surrogate motherhood” and so on. Like Pope Francis, those Catholics who have spent the past year anticipating this synod have similarly focused most intently on issues of sex and sexuality. Many Catholics hope that the bishops will re-consider the sacramental status of divorced and remarried Catholics or perhaps even soften the church’s stance on the use of contraception within marriage.

I do not deny the deep relation between sexuality and family. Nor do I contest the importance of any of the issues enumerated by Pope Francis. Drawing upon the church’s own wisdom, I simply want to argue that the “pastoral challenges to the family in the context of Evangelization” extend beyond matters of sex and sexuality. Structural injustice wreaks havoc upon the family just as much as disordered expressions of sexuality do.

Catholic Social Teaching stresses the relation between the social and sexual orders. In his 1981 Apostolic Exhortation, “On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World,” Pope John Paul II reminds us,

“In the conviction that the good of the family is an indispensable and essential value of the civil community, the public authorities must do everything possible to ensure that families have all those aids—economic, social, educational, political, and cultural assistance—that they need in order to face their responsibilities in a human way.” (no. 45).

But poor families do not simply lack assistance; they are burdened by injustice. In its embrace of the preferential option for the poor, the church recognizes this. God is for preferentially for those whom the world is especially against. God puts first those whom the world places last. God loves us not just in history but in response to it.

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Jesus Had A Wife!? Why Is Everyone Freaking Out?

About a year and a half ago, biblical scholar Karen King introduced the world to a piece of Coptic writing in which Jesus made reference to his wife.  Today, we have learned that scientists believe that this papyrus fragment likely belongs to the fourth through eighth centuries A.D. and therefore is probably not a modern forgery.

But remember: even King does not consider this fragment evidence that Jesus actually had a wife.

In light of this news, I want to direct everyone to the post Sonja wrote about the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” back when it was first introduced to the world.  It remains the best piece I have read about this issue.

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Can Paul Be Wrong? Wrestling With the Feast of the Holy Family

Yesterday, December 29th, Catholic parishes all over the world celebrated the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  To mark this feast, lectors read the following Scriptural passages: Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14; Col 3: 12-21; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23.

Celebrated in the context of magisterial condemnation of lesbian and gay relationships, this feast also trumpets the singular superiority of heterosexuality.  Many Catholics, most notably those who both love as a gay person and love gay people, often find this feast day painful.  Surrounded by pews filled with babies bouncing on the knees of their heterosexual parents and struggling to remain attached to a church that tells them their families are unholy, many LGBT Catholics feel the Feast of the Holy Family like a wound.

This feast typically affirms fathers as ultimate authorities over (infantilized) wives and (feminized) children.  Because God is male so too must men be gods.  Male headship qualifies as both natural and divine.  Women, especially those convinced of their equality to men, may also bristle at the church’s celebration and sacralization of patriarchal families.

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How Should White Advocates of LGBT Rights Speak About Black History?

In 1996, famed Civil Rights leader John Lewis was one of very few Congressional representatives to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  It passed the House by a vote of 432 to 67.  The U.S. Senate affirmed it by a count of 85 to 14.  Bill “I feel your pain” Clinton signed it into law.

But John Lewis, a middle-aged straight man from the Deep South, voted against it.  And drawing upon his experience growing up a black man during the reign of terror known as Jim Crow, he stood up and made a speech against it.

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Women Speak About Natural Family Planning: the Papal Birth Control Commission

This is the third in a series of posts featuring some women’s experience with natural family planning.  The first two stories can be read here and here.  For the post that originally inspired this project, click here.  To read about the purpose of and ground rules for this project, click here.

The following was very generously provided to me by Catherine Osborne, a PhD candidate in the history of Christianity at Fordham University.  Several years ago, Osborne co-edited  a sourcebook on American Catholic history entitledAmerican Catholic History: A Documentary Reader An edited version of Patty Crowley‘s 1965 speech to the Papal Birth Control Commission is included in that book.  Osborne sent me Crowley’s speech so that I could post it here on the blog.  Osborne also wrote a brief history of the Papal Birth Control Commission and the Patty Crowley’s participation in it, which appears below.

Patty Crowley and the Papal Birth Control Commission

The history of the Pontifical Commission for the Study of Population, Family and Births (which is usually referred to as the Papal Birth Control Commission (BCC)) isn’t secret at all, but it’s also probably not quite as well known as it should be.

The backstory to the BCC is the Catholic Church’s longstanding opposition to the use of contraception, which was reaffirmed by Pius XI in Casti Connubii (1930) in response to the Anglican Church’s decision to allow it within marriage.  The innovation introduced in Casti Connubii was that the use of ‘rhythm’ was to be allowed–it had not been prior to this.

The debate over contraception was reopened due to the invented of the Pill, but the Second Vatican Council did not take up the question; it was reserved for the specially created BCC, which met five times from 1963 to 1966.  It grew to 72 members over time.

In the last meeting, the four married women members addressed the entire meeting.  Marie Rendu, a Frenchwoman who was a promoter of rhythm, argued that “periodic continence can and does work.”

J.F. Kulanday of New Delhi, India, a nurse as well as a mother, told the commission that based on her surveys of Indian women, “women desire intercourse in marriage.  It binds the husband and wife together…intercourse…keeps their love aflame.”

Colette Potvin, from Canada, mother of five and veteran of three miscarriages and a hysterectomy, later recalled that when it was her turn to speak, “I felt like I was naked up there.  But it seemed to me we hadn’t been asking the right questions at the Commission.  When you die, God is going to say, ‘Did you love?’ He isn’t going to say, “Did you take your temperature?” [Potvin’s speech is excerpted in Robert McClory’s Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission, 105-106.] Per McClory: ‘A long silence followed [her speech]. It was broken by de Riedmatten: ‘This,’ he said, ‘is why we wanted to have couples on our Commission.'”

Potvin’s survey of 319 French Canadian couples, presented to the Commission, indicated that 7 percent were “fully satisfied with the Church’s current marriage doctrine” while half “found rhythm ‘an anguished and difficult task'” and the great majority said that they did not experience growth “because much of their time ‘is spent in the great struggle to avoid the failure of rhythm.'” (107).

The longest speech was Patty Crowley‘s.  Crowley, along with her husband Pat, were the head of the worldwide Christian Family Movement, and she based her speech partly on the results of a survey of her membership.  To read the post featuring Crowley’s speech, click here.

Ultimately, only four members of the commission dissented from the majority’s conclusion that artificial contraception within marriage should be allowed.  (The majority’s final report to Paul VI, “On Responsible Parenthood,” is included in an appendix in McClory.) Acting against the commission’s rules, Jesuit John Ford and the other three dissenters submitted a so-called ‘minority report’ in favor of retaining the existing teaching.  The result of Paul VI’s decision in favor of the minority position was, of course, Humanae Vitae. 

Women Speak About Natural Family Planning: K’s Story

This is the second in a series of posts featuring some women’s experience with natural family planning.  The first can be read here. For the post that originally inspired this project, click here.  To read about the purpose of and ground rules for this project, click here.

K’s Story

NFP has been the biggest struggle in my marriage and has really has tested my faith. My husband and I grew up as evangelicals and became Catholic in college, before we were married.   The Catholic Church is more reflective on sexual ethics than the church or my upbringing, so NFP and the Theology of the Body appealed to me on a philosophical and theoretical level.

After college my husband and I were married in the Church and were determined to make NFP work for us.  I took a year off from school to work and save up money for graduate school.  We were trying to avoid children in order to further our educations and save up money for a house.

My job was really stressful and my signs were difficult to read.  My husband and I were virgins on our wedding night, and the long periods of abstinence were adding additional stress on our marriage.  With these circumstances in mind, it’s no surprise that I became pregnant within the first year of marriage, right after enrolling in graduate school.

Working, graduate school, and caring for a baby were simply too much for me.  My husband and left graduate school so that he could work and I could devote my time to mothering.  For my husband to obtain decent employment, we had to move across the country, away from friends and family.

We were barely scraping by, but we were slowly starting to save money and secure a stable life for our family.  We decided to continue practicing NFP, despite the difficulties of reading my signs while breastfeeding.  During this time the recession hit, my husband’s company faced large budget cuts, and he was fired.

This happened the week after I learned that I was pregnant with baby #2. We were frugal and had 3 months worth of money in savings, but we eventually had to move the entire family across the country, so my husband’s parents could support us.

I’ve struggled with being angry at God and at the Church for unplanned pregnancies and financial problems. It’s one thing to experience financial difficulties without kids, but it’s a completely different thing when you are responsible for the lives of those you love. Each baby has brought a new crisis into our lives, things that would not have happened had we been in a stable position before having kids.

Sometimes I wonder if the Church’s teaching on sexuality places a greater burden on the poor than it does on those with means. The refrain I hear with NFP is to “try another method” or “take another class.”  But I seriously have anxiety issues over having to face another pregnancy with no money. How can I know if another method will work better, when the only way of testing this is to wait and see if I
get pregnant?  The stakes are simply too risky when caring for two children under 3, both still breastfeeding.

Sugar-coating NFP is not helpful, and I’ve seen Catholics attacked and hounded on Catholic forums for admitting that NFP has been a rough spot in marriage. People will say that NFP was not the problem; rather “poor communication” was the problem, or “lustful behavior,” or “selfishness,” or anything but NFP.

We decided to practice complete abstinence for a year, in order to study Theology of the Body again, try to re-learn my fertility signs, and decide if we would continue practicing NFP.  For a year we practiced the sleep-in-separate-rooms-so-can-follow-Church-teaching-but-not-have-kids method of family planning.

We were afraid of disobeying Church teaching and going to hell, but strict abstinence put more stress and strain on our already stressed marriage.

When the year was up, we decided to cease following Church teaching in our married life, finding inconsistencies with Humanae Vitae and Theology of the Body–things we did not see early in our marriage when looking at these documents with rose-colored convert glasses.   Giving up NFP has greatly helped heal our marriage and has given me psychological relief to my anxieties surrounding sex and becoming pregnant AGAIN.

For us the pressure of feeling like we had to perform on certain days combined with the frustration of “off-limits” days, and the unplanned pregnancies–-it was all very stressful and very hard on our marriage.  Nearly two years after abandoning NFP, I still feel like I am recovering emotionally from the whole experience.

Women Speak About Natural Family Planning: MJ’s Story

This is the first in a series of posts featuring some women’s experience with natural family planning.  For the post that originally inspired this project, click here.  To read about the purpose and ground rules for this project, click here.

MJ’s Story

I have gone back and forth on the issue of birth control, but was committed to NFP when we first got married.

The sexual inexperience combined with the long periods of abstinence was definitely a strain (it often felt like we’d been sold a bill of goods) but it worked as a means to delay conception for over a year so that I wouldn’t give birth till I finished my master’s program. Continue reading