Here is a tweet which is far from unusual in its sentiments:
‘It is no longer the task of celibate men to dictate to sexually active women how to control their reproductive systems’ #prochoice_ie
— Dee Quinn (@imoshedinheels) January 19, 2013
A major strand of pro-choice rhetoric in Ireland at the moment is anti-clerical in nature. This declaration, that it is no longer the task of celibate men to dictate to sexually active women on how to control their reproductive systems, got retweeted three dozen times. I know that a retweet doesn’t mean an endorsement, but one can conclude that this opinion has widespread support.
The problem is that in the way that it is true, it is only tangentially so and in the way that it is false, it is utterly and massively bogus.
It is true that for most of the existence of the State, Irish political policy on this and practically everything else was heavily influenced by Catholic social teaching, or more precisely, a particular interpretation of Catholic social teaching.
But that hasn’t been true for as long as I have lived. And I am in my thirties.
So it is true that a major reason that abortion is illegal in Ireland is because of Catholic social teaching that rules abortion out of grounds in all cases. But it is definitively not true that it is celibate men, meaning priests, who drove this.
To claim, like so many do, that the inherent anti-woman stance of Christianity is being overturned as the last obstacle to reproductive autonomy is mythic. It is dangerous too.
It is mythic because ironically, it evacuates the agency of actual women. At the height of the Catholic church there were about 12,000 priests. That is an immensely huge number of people. But the political implementation of Catholic social doctrine occurred because women like my grandmothers wholeheartedly believed in Catholic social doctrine and they were savvy enough to express their opinions very clearly to their politicians. These were women whose husbands risked their lives to establish the Irish state. Any account that explains their lifelong dedication to these causes which we now want to discard, that amounts to “They were brainwashed” or “They were ignorant” falls way short of anything close to the truth that feminism stands for.
It is dangerous because it isolates a class of people and Others them. There was a prominent Irish chick-lit writer who joked earlier in the month: “I know I’m going too far here but I think we should have National Throw A Stone At A Priest Day. Then they might all F**K OFF!!!!” This of course, is not an incitement to violence because it is evidentially a joke poorly made.
I know more priests than most people. One friend who struggles desperately with what it means to be a priest ordained after the horrendous scandal of ecclesial abuse has spoken to me about how difficult it is for him to even go for a pint in his hometown without being openly slagged. Another classmate told me recently that he can’t wear his collar on the street in city-centre Dublin without being jeered. This is minor stuff and both men are happy to suck it up. But if you rephrase Marian Keyes’ joke to apply to a racial minority, it becomes much less funny. We know what happens when people are scapegoated. Violence follows.
Even if priests did deserve to be stoned, it wouldn’t be good for you to do that.
See that there, that’s why you come here, for such astonishingly unique spiritual insights. Don’t throw hard things at people’s heads cos it will eventually end up hurting you too.
So the “Get your rosaries off my ovaries” argument isn’t just in poor taste, it is wrong. And no one ever wants to be wrong, right?
Here’s the thing that people might not know and if they did know it, they’d be a whole lot slower to suggest that Christianity is inherently anti-woman. Let us imagine for a moment that Jesus isn’t actually the second person of the Trinity, which is surely not a hard thing to imagine. In that world, a purely non-theistic explanation for why Christianity emerged as top-dawg among all the strange apocalyptic Judaisms of the 2nd Temple era would have to rest in a large part on how it honoured women.
In a world where all but the wealthiest women were socially marginalised, the church was a place where women led alongside men. Men preached. So did women. Men served as deacons. So did women. Men prophesied. So did women. Men were apostles. So were women. If Christianity is misogynistic today, then it is betraying its roots. The response is not to decry the supposedly inevitable women-hating nature of the church but to call Christians to the feminism that is intrinsic to their religion.
In a culture where young girls were often married off before adolescence, Christian women came of age before entering into matrimony. In a culture that made very little of divorce, Christians who were divorced could not become elders. When in 1 Peter, the apostle talks of women as the weaker sex, this is the context of his speech. He is describing the social norm, not prescribing a natural form. by opposing divorce, Christians explicitly countered the culture that abandoned women to social isolation, economic poverty and early death.
It is appropriate that we end by pointing out that early Christian regard for children quite literally meant the difference between life and death for women. Unwanted children were simply exposed and girls were disproportionately victims of this. There were 131 men for every 100 women in Rome. Another aspect of the extraordinary misogyny of Rome was the high death-rate during abortions, which were not taboo. In an age before germ-theory, even our contemporary nightmare scenarios of back-alley terminations can’t come close to how dangerous this culture was for women. Christians did not have abortions. Christian fathers and husbands did not demand it. The early church were keen readers of Plato and Aristotle but they rejected the Greek counsel to abort unwanted pregnancies. The most significant early church document that didn’t make the cut for the New Testament, the Didache, declares that “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born.”
A final reflection on how strange this anti-clericalism is: the heart of Irish Catholic practice (arguably) is devotion to Mary. Remember that I’m training to be a Presbyterian minister so I don’t go in for that lark at all. It is possible that a religious culture could give such a significant role to a woman and yet be inherently misogynistic. But you’d have to have a rational explanation that would justify that assertion.
If you have a massive religion, where the majority of adherents were women, and they gave a central role in their worship practice to the adoration of a woman, any misogyny that took hold there would be very interesting indeed. Irish critics of Catholicism don’t seem to appreciate the strangeness of their claim. The likelihood of course is that the religion wouldn’t be inherently misogynistic. Any misogyny that could be found in that society is likely to find its source elsewhere in that culture and express itself in the religious community in a complex way.
Such detailed, open-minded musings get closed down a priori when we continue to peddle the myth that a cabal of priests somehow represents the hidden ruling class (in a society quite obviously dancing itself to death to the tune of international capital…).
Your Correspondent, Cut himself shaving and all that came out was air.