Monday, February 13, 2012

Frustrations: the bishops and birth control, grad school and Good Friday

Most of the time, I don't find it much of a struggle to be both liberal and Catholic.  My conscience is clear.  Both identities affirm my values and challenge me to grow as a person.  Both push me to look beyond myself and to care for the world around me.  Neither is easy, but both are personally rewarding.  Internally, I am at peace with the allegiances I have chosen--enough so that I am comfortable recognizing them as allegiances.

But maintaining both identities can be frustrating on occasion.  I am lucky enough to have a large group of friends who share both my political religious values (whether specifically as Catholics, or simply as people who belong to an organized religion and try to live according to their faith).  But sometimes I feel caught between a secular world with a fierce concern for social justice and an deep skepticism of organized religion, and a religious world with an equally deep and abiding skepticism of the broad goals of social equality that my liberal friends take for granted.

Right now I feel caught in the middle.  Caught between a Church that seems to be proud of trumpeting its utterly gothic attitudes about women and a secular world that has little room or respect for religious practice.

Given who I am, it's maybe not surprising that I've had a number of long discussions on facebook in the last few days about the current brouhaha concerning contraception coverage.  But honestly, I am surprised that we are actually having a public fight about the acceptability of birth control in twenty-first century America, and at the arguments people are making.

I can't say that the Bishops have ever been a driving force behind my faith, or that their examples have ever been a source of inspiration.  (I can think of two bishops of the twentieth century who inspire me greatly: Oscar Romero and Angelico Roncali, but neither was from the US and they're both dead now.)  Since I have been old enough to choose for myself, I have been a Catholic in spite of the bishops rather than because of them.  But their public and ridiculous fight over contraception has further alienated me from them.  (Like many Catholics, I make a distinction between the Church as the faith, the Church as the hierarchy, and the Church as the Body of Christ.)

I tend to disagree with the Church on many issues concerning sex and sexuality.  I believe in birth control, and I believe that its availability is central to social, political, and economic equality between the sexes.  Full stop.  And the more I study economic history, the more strongly I believe that the feminist movement could not have achieved what it did without women gaining widespread access to contraceptives.  Also, I fundamentally cannot accept people claiming moral superiority on decisions that can never possibly affect them directly, without reference to the beliefs of those who could be directly affected.

I am horrified that this is the public face of my Church.  I have a lot of friends who are young Catholic women.  Like most other women in their 20s and 30s that I know, the vast majority of them use birth control.  No one questions this, no one finds it controversial.  And frankly, if the vast majority of Catholic women in this country did not use birth control, we'd have a lot more little Catholics running around.  I recognize that the Church is not a democratic institution, and I don't expect it to behave like one.  But in this case the hierarchy is so entirely divorced from the people...  Well, this piece says it pretty well.

Then there are the arguments that men (they're almost all men) are making in defense of the Church's position.  As expected, many of them equate women with our uteruses, and ignore our value as fully human people in our own right.  But that's pretty much a given when it comes to the institutional Church (and the lay men who defend it on these issues).  I was, however, genuinely surprised to discover that many conservative men honestly believe that women have become more objectified since the birth of the feminist movement in the late 1960s.

Let me say that again.  They believe that women have become more objectified since the birth of the feminist movement.  Mostly because contemporary society is more comfortable talking about sex, apparently.  I just... yeah.  I'm not entirely sure how you should respond to a misconception of that scope.  This was the best I could come up with:
Adult entertainment, human trafficking, and rape were all happening long before 1968.  The world has had all three of them at least as long as it's had armies, I imagine.  For a long time they weren't considered polite, so we didn't talk about them, and many people could avoid the discomfort of thinking about them.

That's changed.  It's now socially acceptable (at least in the abstract) to discuss these things in public.  But does the fact that we can admit to them make them more degrading?  I would argue the opposite.  Because silence indicates acceptance, and implies that these problems aren't worth talking about.  Growing awareness of these issues--and growing (societal) willingness to label them as problematic--are a step forward.  As a woman, these open discussions make me feel less objectified than under the previous culture of silence.  As a man, it's possible that the same changes make you more aware of how women are objectified.  But that's really a question of perception.

So that's where I am with the Church these days: listening to the Church shout loudly without speaking for me or any women I know, and wincing as men I know (and like) fumble at defending the indefensible.  (To the point where I have intentionally avoided reading EJ Dionne on this topic because I don't want to lose my respect for him.)

Unfortunately, the secular world is not making me feel much more welcome or comfortable these days.  In much smaller ways, to be sure, but I still feel caught in the middle.  For example, I recently found out that the biggest departmental social event of the year (a party for grad students and faculty, in which the students present skits, lots of economics departments do this) has been scheduled for the evening of Good Friday (which also happens to be both Passover and shabbat).  

They're looking into changing it, but they haven't committed to doing so.  Apparently it's difficult to reserve a room on another day.  Which I get, on one level, but that doesn't make it okay.  Because this is not a conflict on the level of "oh well, try to fix it if it's not too inconvenient."  Or at least it shouldn't be.

Good Friday is probably the second most important religious observance of the year, after Easter.  Theologically speaking, it is more important than Christmas.  And it's a day of mourning.  A fast day, for Catholics.  Not an appropriate day for a party.

I'd guess that about 20-25% of my department actively practices some form of Christianity, as defined by attending weekly services at a Christian church.  That goes for both grad students and faculty.  (Another 5-10% or so is probably Jewish, and might object to having their Passover Shabbat interrupted, as well.)  Not a majority, but not an insignificant fraction, either.

I shouldn't have to choose between a major religious observance and a major departmental event.  (If it was your average happy hour or something, I would not care at all.  But not going to the skit party is kind of a big deal, and if it wasn't on Good Friday I wouldn't dream of skipping it.)  I get that the world isn't fair, and that people of other faiths have their religious observances ignored with even greater frequency.  But in the context (with all the bullshit from the church on the other side) I can't help feeling caught between two cultures that are deeply suspicious of each other, and wishing that each was a little more ready to accommodate the other.

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