Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Holy See, the United Nations and Women's Rights

'Theology that hears the poor'

This is the text of an article by me published in this week's Tablet. Scroll down to see the published version, but as it's awkward to navigate I'm posting the text here as well.

--> If you are interested in reading more about the issues covered in this article, I highly recommend Half the Sky: How to Change the World by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn. You might also appreciate Margaret Atwood's poem, Christmas Carols.

Pope Francis claims that the Church lacks ‘a deep theology of woman’. This is only partially true. Since Vatican II, Catholic women theologians from all continents have been reflecting on women’s lives in the spirit of the Council, but these theologies have yet to find official acceptance. On the other hand, ‘theology of the body’, inspired by Pope John Paul II’s catechesis on the Book of Genesis and his 1988 apostolic letter on women, Mulieris Dignitatem, now forms the basis for all the Church’s official teachings on women and sexuality, as can be seen from the website of the Women’s Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

This year sees the twenty fifth anniversary of Mulieris Dignitatem, and the Women’s Section is organising a symposium to mark the event. The report on the last such symposium, held in 2008, suggests that the participants were selected on the basis of their support for theology of the body and their condemnation of feminism and gender theory. There has been little attempt by the Women’s Section to engage with women theologians who might offer a different perspective.

John Paul II’s teachings on the goodness of the body and the positive significance of married sex were in many ways a transformation in Catholic theology. He also arguably did more than any other Pope to promote women’s rights within the parameters of Catholic teaching. Nevertheless, his understanding of motherhood and femininity was highly romanticised, as was his theology of marriage, based on the principle of sexual complementarity between male and female. This has provided theological inspiration for some heterosexual couples who, by luck, judgement or circumstance marry the right person, find satisfaction in traditional gender roles and are able to practise natural family planning, but theology of the body has little to offer to those whose experience of marriage is wounded by divorce or blighted by violence, abuse or poverty. Theology of the body is also hostile to homosexuality.

As the United Nations and international NGOs have become increasingly focused on issues of gender, sexuality and women’s rights, theology of the body has been promoted by the Vatican as a form of resistance to feminism and gender theory, and to the perceived threat posed by contraception, abortion and homosexuality to marriage and the family. Yet in its romantic sexual stereotypes, in its tendency to misrepresent or silence the voices of those with whom it disagrees, and in its glossing over of complex ethical issues to do with sexuality, reproduction and motherhood, theology of the body is in many ways an obstacle in the way of developing the ‘deep theology of woman’ that Pope Francis invites.

If Catholics are to respond to Francis’s call to become a Church of the poor, then the challenges posed by questions of women’s rights, maternal well-being, reproductive choice and the scandal of maternal and infant mortality have to be addressed by those most qualified to speak with and for poor women. Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 social justice encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, makes no mention of maternal mortality or HIV/AIDS, despite the fact that an estimated 800 of the world’s poorest women die every day through causes relating to pregnancy and childbirth. By contrast, a pastoral letter on the Millennium Development Goals published in June 2013 by the Bishops of Uganda and addressed to that country’s Government dedicates significant space to HIV/AIDS and to questions of justice for women and combatting maternal mortality. Perhaps this is a symptom of how a change in papal style is creating space for different voices to be heard within the Catholic hierarchy.

Next year is Cairo +20 – the twentieth anniversary of the 1994 UN Cairo Conference on Population and Development. This might be the first real test of Francis’s determination to bring about a shift in emphasis, from a Church obsessed with questions of contraception, abortion and homosexuality, to a Church whose identity and mission comes from living the Gospel in radical solidarity with the poor.

The 1994 Cairo Conference was regarded as a diplomatic disaster for the Vatican. The Holy See aligned itself with some Islamic states in opposing resolutions which included terms such as ‘reproductive rights’ and ‘sexual health’, because it perceived these as attempts to promote abortion and population control policies and to undermine marriage and the family. More recently, in March 2013, the Holy See once again attracted widespread condemnation for joining with Russia, Egypt and Iran to oppose a UN declaration against gender violence because it included reference to sexual, reproductive and gay rights.  

Such reports fuel hostility towards the Catholic Church, some of which is based more on prejudice than on informed debate. In an effort to avoid a repeat of the 1994 fiasco, John Paul II went to considerable lengths to ensure that the Vatican was well-represented at the UN Beijing Conference on Women in 1995, with a delegation led by the then Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon. Reporting in The Tablet afterwards, Annabel Miller wrote that the Holy See’s delegates ‘had been chosen not only for their loyalty to the Church, but for their intellectual – and street – credibility’, but she goes on to say that ‘this was not enough to break through the wall of prejudice, even hatred, among some secular feminists’. So there is a need for bridge-building on both sides.

The Vatican is already a significant voice for the poor around issues such as migration and refugees, economic exploitation, human trafficking and war and conflict, and the Catholic Church is a leading provider of female education through its religious orders. However, its credibility will continue to be undermined unless it also engages in more constructive dialogue within the UN and other agencies about maternal mortality, reproductive health, gender-based violence and women’s rights. This includes ensuring that the poor are defended against population control policies directed more at protecting the interests of the rich than the rights of the poor. There is also evidence that female education is more effective in reducing family sizes than campaigns focusing exclusively on contraception, and the Vatican is right to point this out. Yet educated women are able to limit the number of children they have because they can make informed choices about pregnancy, and that requires access to reliable contraception. If the Church’s opposition to abortion is to be seen as a genuine concern for the rights of the unborn and not as simply another attempt to deny women’s rights, and if it is to have credibility in its interventions on the stage of international politics, then the benefits of contraception must be recognized, as must campaigns for gender justice and sexual equality.

Catholic health care providers are often in the forefront of dealing with the realities of these issues, beyond the ideological to-ing and fro-ing between the Holy See and the UN. For example, research currently being undertaken by Dr. Jill Olivier and others at the University of Capetown shows that, in some African countries, post-abortion care makes increasingly heavy demands on Catholic clinics and hospitals. Women and girls who experience heavy bleeding after inducing abortions at home go to Catholic facilities because they know they will not be turned away. For many, help comes too late. Accurate statistics are impossible to come by, but an estimated 68,000 women die every year as a result of unregulated abortion. A woman who would rather risk death than face an unwanted pregnancy is in despair.  Often these are young girls who have been victims of abuse or rape, and sometimes they face rejection by their communities. A Catholic agency I know of in Zimbabwe has set up a home for such girls, and tries to reconcile them with their families when their babies are born.

Such Catholic initiatives constitute the Church of the poor, providing an active daily response to Pope Francis’s call for the Church to be ‘a field hospital’ which responds to the call to ‘Heal the wounds, heal the wounds … And you have to start from the ground up’. Yet there is a blanket of secrecy thrown over some aspects of this work when it concerns reproductive health or providing condoms for people at risk of HIV/AIDS, because of the need not to be seen to contravene official Church teaching. Catholics working in such contexts are usually reluctant to go on the record, because of the well-founded fear that they will be condemned by their bishops and their funding will be withdrawn.

Starting from the ground up means allowing theology to grow out of the grass roots experience of those who put human suffering before moral absolutes. There is far more to women’s theology than questions of reproduction and motherhood, just as there is far more to the Church’s work among the poor than crisis intervention. Yet if a deep theology of woman cannot provide a compassionate response to those women who suffer most acutely because of sexual violence, poverty and the lack of adequate reproductive health care, then it is failing to hear the cry of the poor.

A deep theology of woman must be a theology by and for women, which learns from women’s visions and struggles in terms of justice and ethics, sexuality and motherhood, sacramentality and prayer. There are many who would welcome an opportunity to discuss these issues more openly within the Church. The Women’s Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity would be an ideal forum for such discussions. In this age of reform, might we yet see such a space opening up? This would allow the official Church to engage with the resources it needs to develop that deep theology of woman which Francis says it currently lacks.

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