Feminists are quick to dismiss the Catholic Church, but do they realize how important faith is in many women’s lives?
As we welcome Pope Francis to America, many people are wondering if he will speak about abortion during his visit. His recent comments on the subject have put the media in a frenzy. On September 1 he released a letter to the public on his goals for the upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy. The Church has called a Jubilee Year every 25 or 50 years since 1300, according to the National Catholic Reporter. The Mercy Year starts on December 8.
Among other provisions, the Pope said he was opening a special, temporary “mercy” window allowing priests to forgive women and doctors who have had or performed abortions. Typically, a bishop has to give priests permission to forgive abortions, but Pope Francis’s letter opens up permission for all priests.
This decree shouldn’t be shocking for the United States, since most U.S. bishops have allowed their priests to forgive abortions. However, the Pope is much more than just the pontiff, he is an international public figure, and what he says about abortion can make a huge impact on public policy, especially in the U.S., where recent attacks on Planned Parenthood have brought on calls to limit a woman’s right to abortion.
Many feminists have responded to the Pope’s decree with anger and frustration. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Jill Filipovic called it the “latest example of the modern anti-abortion strategy.” In RH Reality Check Amanda Marcotte wrote, “The only person here who needs forgiveness is the Pope, for daring to insult all the women around the world with his presumption that he can, without even knowing the details of our lives, make better decisions for us than we can make.”
I completely understand their frustration. But I also believe that they are not being completely intersectional in their analysis.
Intersectionality is an important component of modern feminism, and the term is very popular within feminist circles. Everyday Feminism defines intersectionality as, “a frame that recognizes the multiple aspects of identity that enrich our lives and experiences and that compound and complicate oppressions and marginalizations.”
The systems of oppression that are often considered in discussions of intersectionality are race, class, sexual orientation and gender identity. But what about religion?
A lack of intersectionality leads to an erasure of people and their identities. So if we are going to consider all aspects of a person’s identity, isn’t it important to look at religion too?
It’s easy for a person who does not identify as Catholic to argue against the Catholic Church. Heck, it’s even easy for those who do identify with the Church to call it out (ie, me). But in order to be fully intersectional in our movement, we need to remember that many women identity with the Church and are profoundly influenced by it. 33% of Catholic American women are Latina, and 60% of Catholic Latinos make less than $30K per year. In addition, 67% of Catholic Latinos’ level of education is a high school diploma or less. The intersections of race and class are strong in Catholic women.
I am the first person to say that a woman should not have to apologize for her abortion. I also agree that she should not have to kneel before a man to beg for forgiveness. However, my opinions on abortion derive from my passion for a woman’s right to choose – not only her choice to get an abortion in the first place, but also her choice to seek forgiveness. Who am I to tell a woman what she is and isn’t supposed to feel sorry for? Forgiveness is a huge aspect of the Catholic Church. Catholic women may believe that they sin in their daily lives, but the opportunity to ask for forgiveness enables them to still be in good faith. Instead of shaming a woman for feeling a great moral burden after having an abortion, shouldn’t we let her ask for forgiveness in peace? These opposing forces of are really unnecessary. One one side there are the conservatives who shame women for having an abortion and on the other side we have liberals who shame women for feeling bad about their abortions. The core tenant of the reproductive rights and reproductive justice movements is to end the shame and stigma concerning abortion, not add to it.
Women get abortions for a variety of reasons, and all of these reasons intersect with class, race, and/or religion. Perhaps the woman is a victim of rape or incest. Perhaps she cannot afford to raise a child. Perhaps she just doesn’t want to raise a child. Whatever her reason is, a lot of factors contributed to her decision.
The pro-choice organization Catholics for Choice recognizes that Pope Francis’s approach on abortion is far more pastoral than political, as opposed to his predecessors. CFC’s president Jon O’Brien said, “I do not believe that Catholic women will be queuing up to ask for forgiveness.”
“Nevertheless,” he continues, “as an overall gesture that evokes images of sitting down with women and listening to them, this is a symbol that could be considered a very good one. As Pope Francis prepares to visit the United States, this is a warning shot fired across the bow to the bishops who have waged culture wars over the bodies and lives of women. This is a pope who is not stuck in the pelvic zone, and perhaps his message on how he thinks about abortion is more for his brother bishops than Catholics in the pew.”
So yes, the Catholic Church may be a patriarchal structure, but we cannot ignore its influence on women, and how important a role it plays in some women’s identities. If feminists want to be truly intersectional, we must not forget about religion. So if a woman seeks forgiveness for her abortion, who are we to judge? If “choice” is the word we’re going to use for our movement, we must accept all choices – before and after – that a woman makes regarding her abortion.