Writing recently in The Guardian, Tina Beattie argues persuasively that Pope Francis has done little to improve the lives of women. Beattie writes,
If the pope wants a church that prioritises the needs of the poor, then addressing women’s reproductive wellbeing is fundamental to that goal. Maternal mortality is often a direct consequence of poverty. Of an estimated 280,000 maternal deaths a year, 99% occur in the world’s poorest countries – mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. Good obstetric care would prevent most of these deaths, but issues of contraception and abortion raise more contested ethical issues.
What Beattie says in this passage is becoming an echoing refrain of criticism from many different quarters, as Catholics in various places look at what Francis has done, is doing, plans to do concretely for women. The refrain: to talk about the poor in the abstract, about the poor in general, and to ignore that women are the poor everywhere in the world, is to talk in no very compelling way at all about the obligation of Christians to stand with the poor.
Here's Catholic theologian Mary Hunt writing in January 2014 about three things re: Francis that worry her:
Given that more than half the world’s poor people are women and children, this gives me pause about praising too soon. If one cannot act justly toward those nearby and similar, why would one act justly to those at a distance who are very different? I admit to confusion that borders on incredulity.
And that passage from Mary Hunt makes me remember what Sister Joan Chittister had written a month before Hunt wrote her essay:
The fact is that religion -- all religions -- has been used to justify the oppression, the servitude, the invisibility of women for century after century. Indeed, religion after Jesus has a historic lot to repent where women are concerned, Catholicism and Christianity among them.
As a result of such poor study in the past -- "religious," as it may have called itself, sincere as it possibly was -- everywhere on the planet women are still, today, at this hour, as the United Nations Development Fund for Women reports, two-thirds of the illiterate of the world. Women are still two-thirds of the hungry of the world. Women are yet two-thirds of the poorest of the poor everywhere in the world. Even here; even now.
That can't be an accident. That is a policy. Someone somewhere has decided that women need less, deserve less, and are worthy of less than men.
Which reminds me of something Jon O'Brien of Catholics for Choice wrote several months before Joan Chittister published the preceding essay:
Pope Francis talks of compassion for [the] poor but has done nothing to change the hierarchy’s ban on contraception, something that would help interrupt the cycle of poverty perpetuated in developing nations where lifesaving contraception is unavailable. Time and time again, the Catholic hierarchy and its charities prevent people from accessing the means to control their own fertility.
And that brings me back to Joan Chittister, who wrote the following several months before Jon O'Brien made the statements above:
People are weary of seeing whole classes of people -- women, gays and even other faith communities again -- rejected, labeled, seen as "deficient," crossed off the list of the acceptable.
They're weary of seeing contraception being treated as more sinful than the sexual abuse of children.
If I can paraphrase Joan Chittister by attaching these observations to the entire preceding thread: many Catholics are, it appears to me, exceedingly weary of hearing rhetoric about loving and siding with the poor which ignores — which completely ignores — that women are the poor, everywhere in the world. And that the Catholic church's approach to women is part of the problem, that it contributes to the impoverishment of women. That it keeps women in poverty . . . .
And to those who are weary of the merely rhetorical, the message about taking care of the poor begins to appear more and more like nice window-dressing surrounding an unspeakably ugly reality our church leaders hope to screen from our view with the pretty curtains. The reality being that, when all is said and done, the leaders of our church seem to have very little compassion at all for the poor — not when the poor are right there in front of them.
The graphic: the photo is by Lorena Pajares, who has generously made it available for sharing at her Flickr stream, via a Creative Commons license.