Friday, December 30, 2011

Joan Walsh on Women's Rights and World Religions (and Where Does the Catholic Church Stand?)

At Salon, Joan Walsh notes (and decries) the increasing stridency of the American far right (which is to say, the Republican party as it's now configured) about issues of women's rights, including access to contraception.  As she notes, the religious and political right have not only abortion, but contraception as well in their sights.  Though she doesn't note this, she might have: the Catholic bishops are squarely on the side of the fringe right in this battle, and those powerful centrist Catholic media spokespersons like Michael Sean Winters of National Catholic Reporter and Margaret O'Brien Steinfels of Commonweal who have been carrying water for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the anti-Obama brouhaha about contraception are in bed with the radical right through their support of the bishops' attack on the Obama administration vis-a-vis the contraceptive issue.

Walsh's powerful conclusion:

There are two warring forces at work in the world: One is the empowerment of women, especially in the developing world. There is no magic bullet for global poverty, but the only thing that comes close is expanding education and human rights for girls. Educated girls have children later, and when they do become mothers, their children are healthier and better educated. Their family incomes rise, and so do the living standards of their community. It is clear that promoting the rights and status of women improves the well-being of the entire society; some people, and governments, get that, globally. 
But there’s also an intensifying hostility to full freedom for women in all corners of the world. One of Wednesday’s most disturbing stories was the New York Times tale of an 8-year-old Orthodox Jewish Israeli girl spat upon and abused by ultra-Orthodox bullies because even her modest outfits didn’t conform to their stifling dress code for girls and women. Israel, which was once defended as a European enlightenment outpost in the supposedly backward Middle East, is facing a rising tide of far-right religious activism trying to ensure that women are neither seen nor heard outside the home. Literally. These crusaders believe in separate worship for each gender, because men are not supposed to hear a woman’s voice in public, not even singing hymns. On some bus lines serving ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, women are literally made to sit at the back of the bus. 
Meanwhile, the Arab Spring hasn’t ushered in more rights for women. In the “new” post-Mubarak Egypt, men are using sexual assault and violence to suppress female activists. Islamic fundamentalists, like their ultra-Orthodox Jewish brothers, likewise want to make women second-class citizens.  
No, I’m not comparing the personhood movement or the GOP contenders to violent misogynist Egyptians or to the religious extremists who want to exclude women from Israeli or Arab public life.  But the increasing extremism on choice that is now seeping into public policy on contraception reflects a related discomfort with full personhood for women. There is no freedom or equality for women without reproductive freedom. Having been raised a Catholic, I understand religious objections to abortion, and my only answer is, by all means, don’t have one. Work to make them less common. A rape victim who doesn’t want an abortion is of course free to make that decision. But a secular society has no business imposing one religion’s values on everyone.  (Lost in all the insanity about abortion is the fact that the incidence of abortion has declined by at least a third since the 1980s.)

Two warring forces at work in the world at this moment in history: and the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church have shamefully come down on the wrong side of this historical battle.  When it comes to the human rights of women, the leaders of the Catholic church have more in common with misogynists of some other leading world religions determined to halt the movement for women's rights, than they do with those promoting human rights around the world.

The tragedy of contemporary Catholicism and the situation in which it now finds itself is that it need not have taken this path.  Vatican II had placed it on any entirely different path--one of respectful dialogue with secular culture, in which the church stands to learn from culture while transmitting its values to the society around it.

Instead, the pastoral leaders of the church have chosen a strategy of increasing confrontation--of drawing battle lines, hardening positions, trying to whip the faithful into shape and expel dissenters.  And the results have been dismal, when it comes to the moral credibility of the church.

Given a choice between standing for and defending human rights or obeying the pope and the bishops, many Catholics--an increasing number of them in the developed nations, in fact--will opt for the former and reject the latter.  And they should do so, if they wish to be faithful to the teaching of Jesus and to the core Catholic values and principles the current pastoral leaders are abandoning as they develop a strident culture-war version of Catholicism that distorts key aspects of traditional church teaching and gives the church an increasingly demonic image in the world at large, particularly among those who care about human rights.  

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