When I was 11, my dad traveled from Philadelphia to Florida for a job he never got. My family was already large: five people living on one floor of a terraced house with a breadwinner who was, alas, struggling to keep a job. So when Pop got home, with the move to Florida obviously out of the picture, we stayed in Philadelphia.
What I found out decades later, after both my parents left, was that my mother had an abortion soon after. The reason is pretty clear: it’s the same reason many lower-middle-class parents choose not to add another family member they can’t afford to feed, house, and support. dress. The decision was both perfectly natural and rational based not on the status of the aborted fetus but on the welfare of the living.
Raised Catholic, I remember finding condoms in the top drawer of my dad’s dresser. I was probably looking for something else—his Army Air Corps patch or the penknife his father had given him. I didn’t know what was in my hand until I told a friend.
“Rubbers,” he said, “to catch babies.” Which led to a longer conversation. By then, it was obvious to most Catholics that the “rhythm” method, heralded in the 1950s and based on lunar cycles, was a fiction concocted by the celibate and childless.
Our story cannot be unique. For decades, Catholics have supported their parishes, sent their children to Catholic schools and fulfilled their Easter duty. At the same time, they willfully, albeit covertly, violated the Vatican’s ban on birth control. We know what the church’s position is on abortion – a mortal sin that condemns the sinner, in the absence of forgiveness from a celibate priest, to eternities in hell. Last night’s news that Kansans voted to protect abortion rights came with the revelation that the Catholic Church was backing a fake email campaign in Kansas designed to confuse voters by manipulative language guaranteed to turn a “yes” into a “no”, and vice versa.
The clerics who preach and enforce these dogmas do so without any experience in marriage, raising families, paying mortgages on a 40-hour work week, or raising children. They live on the Vatican tab, which separates them from most evangelical pastors who, whatever their other faults, are too blamed for the current predatory and macabre form of Christianity. Priests live rent-free on land untaxed by the government, often go unprosecuted when charged with serious crimes, and barely know what it means to raise a family.
Yet it’s the same men – they’re all men – who confidently declare that people like my late parents spend an eternity in hell alongside other sinners – the cops, the teachers, the firefighters and the hairdressers, the stevedores and members of the middle class who regularly attend and tithe to their churches. They do so with an arrogant indifference to circumstances and little or no compassion.
And because the Catholic Church is perhaps the last of the fully descended religious entities, with a continuous history of influence and power dating back nearly two millennia, it apparently feels no need to justify its actions or its anguish. in the face of doctrinal splits, which is the height of institutional arrogance. Instead, he apologizes for the deaths of native children in Catholic boarding schools, or for only recently admitting that they were “wrong” about Galileo. Evangelism, on the other hand, is like all Protestantism in that it is healthy sectarian and lacks a papacy that allows for doctrinal uniformity.
The current constitution of the Supreme Court should give many of us pause, considering how much the Catholic Church is held accountable for. Ask yourself, if you haven’t already, how would you feel if there were six Jews, six Muslims or, for that matter, six Druids in the ruling majority? The United States Constitution has the force of law and human precedent; a papal bull has no legal basis but wields great power on the faithful. Catholic jurists, of course, justify their position by appealing to jurisprudence dating from the 18th century; the implication is that their legal training trumps their religious beliefs, which, given the ruling, is hard to accept.
This is not an attack on the basic Catholic parishioner but on the papacy and the credulity it inflicts on the ordinary faithful, who were human beings before being baptized into a faith that turns them into hypocrites unwitting, coerced into contributing to the larger and more influential hypocrisy of the church by secretly using birth control or obtaining abortions. Why a family’s sexual economy should be regulated by single people living in enforced celibacy is an insult to objectivity, common sense, and morality — and ultimately, to American democracy.
Barbarese is an English teacher at Rutgers.