Zika could have been an ordinary epidemic, like the ever-changing influenza that emerges each winter and spreads across the Northern Hemisphere with sad but rare complications. But the Religious Right’s antagonism to birth control and abortion—and honest conversation about sex in general—has transformed the Zika epidemic into a nightmare that will devastate lives for an entire generation.
In the absence of pregnancy, Zika usually isn’t a big deal. Only one in five people who contract Zika experience symptoms, and those who do mostly feel like they’ve gotten the flu. This is not to say Zika never does lasting harm to adults, just that, like the flu, those cases appear to be rare.
The difference, as most people now know, is that getting Zika while pregnant is really, really bad. The virus attacks the fetal nervous system, eating brain structures that have already developed and blocking development of others. Even babies who look normal may be damaged for life.
Unlike the flu, when it comes to Zika, pregnancy prevention or timing is everything.
Three Ways to Safeguard Families
Even if Zika spreads across its potential range of 41 states, a quick and targeted response could make lasting harm rare, at least within U.S. borders. The solution is simple and relatively cheap, but it consists of policies that the sex-obsessed, patriarchy-protecting Religious Right has been opposing for decades:
Information. Launch a huge public education campaign so all couples know how to prevent mistimed or unwanted pregnancy and can delay parenthood till the time is safe. Currently a third of pregnancies globally and almost half in the U.S. are accidents, with some of the highest rates where Zika-carrying mosquitos live.
Contraception. Make state-of-the-art birth control available to all free of charge, including the very best IUDs and implants, which drop the accidental pregnancy rate below 1 in 500. (With the Pill that’s 1 in 11; with condoms 1 in 6; with the rhythm method it’s closer to 1 in 4.)
Abortion. Ensure that couples who discover microcephaly and other fetal defects in utero can, if they prefer, abort a diseased pregnancy and start over. Millions of healthy children exist in this world only because their parents receive the mercy of a fresh start (like I did).Each of these steps is easier and cheaper than trying to eradicate mosquitos, prevent people from getting bitten, or develop and distribute a vaccine. With existing contraceptive knowledge and technologies, birth defects from Zika could drop to near zero. The problem is not a lack of means; it’s a lack of will brought on by religious teachings that generate resistance and controversy around anything that has to do with sex, gender roles or reproduction.You Reap What You Sow
No matter what, tragic birth defects from Zika would have hit some families as the virus spreads out of Africa where it is endemic (and where most women appear to have immunity before they reach reproductive age). But without relentless promotion of ignorance and falsehood by priests and pastors—without anti-contraception campaigning by the Vatican in particular—birth defects from Zika would be a small fraction of what humanity now faces.
Religious conservatives claim to love women and babies, especially unborn babies, but this claim is pure self-deception by biblical standards. The writer of Matthew warns of men who claim to speak for God but actually don’t. He says,
“By their fruit ye shall know them.”
What are the fruits of conservative Christian hostility toward judicious, planned, intentional parenthood? For generations, humanity has been battered by preventable harms from ill-timed and unwanted pregnancy: children bearing children in hopeless poverty, education foregone, abuse and neglect, family conflict triggered by stress, armed conflict triggered by population pressures and resource depletion; and starvation, illness and death.
If the church hadn’t thrown its wealth and weight against family planning programs in the 1960s and every decade since, who knows how different life on Earth might be right now. Zika merely ups the ante.
And the conservative Christian solution to it all? More prayer and less sex. If God’s self-proclaimed messengersactually loved women and children more than they love power and tradition, they would admit they have been wrong and would do what’s best for healthy families:
Stop using the political clout of the church to make birth control expensive and hard to get, especially for poor people and those at risk of Zika.
Stop goading conservative politicians to waste millions on bogus, indefensible anti-abortion laws, and work instead to make abortion less necessary.
Stop teaching young people that they should “let go and let God” determine how many kids they have (whether infected or starving or not). Start teaching that the ability to plan our families is a precious gift.
Stop pretending that vows of abstinence work for more than a few odd individuals. Start providing real information about healthy, respectful, responsible pleasure and intimacy.
Stop forcing doctors and nurses to follow anti-contraception, anti-abortion religious directives bordering on malpractice; and instead ensure that hospitals and clinics controlled by religious institutions provide model family planning care.The Zika wave will sweep over the Americas, and as immunity grows rates of infection will likely drop off. In that case, the suffering caused by church hostility to sexuality education and family planning will drop back to more familiar levels. But right now Zika presents a rare opportunity for religious leaders to show that they are not, as they often appear, so busy defending dogma that they have become morally bankrupt.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington, and the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of “Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light” and “Deas and Other Imaginings.” Her articles can be found at valerietarico.com.
Sexual intimacy and pleasure are some of humanity’s most cherished experiences. The so-called “best things in life” include natural beauty, fine dining, the arts, thrilling adventures, creative pursuits and community service. But love and orgasms are among the few peak experiences that are equally available to rich and poor, equally sweet to those whose lives are going according to plan and to many whose dreams are in pieces. (N.B.: in 20th century America African Americans utilized human sexuality to compensate for what was denied them elsewhere.)
Religious conservativesthink that these treasured dimensions of the human experience should be available to only a privileged few people whose lives fit their model: male-dominated, monogamous, heterosexual pairs who have pledged love and contractual marriage for life. Some true believers—especially those in thrall to the Protestant Quiverfull Movement or the Vatican—would further limit sexual privileges even within hetero state-licensed, church-sanctified marriages to only couples who are open to intimacy producing a pregnancy and a child. Take your pick: it’s either reproductive roulette or no sex—although you might be able to game God by tracking female fertility and then bumping like bunnies during the low risk times of the month.
Why Christianity is Obsessed with Sex
To be clear, I’m not saying that Christianity’s sex rules are only a function of patriarchal Christian privilege. During the Iron Age, from whence Christianity’s sex rules got handed down, society wasorganized around kin groups, and the endlessly-warmongering clans of the Ancient Near East were more at risk of extinction than overpopulation. Legally-enforced monogamy created lines of inheritance and social obligation, clarifying how neighbors should be treated and who could be enslaved.
Also, hetero sex necessarily carried the risk of pregnancy, which made it adaptive to welcome resultant pregnancies. Children do best in stable, nurturing families and communities, and in the Ancient Near East, “No marriage? No sex!” may have served to protect the well-being of mothers and children as well as the social power of patriarchal men. But in today’s mobile, pluralistic societies with modern contraceptive options and social safety nets, God’s self-appointed sex police have little credible excuse save their own compelling need to bully and boss and stay on top.
It should come as no surprise that Church authorities want an exclusive license to grant “legitimate” sexual privileges. Over the centuries, religious authorities have sought to own and define virtually all of the experiences that touch us deeply: the birth of a new person (christening, bris), art (iconography), music (chanting and hymns), eating, morality, mind altering substances, community, coming of age, family formation, and even our dying process. In each case religious authorities seek to legitimizesome forms of the experience and denigrate those that don’t fit their model. Powerful people and institutions want to control valued assets so they can leverage those assets to get more power. And controlling sex is powerful!
The Egotism and Cruelty of God’s Self-Appointed Messengers
Religious authorities like Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan or Evangelist Franklin Graham or Religious Right icon Pat Robertson quote the Bible and talk as if their self-righteous sex rules came straight from God, which of course is hooey. Set aside for the moment the fact that declaring oneself a spokesman for God is stupefyingly egotistical.Anyone who claims to know the mind of God is simultaneously making a rather bold claim about the superior infallibility of his own mind. The same can be said for anyone who boldly declares that the Bible is literally perfect and that he knows what God was trying to say.
But beyond egotism, telling people they can’t have sex based on Iron Age rules collected in the Bible or medieval rules pontificated by some kiss-my-ring Pope is just plain mean. It’s cruel and selfish and heartless, because the sex rules that served Hebrew patriarchs 2500 years ago and that helped the Vatican breed more tithing members 500 years ago deny sex to a whole lot of people who would otherwise find sexual pleasure and intimacy precious.
No Sex for the Weary
Who would men like Dolan, Graham and Robertson (or their predecessors like the Apostle Paul, Augustine, or Martin Luther) exclude from the privilege of sexual intimacy? Most of humanity—including, probably, you and a lot of people you love. The list is limitless:
College students who face long years of study before being ready for partnership and parenthood.
Parents who want to commit their finite emotional resources to the children they already have.
Young singles whose bodies are at peak libido, but who aren’t ready to form families.
Those who, whether married or not, want to commit their lives to some form of calling that isn’t parenthood.
People who perceive balance within the web of life as moral or spiritual imperative, whose conscience guides them to limit childbearing for the sake of other species and future generations.
Poor people who want to get a step ahead instead of (or before) having a child.
People who are saving up for marriage.
Cohabiting couples who don’t buy into the traditional marriage contract.
Empty nesters who are rediscovering why they like each other.
Travelers whose mobile lifestyle makes it impossible to offer a child a stable nurturing community and whose opportunities for intimacy flit past.
Loners and eccentrics whose personal qualities or desire for solitude make partnership and/or parenthood a poor fit.
Elderly widows and widowers for whom remarriage doesn’t make sense.
Famine-plagued women whose hungry bodies can ill sustain the risks of pregnancy or demands of incubating a healthy child.
The ill or those at risk of illness, who must navigate love in the time of chemo or love in the time of Zika.
War zone civilians and refugees who may not know whether they’ll survive or how, but know there is comfort in each other’s arms.
I could go on but I suspect there’s no need.Under what set of delusions is the world a betterplacebecause people like these are denied the pleasures of intimate touch, or the respite of a sexual interlude, or the acute pleasure of orgasm?
What The Sex Police Really Want
Wait a minute, a reader might say. Don’t overgeneralize. A minority of lay Christians believe that married couples must give up sex if they don’t want a(nother) baby —even if that is the official word from the pulpit for Catholics and some Protestants. So, this fight is really about people who want sex without marriage.
True. Well, partly true.
It goes without saying that conservative Christians want above all to deny sexual intimacy and pleasure to people who are single—especially girls and women. That is because the Bible’s Iron Age Sex Rules were meant, first and foremost, to ensure that females, who were economic assets belonging to men, produced purebred offspring of known paternity, who were also economic assets belonging to men. The Bible sanctions many forms of marriage and sexual slavery but all converge on one point: they guarantee that a man can know which offspring are his. That is why, after the slaughter of the Midianites in the book of Numbers, only virgins can be kept as war booty. It is why, in the Torah’s legal code, a rapist can be forced to buy and keep the damaged goods.
The Old Testament prescribes death for dozens of infractions (you yourself probably belong on death row). But when it comes to sex, the death penalty is for females who voluntarily give it up (or who don’t scream loud enough when they are being raped). The meanest, sickest part of this archaic and morally warping worldview is the idea that, for women, sex itself should be a death penalty—or at least a roll of the dice. It’s simply divine justice that sex should sooner or later lead to the pain and potential mortality of childbirth, because that’s the punishment God pronounced on uppity Eve for eating from the Tree of Knowledge.
“To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’” Genesis 3:16 NRSV.
There you have it. Female sexual pleasure and intimacy without the risk of labor pain and death is cheating God—as well as the male who rules over her.
Control at Any Price
The ways in which God’s Self-Appointed Sex Policetry to obstruct intimacy and orgasms are legion. Denying young people information about their bodies, promoting sex negativity, fostering a cult of virginity, spreading lies about masturbation—and above all shaming, shaming, shaming anyone who might dare to have sex without their approval. But the surest way the sex police can stop single females from cheating their way out of Eve’s curse is by making sex risky, which is why the religious right is obsessed with denying women access to birth control and abortion.
Globally, today 215 million desperate women want modern contraception and are unable to get it, thanks in part to American Religious Right politicians who explicitly excluded fertility management services from international HIV prevention. Church induced hang-ups about sex mean that reproductive empowerment gets left out of conversations where it is fundamental to wellbeing: family prosperity, early childhood development, mental health—even education of girls and career advancement of women.
At home, the U.S. squandered almost two decades and 1.5 billion dollars on abstinence-only “sex ed” that was an abject failure.Over the last three quarters of a century, conservative Christian obstruction of sexual literacy and family planning programs has driven humanity to the verge of collapse and has devastated families, condemning desperately poor people—like those who trusted Mother Teresa (who in turn trusted the Pope)—to lives of even deeper desperation.
Righteous men with access to the halls of power thwart sexual agency and then make criminals of women who abort the resulting ill-conceived pregnancies—all for the sake of maintaining their own authority and that of their institutions. And if the campaign to stop single women from having sex makes things hard for some married folks—the refugee couple, for example; or the poor parents trying to take care of the kids they already have; or those facing the prospect of a Zika baby with calcified and deformed brain structures—so be it.
The Small and Large of It
Think of the suffering as collateral damage— a form of collateral damage that is relatively benign by the standards of ecclesiastical history.
During the peak of Christianity’s political power, the Dark Ages, the Vatican launched a crusade against a sect of French Christians, the Cathars, who the Pope had declared heretics. When the crusaders arrived and began their slaughter, local people fled into churches, and sorting out who counted as a real Christian got confusing. So an inquiry was sent to the abbot, asking who should be killed and who spared. He replied by messenger: “Kill them all, God will know his own.”
By contrast with medieval butchery, collateral damage in the form of intimacy denied, or lives burdened with shame and stigma, or unwanted children born into the world with the odds stacked against them, seems minor.
But that is the only standard by which denying people sexual intimacy and pleasure is trivial. As I said, these are among humanity’s most treasured experiences. There are few freedoms that we value more than being able to form the love bonds and families of our choosing. In Islamic theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan—and even among immigrant Muslims in the West—young people risk and lose their lives for love.
Going for Broke
Religious authorities fight to maintain monopoly control over sexual privileges precisely because these privileges are so valuable—so to the heart of who we are as human beings. Sexual pleasure sweeps over us; it can bring us to our knees. Sexual intimacy allows us to transcend the boundaries of time and space, body and psyche—to lose the self in the other.
If these seem like religious terms, they are. It is no accident that vocalizations during carnal ecstasy sounds a lot like prayer or that erotic music often has religious overtones:Take me to church; I’ll worship like a dog. . . . In your temple of love . . . halleluja (Hozier; Rod Stewart; Leonard Cohen). Or vice versa: You hold my hand and hold my heart; I give it away now, I am on my knees offering all I am (Parachute Band).
The Church hierarchy’s determination to define and control “legitimate” sex may be cruel and transparently self-serving. But it is smart. Sex endlessly attracts and compels us, making sexual guilt the perfect currency for institutions trafficking in sin and salvation. When religious authorities hold exclusive power to forgive sexual transgressions and then dole out (or deny) sexual privileges, they can redirect sublimated love and loyaltyand yearning and passion into the kind of peak experiences that religion itself has on offer—experiences like spiritual ecstasy, selfless service, or mystical union with the Divine—all scripted and doled out by the very same religious institutions and authorities, of course.
But God’s self-appointed spokesmen are losing their grip.If their proclamations seem crazier and their political maneuvers seem transparently cruel—as in recent bullying of transgender kids—that is because they are desperate.People are noticing that the cage door is open and that the world outside offers a rainbow of possibilities.
Sex and love that are not controlled by the Church compete with the Church. If individuals who are young and elderly, stable and transitioning, queer and straight, partnered and single, parenting and childfree, claim the right to pleasure themselves and each other and to form intimate bonds based on no authority save their own mutual consent and delight, the Church is screwed.
I’m slow sometimes, but after years of writing about abortion rights it finally occurred to me that “life begins at conception” is one more version of a multimillennial infatuation with the penis as symboland proof that manliness is next to godliness.
On the surface, conservative Evangelical and Catholic insistence that life begins at conception appears to be aimed at elevating the status of fetus over woman. But just beneath the surface, what it elevates is the status of the penis—and anyone who has one.
What creates the wonder of a new person? Forget aboutthe maturation of germ cells, and the nine-month labor of a woman’s body, and painstaking parental nurture. It’s a sperm, a penile projectile shot forth by the ultimate organ of demi-divinity. Sperm penetrates egg, and voila! A person! A new soul! All the extraordinary and unique value we accord to human life is created instantaneously.
Three Millennia of Penis Worship
Once noticed, the pattern is inescapable. Our ancestors thought that the penis was literally divine. Dharmic cultures worshiped it by whacking stalactites and stalagmites out of caves and air-roots off of trees and carving phallic shapes out of granite by the thousands. Abrahamic cultures took the opposite approach and insisted the penis was so precious and powerful that it couldn’t be seen, even in art, and had to be chiseled off of statues or at least covered with fig leaves.
They also insisted that a man’s magic wand could permanently transform a female from one kind of being to another, from a prized “virgin” into a worthless “whore.” In medieval Catholicism’s recipe for sexual hangups, the prior touch of a penis (or lack thereof) became the most defining aspect of a woman’s identity, economic value and moral virtue. Penis penetrates female, and voila! No longer a whole person! The same magic wand that made her valuable could also do the reverse.
Same Old, Same Old
Fundamentalists who areanchored to the Iron Age by sacred texts and patriarchal traditions still hold to this archaic view, though they may use updated terms like “licked lollypop” or “chewed gum”—and some do offer second chances through “born-again virginity.”
But at least in the West, millennials finally are catching on to how ridiculous the whole virginity thing is. As one Facebook meme put it recently, “I don’t believe in virginity. Why? Because nobody’s penis is important enough to change any part of my identity.”
The idea that a penis can permanently change a woman’s value and the idea that a penis can instantaneously create a new soul both derive from the idea that men uniquely, were made in the image of God and that the penis (circumcised, of course) is the supreme symbol of man’s divinely anointed headship. And once they are packaged together, the idea thatlife-begins-at-conception starts sounding as transparently male-aggrandizing and silly as the idea of virginity.
No, You Didn’t Build That
Yes, the occasional sperm does end up inside an egg rather than a towel. And yes, sperm-penetrates-egg is a necessary—if insufficient—step in person formation. But the incredible process of making a new person begins long before conception and continues long after. To the trained eye, conception is no more or less magnificent—or critical—than the creation of the egg or the sperm itself, or of the many stages of transformation that come after.
In the subconscious of a patriarchal male or religious institution intent on preserving privilege, the claim that a penis can create a new person—or better yet, a new soul, almost ex nihilo—may flow naturally and logically from man’s god-like qualities and “rightful” dominance. But from an outside vantage the men making such claims seem rather like puffed-up architects who scribble partial plans and then claim they build buildings. Nice fantasy, but in the real world both buildings and people get made one step at a time. Construction is slow and hard and takes teamwork.
Everything’s a Project
In the case of forming a new person, two bodies produce germ cells that independently hold half of a biological blueprint. If each half works well enough and they meet, then a woman’s body starts the structural engineering to determine whether the design actually works. For very good reasons, the answer usually is no; the engineering team rejects the project and dumps it into the porcelain circular file. Most embryonic humans get booted out so fast that nobody even knows they existed. If and when engineering gives the preliminary go-ahead, a woman’s whole body gears up to start building a person. Her circulatory system pumps up blood flow. Her bones and teeth transfer calcium to the construction site. Her digestive system demands enough food for two.
Not only is the process slow and costly—like any construction project, it’s dangerous. Eight hundred American women die every year from pregnancy. Around the world, it’s that many every day. Most of us survive the project, but we do endure nausea and swollen ankles and fatigue, and irreversible wear and tear. When we women choose to incubate a child, which we often do quite gladly, we do so knowing our bodies and lives will never again be the same.
So, patriarchs, love your orgasms all you like, but don’t fall for the weirdly puffed-up idea that they make babies. Penis power is solely limited to fertilizing eggs. And a fertilized egg is a fertilized egg—no less, no more.
Silly-willy worship aside, many men deserve real credit for making children, because they take on the actual parenthood project in a deep and devoted way. Wanting to be good parents of healthy children, they wear condoms till the time is right, put their lives in order, bring home prenatal vitamins and make peanut butter sandwiches in the middle of the night.
When pregnancy ends, they endure labor vicariously (yes, vicarious pain hurts), anxiously awaiting the slimy little creature that will spill out in a puddle of blood. Labor over, they gingerly hold a sweet-smelling, flannel-wrapped burrito and look into eyes that are seeing the world for the first time and fall in love.
Back in the home they have helped to create, they wipe spit-up off shirts and go to work bleary-eyed when illness strikes and a child can’t sleep. In better times, they get down on the rug and play pretend and read stories even though maybe—just once in a while—they’d rather be playing video games or reading the Times. They understand that making something as wonderfully complex as a fully fledged, thriving person takes everything a parent can give for decades, and they give it.
Conception worship is willy worship. It diminishes fatherhood by trivializing the many other parts of themselves that men can and do bring to the process of creating a new person—heart and mind, labor and love. And it diminishes all of motherhood.
So, if you’re one of the guys who either is or intends to be a real father—please call out posers who think themselves endowed with some divine instrument that can turn an egg into a precious little person. And if you would, while you’re at it, you could do us women a favor by calling out the equally ludicrous conceit that the touch of a penis turns a female from one kind of being into another. Men don’t have magic wands in their pants—just body parts, and exaggerating the power of your dick just makes you one.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington, and the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of “Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light” and “Deas and Other Imaginings.” Her articles can be found at valerietarico.com.
John Stewart famously said, “Religion. It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.”
The painful irony of Stewart’s words is obvious to us all. What may be less obvious is the underlying pattern: Offering solutions to problems that religion itself has created is one of the key means by which religion propagates.The Pope’s recent limited-time offer of confession and forgiveness for women who have aborted pregnancies perfectly illustrates this pattern.
The Reality of Women’s Lives
Few women end a pregnancy on a selfish whim. All around us—all around you—are women (or couples) who have chosen to end pregnancies for reasons that are prudent, compassionate, service-oriented, or self-aware. Sometimes the reason is simply, “I can’t do this right now,” or “I don’t want to, and children should be wanted.” Sometimes a woman commits to an education, or to take one step forward out of poverty, or to join the military, or simply to devote her finite energy to the children she already has or to her community or our world. Under most circumstances, these are kinds of decisions that we honor, even if they are difficult and require letting go of one possible future to embrace another.
But choosing to carry forward a new life—or not—is one of the most momentous decisions a person can make, and inevitably some people regret it, just as some people regret smaller decisions like the choice of a college or career or spouse. Each of us is far more likely to feel regretful or even eaten-up about a decision we have made if it violates our own values or if people around us say that it should. And when it comes to parenthood decisions, that creates an opening for religion to create (or at least feed) a problem it can solve.
Turning Prudence into Sin
The Bible teaches that sin came into the world through woman, that a woman’s reproductive capacity belongs to man (her father “gives her” to a husband), and that women will be saved through childbearing. Biblical literalists who have internalized this view actively work to induce shame and guilt in women who end pregnancies, because a woman actively managing her fertility and her life fundamentally violates their worldview.
To make matters more complex, abortion is about ending a budding life that has the potential to grow into a person. Normal, morally intact people feel emotional resistance to ending a life—even that of a bird or mouse. We also feel an instinctive protectiveness toward things that remotely resemble human babies or children (for example, stuffed animals, puppies or big-eyed LOL cats). This makes it very easy for religion to induce distress about abortion, even to the point of inducing pathological shame, depression or trauma, or a sense of personal worthlessness and irredeemable guilt—from which it then offers redemption.
In some Christian churches this may take the form of offering abortion support groups that—rather than helping a woman embrace her own courage and wisdom or helping her process normal mixed feelings or regrets—that instead deepens her sense of guilt and shame. “You have committed murder,” she may be told, “But the blood of Jesus cleanses even the most depraved of sins.” She may be told she will meet her “child” in heaven, and may be given the opportunity to practice asking forgiveness. She may be given a diagnostic label coined by abortion foes—“post-abortion trauma syndrome”—to validate her conviction that she is damaged but can be healed by the solution they offer. All of this deepens her dependence on the religious community and their version of God.
A Catholic Self-Correction
The Catholic Church has long erred on the side of driving away couples or women who engage in thoughtful family planning, especially if this includes an abortion decision. Officially, since 1869 abortion has been a sin worthy of excommunication, for which only a bishop could grant absolution. But this harsh stance wasn’t working. Research suggests that Catholic women in the U.S. seek abortions at about the average rate, approximately 1 in 3ends a pregnancy at some point during her childbearing years. The Catholic stance simply led women to avoid the Church and sacraments. By granting a reprieve and allowing women to confess to priests, Pope Francis puts a kinder, gentler face on Catholicism and invites these women back into the fold.
What he fails to do—and what the Church fails to do more broadly—is to recognize and honor their courage, wisdom and moral autonomy, the deep commitment to love and compassion that guides so many abortion decisions, and the extraordinary lengths to which women go to help ensure that their families can flourish. It fails to recognize that for women who choose abortion (like me), an acorn is not an oak tree and a fetus is not a child; that we women can hold ourselves deeply responsible to the people around us—their hopes and dreams and needs—that we can love our children to the point of being willing to give our lives for them, while remaining convinced that a fetus is only a potential person like the potential people we decline to bring into the world each time we use birth control or abstain from sex.
The Broader Pattern
The reason the Pope’s announcement so perfectly illustrates the Church’s broader pattern of inducing problems and then solving them is that (unlike the sectarian conflict cited by John Stewart) most of these problems are psychological in nature. They come from ways in which religious teachings create fear, guilt, helplessness, self-doubt, and even self-loathing that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
Guilt, Self-Loathing, and Absolution: If you listen carefully to the words of the beloved hymn “Amazing Grace,” you will hear the phrase “a wretch like me.” In contrast to Hinduism, which teaches that each child contains one spark of the divine light,Christianity teaches that we are all born bad thanks to Eve’s “original sin” in the Garden of Eden. Calvinists use the term “utterly depraved” to describe a person who isn’t saved. Fortunately, the perfect sacrifice of Christ on the cross offers us redemption. We are “washed in the blood of the lamb.” As one hymn puts it, Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.
Helplessness, Dependency and Authority: According to Christian tradition, everything bad we do is either our fault or the fault of Satan working through us, but God or the Holy Spirit should get credit for the good we do. “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God,” says the Apostle Paul (Galatians 2:20NIV). Christians are taught not to trust their own moral core, their own strength, or even their own intellect.“Lean not unto your own understanding,” says the psalmist (Proverbs 3:5), and his words are echoed in modern vernacular: Let go and let God. This attitude undermines autonomy and agency to the point that one Episcopal theologian, John Shelby Spong, commented in frustration that “Christians don’t need to be born again, they need to grow up.”
Fear of Outsiders and a Safe Haven: Many religious groups teach that outsiders lack a moral core and are not to be trusted, and even interfaith groups may teach this about atheists.Outcry erupted in Britain recently about Orthodox Jewish school materials teaching children that non-Jews are “evil.” This type of belief is common among Muslims and Christians as well, and it serves to create in-group cohesion and interdependence.Some former Christians describe being frightened of outsiders and even of themselves when they first left their church. If the outside world is a scary place, that makes the religious in-group all the more important, and it serves as a deterrent to leaving. Walls that might otherwise feel restrictive instead offer a sense of security.
Protection from Eternal Torture: “Devote yourself to me or I’ll torture you.” Wife abusers, dictators, gang members, and Italian mobsters use demands of this sort to elicit demonstrations of loyalty and faithfulness. And yet we all recognize that when a mobster provides “protection,” he is offering a solution to a problem he himself has created—the threat of his own violence. In an abusive home, this trade-off may be hazier, as in Pat Benetar’s song, “Hell is for Children,” in which she says “love and pain become one and the same in the eyes of a wounded child.”For centuries, Church leaders terrorized the faithful and those who were wavering with horrendous images of hell—from Dante’s Inferno, graphically illustrated by Botticelli (and now the underlying structure of a best-selling Dan Brown novel), to the iconic sermon by Puritan Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” to the hellfire and brimstone tent revivals of the 20th Century. Today many evangelists prefer to focus on the (dubious) delights of heaven, but few reject altogether the powerful threat of eternal torture.
Exemption from this torture is precisely what Pope Francis now offers women who have ended pregnancies,with the implication that it is otherwise deserved. For those who think it through, his proclamation rivals John Stewart for irony:
In his attempted kindness and mercy, Francis offers women the means to be forgiven for prudent, responsible, courageous, compassionate actions that the Church has twisted into sins. The offer extends only for those who accept the burden of theologically-induced guilt in order to be relieved of it, and only for a limited time. In exchange, women are granted protection from after-life horrors conceived in minds of Iron Age men and elaborated in the Dark Ages, when the Church’s inquisitors sought to foreshadow here on earth the tortures God had in wait for those who fail to repent.
But perhaps the greatest twist is this. Women are expected to be grateful and to see this as an act of conciliation—which, ironically, it is.