OTI Online
Fall 1998

Rosary v. Ovary:
Papal Politics And Women
by Ann Pettifer


A crop of ads has been appearing in the secular and religious press, challenging the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on artificial contraception. Placed by Catholics for Contraception (a project of Catholics for a Free Choice), the ads are well-crafted and informative; they reveal that the Church's reactionary position is basically aimed at keeping women subservient - making childbearing their primary function. In an essay on rethinking single-sex education, the conservative monthly Catholic World Report opined: "Of all tasks that present themselves to young women, the most important is surely the care and formation of souls. When a young mother holds in her arms her new baby, she holds a tiny barbarian with the potential for becoming a saint."

An equally important feature of the debate - about which the non-Catholic world is largely ignorant - is that, for decades, hostility to birth control has been the touchstone of papal authority. The Vatican has long believed that if it lost control of this issue, the whole edifice of papal infallibility might collapse like a house of cards.

At the end of the second millennium, the monarchical papacy is looking increasingly bankrupt. With the Church under siege on many fronts - the ordination of women and mandatory celibacy come to mind - it might seem odd at first that it should so fanatically stake its authority on holding the line on contraception. But the sanction is highly effective, because it works on a powerful, primitive level. By intruding on the most intimate part of life, the hierarchy keeps the laity insecure and conscious of its subordinate nature. It is an axiom of maturity that we protect the privacy of our sexual selves; there is something terribly unsettling about having the Pope, so to speak, in the bedroom. Jesuit theologian Avery Dulles, scion of the baleful House of Dulles - his father, John Foster Dulles, and his uncle Alan Dulles, who were both Cold War hawks during the McCarthy era, worked respectively as Secretary of State and Director of the CIA under Eisenhower - was unusually direct on the subject at a recent Common Ground conference. (Common Ground is a cautious attempt by the Catholic hierarchy to bring progressive and conservative Catholics together to discern areas of moral agreement, especially in the explosive arena of abortion.) The laity, said Dulles, who teaches at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., should not be consulted on matters of doctrine because "in the modern secular world ... it is hard to determine who are the truly faithful and mature Catholics deserving of consultation." In ripping Stalinist form, he went on to state that authority is not obliged to give reasons for its edicts or decisions: "Faith," he proclaimed, "is acceptance on the basis of authority not reason, and furthermore, proposing reasons may stimulate contrary reasons, leading to fruitless debate."

This war over reproductive issues is one Rome is not prepared to lose, for women's control of their own fertility leads to women's empowerment. The clerical mind is terrified of women; the idea of real equality between the sexes is very threatening to the Catholic male shaman


In 1968, in spite of a thorough investigation! by a blue-ribbon Vatican commission, which had concluded that the Church should reverse its teaching on contraception, the Pope at the time, Paul VI, decided otherwise in his encyclical, Humanae Vitae. The commission's report was ignored and the Church's opposition to birth control was reiterated. Rank and file Catholics were stunned. How the Pope's decision was reached is shrouded in secrecy, but we can be sure that he didn't make it alone. In all likelihood it was drafted by powerful cardinals, particularly those with links to the Catholic fascist cult Opus Dei, whose resistance to any change is fierce. Opus Dei, which is highly secretive, was founded in the late 1920s by a Spanish priest, Jose Marie Escriva, later a fervid supporter of General Franco. The organization claims that its raison d'etre is to promote holiness in lay people; but from the beginning its true goal has been to recover something of the politico-religious hegemony Rome enjoyed in Europe from the time of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, in the fourth century, to the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth.

Today Opus Dei has enormous wealth and a global reach. Its sexism and austere orthodoxy on the pelvic issues - birth control and abortion - correspond exactly with the views of the current Pope, John Paul II, who has been in office 20 years. Bishops with ties to Opus Dei are now in place all over the world, with a major concentration in Latin America - where, in the recent past, the organization supported the junta in Argentina and helped to bring General Pinochet to power in Chile.

Things might have been different. After the death of Pope Paul VI in 1978, the surprise choice for his successor, who became John Paul I, was Cardinal Albert Luciano, a modern man from a socialist, working-class Italian family, who had no use for the anti-modernism that had dominated the Church for nearly a century and entrenched the monarchical papacy. Luciano had made no secret of the fact that he was uneasy with the arguments in Humanae Vitae condemning artificial contraception. For example, in a talk he gave to parish priests of the Venito region during a 1965 spiritual retreat, he stated: "I assure all of you, that bishops would be more than happy to find a doctrine that declared the use of contraceptives legitimate under certain conditions."

The new Pope lost no time in grasping the birth control nettle. Soon after his election, he told his Secretary of State that he planned to see U.S. Congressman James Scheuer, who was vice-chairman of the U.S. chapter of the UN Population Fund. Scheuer wanted Vatican support for the plans of the UN Population Fund to stabilize world population at 7.2 billion by the year 2,050. An audience was scheduled for October 24,1978.

The meeting never took place. After only 33 days in office, on September 28, 1978, Pope John Paul I was found dead in bed. The death has never been adequately explained, though the circumstances suggest murder by poisoning. Following an examination a couple of weeks before, the Pope's personal physician had told him that he was in good health: "Non sta bene, ma benone." ("You're not well, but very well.") Interestingly, the Pope's doctor was refused permission to examine the body. The reactionary and Cardinal Silvio Oddi, Opus Dei's cardinal protector and a senior member of the Curia, the Vatican's administrative body, would not allow an autopsy. This murky and troubling story is explored in David Yallop's book In God's Name, and has been revisited by the distinguished Canadian journalist Robert Hutchison, in his book Their Kingdom Come: Inside the Secret World of Opus Dei, published last year in the United Kingdom.

The upshot of all this was that Vatican conservatives, whose maneuverings were orchestrated by Opus Dei, were in a position to engineer the election of a new pope - someone who was not wobbly on birth control and who could be relied upon to consolidate the power of the papacy. They found their man in the Polish cardinal, Karol Wojtyla, who took the name John Paul II. From the word go he aggressively reaffirmed Humanae Vitae, making apocalyptic utterances associating birth control with the culture of death. This would become the leitmotif of his papacy. Reportedly, John Paul II is exploiting unease about abortion to "covertly push an anti-contraception agenda."

If the Church's active opposition to family planning affected only its own followers, the situation would be less dire. Unhappily, papal reproductive politics are played out with devastating effect in vulnerable, developing countries, where women must incubate babies they cannot feed - much less educate adequately. Multiple pregnancies also mean that these women have little chance of loosening the bonds of traditional patriarchal cultures.

In its assault on contraception, the Roman Catholic Church regularly targets the United Nations. Any UN conference on population or ecology may expect the Vatican, usually in the person of Joachim Navarro Vails, its chief spokesman (and an influential member of Opus Dei), to use its observer status to sabotage programs and funding for family planning. Moreover, having the Vatican in his corner has helped Senator Jesse Helms in his successful campaign to block the payment of the dues the U.S. owes the UN. When defending this fiscal delinquency, Helms consistently cites the UN's support for population management. The Vatican's take on reproductive issues also played a role in defeating the McCain-Feingold bill on campaign finance reform. The Right to Life organization believed that even this lame attempt to limit the corruption caused by money in politics went too far. Arguing that the bill would curtail speech, they lobbied against it, their aim being to protect the unlimited funding of anti-choice candidates prepared to push the Vatican line.

There is, it seems, no end to Rome's reach when the reproductive issues that underpin papal absolutism are threatened. Even in our community, South Bend, Indiana, the Vatican's pressure has been felt. At a recent meeting of the board of the local UN chapter, the person responsible for raising funds for UNICEF (the United Nation's Children's Fund) lamented that this year the coffers would be short $4,000 - the result of an action taken by the Ladies of Notre Dame, a body which represents spouses and women faculty at Notre Dame University. For years the LND have sold Christmas cards to benefit UNICEF, but 18 months ago the Pope got the erroneous idea that UNICEF is in the family planning business. As a result, the LND have declined to sell any more cards.

Given that UNICEF is categorically not involved with population programs, the basis for the Pope's own action - he withdrew the nominal $2,000 the Vatican used to donate to UNICEF each year - seems to have been an endorsement by UNICEF of a UN manual addressing the needs of women in emergencies and in refugee camps. The manual said that such women "have the same rights as others to access, on the basis of free and voluntary choice, to comprehensive information for reproductive health, including family planning. . . ." This statement should be placed alongside the Pope's admonition to women who were raped in Bosnia. An editorial in the conservative Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera quoted him approvingly as calling for these women to "accept the enemy and make him flesh of their flesh." He had adamantly opposed the use of the "morning-after pill," even in these desperate circumstances.

Swiss theologian Hans Kung has written: "After the fall of Soviet Communism, the Roman Catholic Church represents the only dictatorial system in the Western world today . . . one which confers a monopoly of power and truth to one man." In caving in to this man's dictates, the Ladies of Notre Dame are paying a high moral price, denying aid to some of the world's poorest children: $4,000 might fund a great many immunizations. The cruelty of the decision does not make sense. Do these women really believe that all those Christians from other denominations, who practice birth control and support sensible family planning globally, are engaging in wicked practices that put their immortal souls at risk? The notion is too mad to contemplate.

This war over reproductive issues is one Rome is not prepared to lose, for women's control of their own fertility leads to women's empowerment. The clerical mind is terrified of women; the idea of real equality between the sexes is very threatening to the Catholic male shaman. So, as the U.S. gears up for elections in the year 2000, the Vatican has begun to develop what it hopes will be a winning strategy. A story in the National Catholic Reporter (June 5, 1998) outlines the plan:

"With its recent $57 million purchase of 10 AM stations in major markets across the country, the new 'Catholic Radio Network' will be America's largest system of radio outlets with a Catholic orientation . . . [It] will employ a 24-hour, all-talk format with a basic faith and values approach. . . ." While programming will target the 70 million U.S. Catholics, the audience is also expected to include those on the Protestant and Orthodox Christian right. The operation will be professional: slick and well-funded. One major investor, Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza, has long promoted the Pope's agenda. Opus Dei's imprint will be inevitable, given its experience in print and broadcast journalism around the world, and its control of Vatican media. Morning and evening, these shows will stay on message. The drumbeat of propaganda against contraception, reproductive choice, and sensible sex education will be incessant.

In his epilogue to Their Kingdom Come, Robert Hutchison wrote that Opus Dei's drive to dominate the Roman Catholic Church "is of a determination not seen since the Counter Reformation This makes its existence a matter of concern to everyone, whether the holder of a Catholic baptismal certificate or a simple pedestrian in the secular city." (Hutchison also reports that Opus Dei has been accused of financing anti-abortion commandos during the 1990s here in the U.S.)

There are increasingly well-organized dissident groups within the Roman Catholic Church - two such are the Call to Action and Catholics for a Free Choice, mentioned at the beginning of this essay. They are challenging Vatican dogma on several fronts, demanding the ordination of women, an end to priestly celibacy, and a reversal of the sanction against artificial contraception. But these folk are no match for the forces arrayed on the other side. Rome is intimidating and will clobber the faithful opposition with the formidable sanctions at its disposal, including excommunication, which a bishop in Nebraska has already invoked against members of Call to Action in his diocese. In my judgment, it is going to take a determined political coalition of religious and secular progressives to thwart this aggressive re-assertion of patriarchal ideology.


Ann Pettifer is a journalist living in the Midwest. She was the first woman admitted as an undergraduate to the University of Notre Dame. Currently she publishes an alternative monthly, Common Sense, at the University.


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