I’m a pro-choice Catholic. Contrary to popular belief, two such ideologies can exist in one person, in fact, they co-exist in a lot of people. There’s an entire non-profit organization called Catholics for Choice that advocates for reproductive rights around the globe, particularly the necessity for condoms in countries with higher rates of HIV/AIDS. But let’s back up here.
I am a cradle Catholic on my mother’s side – which means I was born, baptized, and raised in the church, within an entirely Catholic family. Unthinkingly, I was a pro-life advocate, citing the standard ideology that “all life is sacred,” and “life starts at conception.” Coming from a comfy white middle class world where nine children in one family is feasible, I thought: If my grandparents could do it, why couldn’t everyone?
This ideology didn’t last pass my middle school years, thanks to me covertly watching my brother’s copy of the 1999 drama The Cider House Rules. I understood from that point on that forcing your own opinions on other people doesn’t influence their decisions at all, it just makes their lives more dangerous. From then on I thought abortion should be legal – a rare necessity, but still available.
Growing up and embracing feminism, my world views started to shift. I started coming to terms as to how race, age, social status, ability to marry, and other social and legal barriers, intersect for individuals, making access to safe, legal, and affordable abortion a top priority feminist issue. At the same time I also graduated high school and attended a Catholic all-women’s college, where my faith – and my understanding of my faith – grew. A collection of little things, and studying religion from a scholarly perspective, transformed me from my cradle Catholic “pro-life” stance to who I am now: an adult, feminist, and pro-choice Catholic.
Luckily, I’m not standing out here on a limb all by myself – lots of other Catholics identify as pro-choice, or at least they believe in access to contraception like the pill, condoms, and other forms of modern birth control. Some of those people are Nuns on the Bus. They’re actual Roman Catholic nuns who tour the country on a bus, advocating for equality and justice, especially regarding healthcare for all, including the all-important access to contraception. It’s a political tour bus for the most part, encouraging people to vote, and holding political candidates accountable. Regardless, they’ve been highly publicized; the pope has called them out on their liberalism, and the US Bishops have done battle back and forth with them many times. Nuns on the Bus’ Sister Simone Campbell has become a leader in the group, taking one on one interviews (people like Stephen Colbert) and publishing a book titled Nun on the Bus, and a soon to be movie, describing and passionately defending their mission.
On a similar note, the radical Pope Francis (as many have claimed) recently said that in the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy, that those seeking forgiveness who had either had or performed abortions would be forgiven, absolved of their sins. It’s a monumental step in the right direction, even if it does nothing to de-stigmatize or de-criminalize abortion. In a slight, nuanced way, it acknowledges that Catholic people have complicated lives, and that an abortion or administering one to a person needing one does not diminish their faith. In the pope’s ideal world, the people seeking forgiveness regret their actions, or have either come to the church for the first time, hoping to start over fresh. In all honesty, there are Catholics out there who admittedly take and use contraception, have had abortions, and/or stand by and support those who do, successfully integrating the Catholic faith into their complicated modern lives.
Roughly 99 percent of American Catholics use contraception now or have in the past, with 81 percent believing that it is morally acceptable to do so. Approximately 46 percent of American Catholics agree that abortion should remain legal, and roughly 33 percent think it’s a morally sound action. Of course, looking at the statistics there’s a divide culturally, where Catholics of different ethnic groups approve or disapprove in different numbers within America, and among other countries as well. Which just proves that Catholics aren’t a monolith – we have different life experiences and cultural values.
It’s a nuance that’s unfortunately lost on the US Bishops. They’re not elected officials like most of the high ranking decision makers in the country, but people still believe they speak for Catholics at large. And the bishops themselves believe they speak for American Catholics as a whole. Except, while the experience of a man rising to the position of a bishop in the American Catholic society is mostly one-note, the life of any given American Catholic is vastly different, from their core values to their lived faith.
I believe this is an important distinction. It’s one thing to look at a religion, a Church, and examine the official documents – like the ones that came out of the Second Vatican Council or statements made by the Pope or issued by the Vatican – but the true heart of the Church is with its members. It’s equally important to consider how everyday Catholics live their faith – the people who make up the living, breathing Church. Everyone is charged with and entitled to keep their own faith, translating it into their own lives.
That’s how my experience with my faith evolved. I attended a Catholic college where religious studies and a Catholicism specific second level class is required as part of the liberal arts experience. Going to the original texts of the bible and even the documents from the Second Vatican Council sheds a lot of light about what you think you know; it’s an opportunity to interpret them for yourself. In doing so, anyone can see that abortion and contraception aren’t referred to at all in the bible (although there is a mention that the punishment for causing a miscarriage is not the same as it is for murder.)
The reality of faith comes down to how those words are interpreted. What does it mean to “care for your neighbor,” “care for all life,” or “be compassionate”? It really depends on how anyone looks at life and the world around them.
Nothing in the bible is going to stop you from having or supporting people who have abortions. Nothing Jesus ever said or did will condemn women for their choices or for anyone taking their reproductive life into their own hands. The basic tenants of faith that I, a devout Catholic, live by do nothing but applaud the actions people take in planning their families and lives. The people who demonize others for reproductive freedom are men in the Church who use their influence to make others believe the same. Local priests, deacons, bishops serving their diocese, and bishops or cardinals have a history of belittling people’s judgment and faith if they believe abortion is moral.
The structure of the Catholic Church demonizes abortion – not the Catholic faith or the Catholic people. I have hope that the Church can change, that as new people come in, and movements around reproductive rights gain ground, those populating the Church will come with a new perspective and understanding of the world and their faith. Other people dismiss such an idea, that with a Church unwilling to move forward with the times that it will become a religion of the past, a dead branch on the tree of Christianity. Instead, I have hope for the patriarchy of the Church, just like I have hope that feminism can dismantle other patriarchies ruling the world. (I also firmly believe in the idea of pro-life people not realizing they’re pro-choice yet, like people who get abortions and picket that same clinic. If you would like to read some such stories, they can be found here and other places on the internet.) We’ve got nuns on a bus, we have a loving and understanding faith, and progress takes time. We’re working on it. We’ll get there. Catholics can be pro-choice, and they are every day.
Guest contribution by Abby Forney