The Connection Between Catholicism and Feminism

Feminist Conversations is a regular series here at Feminists For Choice. We spotlight feminists to find out what feminism means to them. Today I’m talking to Meghan Smith, who integrates Catholic for Choice’s US policy activities and advocacy throughout the country by fostering relationships with collegial organizations and compiling legislative and policy analyses. She develops educational materials outlining CFC’s unique perspective on issues of reproductive health and right,s and engages in other efforts supporting CFC’s mission at the state level. Ms. Smith holds a bachelor of arts degree in English and Creative Writing from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.

1. When was Catholics for Choice founded, and what was the motivation for starting the organization?
Catholics for Choice is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. CFC was founded in 1973, the same year as the Roe v Wade decision, to serve as a voice for the majority of Catholics, who believe that our faith tradition supports every woman’s moral agency and right to follow her own conscience when making decisions about her reproductive health. We’ve a long and storied history, but, as a global movement, Catholics for Choice has worked internationally and throughout the United States to raise the voices of Catholics who disagree with the Vatican and who support access to safe, legal reproductive healthcare services for themselves and their neighbors.

2. What are some of the stereotypes that you feel people have about the Catholic Church’s position on abortion? Why do you feel those stereotypes exist?
It is certainly true that some people think that the opinions of the Catholic hierarchy represent the opinions of all Catholics. However, that is not the case at all. There are more than one billion Catholics around the world and almost 70 million here in the United States. The Catholic Church includes all of us, not just our bishops and the Vatican—who interpret Catholic teachings very narrowly. When it comes to reproductive health, people on both sides of the issue sometimes wrongly assume that all Catholics are anti-choice, or that you cannot be a pro-choice Catholic. In truth, the majority of Catholics are pro-choice not in spite of our faith, but because of it. Catholic women use birth control and have abortions at rates similar to women from other religions and no religion, and Catholics as a whole support access to those services for ourselves and our neighbors.

I do think that the stereotypes about Catholics exist for same reasons that all stereotypes exist. People seeking political leverage paint a group as being something it’s not, people within that group become afraid to speak out because we are consistently told that we do not or cannot exist, and when one of us does speak out, we are seen as an anomaly even if we are not, precisely because we do not fit the preconceived notion of who we are “supposed” to be. When people hear U.S. Representative Xavier Becerra (D-CA), for instance, speaking about being a pro-choice Catholic legislator as he did on “Meet the Press” last year, they dismiss him as being the exception to the rule rather than actually representing a position that most Catholics agree with.

There are frequent breakthrough moments, though, and that is part of why we at Catholics for Choice exist. When one of our activists from Florida speaks at a press conference to challenge the idea that all Catholics in the state supported the Florida bishops’ campaign to restrict abortion funding, or when a Catholic state legislator from Missouri writes an op-ed supporting true religious liberty and contraceptive coverage, then we know that we are challenging and dismantling those false stereotypes about Catholics, not just by speaking out ourselves, but by empowering others to do the same.

3. Why did you decide to get involved with Catholics for Choice?

Being a Catholic informs so much of who I am and what I believe about the world that I couldn’t drop my faith any more than I could change the color of my eyes—even if I put in contacts, I’d still be viewing the world through the lenses that I was born with. I grew up in a rural, tiny southern New England town where Catholicism was a central part of my community and family. My mother’s parents were hugely faithful Catholics who immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland; my father’s mother was raised by Catholic nuns; and many of my immediate family members worked for and continue to work for the Church. Catholicism has always been more to me than just Sunday Mass. Catholic nuns introduced me to new books when I was a child and left bread on my grandparents’ doorstep. My priest brought me communion and well-wishes when I was sick. And the parish hall was the place for me to volunteer with my best friend in high school.

Catholicism is a faith that I was encouraged to apply to all parts of my life, with charity and consistency. I saw lived out by my family and community members through their own social justice work. It didn’t add up with the Catholicism I knew when I heard my deacon demand that we oppose my state’s same-sex marriage bill, or when pundits questioned John Kerry’s right to receive communion during his presidential bid. To me, there is nothing more Catholic than standing up for the human dignity of all people and ensuring that each person’s moral agency is respected.

As a pro-choice Catholic, denying women the same steadfast solidarity that I have seen the Church extend to all other people is an affront to my faith. Catholics for Choice has been the best place, then, for me to live out the compassionate and conscience-centered faith that I love.

4. Do you identify as a feminist? If so, why? And what does feminism mean to you?
I absolutely identify as a feminist because I believe that supporting each woman’s autonomy and inherent worth as a fellow human being is simply a part of being a decent person and promoting a better world. Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether offers my favorite definition of feminism, which she defines as the “affirmation of the full humanity of women.” To me, that concise explanation captures the ways in which feminism, like Catholicism, is supposed to support the whole person, and the ways in which feminism, like Catholicism, is grounded in recognition of each person’s human dignity.

5. Will Pope Francis help shift the view of Catholics and the Church’s position on abortion?
As a Catholic I believe in miracles, and so I of course will always hold out hope that the hierarchy will change its dangerous and misguided stances on everything from abortion to contraception. It remains to be seen whether Pope Francis will heed his own call to open the church up to the world and therefore listen to the needs of women and families for whom access to reproductive health is absolutely critical. I and many Catholics hope this will be the case. In the meantime, we will continue to make sure that the voices of the rank and file Catholics who support reproductive rights are heard over the megaphone of the hierarchy.

To learn more about Catholics for Choice, please visit our website, or watch our movie, “The Secret History of Sex, Choice and Catholics.”

About Serena:
Serena is a freelance writer who enjoys baking, protesting, and playing with little dogs.

Comments

  1. Thank you for the informative article. I think where some of the stereotypical hang ups may come from is the phrase “Women’s Reproductive Health.” It seems to me that some want to smash the whole need / services area into one category of abortion only. Instead it begins with education and training pre-puberty on how to care for one’s body to ensure optimum health of the individual and family.

    • Thanks for bringing up that point. You’re correct. The anti-choice folks like to lump all reproductive health care into one bucket. Breast exams, pap smears, pregnancy, STD testing . . . All of these are services that clinics provide.

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