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Op-Ed: The Catholic Church Is Not For Women


And now The Opinion Page. The debate over contraception, health coverage and the Catholic Church heated up again in recent weeks. Catholic bishops opposed President Obama's plan that would require insurers to provide birth control at no additional cost. It also reopened discussion among some Catholic women on their place in the church, including Huffington Post writer Soraya Chemaly, who decided that there's no place for her in the Catholic Church. While she acknowledges that there's such a thing as working for change from within, she herself walked.

We want to hear from women in our audience who are Catholic. How do you and the church fit together nowadays? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. But now, Soraya Chemaly joins us here in our studio, Studio 3A. Her piece in The Huffington Post is titled "I'm No Longer a Catholic. Why Are You?" Soraya, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.


DONVAN: And about the title itself, it's not only a strong statement, it's also - it also sounds almost as though you're trying to rally other women to make the same decision, with the "why are you?"

CHEMALY: I think - well, in the first place, it's actually men and women. When I - this is a deeply longstanding, deeply held belief of mine. And when I talk about Catholicism or Orthodoxy and misogyny, the thing that I often hear back is, well, that's if equality is important to you. That's one. And then the second thing I hear is, well, it's not accurate to say that men and women are not equal in the church.

DONVAN: That's the pushback that you get.

CHEMALY: Yes. Both, those two things. And so I thought, OK, well, this is a deeply personal decision that people make. And for me personally as I wrote, the decision came down to the fact that staying in the church, working within the church was unacceptable if I also believed that men and women are equal. So I was - I sort of categorically said that's it, that's my decision and moved on from that point. But for a lot of people, that's clearly not the way they see it. And so my piece talked about why I'd come to that conclusion and why I left the church with the question: What is important to you? Do you really believe in equality or not?

DONVAN: What - tell me about the beginning of this journey. Is this something recent for you or is this a long, long process?

CHEMALY: No. This is a long process. So I would say that probably - and this is where the idea of cognitive dissonance comes in. I think if you're a woman in the church - and I'm talking about Catholicism, but I think it's true for women in Abrahamic faiths, if they're serious about their faith. And so probably the initial point for me was wanting to be involved in the church and wanting to be a priest and...

DONVAN: As a - this is as a child?

CHEMALY: As a child.

DONVAN: Mm-hmm.

CHEMALY: And you can't be a priest as a woman in this church. And so I started asking questions, and the answers that I got were not sufficient. So it took me a good 10 or 12 years in which I studied theology, studied the history of the church. I went to a Jesuit school. And even after all of that, I just had to come to the conclusion that the rationales being provided were insufficient. And that if you talk about the origins of doctrine being - as having their origin in a certain time and place, then at some point you have to say, well, we are no longer in that time and place.

And the men who were thinkers in terms of hermeneutics or theology were first and foremost men of their time. And we are no longer in that time. And we should be re-evaluating that.

DONVAN: Well, I mean, as you say, this is true of many faiths - Judaism, for example, and Islam. And the point is often made in, I think, also in the Catholic Church and in these other faiths that the things that were written 2,000 to 4,000 years ago reflected that time. But then, in fact, the institutions have actually evolved. And so to hold them to account for - I mean, if you go back 4,000 years, the things that are written in the Old Testament talk about all matter of behaviors...

CHEMALY: All kinds of things - that's right.

DONVAN: ...that are no longer sanctioned at all by Judaism or practiced in any way by Judaism.


DONVAN: So why hold the church to account for some patriarchal time that persisted 2,000 years ago, 4,000 years ago.

CHEMALY: Well, I don't it just - I don't think it persisted 2,000 years ago. I think it's alive and well in the Vatican. I mean, there is no... there's no way to describe, I don't think, without - there's no way to describe the response to the question of equality in the church without going back to church fathers, church doctrine, the consolidation of the faith. And even contemporary - I think contemporary responses - and by contemporary, I mean 1976, for example - when the church looked at the position of women, and they came up with the Pontifical Biblical Commission, there was no justification given in that document, biblical justification for keeping women out of the priesthood, for example.

But I mean - I think to circle back as to why I asked the question in the first place, as to why someone would still remain Catholic, it's because I think that Catholics, in this country, are part of a modern, culturally pluralistic society, and they're acting on their own individual consciences in defiance of the bishops. And by saying that I'm Catholic, for example, I give power to a hierarchy that is doing harm to me, personally and to my children, and, I think, to society in general.

And so there are lots of Catholic organizations, of people working within the faith to say, no, we're going to change it. So Catholics For Choice or women Catholic priests, and I applaud them for doing that. It's not something that I personally could do, but I know many people are doing that, and they're trying to do that.

But in the instance of contraception, in particular, I just think the rife absurdity of having 456 men dictate, through dogma, what 150 million women do with their health care is - it's just baffling to me that we could be having this conversation.

DONVAN: Well, I mean, to put it - to take on the issue of the sex of the leadership of the church on this particular point, why - just because the bishops are all men, and ...


DONVAN: ...absolutely conceding that the bishops are all men...


DONVAN: ...why they - you feel that they can't have a valid opinion on this that's reasoned? And I'm not sure that's not what you're saying, but, you know, we have male doctors and male teachers...


DONVAN: ...and men in all sorts of parts of life that certainly are involved in aspects of our life that would be very personal to our bodies and to our beliefs. And in this case, using that argument against them in this case, I just want you to take that on a little bit.

CHEMALY: OK. So there are a couple of points that I'd like to make about that. One is this is not in any way a condemnation of men. It is a condemnation of systematized misogyny. And it's very, very difficult, I think, for people to make that distinction sometimes. So when you look at the church's hierarchy and you see that it is all male, that is part of a larger system in which their interpretation of faith is reliant on a definition of humanity that is singularly focused on human as male. And until you can have a diverse - and by that I mean racial, specifically gendered in this case - but until you can have a diversity of opinion and experience, and you can have an informed definition of humanity as fully male and female, then I think that hierarchy, all male, and acting as it does, is not in any way in a position to tell me what's human; and as a woman, to tell me how I should manage my health or my body or my faith.

DONVAN: I want to bring in an email that we just received from a listener who writes - her name is Jenny(ph): I also left the church over a year ago. The reason I did so, I was tired of being a cafeteria Catholic - only picking and choosing the parts which I could morally and spiritually agree with. The focus of the Catholics has been much too much on man-made rules - and I'm not sure she means male-made or human-made - man-made rules - and thought of that of the Lord's teaching that I have joined the Episcopal Church, and I'm very happy with my decision. They combine the tradition, which I love, along with a more open-minded life which is needed. After I was married and had children, it became increasingly difficult for me to relate to a Catholic priest whom I could consult with, a person who may not be married and does not have children. Sound familiar to you? Does it ring true to you?

CHEMALY: It does ring true to me. You know, I think that one of the things that struck me as very difficult as a very young person, as a young woman, was that I was somehow expected to be hypocritical about my faith; or to somehow, for example, lie about contraception. Even though every woman I knew was using contraception, I wasn't supposed to talk about it.

DONVAN: In the church setting, you mean?

CHEMALY: In the community I was in - whether in the church setting, in the Catholic community, in the schools that I was part of. And what I really resented about that was that not only was it hypocritical, and I was expected to behave in that way, to somehow acknowledge publicly the church's teachings but privately not - was that it would then be used against me to say I'm sinful, or I'm scheming, you know, look at how inherently terrible women are. They act behind your backs, they...

DONVAN: And you're saying it's only because that issue was prohibited, that you could - that was put into that category for you? In other words, you weren't being sneaky about lots of other things.

CHEMALY: No. I mean, that I'm not a sneaky person, so that was not going to be one of the things I did.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Joanna(ph) from Boise, Idaho. Hi, Joanna. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.



JOANNA: I just wanted to kind of provide my point of view. I think there's - I've been Catholic my whole life. I went to Catholic school. I still go to church on Sunday. I'm 26 years old, and I think there's a big difference between Rome and what's happening locally - what messages we're hearing locally. You know, I went to Engaged Encounter before I got married. You have to do that. And the question, obviously, came up about contraception. And the priest, you know, I don't think he can say, yes, use birth control, but he did say, you have to make decisions for you. You have to family plan. So I think that what you're hearing from Rome and what you're hearing locally is going to be a lot different.

And I think that - I mean, I feel the same way, I think that women should be priests, and I know a lot of people who do - a lot of women. And I think that that's going to happen. I think that's going to come, but not under this Pope.

DONVAN: But, Joanna, do you find that you can live with the fact that there's a difference between Rome and the message here? You can live in that space in between and stay within the church?

JOANNA: I do. I think that, for me, it's my relationship with God. That's what's most important, and I think the Catholic Church facilitates my relationship. But to me, it doesn't - I don't feel like I'm a cafeteria Catholic. I feel like, how can you expect millions of people to all be on the same exact page? To me, it's not all or nothing, you know? It's not that black and white, you know?

DONVAN: All right.

JOANNA: My grandma is 85 years old, and she's one of the most progressive Catholics I know. And that's where she was raised - under, like, the JFK - that's kind of the peak of her - when she was about my age.

DONVAN: Soraya, what about - Joanna's saying it's not that black and white.

CHEMALY: No. I agree with you. I don't think it's black and white. I think it's massively complex. And for me, one of the issues - clearly thinking forward for me - was that I couldn't justify having children and having to explain this in ways that made no sense to me. It was just not something I could do. And so, complementarianism, for example...

DONVAN: Meaning?

CHEMALY: Meaning that there are roles for men and roles for women, and they are equal - is to me just not true. Because it functions in a clearly hierarchical structure, and its function is to keep women in their place in the home, perpetually pregnant - or close to that, if possible - and not in the public space, not in the public realm, privately acting in ways that are in contravention to the publicly stated way of the world. And that's just, for me, personally, something I reject.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Trish from Philadelphia. Hi, Trish. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

TRISH: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.


TRISH: I have a completely opposite opinion about this. I think that individual people may have made your speaker feel this way, but in the church - I'm a practicing Catholic - and I feel that I am affirmed in the church. I'm not neutered by birth control, to say that, you know, your femininity doesn't matter, like neuter yourself and make yourself acceptable to the world. I think that the bishops have a role in God's plan. It's not a secular role, a political role. And I feel like I'm more affirmed as a woman in the church than out of the church.

CHEMALY: I completely understand that, but in that case, I think the bishops have absolutely no place beating the country into a frenzy over universal women's health issues. I just don't - I mean, there are many, many ways in which secular rules overrule religious rules for other faiths in this country.

TRISH: Well, you can tell your - the Jewish friends that there's a law to - they must sell pork in their kosher delis. That is a parallel that I would like you to see - to explain to your Jewish friends.

CHEMALY: I'm not exactly sure what your point is there. I will...

TRISH: That is - if it's against your faith, why do you need to be forced to support something that is against your faith, whether it makes any sense to anyone else or not.

CHEMALY: I'm not - we clearly will see this differently. If you're talking about freedom of religion, versus...

TRISH: Yes, I am.

CHEMALY: ...versus women's rights, right?

TRISH: I'm talking about freedom of religion.

CHEMALY: And you're talking about the contraception...

TRISH: In my life as a woman is I would like to practice my religion without being forced to accept and pay for something that violates my religion.

CHEMALY: Actually, you're not paying for anything that violates your religion. A person works, and they are compensated for their work. They're compensated through a combination of their salary and health benefits.

DONVAN: What - Soraya, what are we really arguing about here - you and Trish?

CHEMALY: Well, I think we're arguing about control. And when we talk about birth control, we're actually talking about the control of reproduction in general, and the control of how women's bodies are used, either...

TRISH: How women's bodies are used, exactly.


TRISH: That's exactly what we're talking about.

CHEMALY: So the question is who has agency over a woman's body? The woman herself or in this case, from my perspective, bishops who are saying, this is the way we see contraception. It's immoral. I personally think what's immoral is incurring all of the risks and health implications of not using contraception.

DONVAN: All right, Trish, I want to thank your for your call and I...

TRISH: Being a woman...

DONVAN: Say again?

TRISH: Being a woman means you have the capacity to give life in most cases unless something is not all right with you, so be...

DONVAN: Trish, I have to cut you off only because we're out of time, but I'm glad that you were able to get in that last couple of sentences. We are out of time, and I want to thank all of our listeners who are standing by who would have liked to join this conversation. And I want to thank Soraya Chemaly...

CHEMALY: Thank you, John.

DONVAN: ...who writes about gender and culture for The Huffington Post and The Feminist Wire among other sites. Her piece "I'm No Longer a Catholic: Why Are You?" ran in The Huffington Post last month. There is a link to it in npr.org. Go click on TALK OF THE NATION. She joined us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much, Soraya.

CHEMALY: Thanks, John.

DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.