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Why the Catholic Church needs to woman-up: The silly, dangerous war against contraception

Austin Photo: Author_Christina Pesoli

When my son Aaron was a freshman in high school I had to have a little chat with him. It was clear that he was over his girlfriend of a few months. But rather than doing the stand-up thing and leveling with her, he was taking the cowardly way out: He was trying to engineer it so she would break up with him. 

If you’re one of the lucky few who has neither witnessed nor been on the receiving end of this treatment, let me explain what this strategy looks like. It typically has three phases: First, the boy powers down the attention he used to shower on you. If that doesn’t work, he then cranks up the jerky treatment. And if you’re still foolish enough to stay with him, the third stage usually does the trick, that’s when he outright betrays you. 

I clued into the situation with Aaron and his girlfriend during phase one. I noticed that there were no more long phone calls between the two of them. And gone were the days when he’d scramble to answer the phone when it rang. Now it would ring and ring and he wouldn’t even bother to budge. And when she did manage to catch him, he’d come up with a reason to get off the phone quickly — and then never call her back. It was painful to watch.

“Aaron, if you’ve lost interest in her you have to gut it up and break up with her. If you think it’s kinder to wait it out until she breaks up with you, it’s not, it’s just cowardly and mean.”

 By launching a war against the Obama Administration for requiring Catholic hospitals and universities to provide contraception as part of employee health plans, the church’s behavior rises to the level of betrayal. 

Fortunately for everyone, it only went on for a day or two longer. They had The Talk and it was over. I’m not saying it was easy on either of them, but in the long run it was better. It always is. 

Recently I woke up to the fact that I’m in phase three in my relationship with the Catholic Church, but was too stubborn or naïve to notice phases one and two.  Phase one was the church’s refusal to make any progress in the department of gender equality beyond the laughably small token gesture of allowing girls to be altar servers in the early 1990s.  Phase two was when the then-pastor of my church uninvited me to teach my daughter’s First Holy Communion class because he felt my support of Planned Parenthood might rile up imaginary hardcore conservative members of our parish.

Typically, whenever someone is on the receiving end of this treatment from her boyfriend (and there is an official name for it:  Passive Uncoupling and Separation System for Yahoos — or you can just refer to it by its acronym for short), her friends often ask why she’s allowing herself to be treated like this. The responses usually range from the pitiful, “You don’t know all the good there is in him” to the completely pathetic “But he really needs me.” 

If relationships are complicated, religion can be impossibly so — especially if it’s a religion you’re born into. The truth is I do feel the church has a lot of good in it. When I was a kid, all of my parents’ friends were both Catholic and liberal. These were educated, conscientious people who lived their values. They worked hard to bring about social change, end wars and protect the poor. They chose the greater good of everyone over their own individual self interest every single day. Growing up surrounded by this example had a huge impact on calibrating my moral compass as well as defining what it meant to be Catholic. 

I have not been blind to the failings, both small and colossal, of the church. But when you are part of something bigger than you — something that spans centuries, involves fallible human beings (yes, including the Pope) and prominently features both money and power — mistakes come with the territory.

I’m not saying it’s easy to shake these mistakes off — trust me, it’s not. In fact, its history of getting issues wrong and then stubbornly staying the course in some ways makes it more frustrating than reassuring when the church quickly sizes up an issue and gets it exactly right (like the war in Iraq and the Occupy movement).

As to the question of why I haven’t left the church, I could ask my liberal friends the same question regarding their U.S. citizenship. In light of their opposition over the years to U.S. policies on foreign, domestic, economic and social issues, why haven’t they emigrated? Religion can be as much a part of one’s identity as nationality. I know it is for me. 

So far, rather than leave either my country or my church, I have elected to stay but speak up and hopefully help to bring about change. So, yes, as pathetic as it may sound, I (perhaps foolishly) love the church and I (perhaps pitifully) believe the church needs me.

 It’s long past time for the church to get over this hang-up.  Birth control is a good thing.  It’s good for women.  It’s good for families.  It’s good for the planet. 

But now I’m in phase three. By launching a war against the Obama Administration for requiring Catholic hospitals and universities to provide contraception as part of employee health plans, the church’s behavior rises to the level of betrayal. When all issues are taken into consideration (including economic equality and providing a safety net for the poor) and not just the tired old Catholic hot button issues of contraception generally and abortion specifically, Obama’s policies are more in line with the Church’s positions than any of the GOP candidates’ proposed policies — including the Catholic candidates. Waging a war against the Obama administration at a time like this could sabotage Obama’s re-election, which in turn would certainly weaken and possibly even reverse these policies.

If the church is going to elevate the importance of a single issue to the detriment of all others, it should at least make it an issue the support of which stands to either improve or protect the lives of a substantial number of people — an issue like universal health care, for example (which the church supported, incidentally).  (And for the record, by "people," I mean folks for whom there is no debate as to whether they actually qualify as people.)  That way, even if I didn't agree with the logic, I could at least see the logic.

But opposing contraception?  In 2012? 

It’s long past time for the church to get over this hang-up.  Birth control is a good thing.  It’s good for women.  It’s good for families.  It’s good for the planet.  In fact, ninety-eight percent of sexually active Catholic women in this country have used it.  The church’s intractability on what should be a non-issue jeopardizes support for a litany of real issues — issues that impact the ninety-nine percent of this country that really needs help right now.  The whole stunt is reminiscent of the Tea Party’s brinksmanship over the debt ceiling last summer.  It’s as childish and pointless as it is misguided and dangerous.

I’m not really the type to make threats, but I do have a (very becoming) habit of giving advice. When it came to breaking up with his high school girlfriend all those years ago, my advice to my son was this:  If you’re going to date, you’re going to have to man-up.

When it comes to the temper tantrum over contraception that the Catholic Church is having today, however, my advice is a little different.  If the church is going to remain relevant, it's going to have to woman-up.

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