Exploring Human Potential

Will Catholic Women Accept Second Class Status?

Posted on | May 4, 2022 | 10 Comments

Mike Magee

In this week’s New York Times, in an article titled, “Overturning Roe is a Radical, Not Conservative, Choice,” conservative columnist, Bret Stephens, lays out a reasoned summary of the current controversy over a leaked Supreme Court decision that addresses the survival of Roe v. Wade.

His account of the medical history, however, includes a fundamental error – both in fact, and in timing. In the piece, Stephens writes about the 1973 decision, “It set off a culture war that polarized the country, radicalized its edges and made compromise more difficult.” 

Well, not exactly. As I describe in my 2020 book, CODE BLUE, only a small segment of religious leaders from one religious denomination voiced opposition to Roe v. Wade in 1973, and their opposition had been long-standing, active and vigorous.

That denomination was Roman Catholicism, the religion of choice for just 22% of Americans, but also the religion that 7 of our current 9 Justices were born into, and all five signatories on the recent leaked decision. That leaves only Elena Kagan who is Jewish, and incoming Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson who identifies her religion as non-denominational Protestant.

As opposed to Southern Christian Evangelicals, who came relatively late to the abortion issue, Roman Catholics have a long history of activism when it comes to control over women’s bodies and their sexual behavior. The Catholic Church, patriarchal, vertically integrated and highly centralized, has been waging a century-old pitched battle against “artificial contraception,” which it views as not only interfering with God’s plan and limiting the scale of future parishioners, but also challenging priestly authority.

Birth-controllers in the past were lumped with “adulterers, fornicators, prostitutes, drunkards, Mass Skippers” who had given way to “madness of the senses.” The issues of birth control and women’s health not only defined the boundaries of priestly authority; they were the fundamental differentiating features separating Catholic hospitals from their competitors. These institutions, which today make up more than 12 percent of US hospitals, prohibited instruction in the use of contraceptives and procedures like vasectomies and tubal ligations. Most important, they outlawed the performance of abortions and aggressively campaigned against the legalization of the procedure and have remained in the lead in attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade. Once run by nuns “in the service of God,” these hospitals are predominantly under secular management these days, with their boards tightly supervised by Catholic bishops.

Evangelical Christians, in contrast, came late to the struggle against birth control and legalized abortion. As recently as 1968, the membership of the Christian Medical Society refused to endorse a proclamation that labeled abortion as sinful.  In 1971, America’s leading conservative religious organization, the Southern Baptist Convention, went on record as encouraging its members “to work for legislation that would allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

In 1973, both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Christian Medical Society chose not to actively oppose the Supreme Court ruling against a Texas law prohibiting abortion known as Roe v. Wade, and reaffirmed that position in 1974 and 1976. The Southern Baptist Convention’s views on abortion were part of its long-standing support for the separation of church and state, and Baptist medical communities largely opposed the idea of churches and their pastors wading into delicate health care issues.

In addition, abortion was an issue long associated with “the other team,” namely Roman Catholics. To take up abortion as a moral (and political) issue would require cooperation with the very group that Protestantism had long ago risen up in protest against. 

But in 1970, a Nixon-era journalist named Paul Michael Weyrich arrived on the political scene, and with beer magnate Joseph Coor’s help, launched the Heritage Foundation. stating “The New Right is looking for issues that people care about. Social issues, at the present, fit the bill.”

It took a decade, and false starts including Anita Bryant’s anti-gay campaign and forays into “book-burning”, but in the summer of 1980 the self identified “Moral Majority” listened intently to then candidate Ronald Reagan address the Christian Coalition’s annual policy meeting and say, “I know you can’t endorse me, but I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing.” That included defeating Roe v. Wade.

This new Moral Majority got “their man” (a divorced, completely secular product of Hollywood and corporate America) into the White House. Whereas 61 percent of conservative Christians had voted in the 1972 presidential election, 66 percent voted in both 1976 and 1980, and they voted overwhelmingly Republican. Motivated by anti-abortion sermons delivered by”Father-priests” from Catholic pulpits across America, Catholics voted in favor of Reagan, 51% to 40%. 

John Gehring, a director of the clergy network, Faith in Public Life, sees the effort to elect Catholic Justices as highly organized through investment in Catholic law schools and networks that actively feed the pipeline of candidates. “The problem is not how many justices are Catholic. The cause for alarm is the court’s ideological lurch to the right, and what that means for health care, voting rights and other moral issues at stake in this election.”

In 1980, the new fundamentalist tag team of Evangelical Christians and conservative Roman Catholics espoused conservative politics first, social issues second, and fundamentalist religious fervor a distant third. Four decades later, as book banning, gay-shaming, and undermining women’s autonomy return, they appear to have reversed their priorities.


10 Responses to “Will Catholic Women Accept Second Class Status?”

  1. Denise G. Link
    May 5th, 2022 @ 7:23 am

    Will Catholic (and a majority of women from all backgrounds) fight for autonomy over their bodies and personal decisions? Will men stand up for reproductive health rights? Will healthcare professionals? Will all groups whose gains in society hinge on protecting privacy? Voting for candidates who oppose overturning Roe is the only clear and effective path to reversing many regressive laws that have been and will be passed if Roe falls. My concern is that more will care about their pocketbooks and leave women to “fight their own battles”. The political commentators are betting on conservative victories. Where is the American spirit that pulled together during WW II, planted victory gardens, used gas and other rationing stamps, saved paper and aluminum foil, sacrificed nearly en masse for the common good? If ALL those whose rights will be in serious jeopardy pull in the same direction we have the victory. Will all care?

  2. Mel
    May 5th, 2022 @ 8:06 am

    Important history reminder. The Heritage Foundation and Moral Majority was also racist, wanting segregation in schools, and used the abortion issue to pull in more supporter. Their racist school policies are also gaining more and more support, too.

  3. Mike Magee
    May 5th, 2022 @ 8:57 am

    Thanks, Mel, for these important insights. As you point out, the real goal was maintenance of segregated Southern schools. The ultimate igniting event: In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that Bob Jones University, often called “the buckle on the Bible Belt,” could not receive federal funds so long as it continued to discriminate on the basis of race.

  4. Mike Magee
    May 5th, 2022 @ 8:59 am

    Thanks, Denise, for these insights. “Pulling in the same direction” is indeed the challenge for us all!

  5. Joshua Sands
    May 5th, 2022 @ 12:16 pm

    Thanks again Mike for a provocative post. It leads to the question is the retraction of a given right, for over 50 years, based on a religious idea? And, if so, could a legal challenge be based on Separation of Church/State as well as previously determined right to privacy? Are the Right to Life ideas secular or religious?

  6. Lawrence Williams
    May 5th, 2022 @ 12:25 pm

    Mr. Stephens states in his article “A court that betrays the trust of Americans on an issue that affects so many, so personally, will lose their trust on every other issue as well.” and he is absolutely correct.

    Hopefully catholic women, and women of all religious and political affiliations, will not focus on the single issue of abortion but rather will take a broader view of the many human rights issues that are now or soon will be the subjects of governmental action and thus are going to determine their futures and the futures of generations of women yet to come. If they do that they will see that they must vote for progressive candidates at all levels of government.

  7. Mike Magee
    May 5th, 2022 @ 12:31 pm

    Larry, you correctly point to abortion as an “entry point” or “control lever” to allow those in control to determine what is “right” for each of us. If we under-estimate where this is all heading, we do so at our own risk. Thanks, Mike

  8. Mike Magee
    May 5th, 2022 @ 12:56 pm

    Thanks, Josh, for these insights. You are right that one might easily consider this a “Church/State” issue, understanding that the push back historically has been “Freedom of Religion” – thus allowing Catholic hospitals not to cover contraceptives for employees of their health plans. Justice William O. Douglas, in Griswold v. Connecticut, took a different approach. In the Majority Opinion, Douglas wrote: “Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives? The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship. We deal with a right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights — older than our political parties, older than our school system.”

    In justifying the decision, he introduced an astronomical term, penumbra – the partially shaded outer region of the shadow cast by an opaque object such as the Earth. In Justice Douglas’s words, “The provisions of the Bill of Rights created ‘emanations’ of protection that created ‘penumbras’ within which rights could still be covered even if not explicitly enumerated in the Constitution.”

    I am certainly no expert on the law, but I believe what he was saying here was that, at some point, common sense must dictate.

    Thanks, Mike

    May 6th, 2022 @ 10:32 am

    Frank Bruni (N.Y.Times) pointed out one of the greatest dangers represented by the Court’s action: “We’re devolving further into minority rule.”

    I fear for the future of this country.

  10. Mike Magee
    May 6th, 2022 @ 10:54 am

    Thanks, Art. You’re right – the question is whether we have checks and balances any longer that can protect against minority rule. Best, Mike

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