JT Barbarese: The Catholic Church has a lot to answer for
This column first appeared in the New York Daily News and is reprinted with permission.
By JT Barbarese
When I was 11, my father traveled from Philadelphia to Florida for a job he never got. My family was already large: five people living on one floor of a row house with a breadwinner who had, alas, trouble holding down a job. So when Pop got home, with the Florida move obviously off the table, we stayed put in Philly. What I found out decades later, after both my parents were gone, was that my mother, shortly after that, got an abortion. It is pretty clear why: it’s the same reason many lower-middle class parents decide not to add another family member they can’t afford to feed, shelter and clothe. The decision was both perfectly natural and rational based not on the status of the aborted fetus but on the welfare of the living.
Raised a cradle Catholic, I remember finding condoms in the top drawer of my father’s dresser. I was probably looki
g for something else — his Army Air Corps patch, or the penknife his father gave him. I didn’t know what I had in my hand until I told a friend.
“Rubbers,” he said. “For catching babies.” Which led to a longer conversation. By then it was apparent to most Catholics that the rhythm method, advertised in the ’50s and based on lunar cycles, was a fiction cooked up by the celibate and the childless.
Our story can’t be unique. For decades, Catholics have been supporting their parishes, sending their kids to Catholic schools and making their Easter duty. At the same time, they have been in willing, if covert, violation of the Vatican’s ban on all birth control. We know what the church’s position is on abortion — a mortal sin that condemns the sinner, absent forgiveness given by a celibate priest, to eternities in hell. With the recent news that Kansans voted to protect abortion rights came the revelation that the Catholic Church was backing a phony email campaign in Kansas designed to confuse voters by manipulative language guaranteed to turn a “yes” into a “no,” and vice versa.
The churchmen who preach and enforce these dogmas do so with no experience of marriage, raising families, paying mortgages on a 40-hour work week, or raising kids. They live on the tab of the Vatican, which separates them from most evangelical pastors who, whatever their other faults, get too much of the blame for the present predatory and ghoulish form of Christianity. Priests live rent-free on land not taxed by the government, often go unprosecuted when accused of serious crimes, and hardly know what it means to raise a family.
Yet these are the same men — they’re all men — who confidently declare that people like my late parents are spending an eternity in hell beside the other sinners — the cops, teachers, firemen and hairdressers, longshoremen and members of the middle class who steadily attend and tithe their churches. They do so with arrogant indifference to circumstances and little or no compassion.
And, because the Catholic Church is possibly the last of the totally top-down religious entities, with a continuous history of influence and power going back nearly two millennia, it apparently feels no need to justify its actions or angst over doctrinal fissures, which is the height of institutional arrogance. Instead, it issues apologies for the deaths of indigenous children in Catholic boarding schools, or for only lately admitting they were “wrong” about Galileo. Evangelism, on the other hand, is like all Protestantism in that it is healthily sect-ridden and lacks a papacy that authorizes doctrinal uniformity.
The present constitution of the Supreme Court should give many of us pause, given how much the Catholic Church has to answer for. Ask yourself, if you haven’t already, how you would feel if there were six Jews, six Muslims, or for that matter, six Druids in the ruling majority? The U.S. Constitution has the force of both law and human precedent; a Papal Bull has no legal basis, yet wields great power over the faithful. The Catholic jurists, of course, justify their position by appealing to legal precedent dating to the 18th century. The implication is that their legal training overrides their religious beliefs, which, given the ruling, is difficult to accept.
This is not an attack aimed at the rank-and-file Catholic parishioner, but at the papacy and the credulity that it inflicts on ordinary churchgoers, who were human beings before they were baptized into a faith that turns them into involuntary hypocrites, forced to contribute to the church’s greater and more influential hypocrisy by covertly using birth control or getting abortions. Why a family’s sexual economy must be regulated by the unmarried who live in enforced celibacy is an insult to objectivity, common sense and to morality — and ultimately, to American democracy.
JT Barbarese is a professor of English at Rutgers.