Message from the President

You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows

Jon O'Brien, Catholics for a Free Choice President

Jon O’Brien, President, Catholics for a Free Choice

Photo Credit: Eric Haase.  This picture is copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without the express permission of Catholics for a Free Choice.

There is no doubt that bringing about change in the Catholic church is a long term project. You need to be of the mindset that you are in for something that is more akin to running a marathon (a couple of times over and then once or twice more for luck) than a quick sprint to a defined finish line. Those of us working for change may have little by way of institutional improvement to show for our efforts after years and years of struggle. This can be a bit depressing at times. I remember reading Papal Sin by the Pulitzer Prize-winner Garry Wills and being struck by the fact that believing you have justice on your side is not enough when you are speaking truth to power. Those in the Vatican who corrupted the findings of the Birth Control Commission in 1969 did so because politically they saw official change as inevitably leading toward a dilution of the power they exercise over us. In the interests of retaining their power, they decided to change nothing.

To say, however, that nothing at all has changed would be just as wrong.  Even in the rarified atmosphere of the Vatican, where church leaders try to insulate themselves from reality, every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. Even as I write, real change is happening that is having a profound impact on the church.

Where better to start than in Brazil where change dramatically happened just weeks after Pope Benedict XVI’s visit, during which he denounced government plans to promote contraception.  President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva unveiled a program to provide cheap birth control pills at 10,000 drug stores across the country, saying it will give poor Brazilians “the same right that the wealthy have to plan the number of children they want.” Plans are also afoot to give people access to voluntary sterilization should they desire it. All of this took place on the heels of the pontiff’s visit, during which he had railed against contraception as a threat to “the future of the peoples” of Latin America. We know that Pope Benedict is challenged in the communications skills department, but to be so totally ignored by the politicians that he set out to influence in the most populous Catholic country in the world does not reflect well. If his future visits have similar results, he might be better advised to stay holed up in Vatican City.

Obviously President Lula and the Brazilian public representatives get it. If you want to reduce the need for abortion and stop the spread of AIDS, give people the means to protect themselves.

At the same time in Mexico City, thanks to a defiant group of Mexican politicians, some 700 women were able to request abortions at public hospitals in the first month after abortion was legalized. Hundreds more attended private clinics. Women’s groups praised city officials for moving quickly to put the law into effect after its April 24 approval by the Mexico City legislature. Women who would have been forced to seek clandestine abortions are now receiving abortions under safe conditions thanks to lawmakers who did not see their Catholic faith as an obstacle to their duty to provide services so that the poor as well as the rich can realize their right to reproductive justice.

Winds of change are blowing across the Catholic world as more and more public officials recognize that the views of the hierarchy do not reflect the views or votes of their constituents. Despite the pope and some members of the hierarchy threatening to deny the holy sacrament of communion and even wild talk of excommunication, it seems politicians are taking their cue from Catholics and placing the public good before threats from the princes of the church.

We saw the same climate change in Portugal earlier this year when people went to the polls and voted to legalize abortion. Countries like Colombia and Chile are on the verge of going the same way while in Argentina an alliance of civil society organizations have presented a draft law to Congress for the legalization of abortion in a country where illegal abortion is the main cause of maternal mortality. Argentina may look favorably on the initiative; according to a national poll on reproductive rights carried out by the Knack polling firm, the proportion of people who believe abortion should be decriminalized grew from 28 to 46 percent between 2004 and 2006. In that same period, the proportion of respondents who said they would accept full legalization of abortion on request rose from 11 to 20 percent, while the proportion of respondents who said abortion should be illegal under all circumstances shrank from 23 to 13 percent.

The situation in Argentina may have been influenced by two cases that unleashed heated public debate. Two mentally disabled young women, one of whom was a minor, were raped and became pregnant. The women and their families had to battle bureaucracy, the church and the state in order to exercise their legal right to an abortion and was enough to illustrate for the public the burning need to change the law.

In the United States, we head toward the 2008 elections and wonder if the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will toe the Vatican line and crack down on elected Catholic officials who in good conscience disagree with the hierarchy on issues related to reproductive rights. If they do so, of course, they will threaten the cozy relationships they had with and what political power they exercised over those same politicians on many other issues.

But, on a more positive note, if lawmakers in Connecticut are anything to go by, the winds of change are blowing strong in the United States as well.

In April, legislation in Connecticut mandated all hospitals to provide women who have been raped with emergency contraception. The law passed despite strong resistance from the Catholic hierarchy, which sought an exemption for Catholic hospitals. Archbishop Henry J. Mansell of Hartford and other church leaders argued that forcing Catholic hospitals to provide EC would conflict with Catholic beliefs. However, just like the pope in Brazil, Archbishop Mansell failed to sell his hard line and the Connecticut House passed the legislation by 113 votes to 36, just a week after the Senate approved it by 32 votes to 3. During the three-hour legislative debate in Connecticut, several male legislators talked about their own ties to the Catholic church and the conversations they had with their wives and daughters that had influenced the way they voted.

I am proud that Catholics for a Free Choice and our sister organizations played a role in the key battles outlined above. While it may seem that we have not changed how women are treated in the institutional church, we certainly have made sure that the church does not always get to treat women like that in the real world. We will continue to be there to resist the bishops at every turn.

It seems that legislators the world over are no longer so willing to bend the knee for their local bishop but instead are legislating more and more often for the needs of people. It’s clear that the bishops are no longer in control. We will see a lot more change in the way our church is seen in the world and that is something to smile about.

Read the November 2016 message from Jon O'Brien:
Pope Francis’ Announcement on Abortion Is About Bridging the Deep Chasm Between the Church Hierarchy and the Reality of Everyday Catholics