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CFC President Jamie L. Manson Speaks on the Pastoral Crisis of Radical Patriarchy at Spirit Unbounded in Rome

October 19, 2023

Spirit Unbounded Speech: Full Text
By Jamie L. Manson
October 14, 2023

If you haven’t had a moment yet to check out the official website for the Vatican’s Synod on Synodality, click here immediately (but be sure to click back). Even if you’re weary and hardened by too many years of injustice in our church, you might be stunned by what you see. The webpage is downright crunchy, with a warm palette and inviting language about sharing, humility, dialogue and leaving behind stereotypes.

And it’s not just branding. This synod promises to open up real discussions on the ordination of women and the inclusion of LGBTQ people in our church. As someone who has spent the last two decades passionately, and often quite pessimistically, advocating for both of these causes, even I must admit these are advances I never thought would come in my lifetime.

But when I first saw the synod’s working document, or Instrumentum Laboris, what struck me most was what was missing: abortion.

Now, some might think this is anything but a sin of omission because it signals the end of the church’s decades-long preoccupation with the issue. Progressive Catholics were right to cheer when Francis, just six months into this pontificate, expressed concern that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion and asked for “a new balance” among its moral doctrines.

But if this synod is meant to listen, be open to change, get beyond ideologies and prioritize “those who risk being excluded,” why have Catholics who have abortions been left out of the equation?

As a lesbian who has endured many hardships in the church since I came out publicly in 2008, I am astounded to see queer issues make it on the agenda. BUT I’m also very much aware that the church’s teaching on abortion affects far more Catholics than its teaching on LGBTQIA+ people.

Statistics suggest that as many as 1 in 3 women has an abortion before age 45. In the United States alone, one in four abortion patients identifies as Catholic. (And only God knows how many abortion patients were baptized or raised Catholic but no longer identify as such.) That means that women who are sitting among us in the pews, giving out Communion, teaching in our Catholic schools, washing the priests’ laundry and dishes in the rectory, are having abortions. And how does our church thank them for their devotion? By proclaiming from the pulpit and in the parish bulletin that they are complicit in homicide.

This is an unspoken pastoral crisis, and it’s time we as a church reckon with it.

Some of these women had abortions in an early stage, some much later in gestation. Some were forced into sex, others took a lot of pleasure from the sex but were not ready to care for a child. Some needed abortions because something catastrophic happened, others chose it because they needed their freedom, or their education, or to get out of an abusive relationship, or to be able to feed and care for the children they already have. The majority of abortion patients are already parents.

Again, these women are among us, laboring in our Catholic parishes, charities, and college campuses.

Pope Francis, who earns a lot of praise for his gentle approach to fraught issues, has actually escalated the damaging rhetoric. More than once, he has equated the choice to have an abortion with “hiring a hitman” and has plainly called it “murder” at any stage.

This is spiritual violence against women, and we as a church need to name it.

Now, I’m not suggesting that abortion isn’t a morally complex issue for many people. How can’t it be? Pregnancy, miscarriage, pre-mature babies, and the many complications that often come with gestation and delivery make powerful demands of our moral imaginations. We all have heard miraculous stories and agonizing accounts of pregnancy and birth that cannot but affect our perception of the issues.

At the same time, most Catholics have also been reared on shame, misinformation, and the fear of losing their families, communities, and even the Eucharist itself if they simply question the church’s teaching on abortion. They face excommunication and harassment if they dare to tell abortion stories that are not dripping with regret and contrition. But avoiding the deeper truths and refusing to engage in the realities of abortion experiences is putting Catholic women’s physical, emotional and spiritual health in peril.

One of the deeper truths we need to engage is just how deeply intersectional the issue of abortion is with the causes we activists have courageously campaigned for, especially these past two weeks. Women’s equality! Women’s ordination to the priesthood! Justice for LGBTQ people! Justice for sex abuse victims.

Believe it or not, there is a common denominator between abortion rights and of all of these justice issues: radical patriarchy.

Now the word patriarchy has gotten so sloganized, so overused, that sometimes I fear we’ve forgotten what it means. So let’s get a working definition:

Patriarchy is any system in which men hold all the power and women are largely excluded from it. In a patriarchal structure, powerful men dominate women, children, gender expansive people and in some cases vulnerable men. Frequently, one of the key ways that men predominate over women is by fixating on women’s sexuality and controlling women’s fertility.

With a definition like this, it is pretty easy to argue that the Catholic church is the most radical patriarchy on earth. Of course, there are other very patriarchal religions with all male leaderships—Southern Baptists and Mormons for example. But unlike these other religious groups, members of the Catholic clergy, as an all-male, ostensibly celibate group, do not have wives or daughters to give them any inroads into the lives of women or any sense of women’s experience. So this is a group completely cut off from women, not to mention sexuality and sexual expression.

And it is this radical patriarchy that has developed the theologies that have caused such profound harm to all of us.

For example, a radical patriarchy believes that the bodies of children and women exist for male gratification. This belief is at the root of the sex abuse crisis. Even beyond the Catholic church, if you hear about a religious group or even civic organization that is rife with child sexual abuse, the common denominator is always an all-male leadership system.

Radical patriarchies always have rigid gender roles. It was a patriarchal mindset that created notion of gender complementarity—which, as you all know, is the idea that God designed men and women to complement each other and that our biological differences are evidence that God intends different roles and purposes for men and women. So, literally, our anatomy determines what we can and cannot be in the church, in our families and in society. God created the penis to signal that men are supposed to take leadership and have authority, whereas the vagina is God’s way of saying that women are meant to be recipients, servants, vessels. And, of course, this framework does not recognize intersex, trans or nonbinary people.

Now, John Paul II — fearing increased demands for the ordination of women in the late 1970s, developed complementarity into his theology of the body. The late pope insisted that women’s bodies are for nurturing, gestating and giving birth, not for leadership. The presence of our uterus tells us so. This “feminine genius,” as he coined it is God’s way of showing us that our primary vocation is motherhood, literally and figuratively.

Complementarity and the theology of the body are employed by church leaders to fend off claims that women should have access to the sacrament of holy orders and that same-sex couples should be able to obtain a sacramental marriage.

In the case of women’s ordination to the priesthood we’re told that God, who was powerful and intelligent enough to create the universe, is somehow rendered powerless by a vagina. God’s priestly authority can only work through bodies with penises, of course.

So women and men can never really be equal, according to this theology. This is why Pope Francis will only say men and women are equal in dignity. This is a very important distinction because in this system where men and women are not equal: men are always awarded power, authority and dominance, while women are relegated to the roles of service, nurturing and adoration. Church leaders may insist that women and men are equal in dignity and worth, but ultimately, women are always put in the position of obedience to men. (Side note: that is why only fighting for a women’s diaconate is deeply problematic—women will still ultimately always be in obedience to men.)

In the case of same-sex relationships, we’re told that because two men’s bodies or two women’s bodies weren’t designed to fit together and can’t make a baby, same-sex sexual relations aren’t natural, they aren’t part of God’s plan for humanity. This is why, as recently as last week in his response to the dubia, Francis called same-sex relationships “only partial and analogous” to the gold standard that is heterosexual relationships. God’s real plan for humanity.

And, as should be obvious by now, in the case of trans and non-binary persons, the notion that you can be anything other than what your anatomy reflects is a total violation of God’s natural law.

In all of these cases—women’s ordination, same-sex marriage, transgender identities—we have a very reductionist understanding of the human person that only considers our anatomies, and is completely divorced from who we are emotionally and spiritually and sacramentally.

This is why, and I really want the gay men in the room to hear this, whether you are a woman, or lesbian or gay or trans or non-binary, none of us, none of us will have true justice in our church until these patriarchal notions of gender are dismantled.

This is why we must fight for each other: gay men need to fight for women’s ordination.

As I like to say to gay men, the reason you can’t stand in front of the altar with your boyfriend, is the same reason I can’t stand behind the altar during Mass.

Women’s equality advocates must fight for trans rights, because we are all being oppressed by the same ideology. Throwing each other under the bus because we think our particular community is getting somewhere with this pope, is a deeply flawed strategy. We have to fight for each other, because we either all get justice together by dismantling this ideology once and for all, or there is no true justice at all for any of us.

And I call on gay men in particular, to recognize their privilege in this struggle. I need you to understand that the key reason LGBTQIA+ issues are even on the table at this synod is because it an issue that affects men, and because we live in a patriarchal society, people are formed to really care about men’s rights. And, men, gay or straight, are socialized to believe that they are entitled to rights in a way women have not been.

We must recognize a hard truth: if only women were queer—not men—we would not have marriage equality today, and LGBTQIA+ issues would not be nearly as top of mind for Catholics. Women’s needs, women’s suffering, are just never taken that seriously. Gay men are listened to by this pope in a way women simply are not. So, we need you advocating for us.

Now, a little message to my beloved women’s ordination advocates. There are profound connections between the quest for women’s equality in the priesthood and abortion rights: both movements are struggling against the patriarchal idea that women are not capable of authority or decision-making. Let’s try to make the connection clearer.
The Catholic hierarchy’s anti-abortion crusade has reasserted time and again that women are not capable of using their own consciences to make the complex moral decisions that are best for their lives, their health and their families. Giving a woman a legal right to have control and agency over her body translates to other aspects of her life, namely her freedom to claim political, economic and social power. The bishops reject the notion that women are equal to men and that woman can live independently from men. So how could they possibly support any right that would lead women into that kind of power and freedom?

Catholic leaders espouse a theology that insists that a women’s most essential role is motherhood. This is why the institutional church demands that, even if conception happened through sexual violence or even if a pregnancy threatens the life of a mother, a woman should still be forced to give birth.

Women’s suffering seen a redemptive and expected especially as it pertains to sacrificing for her family—even if it means sacrificing her own life. Women, in other words, are reduced to vessels, one in which the potential, theoretical life that might be is privileged over the living, breathing person at risk.

Whenever I speak with Catholic groups about abortion, I often start out by reminding them that none of the church’s teachings on the issue have been developed, influenced or articulated by someone with a uterus. And, yet, their doctrine — which they alone can formulate, codify and enforce — causes women so much suffering and even death.

Again, I understand the abortion is morally complex for many Catholics, but I wonder if we can’t begin by at least building on common beliefs.

If you accept the church’s understanding of the primacy of conscience and believe that women are capable of making moral decisions about their own lives, then you have a pro-choice belief!

We can’t just say we trust women to make the right choice, we’ve got to start acting like we do. And that means refusing to tacitly participate in the continued stigmatizing and silencing of Catholics who have had abortions.

That’s why, last week, I brought abortion stories to the Vatican. I took Pope Francis at his word that he wants a church of encounter that goes out to the peripheries, listens deeply, and shows humility. Many Catholics — both those who have had abortions and those who provide abortion care — have shared their narratives with us at Catholics for Choice over the years. I brought a bound copy of those stories directly to the synod office. I pray they will see it not so much as a protest, but an offering that reflects the hope of countless Catholics that we can move abortion beyond the unreasonable absolutism with which our hierarchy treats it and into a place of genuine, humble discernment.

Catholics who have chosen abortion are part of the life of the church, participating richly in our sacraments, their abortion stories are woven into the fabric of our community. The synod can only come into its full potential if they can be heard. I pray that at next year’s synod, they too will be deemed worthy of encounter.