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VIEWS Another 'Handmaid's Tale,' or sex and the supreme Catholics
by Nick Patricca
2022-05-24

This article shared 898 times since Tue May 24, 2022
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Amy Vivian Coney Barrett was confirmed as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court by the U.S. Senate on Oct. 26, 2020. Barrett is only the fifth woman ever to serve on the Court. She is also the sixth Catholic on the present court. Chief Justice John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and Brett Kavanaugh are Catholic. Neil Gorsuch was raised Catholic; he now attends an Episcopal church. Elena Kagan is Jewish. The recently appointed associate justice Ketanji Brown Jackson (confirmed April 7, 2022) describes herself as a non-denominational Protestant.

I cite these data because I think they have bearing on our current discussions of abortion, birth control and other matters related to women, sex, gender and sexual minorities. Full disclosure: I am white (Italo-Celt), male, old and a practicing Catholic. I am also queer.

The leak of the Alito draft (Politico, May 2, 2022) tore open a wound that has been long festering in our body politic. As far as we know, Alito's sweeping overturning of Roe v. Wade—signed in agreement by Thomas, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett—still stands as the only draft circulating on the Mississippi case at issue: Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health.

Stepping aside from all the interesting legal thickets involved in this case, I want to focus a spotlight on the cultural issues central to our civil society and civilization. These cultural issues involve morals, mores, philosophy and, yes, religion.

Historically, states have always been involved in regulating births. Caesar Augustus fined Romans who failed to have children. In our modern era, China punished parents who had more than one child; India forcibly neutered men and women to stop them from reproducing. Currently, France and Italy, among notable others, give attractive bonuses to their citizens who have children. These policies are not simply about economics; they are deeply rooted in the values of the civilization in which the state operates.

That is why, when all is said and done, we cannot ignore the religion and social values of the members of our U.S. Supreme Court.

For a very long time, Catholic thinkers have been working diligently to correct and develop aspects of the Church's official teachings on human sexuality which historically have been more influenced by classical Stoicism than by the Christian Scriptures, the sciences, and contemporary philosophical/theological investigations. An outstanding work along these lines is Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (Continuum, NYC, 2006), by Margaret A. Farley, R.S.M, Ph.D.

These official Catholic teachings are themselves profoundly cloaked in cultural norms such as hierarchy and patriarchy which must in turn be properly revealed and critiqued.

A case in point: Barrett. She is a member of People of Praise—a network of lay, Christian, charismatic, covenant communities composed mostly of Catholics but open to Christians of other denominations. Formed in 1971 in South Bend, Indiana, by Notre Dame graduate students as part of the Catholic Charismatic movement, People of Praise communities seek the renewal of the church as well as of society through emulation of the charisms and practices of the original Christian communities. These charisms, as described in Christian Scriptures, are usually distinguished from the gifts of the Holy Spirit and are enumerated as knowledge, wisdom, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, the discernment of spirits, diverse expression of tongues and interpretation of tongues. The key ingredient of each charism is that it is for the benefit of the community not of the receiving individual.

There is much to admire in People of Praise practices. They include the emphasis on communitarian values against the excesses of individualism; the covenant commitment of each member to assist all members with their material as well as emotional and spiritual needs; and the egalitarian way in which the community understands that the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit can inspire anyone, male or female, young or old.

There are, however, practices that are hostile to women and sexual minorities. Membership on the governing board is restricted to eleven men who elect a chairman who co-ordinates all activities and functions. The highest position available to women is that of a woman leader. Prior to 2017 women leaders were called "handmaids" after a reference to Mary in the Scriptures as the "the handmaid of the Lord." Women leaders assist other women in the many aspects of their lives but they only exercise this role for unmarried women. Married women are "led" by their husbands in all aspects of their lives including spiritual direction. Homosexual acts are considered sinful. Gay members who do not remain chaste are expelled. Children of same-gender parents are not allowed in People of Praise-operated Trinity schools. (See articles by Stephanie Kirchgaessner in The Guardian, October and December 2020.)

Nine former members have come forward alleging sexual abuse against People of Praise leaders. People of Praise spokespersons admit they were slow to investigate these allegations. (The Washington Post, Beth Reinhard and Alice Crites, June 11, 2021 at 9:32 a.m. EDT.)

The hierarchical/patriarchal structure of People of Praise and the gender-sex role divisions are justified as the teaching of original Christianity and of Christian Scriptures which include the absorbed Hebrew Scriptures. This assertion receives a philosophical/theological codification in the idea of complementarianism which holds that men and women are of absolute equal value morally and ontologically but nevertheless have different functional roles in society, civilization, and religion. In this view, women are essentially restricted to supportive roles. Sometimes it is argued that these functional differences are dictated by nature.

In opposition to this codification, egalitarianism affirms that men and women are absolutely equal morally, socially, ontologically, and religiously and can therefore exercise leadership in all realms in accordance with their characters, personalities, talents, and charisms. This point of view also finds support in Christian Scriptures and traditions as well as in contemporary philosophy and science.

The Alito draft leak has enhanced and intensified the culture wars that plague our body politic. Social media and entertainment dominate the political discourse—such as it is—in our civil society to such an extent that the term "handmaid" carries the loaded meanings associated with Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale, which has been made into a popular TV series running into its fifth season. In this science-fiction world, the "handmaid" is a captured woman who is raped repeatedly by the male leaders until she becomes pregnant in order to save the human race from extinction. The key point for our discussion is that women are forced to have sex and are forced to bear children who are then taken from them to be reared by wives of the male leaders.

Atwood has herself suggested that her tale was inspired by groups similar to People of Praise. The Atwood tale is too close to our actual social situation for comfort.

The Constitutional and other legal matters relating to birth control, abortion, and healthcare for women, sexual minorities and children involve the fundamental issue of the role of religion in our society. Certainly, freedom of religion must imply freedom from religion. The right to practice one's religion involves necessarily the right to practice no religion.

The struggles over hierarchy/patriarchy that preoccupy many religions especially the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam belong to those traditions.

The efforts of those traditions to dominate our U.S. civil society, to control social roles and to legislate their norms as law must be exposed for what they are—attempts by patriarchal forces to shackle women.

May 2022 © nicholas.patricca@gmail.com


This article shared 898 times since Tue May 24, 2022
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