As Catholic Bishops Punish Dissent, Life and Legacy of Rosemary Radford Ruether Shows the Way Forward


Theologians will tell you that Catholic theology almost always favors both and scenarios, however American Catholic bishops“the crusade against abortion only results in Whether or posts. Take, for example, the bishops’ favorite new form of public humiliation for Catholic politicians who support legal abortion: hanging the Communion host like a carrot tied to a string.

On May 20, the Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore Cordileone announcement that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a devout Catholic who has long championed access to abortion care, is now barred from receiving the Eucharist until she publicly renounces her pro-choice stance and then receive absolution for “this grave sin in the sacrament of penance”. In a meeting with America Gloria Purvis of the magazine, Cordileone argued that Pelosi’s increasingly “aggressive” campaign to codify abortion into law, in case deer tomb, justified this imposition.

Denying communion to a person – a sacrament that Catholics believe to be both representational and the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ – is a form of censorship in the Catholic Church. Bishops usually cite Canon 915, a provision of Code of Canon Law which stipulates that any Catholic whom the hierarchy formally declares excommunicated or “manifesting” a serious sin cannot receive communion. The next canon, 916, declares that any Catholic who “who is aware of a serious sin” can’t receive Communion either. And in the current edition of the Catholic Catechism, “performing” an abortion — which can mean anything from terminating a pregnancy to volunteering as a clinical escort to driving a friend to Planned Parenthood — is grounds for excommunication automatique. Howeverthis penalty against anyone who “procures” an abortion (Cannon 1398) is a fairly recent revision, dating back only to the Canon Code reforms of 1983, when the Vatican and the American hierarchy faced growing political and social challenges to their opposition to reproductive rights.

I can’t help but think it’s kind of a tragic irony that Rosemary Radford Ruether, a founding mother of feminist theology, died on May 21 at age 85, just a day after Cordileone announced . Ruether went through this ordeal both and screenplay for most of her career as an academic activist. No stranger to dissent, Ruether has publicly supported legal abortion as well as other reproductive health services that the Vatican considers illegal, such as the use of contraception to prevent HIV and AIDS. His decades-long tenure on the Board of Directors of Catholics for choice— first as a member and later as a member skilled— cost his job at Catholic institutions, including an endowed professorship at the University of San Diego. She understood that the theological was indeed political.

Ruether located reproductive politics as the site of modern tensions between the Catholic Church and marginalized people. The liberating spirit of Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) transformed the public life of American Catholics, inspiring clergy and laity to engage in social activism. Some Catholics have seen the push to repeal abortion laws – emerging from the second-wave feminist movement – ​​as a prophetic call. When these coincident movements clashed, Ruether claimed the results negatively impacted Catholic theology, as “traditional Catholic views on women’s gender roles, sexuality, and reproduction came together.”

Yet dissent among Catholics on reproductive health issues persisted: Catholic laity embraced the pill and had abortions at higher rates than their Protestant counterparts while Catholic theologians debated the rigorous teachings of the Church on contraception and terminations of pregnancy.

In October 1984, Ruether joined nearly 100 theologians, ethicists, politicians, and ordained people to sign “A Catholic Declaration on Pluralism and Abortion.” Sponsored by Catholics for Choice (then known as Catholics for a Free Choice), the full-page New York Times declared advertisement “a diversity of opinions regarding abortion exist among committed Catholics.” Many theologians, the statement said, believed that abortion “can sometimes be a moral choice.” feminist theologian Margaret Farley, novelist Mary Gordon, and then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo were among the signatories. More than two dozen ordained people also endorsed the statement: 24 nuns (including Farley, a member of the Sisters of Mercy), three brothers, and moral theologian Father Charles Curran as the only Catholic priest.

Although the statement was not unequivocal in its stance on abortion, it was deliberate in its challenge to the teaching authority of the American bishops. Ruether later explained in “Catholics and Abortion: Authority versus Dissent,” Posted in The Christian Century in 1985, that it was truly a “defense of the right of Catholic legislators to public dissent on abortion”. Catholic theologians and CFFC associates have previously discussed making public statements, but it was the U.S. bishops’ targeted harassment of Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (DN.Y.) that prompted this act of solidarity.

When a Catholic politician has sway over the national Catholic electoral bloc, the bishops pay attention; when a nationally influential Catholic politician supports legal abortion, it gets personal. In 1984, Ferraro became the first woman and Italian-American to appear on a presidential ticket. A Catholic, Ferraro had ruffled the cassocks of some members of the hierarchy, in particular the Archbishop of New York John O’Connor.

Earlier in his congressional career, Ferraro worked with Catholics for Free Choice by fostering discussions among his fellow Catholic members of Congress. Ferraro herself supported abortion rights but personally adhered to Church teaching. In a brief introduction to a CFFC pamphlet, tailored for members of Congress, Ferraro acknowledged that “the Catholic position on abortion is not monolithic and that there may be a range of personal and political responses to the question. “.

O’Connor and his circle of bishops apparently weren’t too concerned about Ferraro’s position until Walter Mondale chose her as his running mate. Only then did the bishops step up their campaign against Ferraro. In August 1984, the bishops’ conference, then led by Bishop James Malone of Ohio, issued a statement targeting Ferraro and other public dissenters, including Mario Cuomo, although they did not refer to any politicians as her name. The bishops asserted that they must correct what they considered to be an impossible and fallible position, namely that “this implicit dichotomy – between personal morality and public policy – ​​is simply not logically tenable.” The real problem with Catholic politicians like Ferraro and Cuomo, Pelosi and Joe Biden, in other words, is their public support for abortion care. and their status as Catholics. The latter is a status from which the growing political capital has much to gain – and to lose.

Are we witnessing a repeat of history or are the communion-abortion wars of the 21st century the obvious trajectory of bishops’ control over American Catholics in public life? The 1984 New York Times The declaration did not shake the national political arena as much as the current communion fights, which in fact testifies to the rise of the conference of bishops and Catholic politicians (with the Speaker of the House, the President and the majority of the Supreme Court now identifying as Catholic).

But the fallout from the 1984 declaration sets the stage for today’s political and theological climate. A wave of dismissals and warnings followed the release of the statement; theologians lost their jobs (even permanent positions, in the case of Father Curran, that the Vatican declared unfit to teach Catholic theology); the nuns escaped excommunication; and the Vatican has stepped up its sanctions for supporting abortion, whether publicly as a theologian or politician, or quietly as an ordinary lay Catholic. In 1985, Ruether noted that the tide was turning: For the Catholic Hierarchy and lay people, it was no longer a question of “the question of pluralism on abortion”, but of the “right to dissent itself”.

It should be noted that the most conservative members of the Vatican at the time, including Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, did not get everything they wanted. It was feared that the Vatican would declare Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical reaffirming the Church’s prohibition of artificial contraception and abortion, “infallible”. The infallibility of this document, as well as other papal documents on matters of sexuality and reproduction, is still debated. If these teachings are not considered infallible, then, theologians such as Ruether and Curran have argued that Catholics can disagree with the church and to remain in good faith, even on the question, the bishops have chosen as the decisive criterion of Catholic identity.

Yet perhaps the Whether or position is now unavoidable for American Catholics: at a time when deer will likely fall, and that Catholics have substantial representation in the legislature, judiciary, and executive, the choice to remain silent carries almost as high stakes as the choice to dissent.


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