Some Are More “Other” Than Others

While in England recently, I had a conversation with a cordial British woman, an Anglican, whose husband is Catholic, who decided not to form their daughter in Catholicism because, as she told me, “I just couldn’t raise my daughter in a religion that forbids contraception.”

It made me think of that scene in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life in which a Protestant husband says to his wife as he watches the hordes of Catholic children at the house across the street:

“Look at them, bloody Catholics. Filling the bloody world up with bloody people they can’t afford to bloody feed.”

“What are we dear?”

“Protestant, and fiercely proud of it.”

“Why do they have so many children?”

“Because every time they have sexual intercourse they have to have a baby.”

“But it’s the same with us, Harry.”

“What d’you mean?”

“Well I mean we’ve got two children and we’ve had sexual intercourse twice.”

“That’s not the point. . . .We could have it any time we wanted.”

“Really” his wife asks, somewhat puzzled.

Yes, replies her starchy-yet-defiant husband, continuing to insist firmly on the benefits of contraception: “That’s what being a Protestant’s all about. That’s why it’s the church for me. That’s why it’s the church for anyone who respects the individual and the individual’s right to decide for him or herself. When Martin Luther nailed his protest up to the church door in 1517, he may not have realized the full significance of what he was doing. But four hundred years later, thanks to him, my dear, I can wear whatever I want on my John Thomas.”

After 400 years, it does sometimes seem as though that’s what being a Protestant – in fact, sometimes what being an American – is all about: contraception. I’m not sure Luther would be pleased.

              The Ages of the Worker (center panel) by Léon Frédéric (1895) Musee d’Orsay, Paris 

Be that as it may, I couldn’t help but think it was a strange thought for a mother to have. Looking down at her little daughter playing in her crib, the little girl gazing up at her mother with those big rounds eyes, at that moment this mother said to herself — what?: 

“I can’t raise this child Catholic because I want to ensure that she is able to have sex with men not committed to her in any lasting way?”

“I want my daughter to grow up to be a ready object of sexual pleasure for men without troubling them with concerns over her (ugh) fertility?”

“I can’t bear to think of my poor little girl being denied the pleasures of fornication?”  

No, I don’t suppose any of those thoughts were going through her mind, at least not explicitly, even though those were the outcomes she was just as surely willing for her daughter nonetheless.

No, I suppose she was telling herself about “respecting the individual and the individual’s right to decide.” But who really decides? Isn’t contraception often enough just another argument men use to get women into bed? Why else would the biggest supporters of contraception be men between the ages of 14 and 35?

What was really interesting about this English woman, though, was her response when Islam came up. “Oh no, Islam is a wonderful religion,” she insisted. “So many people misunderstand Islam. I’d be delighted to have my daughter become Moslem.”

Really? Head scarves? Burqas? Child brides? Divorce for men but not for women? I didn’t want to spoil things for her by mentioning that Moslems don’t look too kindly on contraception either. Or that Moslems have been the chief allies of the Vatican in trying to keep the U.N. from importing contraceptives and abortion service en masse into Africa.

Like our friendly English mother, I too have a great deal of respect for Islam; but her embrace of Islam seemed strange for someone who didn’t want her daughter to be Catholic because of what she considered to be its “restrictive” stance on sex.

It was George Orwell who in Animal Farm coined the phrase: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” In our age of ostensibly pluralistic respect for the “other,” it seems that some “others” are more “other” than others.

When one sort of “other” is far enough way and different enough from us that it seems exotic and strange – say Islam, but it could be communism or Hinduism or cannibalism, for that matter – we congratulate ourselves for being open-minded enough to embrace it.

The other sort of “other,” however, is too close, too much like us, for us to feel its “other-ness.” It’s a similar sort of “far-sightedness” that causes us to find the dysfunctions of other people’s families so “adorable” and “colorful,” while the peccadilloes of our own families remain utterly annoying. Familiarity breeds contempt.

One might have wished that the current multicultural worship of “the other” had kicked in a generation earlier when Catholics were being hounded in England and Ireland. If the timing had been better, Catholics of that generation could have proudly claimed the status of the victimized “other.” Perhaps Catholicism would have actually been “cool” instead of just discriminated against.

Then again, probably not. Catholicism is hard – it makes serious demands – and that’s never very popular. Still, perhaps there’s an opening here for today’s Church. Rather than trying to convince everyone that Catholicism is not in any way “strange” or “different” or counter-cultural, maybe we should be tacking in the opposite direction: trying to convince everyone that Catholicism is the strangest, most utterly “different” thing there is – that it is, in fact, the only real way to be truly “counter-cultural,” to be truly “other” than what the world tries to force us to be.

Not only would this approach have a least a chance of being better than the “Don’t-worry-about us-we’re-just-like-everybody-else” approach. It would also at least have the virtue of being honest. 



Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.