Freedom from Catholicism

Several weeks back I wrote about a very sweet British woman who informed me that she “just couldn’t” raise her daughter Catholic because she couldn’t raise her daughter in a Church that prohibited contraception  At the time, I thought this was a rather odd reason to choose a religion, and I still do, but I’ve now heard a story that beats hers. 

I know a young man who is heartbroken and devastated because his fiancée’s Catholic mother informed her daughter she would absolutely refuse to attend their wedding unless the couple agreed to use contraception. “I raised an intelligent, independent daughter,” this woman insisted, “smart enough to get into [a prominent Ivy League School]. That daughter should be smart enough not to become enslaved to the rules of a bunch of old celibate white guys wearing dresses in Rome.”

Well, isn’t that nice? And so tolerant, too. 

I suppose we should pass over the obvious fact that a cassock is not really a “dress,” any more than an African man’s traditional gown is a “dress.” Would she have dared call an African “Grand Boubou” a “dress”? Not likely if she sent her daughter to an ivy-league school. And as far as that goes, I suppose we’ll have to pass over the even-more obvious fact, to anyone who’s been there, that not everyone who works in the Vatican is a “white guy.” Would she have dared say: “How can you listen to a bunch of old African and Asian and Latin American guys in Rome?” Not likely. 

As for “celibate,” well, I’ll give her that. But criticizing people who take advice from celibate priests in Rome about sex is like criticizing people who take advice from Tibetan monks about consumerism. Do people say: “Hey, how can you take advice from that Buddhist monk in Tibet about shopping; he doesn’t ever even go to the shopping mall”? No, they don’t. Why not? 

Well, because anti-Catholicism is one of the last acceptable prejudices in the country. Things people would never dream of saying about other groups, they’ll say without reserve about Catholics. And a degree of ignorance that would be downright embarrassing in other contexts – on the level of: “But don’t all black people eat watermelon?” — will cause no public embarrassment whatsoever when the ignorant comment is about Catholics and Catholicism.

But here’s my question: Where’s the much-vaunted “tolerance”? Who’s forcing what on whom? Is it really the Catholic priests in Rome who are “policing” this young woman’s bedroom, or is it her mother? Who is the party willing to engage in a dialogue: the Magisterium whose members have written literally hundreds of well-reasoned pages on the topic; or the mother who in no uncertain terms condemns her daughter for being “stupid” for even thinking about not contracepting?

         St. Perpetua: Her heart knew a truer freedom

Catholics who agree with their Church’s teaching on this matter have to put up with this sort of ignorance and intolerance all the time. Ask any Catholic woman who’s been to an OB-GYN lately how often they take grief for refusing the prescription for contraceptives and how patronizing doctors will be when they encounter this “childish” refusal. Ask any Catholic woman who’s been pregnant recently how her doctors have treated her when the issue of checking for birth defects comes up. 

Several women have asked me in the last few years whether it is really “required by law” that they undergo an amniocentesis to check for birth defects. No, I tell them, not yet. But doctors in many areas will insist on it, no doubt to shield themselves from lawsuits should the baby turn out to have “unwanted” birth defects, rendering it an “unwanted” birth.

Who exactly in these circumstances is really on the side of women’s freedom? Who is forcing women to do what they want them to do, and who is trying to convince women to make educated and responsible choices about their own fertility?  Is the mother who refuses to go to her daughter’s wedding unless she promises to contracept allowing her daughter to make her own educated and responsible choice about her own fertility? Or is she choosing for her daughter from a position of alleged superiority? 

Why is it that “freedom” for such people is always freedom from Catholicism? The freedom to be fully and authentically Catholic rarely shows up on the radar screen of such “tolerant” souls.

I can remember when I announced to my own parents that I was going to become Catholic how scandalized and upset they were, and this from two people who had always insisted that, “Any way is right if it’s right for you.” Any way was “right,” as it turned out, as long as it wasn’t the Catholic way. “Freedom” was always freedom from the sort of “constraints” they didn’t favor, never freedom to be something distinct and really counter-culturally “different.” 

Quite frankly, given the way they had raised me – to value “freedom” and “autonomy” above all else – I was tempted to hang up on them with self-righteous indignation and say: “Who are they to question my decision?” But there was that pesky commandment about honoring one’s father and mother. Ironic, isn’t it, that it was their values regarding freedom and autonomy that made me want to hang up on them, and it was the Catholic faith they despised that kept me on the phone.

It was clear to me then, and it remains clear to me to this day where true freedom resides. There are people who want to deny us that freedom, and here’s the real kicker: they want to do so in the name of freedom. Such people have been around for a long time. They’re the kind of people who advised St. Perpetua as she awaited execution: “Just refuse Christ in words; no one cares what you do in private.”  

Hers was a heart that knew a truer freedom.


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.