How “Humanae Vitae” helped one nun find her feminist voice
I am a former radical feminist. Feminism is the belief that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities. Radical feminism goes further, denying the existence of any significant differences between men and women, except for a few “reproductive body parts” that are seen and treated as unessential and inconsequential to the person as a whole. Radical feminists believe that men and women are practically identical and should behave and be treated as such.
We now have all kinds of science that demonstrates that there are, in fact, striking differences between men and women, even in body parts that we have in common. When a woman says, “I can be as good as a man,” it is a false admission of inferiority. By adopting a supposedly gender-neutral way of being human in the world, radical feminists are actually adopting a male paradigm and obliterating the feminine paradigm and distinctly feminine gifts of the body and soul.
As a young woman I thoroughly rejected most church teachings and was planning on leaving the Catholic Church.
I was first offered birth control pills when I was 13 years old. My pediatrician suggested I use it as a way to normalize my irregular periods. Despite being a budding feminist and fully intending to avail myself of birth control some day, I refused because I assumed she was proffering it as a “just in case I became sexually active” measure, and I was not planning on becoming sexually active any time soon. Although the pill has many benefits for those dealing with hormonal irregularities, in my case it would have masked the underlying cause of my malfunctioning thyroid. Hormonal contraceptives are classified as carcinogens and can increase risks for some cancers and can carry other potential side effects, such as depression, weight gain and blood clots.
As a young woman I thoroughly rejected most church teachings and was planning on leaving the Catholic Church. I thought the church was a draconian institution that oppressed women, wanted us barefoot and pregnant, and told us to sit down and shut up. I believed that secular culture was what gave women dignity and rights. But, ever so slowly, I gave the Catholic Church a second chance.
But, ever so slowly, I gave Catholicism a second chance.
I began reading and studying and listening to intelligent Catholic women who found liberation in the church’s teachings. I began to realize that female contraception actually suppressed femininity, as though women were born wrong and had to “fix” their bodies to be like men’s bodies. By design, contraception thwarts a healthy, functioning system (fertility) over long periods of time. That did not seem very body positive or pro-woman to me.
I decided to seriously reconsider “Humanae Vitae.” Maybe its prescriptions were not so farfetched after all. What alternatives to the pill did it offer for spacing out births? The answer, natural family planning, makes the man attentive to a woman’s cycle. A period of abstinence is observed during the woman’s fertile time. Mother nature has cycles: It’s not always spring and summer—there’s fall and winter. Mother church has cycles: It’s not always Christmas and Easter—there’s Advent and Lent. Women have cycles—we are not always available. To say otherwise is the lie of porn, prostitution, male domination and a mistaken understanding of the Scriptures.
Contraception and natural family planning are “two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality.”
Huge flash-forward: I became a nun. So what does it matter what a celibate woman thinks about contraception? It matters for many reasons but mainly because it fundamentally shapes my self-perception as a female. I had a lesser view of myself, body and soul, when I “believed” in contraception. As St. John Paul II put it, contraception and natural family planning are “two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality” (“Familiaris Consortio,” No. 32).
One of the predictions made by Pope Paul VI in “Humanae Vitae” was the following: “A man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection” (17).
So maybe, in this 50th anniversary year of “Humanae Vitae,” we need to take another look at this document—through faithfully Catholic truly feminist eyes.