Catholics need a better way to talk about women’s bodies. Here’s a good place to start.

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A few years ago, as I was attending a U.N. Commission on the Status of Women panel on barriers to development for women and girls in Sub-Saharan Africa, I became struck with sudden abdominal cramps. I rushed to the bathroom knowing that my period had come early. Unfortunately, the sanitary napkin dispensers in that building had never been set up and stocked. Building administrators simply left them empty when the coin function did not work, as they balked at the idea of providing tampons for free, a nurse explained apologetically. As experts presented data on how lack of access to sanitary napkins impeded girls’ school attendance, one could not find any inside the United Nations annex.

The irony was not lost on the women from every continent who gathered in the bathroom during a break, where a lovely woman from Nigeria provided me with a pad.

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Of course, the wide gap between the rhetoric about women’s equality and the lived reality of women is not unique to the United Nations. When I was 13, my feminist grandmother chastised me for throwing out a used pad in the bathroom trash can. She insisted it would scandalize my grandfather or younger brother if they knew I had my period.

We are bad at talking about women’s bodies—a fact that constrains and distorts our conversations about and policies related to women’s health.

Culturally, we are bad at talking about women’s bodies—a fact that constrains and distorts our conversations about and policies toward not just feminine hygiene products but a host of issues related to women’s health. When it comes to pregnancy, in particular, there is a lack of basic biological knowledge, as the debate over new abortion laws in Alabama and Georgia has put in stark relief.

As a Catholic, pro-life feminist, I agree with Rebecca Bratten Weiss that the current debate between pro-life and pro-choice activists and politicians “fails to do justice to the complexity and gravity of the issues at hand. It forces one into narrow ideological boxes based on one’s support or opposition to policies and legislation.” Ms. Bratten Weiss asks that we set aside the philosophical debate about fetal personhood and “instead focus on working for a truly pro-woman, pro-child society.” Practically and politically, I agree with her. Theologically, however, I think Catholics do need to talk about personhood—because questions of women’s embodied personhood are lurking underneath these public debates.

Our categories and language struggle to capture the embodied complexities of women’s health. Consider the Catholic employers who have resisted the mandate under the Affordable Care Act to cover hormonal birth control as part of basic medical care for women. The church considers it acceptable to make women prove they are using forms of hormonal birth control for licit reasons in order to obtain coverage—rather than acknowledging that this medicine has both licit and illicit uses within Catholic moral theology and respecting women’s conscience. As a result, women are often forced to jump through many hoops to “prove” that they experience excessively painful periods, making it more difficult to get proper treatment for already undertreated conditions like endometriosis. Additionally, Catholic women are often hesitant to use hormonal birth control in a licit manner as a treatment for relevant conditions because it has been so often criticized by church leaders.

This is not just about pregnancy and abortion; it is about women as embodied persons equally created in the image of God.

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This is not just about pregnancy and abortion; it is about women as embodied persons equally created in the image of God. Part of the problem is that our categories were developed solely with attention to male bodies as normative. The theological anthropology concerning women remains deeply influenced by St. Thomas Aquinas, who despite maintaining woman’s status as imago dei, embedded in his categories the assumption of women’s passivity and described their “individual nature” as “defective and misbegotten.”

Since St. John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council and opened up the church to the modern world, Catholic social teaching has shifted its view of women in society and began to emphasize the participation and human rights of women. St. John Paul II promoted a personalist philosophy that emphasized agency, freedom and gift of self to others as central to human persons in community. However, as Brianne Jacobs identifies, these advances are obscured when discussion turns to women’s bodies, where “women’s bodies, as an expression of their constitution, are defined by the function of child-bearing.”

In developing our theological categories, we must begin by centering the experiences of women and allowing our assumptions to be challenged by them.

As a result, the moral complexity of women’s embodied lives are elusive in official pronouncements of Catholic moral theology. This problematic ambiguity is found in Pope Francis’ statements regarding women. On the one hand, he has given much greater attention to violence against women, noted the ways the church has failed “to adequately accompany” women facing crisis pregnancies and lifted up women’s voices within the Vatican. But his gaffes often involve lapsing into patriarchal stereotypes of women, with jokes about feminism, old maids or mother in laws.

Much remains to be done to develop our theological categories and approach within Catholic moral theology to engage women’s full embodied dignity and to recognize, as Jacobs argues, that “our bodies bear histories of power dynamics...[which are] reiterated in our bodies, and give them social significance today.”

In developing our theological categories and responding to ongoing moral problems, we must begin by centering the experiences of women and allowing our theological assumptions to be challenged by them. Reframing discussions of women’s health to view reproduction within a holistic approach to the life, health and well-being is a necessary start. A woman’s period should not be viewed solely in relation to pregnancy. The female reproductive system is integrated within her overall body, not an isolated aspect of it tied merely to procreation.

Practically, the next step is to ask ourselves some tough questions to examine where we are or are not supporting the full embodied human flourishing of women and girls. How do we support women who experience such menstrual pain that it affects their ability to complete their jobs? How do we support women and girls who cannot afford tampons or sanitary napkins each month? Do we make them free in all secondary schools and prisons? How do we eliminate the stigma of publicly talking about women’s health so that conditions like endometriosis are identified and treated early? Do we listen to and support poor women to make decisions about their family’s well-being? Do we take seriously the maternal health crisis among African-American women?

Until then, women will remain an abstract category within our political and religious debates, while real women and girls suffer on the margins.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Crystal Watson
2 weeks 5 days ago

I didn't grow up as a Catholic so I missed all the bizarre Catholic teaching on women, their bodies, their health. When I was in high school, my mother took me to a doctor to get birth control pills. There was no stigma attached to bodily functions for me or other girls I knew. And considering that something like 98% of Catholics use contraception and that a majority of Catholics support legal abortion, I think most Catholics now have moved beyond what's taught. I find it hard to understand the concept of a pro-life feminist.

A Fielder
2 weeks 5 days ago

Crystal, being a pro-life feminist is not an oxy-moron. People could be confused however, because many pro-birth people describe themselves as pro-life, as if simply demanding live-birth in every circumstance is enough to justify their alleged moral superiority.

Judith Jordan
2 weeks ago

A Fielder---
Glad you called them pro-birth as that is an accurate description. Too frequently, the pro-birth people turn away from other life issues that are not strictly about abortion. This is a puzzle and it spreads doubt about their sincerity. When I see an article about abortion, I know there will be many, many men writing comments about it. When I read an article about domestic violence, I seldom see a man commenting on it. There used to be a federal domestic violence law. Those family values, pro-birth Republicans repealed it. Did not hear a peep out of the pro-birth group.

SHARON FISCHER
2 weeks 5 days ago

How are men's bodies, as an expression of their constitution, defined by which functions?

Alan Johnstone
2 weeks 4 days ago

An important question. A reply from a male person with more than 50 years experience in Medicine, a Catholic married to the one wife with six chilren now grown and most with families of their own was not able to answer due to censorship.

Dale Athlon
2 weeks 2 days ago

Sad. They're in fear, they know they're wrong.

J. Calpezzo
2 weeks 5 days ago

This is the most cogent, thoughtful and relevant article I've read in America in a long time. Thank you to the author. One does not expect the automatons of the pro-life racket to agree, but the church needs to enter the modern world and speak the truth.

J Jones
2 weeks 5 days ago

I agree. This is profoundly welcome after the editors' collectively written and collectively endorsed opinion piece supporting State compelled pregnancy, an editorial in which women and girls were beside the point.

Thanks be to God the men of the Roman Catholic Church believe God isn't squeamish about letting women be theologians...

Dale Athlon
2 weeks 2 days ago

Nobody stopped Mother Angelica from creating a TV network! It doesn't matter who says it, as long as it's faithful to God Jesus Christ and his Apostolic church.

But, sadly too many feminists think that they should be listened to simply because of their anatomy or ideology, when what matters is TRUTH in Jesus Christ and His Church.

Jim Hess
2 weeks 5 days ago

I was so happy to see the phrase "respecting women’s conscience", which is conspicuously absent from most discussion of reproductive issues. To not respect a woman's conscience is to demote her from adult status as a moral being.

Molly Roach
2 weeks 5 days ago

Thank you Meghan Clark for this clear and challenging reflection on the reality of the experience of being a woman in the context of the RC church's traditional lack of regard for the true well being and flourishing of anything not male.

Ellen B
2 weeks 5 days ago

More than part of the problem is that men, who know nothing of women's health are proposing rules around women's health. They are passing laws which tell doctors to LIE to women. They are passing laws that say women can be refused treatment or drugs that have been prescribed to them. They are passing laws concerning birth control pills without knowing (or caring) that the MAJORITY of women take the pill for reasons other than birth control. They are passing laws to force low cost providers of women's health care out of business while no alternatives exist, and women's mortality rates while pregnant continue to rise in the U.S. (well beyond the rates in any other industrialized country). Message to "the church" (AKA priests) & other men... stay OUT of my HEALTH CARE!

Michael Bindner
2 weeks 5 days ago

The recent laws are not about women's rights as much as a reactionary attempt to assert state power in enforcing due process and equal protection issues caused by state legislation. Really. They want Plessy v. Ferguson back. If you want to see an example of pure doublespeak, read that opinion. After all these years, they still want to undo the Warren Court precidents. There is no theology that justifies such tyranny, but plenty of bishops who do.

J Jones
2 weeks 5 days ago

Michael, i don't know enough about the case you are speaking about to agree or disagree. Let's assume you are correct. I beg you and every woman and man to nonetheless attend to the fact that the laws being passed create State compelled pregnancy. Assuming you are correct, Warren Court precedents may be the target but women are carrying the freight. Please do not dismiss or communicate in terms that can be perceived as dismissing women's concern about the impact simply because you believe women are not the actual target.

Denise Delurgio
2 weeks 4 days ago

I am a woman who does not understand the theological significance of tampons in public bathrooms, or the lengthy follow up dissertation of the female body. Are Catholic women different from others? Does the Church have the responsibility to correct any of the culture's lack of appreciation of women? Holy Mary, Mother of God! Deliver us from feminist rants!

Crystal Watson
2 weeks 4 days ago

Almost all public schools are required to teach sex education, which would cover all this stuff. Don't Catholic schools do this too?

Erin B
2 weeks 4 days ago

Sex education is severely lacking on many fronts. The system needs an overhaul.

Robert O'Connell
2 weeks 4 days ago

The point that "Part of the problem is that . . . attention to male bodies as normative" strikes me as paramount to a lot of the foolishness people suffer today -- and not just in our Church or our country.

Women are different from men. I marvel at the fact that Jesus deferred to Mary -- her observations, her conscience, her words, and her "authority" -- at Cana. At the least, we might consider imitating Christ in His attention to women.

Erin B
2 weeks 4 days ago

Women are different than men, but women shouldn't be taught that our bodies are a distraction and we should be ashamed of them. Men get to celebrate their bodies. Women are shamed when we do. Our bodies are never good enough. We're either too thin or too fat, too curvy or too straight, too old, too much makeup, not enough makeup, etc. It's exhausting being a woman. The Church doesn't help with these sentiments either.

Lisa Weber
2 weeks 4 days ago

It is worth remembering that most shaming of body, makeup, and hairstyle comes from other women. It is primarily a problem of feminine aggression. The church’s obsession with virginity, passivity, and submissiveness for women needs to be rejected because it is primarily manipulative.

Alan Johnstone
2 weeks 4 days ago

Lisa, the virginity, passivity and submissiveness is applied to all humankind as appropriate to our status of creature in relationship to our Creator and Lord.
The more perfect the person, the more like the Mother of Jesus that person is.
We males have an extra level of difficulty to overcome in this regard.
However, do not take this as a complaint nor a criticism of our Lord, the females commenting here are doing that in spades.

Lisa Weber
2 weeks 3 days ago

Alan, virginity is a private matter. Passivity and submissiveness are qualities of people likely to be used and walked on in this life. Glorify it if you like, but I see it as a scam.

Oz Jewel
1 week 2 days ago

According to Christ Our Lord, everything is relational, nothing is private.
Almighty God, Father Son and Holy Spirit are the foundational reality of existence - there was never a solo god, alone and powerful and sterile.
We, made in the image and likeness of God, are intrinsically social.
Nothing about us is private to God or to the Mystical Body of Christ.

So, you see the wonderful work of God as a scam? Post-war American culture is not normative, the Good News of salvation from sin accomplished on the Cross is.

You poor, poor creatures - how far from reality your culture has led you like little lambs to slaughter.

Crystal Watson
2 weeks 4 days ago

I agree, Erin.

Alan Johnstone
2 weeks 4 days ago

What is the reality of humanity being two sexes, Erin?

Well, our Creator invented sex. In Genesis, no sooner is it declared as having been at the core of the gift of life given to them that He then instructed the pair to go off and increase and multiply and fill the face of the earth.
The dimorphic life is not essential to reproduction, there are numerous life forms which do not need sex to increase and multiply.
It does however, reflect the image and likeness of the Triune God. Same and different.
The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father and they are all God.
So, the mystery of the Trinity is manifest through a glass darkly in us by being men and women.

And, they fell. Disobeyed. Their action had a consequence. Mysteriously, it is celebrated as "Oh, happy fault" in our liturgy.

But, the consequences remain and they are described differently - Adam would now provide for survival with difficulty and suffering and Eve would reproduce with difficulty and suffering.

All that shaming seems to have come from other women. I watched my mother and aunts do it to my sisters and female cousins.

Erin B
2 weeks 3 days ago

Wrong. It does just come from other women. Actually, in my experience, it is more men than women. I have had men degrade me. I am pregnant, and I have had men literally "moo" at me. We need to stop viewing women as fragile and inferior and start viewing them as equal to men. We were both created in God's image. I am so exhausted by misogynistic and sexist views.

Crystal Watson
2 weeks 3 days ago

In my experience, it's been men who have been critical. They have told me I'm too thin, my breasts too small, skin too pale, don't wear dresses enough, should grow my hair longer, should color it, wear more makeup, wear contacts instead of glasses, etc, etc, etc. It really makes clear that to a lot of men, women are objects.

Lisa Weber
2 weeks 3 days ago

Why would you listen negative personal comments from men? You can always return the favor and offer them constructive criticism about their weight, clothing, or hairstyle. If the commenter is your intimate partner, find someone else.

Crystal Watson
2 weeks 3 days ago

Mostly experiences in high school and college with boyfriends and the ex-husband. At the time I didn't have a very good self image.

Lisa Weber
2 weeks 3 days ago

I understand that dynamic. A poor self image makes it difficult to defend yourself.

Lisa Weber
2 weeks 3 days ago

It is sad that you have experienced shaming from men. My experience has been that shaming comes almost exclusively from women. Of course, I don’t tolerate shaming from men. My reactions begin with a look that could kill. Another factor is that I have 8 brothers. Guys don’t give much grief to a woman with 8 brothers.

Alan Johnstone
2 weeks 4 days ago

"Attention to male bodies as normative" need expansion, what is being meant by this.
In the Anglosphere, as reflected by the media of mass communication, the internet, advertising in the public arena and so forth, the vast majority of images or featured persons are female, scantily or provocatively clothed, painted and coiffured as seductive sirens.

About Cana, the scene ought not be thought of in isolation from the finding in the Temple all those years ago.

The teenage Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem and frightened the wits out of his parents. He was appropriately and mildly rebuked along those very lines and gave his answer from his point of view and it was true but not the whole story.
He went home with them and respected their ordinary home life and work as a carpenter and piety as a good Hebrew male for about twenty years afterward.
He learned, he was to step into his public life after being prompted to do so according to the will of God Almighty and recognised that his mother or someone else, would prophetically prompt him. She, at Cana, indicated to him that his time had come.
The respect and obedience was to his Father in Heaven, not respect for woman or mother.
An additional observation, he was odd in one respect, he was a Jewish male about thirty and not married.

Mike Day
2 weeks 4 days ago

While the article came close, I'm a bit surprised there was no mention of the advances in holistic approaches like NaPro technology which can treat issues like endometriosis without the need for hormonal contraceptives, and all the side-effects that come with them. The reality is that the Church is one of the few major social influences pushing fertility awareness, and greater knowledge of women's bodies, in a medical culture that has become increasingly ignorant of how they work and err on over-prescribing medications.

https://www.factsaboutfertility.org/endometriosis-story/

Crystal Watson
2 weeks 4 days ago

The church just wants to control even this feature of women's lives. I used birth control pills for decades and never had an ill effect.

Mike Day
2 weeks 4 days ago

...because men have nothing to gain by women taking on the brunt of responsibility for fertility with a regular regimen of hormonal contraceptives or invasive procedures and allowing her to terminate that life to ensure "consequence free" sexual activity - all of which requires minimal-to-no effort on the man's part? Are you sure you've identified the right culprit?

Crystal Watson
2 weeks 4 days ago

It doesn't matter what men have to gain or lose. Women have the right to be in control of their reproductive lives. Contraception is not dangerous. As one of my doctors said, birth control pills are very much safer for a women's health than actually being pregnant. And there are IUDs, etc. What really burns you up is the idea of women having sex without some following form of punishment.

Ann Rodgers
2 weeks 4 days ago

While I appreciate many of the author's concerns, I am puzzled by her description of diocesan employees having to beg and "jump through hoops" to obtain prescriptions for the pill when used for medical reasons, such as controlling a bleeding disorder. I work for a diocese. If a woman has one of the many conditions requiring a hormonal treatment, her physician simply codes the prescription for non-contraceptive use. She takes the prescription to the pharmacy and it is filled. Her employer never gets involved, there are no conversations with her boss, no begging for permission. If any diocese is doing this differently, they should re-examine their process.

Ann Rodgers
2 weeks 4 days ago

While I appreciate many of the author's concerns, I am puzzled by her description of diocesan employees having to beg and "jump through hoops" to obtain prescriptions for the pill when used for medical reasons, such as controlling a bleeding disorder. I work for a diocese. If a woman has one of the many conditions requiring a hormonal treatment, her physician simply codes the prescription for non-contraceptive use. She takes the prescription to the pharmacy and it is filled. Her employer never gets involved, there are no conversations with her boss, no begging for permission. If any diocese is doing this differently, they should re-examine their process.

Lisa Weber
2 weeks 4 days ago

The only place I ever worked that provided free feminine sanitary supplies in all the bathrooms was a construction site. The freedom of not having to carry a personal supply of these products was wonderful. I have often wondered why these would be provided in a very masculine environment like a construction site and not in a feminine environment like a nursing unit in a hospital. I think it is because women are willing to settle for far too little accommodation of their needs.

Andrea Campana
2 weeks 4 days ago

Free tampons and cramps are not the place to begin this conversation. The women of Sub-Saharan Africa are not the women of America. The real issue here is the fact that a growing number of young women are turned off to, and even frightened by, the prospect of physically bearing children. An entire generation of women has been affected by wholesale indoctrination into sex education and AIDS awareness education. Both types of education may have accomplished what was intended, but ironically both types of education had unintended consequences as well. The move by states to ban abortion is likely one result of this sociological (rather than theological) impact. If the Church can blame the '60s sexual revolution for the sexual scandal in the Church, we can certainly blame the same revolution for the current movement to deny life to those created from our own self-focused needs. This article assumes that the pendulum has swung so far to the left that it is impossible to even consider the unborn life. Instead, such airy terms as "embodied lives" are replacing terms now seen as old-fashioned (a term which is old-fashioned itself), such as "personal responsibility."

Elena Di Benedetto
2 weeks 3 days ago

I like it, but there is an even simpler place to start. Francis must change his accusing rhetoric and start regarding the self-defense aspect of abortion. "Hiring a hiitman" does not resonate with mercy, and that is not a Christ-like way approach this subject, it just further stigmatizes the woman who had to make this decision to protect herself.

Annette Magjuka
2 weeks 3 days ago

Thank you for this well written and thoughtful article. Specifically, the reference to "conscience" is so appreciated. My understanding is that conscience is central to being a practicing Catholic. We are to engage in daily, lifelong conscience formation. DAILY, lifelong conscience formation. That means that every decision, every action, should be taken with our faith in mind. It boils down to: "Did I, in every case, do the most loving act possible in a given situation?" And Catholics have free will. Each Catholic, in accordance with his/her examined conscience, decides what to do. That's why we have to let WOMEN AND THEIR DOCTORS discuss relevant options. Then let's let women, with their examined consciences, decide what to do!!! The men in the Catholic Church have mucked things up to such an extent that it may be beyond repair. Raping children?! Covering it up?! These things are indefensible. Men are allowed to make choices about EVERYTHING, using their examined consciences, and then they have the full support of the church to confess (or not), and do better next time (or not).. It's always up to the men to decide for themselves what to do, not do, what to change, or not change. Men want to control what women should/should not do with their bodies, and will make LAWS if necessary to maintain patriarchal control. Time's up, guys. Only misogynists (and homophobes) can support the church as it currently exists. There are so many life and social justice issues today. But the church is on the wrong side of history, backing a dictator-like government (yes, I'm talking about Trump et al), ignoring all the warning signs, just to repeal Roe vs Wade. It is scandalous. It is dangerous for women. As it exists today, women need protection from the church. This is a bad place to be.

Kristeen Bruun
2 weeks 3 days ago

Best article I have read in many a day about the reproductive issues now under discussion. It breaks my heart that we Catholics/Christians could have owned the turf if our focus had been on pro-life rather than pro-birth and criminalizing abortion. Rich RCs have spent millions for nothing. I was at a fundraiser for a pregnancy help center that I support when a local congressman stood up and announced to wild applause that they had just passed a law eliminating all Planned Parenthood clinics in our state. I believe I may have been the only person in the room who then wondered how we would feed, clothe, house, educate, and provide medical care for the supposed 30,000 children whom he said would be born as a result of their action. No plans for that! Fortunately, the law was struck down by the court, so it never came to pass.

Dale Athlon
2 weeks 2 days ago

"Ms. Bratten Weiss asks that we set aside the philosophical debate about fetal personhood and “instead focus on working for a truly pro-woman, pro-child society.” Practically and politically, I agree with her. "

YOU AGREE WITH HER?

Sorry, but we cannot put aside the fact that the unborn are in the most helpless position of any human life form. Sucking a human life form out of the safety of its own mother's womb is demonic, and even moreso when it's the mother deciding to kill it.

Alan Johnstone
2 weeks ago

Why on earth would we want to talk about womens' bodies unless we are medical or objectifying them?
Women are people.

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