by Paul Baumann, Editor, Commonweal Magazine
© 2012 Commonweal - January 13, 2012

My mother, Carol Marie Linehan, was not a pious woman. She did, of course, instruct us in how to say our prayers, but otherwise I can’t remember her ever uttering the name “Jesus” or mentioning a pope let alone a bishop. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby seemed to comprise the entirety of her pantheon of Catholic saints, and TV’s The Wonderful World of Walt Disney was as close to religious programming as our family got. Her favorite biblical passage was “God helps those who help themselves,” a proverb I have not been able to find in Scripture.

Although my mother’s father was a lawyer, and had been education at Boston College High School and College, he chose not to send her to college, and her own religious education, as best I could tell, was derived sketchily from the Baltimore Catechism. Nevertheless, she had a firmly fixed view of the moral universe. No premarital sex, no extramarital sex, and no divorce were the fundamental articles o her faith and on two or three occasions she explicated with startling crudeness the moral reasoning behind these prohibitions. (As I recall it had something to do with cows and free film.) Like many of her generation, she inherited a Catholicism focused almost entirely on a deep belief in the tribal virtues taught by competitive sports – at least for boys – and rigid rules about sexual behavior. For women of her generation, a “bad reputation” could put you on the marital sidelines, and out-of-wedlock pregnancy spelled exile or worse.

My mother put a great stock in marriage as the ultimate vocation for a chaste Catholic girl, although I can’t recall her ever using the word “chaste.” My parents were3 married in November 1950, and I was born nine months later. My brother Steve – a push fellow from the start - followed thirteen months after that. In the first ten years of her marriage, our mother was pregnant seven times - two miscarriages and five healthy births. The deliveries were not always easy. She also suffered from severe endometriosis, which caused heavy and almost constant bleeding and considerable pain. These things were not talked about in our family. I remember one bewildering night in my early teens when she collapsed - from a ruptured ovarian cyst, I now assume -_and my father raced out of the house to the hospital with her in his arms. No exaltations were offered, and no one dared to ask. The week I graduated from college, she collapsed again and underwent an emergency radical hysterectomy.

This is an all-too-familiar story for Catholic women of a certain age, and I think it should be better known , especially among younger, more fervent Catholics who idealism - and naivete - is pandered to by the current emphasis on the Theology of the body. In the 1960's, after her fifth child was born, my mother’s doctor insisted she go on the Pill to help regulate her menstrual cycles. Dutifully she consulted our parish priest, and was told in no uncertain terms that recourse to the Pill was forbidden under any circumstance. She complied with the priest’s instructions, or so I have been told, until she suffered yet another hemorrhage.

Eventually, after several incidents like the one described above, she did go on the Pill, and doing so presumably helped alleviate her symptoms, at least for a time. Of course, my mother never talked to me or my brothers about any of this, though in later years she was more forthcoming with our sisters. I do remember her complaining bitterly, in the proud way the Irish do, about women on the Pill who still presented themselves a the Communion rail.

In time my mother stopped going to Mass altogether; during the last thirty-five years of her life, she attended church only for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. She seemed to think that when it came to the church, you were either all in or all out. That was what she had been taught, after all.

I doubt that her personal conflict over the Pill was the only reason my mother stopped going to church, but it surely was the catalyst. Years later I am left to wonder, did she leave the church, or did the church in effect leave her, turning a blind eye, in its customary way, to “women’s complaints”? Either way, it seemed–and seems to me still–a harsh exile for a woman who had risked her body, and on occasion her life, in obedience to the church’s dubious teachings concerning the supposedly self-evident teleology of every sexual act.

Despite the reasoned and patient objections of countless theologians and the largely silent defection of the majority of the faithful, the church continues to cling to these teachings, and does so with the fierce desperation of those who are wrong and can’t or won’t admit it.

Yet, as philosopher Michael Dummert wrote [in Commonweal magazine, “Indefensible”, February 11, 2011)], the unpersuasiveness of the current teaching undermines the church’s moral authority in senseless ways. In this pettifogging about sexuality really what the gospel demands of us? In the meantime... thousands are deprived of the sacramental nourishment only the church can provide.

Catholicism has altered seemingly irreformable teachings on more than a few occasions over the centuries (baptizing the uncircumcised, the perfidy of the Jews, slaver, usury, separation of church and state) yet somehow found a way forward with it identity, focus, and integrity intact; and I hope now will muster the will to find a out of this particular dead end. As my mother, bless her, would say: “God helps those who help themselves.”



Addendum - from a book of advice
for seminarians, 1897:

A dangerous rock which the priest encounters in the stormy sea of the world is the hearing of women’s confessions. The knowledge of this fact and a sense of dread are his best safeguard. He must persevere in a state of indifference and insensibility towards female penitents; he must keep his heart hermetically sealed against human sentiments of affection and avoid every sign of familiarity, though cherishing a holy respect and reverence for the sex of our mothers.

Woman needs the sacraments more frequently than man. Her good influence in the home-circle is of the highest value for the faith and morality of those who come in daily contact with her. Her presence should spread about her the perfume of Christian devotion and charity. It is the duty of a confessor to cultivate the virtues of humility and purity in the queenly heart of the Catholic woman and to fit her for the exalted position which Mary, the Mother of Jesus, won for her in the Church of her Son.

Guard your eyes: Averte oculos tuos, ne videant canitatem. The eyes are the windows of the soul; close them to keep sensuality aloof. Do not look at a female penitent either before, during, or after confession. It would he injurious to you and others for several reasons. Non permittas illas ante confessionale accedere, ut tibi loquantur, et multo minus, ut manus deosculentur. In actu confessionis non ostendat, se eas agnoscere(St. Alph.). Guard your tongue; never use expressions of friendship and familiarity; put the fewest possible questions.

With young women observe the advice of St. Augustine: Sermo brevis et rigidus cum his mulieribus habendus est; nec tamen quia sanctiores, ideo minus cavendae; quo enim sanctiores sunt, eo magis alliciant. St. Liguori says: Cum junioribus in confessionariosis potius rigidus quam suavis.

Speak to a woman in the confessional as if you were addressing her spirit, separated from the body and standing before the judgment-seat of God. Be kind and respectful to old women, especially if they are afflicted with deafness or some infirmity peculiar to their age. Obsecra anus ut matres(1 Tim. v. 2).

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