Monthly Archives: January 2015

A Message to Pope Francis: Birth Control is an Economic Issue

On Monday, Pope Francis made quite a remarkable statement in beseeching Catholics to speak of “responsible parenthood.” He continued, “Some think that- excuse the word- in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No.”

What great news for Catholic families, right? Not so fast.

While Francis seems to be condoning the practice of couples making a deliberate choice to limit the number of children they have, he still firmly upholds the Church’s prohibition on the use of artificial contraception outlined in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. According to Francis, “this is clear and that is why in the church there are marriage groups, there are experts in this matter, there are pastors.” In his view, God gives [parents] methods to be responsible” and couples should rely on natural family planning.

Considering that Pope Francis has wanted to make the poor a central focus of his papacy, I cannot help but be extremely disappointed in his remarks. Family planning has often been considered a feminist issue and rightly so, in that it helps move beyond the idea that a woman’s role in life is simply to be the bearer of children, regardless of what this does to her physical or emotional health. However, family planning is also very much an economic issue. Of course, it cannot be denied that feminist issues and economic issues are constantly intertwined, as sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination are directly related to poverty.

First of all, as a woman, I find it troubling that celibate males continue to be the only authorities in the Church who dictate Catholic teaching. These men have never experienced life in a woman’s body, yet they seem to consider themselves experts on this topic. While natural family planning may be a successful solution for some couples, it is not applicable to all women. Not all women have regular menstrual cycles, due to a variety of factors including genetics or certain medical conditions. Yet, even for women with cycles which are not irregular, ovulation does not occur at the same time each month and no woman’s menstrual cycle is identical from month to month. The rhythm method has an average failure rate of 13-20%.

Now, wait a minute. If the failure rate is 13-20%, that means the success rate is 80-87%. Not bad, some may say. And for some couples, those statistics may be comforting enough. For the healthy man and woman who both have secure jobs with benefits, a large home, and the money to hire a nanny for the three children they already have, adding a fourth might not be such a frightening prospect. Sure, it might be tough having another newborn, but they at least have the money to feed and clothe this child, and eventually help him or her through college. This couple also has a low chance of a pregnancy complications. This is not to say that such a couple must or should always be open to more children, but simply that taking their chances with the rhythm method may be easier for them to do than for some other couples.

Not every family is as fortunate to be financially secure. It is estimated that in the United States alone, anywhere from 47-50 million families are living in poverty. This number grows exponentially when taking into account families across the world. This number also increases when considering families who do not meet the standards to be considered impoverished, but are struggling due to a lay-off or disability, or parents who work two or three jobs to stay above poverty level. Taking time off from work to have a child may can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for many parents. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women make only 78% for every dollar earned by a man. This gap is even larger for African American and Hispanic women.  Yet, women make up half of the work force and are the primary breadwinner in 4 out of 10 American families. Furthermore, the Family and Medical Leave Act only requires companies to provide 12 weeks of unpaid lave for the birth or adoption of a child if those companies have 50 more more employees and an employee has worked at the company for at least a year.

Besides financial problems, some couples also struggle with mental or physical health issues. Pregnancy affects all women differently. Even though I have never been pregnant myself, I have known many people who have and hearing their experiences proves the preceding statement is true. Some women will experience very little pain throughout their pregnancy, while other women have complications that result in being put on bed rest, or they struggle with depression. Some women are even told after giving birth not to have any more children, as this could put them in danger of serious health issues and may even cause death. Suddenly, when the entire family’s well-being is at stake, 80-87% success rate is just not enough.

Artificial methods of contraception, in particular the pill and IUD, have success rates close to 99%, and are a safer option for women with menstrual irregularities. Furthermore, some women chose to use birth control pills for reasons other than contraception. They are often necessary for women with painful menstrual cycles, an experience for which the Magisterium cannot claim to know firsthand. They also protect against some forms of cancer. Sadly, birth control is still unaffordable and inaccessible for many women, even after the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

Wait a minute. If some couples are truly unable to have another child, shouldn’t they avoid intercourse? Some may say so. However, love happens across economic boundaries. Why should a couple who is less financially well-off not be able to express their mutual love and affection for one another? Is sexual intercourse only for the economically and socially privileged?

Finally, Catholic couples are finding through their own personal experience that use of contraception does not inhibit their ability to be loving disciples of Jesus Christ. In 1963, Pope John XXIII established the Papal Commission on Birth Control. In 1966, this commission released its majority report, which saw the use of artificial contraception as a valid extension of natural family planning, “for it is natural to man to use his skill in order to put under human control what is given by physical nature.”

Pope Paul VI’s ultimately rejected the commission’s position, by maintaing the Church’s ban on artificial forms of contraception in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. It is now 2015, and so may devoted Catholics are still made to feel ashamed for making the reproductive health decisions that are best suited to their particular situations. Pope Francis, if you truly care about the poverty and oppression, will you please step up and listen to Catholic families, and in particular, Catholic women?


And Jesus Wept: Why Christians Should Lament Duke’s Cancellation of the Muslim Call to Prayer

As a doctoral student with a research interest in Muslim-Christian dialogue, I was saddened to hear that Duke University cancelled its plans to have its Muslim students sound the Friday call to prayer, or adhan, from the university chapel. I may not be Muslim myself, but I feel that my Catholic faith has been strengthened by my encounter with Islam in my academic studies. I cannot speak as a Muslim, but if I am to call myself a disciple of Jesus, I believe I must express my outrage at Duke’s decision.

On January 15th,  Franklin Graham, one of the major figures who opposed the call to prayer on Duke’s campus, posted the following statement on Facebook.

“The Muslim call to prayer that has been approved to go out across the campus of Duke University every Friday afternoon for three minutes includes “Allahu Akbar”—the words that the terrorists shouted at the onset of last week’s massacre in Paris. It includes the proclamation that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. Will evangelical Christians be allowed the same three minutes weekly to broadcast the message across campus that God Almighty of the Bible sent His Son Jesus Christ to offer forgiveness of sins and salvation to all who will repent, believe, and call on His Name? Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).”

In Matthew 7:4, Jesus asks us “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” Its time for us Christians to start owning up to the planks in our eyes and offering to stand in solidarity with and support our Muslim brothers and sisters. Have us Christians apologized for the 1600% growth of anti-Muslim hate crimes that occurred after 9/11? Have we apologized for the fact that I can easily walk around the streets of Boston wearing a crucifix, but my Muslim friends do not feel as safe in a hijab? Have we apologized for the Klu Klux Klan? Does Graham take into consideration that slave-owners would often shout Bible verses while brutally beating the African American men and women whose humanity they failed to recognize? “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!”

Jesus also told us that the two greatest commandments are “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” Sadly, the cancellation of the Muslim call to prayer is just one example of how Christians have not shown neighborly love to Muslims.

Christians should not feel threatened by the adhan. Allahu Akbar means “God is greatest” or “God is great.” We may have different rituals and beliefs, but Allah is the same God as the God worshipped by the two other Abrahamic traditions, Christianity and Judaism, a loving, merciful God who is ultimately mystery. If God is mystery, and no humans words can fully capture the greatness that is God, this means we cannot limit where God manifests God’s self. By refusing to make space for the Muslim community, we miss out on learning how God has revealed God’s self in traditions other than our own. According to the Quran, “If God had so willed he would have made you a single people, but His plan is to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues.” And as the late Dominican Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx said, “truth is not to be found in a system but in dialogue.” No one has a monopoly on truth.

Jesus was not on the side of the rich and powerful, but rather the lonely, the oppressed, and the misunderstood. Jesus did not listen to media soundbites, but rather he took the time to engage with the people he met, even those whom were hated by society. Jesus heard that Duke cancelled the Muslim call to prayer and Jesus wept.

Jesus weeping

If We Want Them To Talk, We Better Be Ready To Listen: Muslim and Christian Responsibility after Charlie Hebdo

Recent events in Paris have renewed the call for Muslims to speak out against radical, fundamentalist forms of Islam and publicly express their support for free speech. Such calls have sparked debate. Some, including Muslim scholars and thinkers, believe it is their responsibility to publicly denounce the barbarism in Paris and other attacks that have been carried out by radical Muslim individuals. Others, find such an obligation to be an unfair burden that serves to further marginalize and stereotype Muslims living in Western society. Why are they responsible for the actions of others speak in the name of Islam? Why are Christians, Jews, and others not called to do the same when members of their traditions commit acts of violence or discrimination?

To me, it seems that the problem lies in that Westerners want to have their cake and eat it too. We want Muslims to condemn radical Islam, but on our terms. Violence is tragic and its aftermath creates a state of panic and fear. It is comforting to think that radical Islam is the only problem, that condemnation of its fundamentalist branches will bring about a peaceful society.

In Fordham theologian Jeannine Hill Fletcher’s most recent article “Constructing Religious Identity in a Cosmopolitan World: The Theo-Politics of Interfaith Work,” she calls for the formation of a “cosmopolitan religious identity” as defined by sociologist Ulrich Beck. This is an identity in which people see their own past and history as being tied up with the concerns of those who are outside of our particular community. Hill Fletcher asserts that in the context of white, Christian dominance in US society, “my call as a White Christian theologian is to learn about the material and social struggles of my neighbors and to mobilize my tradition’s resources in a project that combats white supremacy and Christian hegemony.” This quote struck me as significant in the current debates about Muslim responsibility. If Christians are responsible for speaking out about the violence and oppression that occurs in the name of Christianity, then surely it would seem hypocritical to say that members of other traditions are off the hook. Both Muslims and Christians profess belief in a personal, loving, and merciful God, surely it is incumbent upon Muslims and Christians to protest injustice whenever and wherever it occurs.

However, that being said, if Christians want Muslims to vocally condemn acts of terror perpetrated by persons who call themselves Muslim, then we must be willing to listen! We have to let them use their own words and express their true feelings. In other words, the burden is not on them alone. Us Christians have to look inward and critique our own biases. We cannot tell Muslims to condemn terror, but continue to look negatively upon women who wear a hijab. We cannot tell Muslims to condemn terror, but forcefully fight against the building of a mosque in our town and cities. We must come to terms with our own imperfections and avoid the tendency to think that Western Christianity has a monopoly on truth or on solutions to contemporary social issues.

In closing this essay, I want to mention a Muslim hero, Ahmed Merabet, who died protecting the office of Charlie Hebdo. As the novelist Teju Cole has observed, “It is possible to defend the right to obscene… speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech.” We can condemn the murder of the workers at Charlie Hebdo, while also condemning cartoons that are hurtful to the Muslim community, a community that has been subject to much violence and discrimination in the West post-9/11. I try to put myself in the shoes of devout Muslims, remembering how hurt I felt when a Satanic black mass was scheduled to take place in Harvard Yard and the beloved school where I received my masters degree, was going to do nothing to stop it. However, if those taking part in the Satanic mass had been violently attack, I would have been one of the first people upset and angry about it.*** The fact that the attack on Charlie Hebdo can never be justified does not mean we do not have an obligation to better friends to our Muslim neighbors.

So, yes, I do support calling on Muslims to condemn violence but when Muslims speak, we better listen and be willing to do our share.

*** Please note: I do not mean to imply that the situation that occurred at Harvard last year compares in any way to what happened in Paris. Nor do I mean to say that my experience as a Christian in the United States has been just as difficult as the experience of Muslims in the US and Europe (it most certainly hasn’t, and I must recognize my own white Christian privilege). I chose to mention this example in order to demonstrate how we can have empathy for those who are members of a tradition other than our own, and that if we believe our religion is worthy of respect, then we must believe the same about the traditions of others.