Catholicism, Gender and Sexuality: Event Roundup

On 8th June 2021, Aston University hosted the online event, Catholicism, Sexuality and Gender, to showcase the findings of the recently-completed British Academy funded project, Understanding Abortion in Catholic Communities, and to situate this research in broader contemporary and historical projects focused on sexuality and gender issues in a Catholic context, such as approaches to contraception and the role of the Church in historically facilitating Magdalene laundries.

The Understanding Abortion in Catholic Communities project, led by Dr Sarah-Jane Page and Dr Pam Lowe, has conducted qualitative interviews and focus groups with priests and parishioners in five locations across England, Scotland and Wales. They specifically focused on places where anti-abortion activism has taken place. Not only did the research team want to find out about the extent to which abortion was discussed; they also wanted to know how much parishioners and priests were aware of campaigns such as 40 Days for Life and March for Life, both run with the intention to dissuade people from seeking abortion. All locations where parishioners and priests lived had featured anti-abortion campaigns directly outside abortion clinics and hospitals, and the research wanted to seek opinions on this, especially as Page and Lowe’s previous research has highlighted that it is mainly Catholics who participate in these activities. By taking a qualitative, as opposed to a survey-based approach, the research was able to tease out the nuance in people’s opinions.

The findings reveal much complexity in attitudes to abortion. Priests were keen to demonstrate their commitment to church teaching (the Catholic Church’s position is that abortion is always wrong), but many wanted to demonstrate their personal compassion towards the issue; for some, this meant that they opposed activism outside clinics for being the wrong approach to the issue. Because of the sensitivities around the topic, many priests chose not to preach about abortion, but messages about abortion may still circulate through other means, such as announcements about clinic vigils in the church newsletter, and giving space to charities who oppose abortion who seek donations from Catholic parishioners. Many, but not all, priests supported clinic activism to oppose abortion, seeing this as the last possible chance for someone to change their mind about having an abortion, and nearly half had been involved in clinic activism in some capacity, which had sometimes occurred as part of their seminary training experience.

Meanwhile parishioners were far less likely to endorse the official Catholic Church’s position on abortion. At one end of the continuum, parishioners criticised the Church teaching for causing harm to women; such participants actively endorsed the identity of being prochoice. Meanwhile others were more hesitant about supporting abortion, but overwhelmingly said it was not their role to interfere in other people’s decision-making. From this perspective, participants said that if abortion was something that others chose, they would not judge, or try to intervene in the decision. Meanwhile others supported abortion in a very limited range of circumstances, but were still therefore out of line with official Church teaching. Only a small minority fully endorsed the official Church teaching on abortion, making abortion a conscience issue, rather like contraception is now well-established to be (see David Geiringer’s presentation, below).

It was also clearly the case that the majority of parishioners opposed activism at clinic sites, saying this was a form of harassment and intimidation. They reflected that it was a tough decision that was made harder by strangers congregating at clinic sites, in some cases approaching those entering the clinic. Many reflected on their own experience or others that they knew regarding their reproductive lives, and forged their views utilising this knowledge. Some felt very uneasy about the church space being used as a place to promote anti-abortion events and missions, and would go out of their way to avoid signing petitions, donating money or taking leaflets.

A very small fraction of parishioners interviewed were directly involved in the clinic activism. Whilst being very visible at clinic sites, Page and Lowe’s research emphasises that their position does not reflect Catholic parishioners more broadly, and this is supported by the statistical evidence on Catholic attitudes, where support for abortion in at least some circumstances outweighs outright opposition (Clements 2014a, 2014b). Lowe and Page has written extensively on those who participate in anti-abortion activism, and they have a book coming out on this topic very soon with Emerald. Meanwhile, the researchers are now busy writing up the findings from this latest project.

After Page and Lowe outlined their findings, the event moved on to look at other research pertaining to Catholicism, gender and sexuality.

Dr Alana Harris, Senior Lecturer in Modern British History at King’s College London, presented on “Sutherland v Stopes: The Evolution of Catholic Sexology in Interwar Britain”. Marie Stopes, the birth control reformer, accused Halliday Sutherland – a Catholic doctor and staunch critic of contraception – of defaming her in his book, Birth Control, leading to a High Court trial in 1922. This led to a lengthy legal process, where one won, then appealed, with proceedings continuing, and resulting in a very costly enterprise. Sutherland later went on to sue Stopes for libel when she wrote her own book. Despite Sutherland being remembered for this high-profile case, Harris looks at Sutherland’s broader contribution and the impact his books had on ordinary Catholics. For example, he outlined the fertile and non-fertile period in the menstrual cycle, thereby advocating a licit form of Catholic family planning, and how this contributed to a broader evolution of Catholic sexology. Indeed, Sutherland advocated a need for more information to be conveyed about reproduction, albeit with a Catholic angle to it.

Dr David Geiringer, a Social and Cultural Historian in Modern Britain and Associate Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, presented on “Catholicism, Contraception and Cultural Change in Post-War England”, which detailed findings from his life history interviews with older Catholics, with a specific emphasis on the experiences of Catholic women after the Pope published the encyclical, Humanae Vitae in 1968, which banned Catholics from using artificial forms of contraception. He details how Catholic women rejected Humanae Vitae, but how this came at much personal cost and heartache. One participant, for example, had given birth to her eighth child and was in perpetual turmoil regarding her reproductive life, but believed that to use contraception was fundamentally wrong. In the end, even her priest had quietly advised her to go on the pill. Geiringer’s testimonies reveal the centrality of personal embodied experiences, and how Catholics themselves became the arbiters of their own decision-making. Geiringer’s project is covered in more detail in the book, The Pope and the Pill: Sex, Catholicism and Women in Post-War England, published by Manchester University Press (pb: £20).

Finally, Dr Chloe Gott, who lectures in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College London, and who has recently completed her PhD at the University of Kent, presented “They Lived in a Silent world, except for their Prayers’: Exploring Prayer as a Disciplinary Process within the Magdalene Laundries”. Gott has analysed the oral history testimonies of those who were incarcerated in the Irish laundries, as well as those who came into contact with the laundries (e.g. doctors, tradespeople). Here, Gott focused on the role of prayer as a form of regulation, and explained the rule of silence that existed within the laundries. There was a fundamental understanding that if the women were allowed to talk – they would organise and rebel. Instead, the women were regulated into consistent prayer, which disciplined their bodies. She also notes the potential ways of resistance, which could utilise the voice – such as crying and screaming, as well as silence as a form of resistance. Gott has also researched life after the laundries for survivors, and has analysed the role that religion played for women beyond the laundries. Gott has a forthcoming book manuscript with Bloomsbury.

The roundup session at the end reflected on the research gaps that remain in relation to Catholicism, gender and sexuality, and the need for more qualitative research.