If not ‘gender’ … then certainly ‘women’s rights’
by Joseph Selling
Last month Gillian Paterson drew our attention to the fact that using the word ‘gender’ in the international context makes church leaders very uncomfortable. I suspect that most Catholic moral theologians would have similar feelings about getting involved in the broad agenda that has come to be known as ‘gender issues’. That said, we should not abandon what the church has to offer in the area of women’s rights. The Catholic Church has indeed spoken out on a number of these issues or at least implicitly addressed them in a way that many Catholics do not usually associate with church teaching. In what follows, I understand the concept of rights as legitimate claims to those things that are considered necessary to protect and promote human well-being. I limit myself here to those rights that I believe are related to the issues connected with ‘gender’.
The right to have an equal say on having children
The teaching on responsible parenthood put forth in Gaudium et Spes, 50, clearly states that it is both parents who should make the decision about whether and when to have (more) children. Hence it is clear that according to church teaching a woman certainly does have a say in whether and when she will become pregnant.
The right to be protected from sexual abuse, especially between birth and adulthood
This, of course, applies to all children, but girls are particularly vulnerable in this area because of abduction, slavery, and human trafficking.
The right to protect oneself against STD’s
Similarly, presuming the right of every person to protect one’s health, it would seem that the church would be a staunch supporter of every woman’s right to protection against sexually transmitted diseases. Even in extreme cases, in which an infected spouse demanded intercourse, a woman would be justified in her claim to self-protection by demanding that her husband use a condom.
The right to refuse sexual advances, even from a spouse
It would seem that for time immemorial the church’s condemnation of rape would imply that every woman has the right to refuse a sexual encounter, even with her husband, when she judges that such an encounter would impinge upon her integrity, her dignity, or her health. Thus, we could conclude that every woman has the right to refuse sexual advances that she considers inappropriate.
The right to information about pregnancy and childbirth
This is not simply a matter of some vague form of ‘sex education’ but calls for an appropriate guidance through the processes of physical and psychological maturation into womanhood.
The right to information concerning the regulation of fertility
Prior to any possibility of a woman becoming pregnant, or even having sexual relations, whether consented to or not, every woman has the right to information about conception and the various possibilities for avoiding conception when that is considered reasonable.
The right to ante- and post-natal medical care as well as assistance at childbirth
Contemporary health care practice indicates that ante-natal and post-natal care for all women is hugely beneficial for both mother and child. It would appear to be an inevitable corollary of church teaching that everything possible should be done to provide this basic care for every woman who does or may become pregnant.
The right to decide whether or not she will marry
Although it is difficult to determine when this idea became mainstream in the teaching of the church, it is certainly an indisputable part of contemporary teaching.
The right to have the final say about whom she might marry
Perhaps a more controversial issue, but one that deserves serious attention, is the right of every woman to have the final say on whether she will marry, and if she so chooses, the right to decide with whom she will marry. Coincidental to the protection of this right is the respect for a minimum age for entering into marriage. It is to be expected that there will be fluctuations in what is considered minimum age from one culture to another. That said, the discussion about marriageable age should not be based simply upon traditions or local practices but rather upon the determination of when an individual is capable of making a free and informed decision about whether and with whom she will marry.
Similarly, the choice of a marriage partner should not be forced upon any woman or girl. Making such a decision may, of course, be greatly helped by the advice of one’s family and even guided by the standard practices of the social context. However, the final decision should be up to the woman who faces the prospect of spending the remainder of her normal life wedded to the person who becomes her spouse.
The right to adequate support and protection from leaders of the community
It is necessary, further, to draw attention to the fact that virtually none of these basic rights can be realized, nor can any of the protections be exercised (as in the case of forcing an underage girl to be wedded), without appropriate social and legal structures being in place. It is therefore incumbent upon those who claim to represent a coherent system of social ethics, namely those who exercise teaching positions in the church, to publically take a stand on these issues and voice their support for these basic rights and protections.
I believe that all of us would agree that part of our calling as Christians entails the project of projecting an image of a community/society in which women are clearly free agents, enjoy the respect due to them as human persons, and are fully participant in the decision-making and ruling institutions of the community. So long as the Church fails to cultivate and live that project, it will lack credibility in the wider international community and fail in its task of working toward social justice.
I would like to see each and every bishop take a public position on each of the ten rights enunciated above. If they cannot agree with the terminology of gender, they should at the very least make known to the world community their stance on social justice for all women in all places.