Becoming Episcopalian: We welcome your brains

Fortunately, Episcopalians don't want your brains in this particular way. Rather, we want your intellect. (I'm torn between saying "we" or "they." I'm part of the Episcopal Church, but not officially received.)

Bring along your questions, bring your dissent, are are welcome.

Now, I'm not saying the Catholic Church doesn't encourage intellectual inquiry. (Same issue with "we" vs "they," here. I'm still Catholic, but I guess not that kind anymore.) They do encourage scholarship. Scholarship thriv(ed)(es)  especially in the Jesuit and Dominican orders. The Franciscans started off disdainful of scholarship because St. Francis, like Santorum, viewed education as corrupting and suspect.

Oh dear Lord, did I just compare St. Francis to Santorum? Shit. (No, wait...poor choice of swear words) Crap. Uh...let's move on.

I did face a certain strain of condemnation, though, when I was questioning the theology, morality, and legitimacy of the doctrine surrounding birth control. Specifically, hormonal contraception. It was really weird. I thought I knew the Church teachings, having investigated it a fair deal back when I was really conservative.

My mom had some gynecologic issues, and her doctor prescribed birth control pills to help control the unending bleeding. She, being a good Catholic, checked in with the priest at our local parish. He said that using the pill for medical reasons instead of birth control reasons made it perfectly moral. The intent is treatment, not prevention of birth; the birth control aspect was simply a side effect. My mom, knowing I have similar gynecologic issues, told me this back when I was in middle school. I was on the Pill at the time, to control incredible, unbelievable pain during my periods, and to regulate them. She wanted to let me know that I didn't have to suffer even after I get married.

I was aghast. Here I was, fearful of the sinful effects of the birth control pill just in case God thought I would be the next Virgin Mary. I didn't want to accidentally abort the next Jesus Christ. Hell, I always worried that I might be pregnant even when I didn't have a boyfriend until my second year of COLLEGE. And even then, I, being a good Catholic, waited until marriage to do, you know...

In any case, I continued researching the morality of hormonal treatments. Humane Vitae is THE document regarding birth control pills. This is the proclamation that divides Catholics today. The pope at the time said that birth control methods are only moral when it's a cure. Not just treatment, but a cure. Most Catholics and priests and theologians have interpreted it, in light of recent scientific progress, to mean effective treatment instead. The hormones are a cheap and effective way of managing the effects of PCOS, fibroids, and all sorts of other things. It's not a cure, but it is a danged effective treatment that normalizes female hormones, if the benefits of the therapy outweighs the risks.

However, there are some Catholics who are hardline about it being a cure. It MUST be a cure. Any use of the Pill while married is sinful. The only way to use the Pill is if the wife abstained from sex for the duration of the hormonal therapy (which is to say, indefinitely.) And even long-term abstention from sex is immoral. So, it's better to just suffer than to use the Pill. By their standards, the only cure is a full hysterectomy, thus removing ANY chance of ever getting pregnant. How's that for birth control, eh?

These proponents often refer to NaPro Technology. I've investigated it for myself, back when I was a good Catholic. Let me just say that the Creighton Model that they teach is danged effective. I was able to figure out, through charting my signs, that I often was low on progesterone. However, the hormonal treatment they prescribe women is the equivalent of the hormones available in birth control pills. It's just a more expensive alternative in the guise of being Humane Vitae-compatible. Why pay a lot to a doctor in Omaha, Nebraska, when you can get cheaper pills from the pharmacy and be treated by your own gynecologist?

Let me tie this back into the whole intellectual inquiry I talked about earlier. I questioned the difference between NaPro and regular "birth control" pills. I questioned the "cure" aspect of Humane Vitae, in relation to moral theology approaches. Quite frankly, Humane Vitae takes an archaic approach to moral theology when recent theologians differentiate between intent even when the result is the same.

And then when I learned more about the history of that papal bull, I found out that the birth control commission that the Pope put together was in favor of declaring hormonal birth control moral, and the magesterium was willing to accept it. The Pope then decided to publicize the papal bull, completely disregarding the overwhelming consensus by these moral theologians and disregarding the tradition of running papal proclamations by the magesterium. That alone calls into question the validity of the bull. And I asked about that.

I even then started to wonder--is hormonal birth control specifically for birth control purposes actually evil? How is it different from natural family planning? The efficacy is the same. The rate of miscarriage is the same. And unlike condoms, the important bit about "sperm in the vagina" is fulfilled. I read about other people who wondered the same thing as me--notably Fr. Charles Curran.

And I came to discover the Church's and fellow Catholics' distaste for dissent. The Church's official view on dissent is, "talk with your parish priest" and then if you still disagree, keep your mouth shut for the sake of church unity. I can understand the unity part, considering the history of Christianity and all the heretics and stuff. But you know what? Many of the teachings and the creeds we have today is because of the heretics and dissenters. Without them speaking up, the Christian Church wouldn't have had as many ecumenical councils, and Church theologians wouldn't have had to explain specifically why the heretics and dissenters are wrong. Without these dissenters, how is the Church as a whole to grow?

My conservative Catholic friends had been also calling me out on the dissent. Not to the level as Fr. Curran, but there was definitely an air of hostility. I was being too "liberal." They kept reiterating that to be a Catholic, one has to be in 100% agreement with the Church. I disagreed with that premise (oh yeah, that went over well). The result was that I felt incredibly unwelcome. I felt condemned just because I want to treat my freaking PCOS and avoid uterine cancer and the incredible pain from the cysts. I want to keep my uterus, thank you very much. I felt condemned for my dissent.

Cue faith crisis. Enter Episcopal Church.

One thing I noticed from my blog post here from fellow Episcopalians, and in general from the Episcopal Church, is that even though I explicitly dissented from the Episcopal Church on an issue, people didn't condemn me. They are still incredibly welcoming, and I thank God for that. I thank God that I have a place where I can now freely pose questions without fear of being condemned simply because it isn't what the Church teaches.

I feel like I'm home.

Filed under: Becoming Episcopalian

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  • I agree with your point about dissent in the Church. It should be encouraged and not silenced. Clarity emerges from the crucible of dissent.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Exactly. I've been reading about the broad history of Christianity lately (great bus-ride reading), and I was struck by how many theological statements and churchly changes came about as a reaction to dissenters (and heretics). It's rather validating and encouraging. I just hope I'm more of a dissenter and less of a heretic--I try hard to be lower-o orthodox.

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