According to the official Vatican newspaper, the washing machine has done more to liberate women than anything else in the 20th century. One has to ask where the Vatican gets the information on which to base this kind of conclusion. This is particularly necessary in the light of the public admission that a failure to read the news meant that the Pope committed a major blunder in readmitting to communion someone who denied the Holocaust, Richard Williamson. At least the Pope responded on this occasion to the worldwide outrage which his action had caused.
No such response has come from the Roman Catholic Church to the story that a nine year old girl has been excommunicated. The Brazilian child had been abused for years by her stepfather. She went to hospital to investigate a pain and was found to be four months pregnant, carrying twins. Fearing for her life, doctors gave her an abortion. The response of Cardinal Giovanni Batista Re, who heads the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, was that the twins had a right to life and that the mother and those involved in the abortion should be excommunicated. The Church said nothing about the man who raped the girl.
Punishing a nine year old child in this way when she needs all the love and support the Church can give is barbaric. Brazilian authorities, in a country which only allows abortion in exceptional circumstances, had made the reasonable judgement that this case was one in which the mother’s life was the prime concern: it is likely that neither mother nor the unborn children would have survived if the pregnancy had gone much further. But the Church gives the impression that the men in charge will not engage seriously with women’s issues. They imagine that they want washing machines, rather than protection from unwanted pregnancy. They ignore the fact that many people in the world still do not have access to safe water for drinking or washing, and that it is generally supposed that women will be responsible for fetching the water from a contaminated source when there isn’t a clean piped supply. For such people there are many more things that could make life easier than having a washing machine. It is only when there is a power supply and piped water that the machine is usable at all. But the availability of safe contraception requires no great infrastructure to be in place before it can benefit every woman on the planet who needs it. Protection from unwanted pregnancy and from AIDS are part of a woman’s right to life. In a world where men still take advantage of women physically and emotionally it is wrong that the Church seeks to deny them any defence. Rape is a moment’s madness for the man, but can have lifelong consequences for the woman. Requiring women to live with the consequences of being violated is wrong. The support that they need after such an attack should include the ‘morning after’ pill or other means of ensuring that the woman is not required to bear the child of the man who raped her.
Unfortunately in the Roman Catholic Church the fact that the rules are made only by unmarried men means that issues are never examined from a woman’s point of view. It has been necessary for people to formulate a deliberate feminist theology just to attempt the redress centuries of imbalance. If, in the light of the controversy of Richard Williamson the Vatican is seriously interested in looking at the internet to discover world opinion, it might be helpful if some serious attention were paid to women’s issues. It would be good to start with examining why a nine year old child can be excommunicated rather than supported by the Church after being raped.