Jon O’Brien: “The Catholic Church has an obsession with sexuality”

US-based Catholics for Choice chief criticizes the Vatican’s position on women and gays

Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice.
Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice.

Jon O’Brien believes that the Catholic Church’s hierarchy is drawing further away from its followers and social reality – above all when it comes to sexual and reproductive rights.

The 50-year-old Irish Catholic, who is president of the US organization Catholics for Choice, believes in a secular state, and has severely criticized the Vatican for its treatment of women and homosexuals.

Question. Do you think Catholic Church officials are successfully taking on the challenge of adapting to the diversity of their believers in today’s society?

Answer. There was a great theologian who once said: “Catholicism is defined by unity and diversity.” In other words, this is not a monolithic Church. When I go to Mass on Sunday and I look around me, I see over there two gay men who’ve been in a relationship for a long time. Over on my right hand side I see two gay women who’ve adopted a child. There is also a couple who have divorced and been remarried. All of us are using birth-control methods, and many women have had abortions. This is the reality of the Catholic Church today. The Church is not a building somewhere in Rome; it’s not a building in Madrid. The Church is all of the people and the people as we are manifesting ourselves today have a very different sexual aspect than what the hierarchy has emphasized.

All of us are using birth control methods, and many women have had abortions. This is the reality of the Catholic Church today ”

Q. Do its doctrines correspond to reality?

A. It seemed as though the last two papacies, John Paul II and Pope Benedict, were very focused on the pelvic zone, very focused on our genitalia, and very focused on adherence to a rule. No matter where you go, if you ask Catholics what they believe, if you ask Catholics what they do, it’s very different than what they do in the hierarchy. I think that’s the reality of the Church. My biggest problem is that they have failed us as Catholics to follow them. And they do not represent, I would argue, we Catholic people – they represent themselves. The Bishops now go to Congress in the United States, they go to the UN, and they go to the government in Spain, and they try to convince them to turn their theology into law that doesn’t represent us.

Q. Has the Catholic hierarchy grown further from the flock?

A. I think they are representing a failed way of thinking. There are various reasons why the Catholic hierarchy ended up with many failures in sexual ethics. Sometimes it was good intention that they wanted to be closer to God, so the idea was that those who are celibate are closer to God. They had, I think, good intentions. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I think that reality today is that if you stop women from having access to safe abortions, they would have unsafe abortions. And if you stop people from gaining access to contraceptives, they can’t avoid an unplanned pregnancy. These are the realities: the reality is that marriages break down, the reality is that people are gay that are Catholic. So we have to deal with the real world. The real world tells us that there’s something that has very much failed the bishops’ view, and certainly the bishops are entitled to hold their view.

It seemed as though the last two papacies were very focused on our genitalia”

Q. Despite the social advances and more voices like yours among the flock that are speaking out, the Catholic Church has not changed its position on abortion, birth control or homosexuality.

A. I think that most Catholics have moved on in our ordinary lives. I still go to Mass on Sunday, so do women who have had abortions and used contraceptives. We don’t feel guilty, we know that as good Catholics we can make a decision based on our conscience because this is not just about feeling good. At the very center of Catholic teaching is that not only should you follow your conscience, but you “must” actually follow your conscience. And I think that the people who use contraceptives, the people who have abortions, people who are gay and lesbian, are following their conscience. It’s between them and God.

Q. What should be the relationship between Church and State?

The real world tells us that there’s something that has very much failed the views of the bishops”

A. Maybe our bishops in Spain and Portugal and Ireland should stop going to politicians and saying that this is the law I want you to enact. It’s inappropriate. Religious actors can have their view but I think that a truly secular state – and that I believe the secular state is not anti-religion – is neutral and balanced. I think it gives great protection to religious people because I don’t get someone else’s religion being imposed upon me as a Catholic and I don’t get to impose my religion on other people of a different faith or on non-believers. I think that those are the type of laws that are most just and most fair.

Q. Do you believe the Catholic hierarchy has intervened too much in politics of state?

A. Yes, I think there’s no doubt about it. These men go on to lobby politicians to turn their beliefs into law when they don’t even have Catholic followers. You see this around the world, you see it time and time again – the fight against gay marriage, the fight against the legal right to abortion. If you look at Poland, if you look at Spain, if you look at Ireland, the fight against the equal rights of citizens sadly is very often led like hierarchy in my Church. And I think that’s why Catholics really have to do something, though it is not easy. If you see someone doing something wrong you have to say something. And I think we see the hierarchy in our Church doing different things – trying to pressure politicians to legislate for themselves – and I think we have to stand up and say that this is the wrong way for the hierarchy and the Church to behave. And tell people that when they speak, they don’t speak for all of us.

Q. Some people have described Pope Francis as too political.

We know that as good Catholics we can make a decision based on our conscience”

A. I think that there is a part of this pope that is very genuine. I think he really is genuinely trying to be more pastoral than political as to when other popes were trying to get the government to do this, do that. I think he cares about the human condition. I think that is a really welcoming thing because we too often have had a political Catholic Church and not a pastoral Church. I am not trying to say that he agrees with me on these things but he is being much more loving and caring, and not lecturing as much as his predecessors. The pope is Argentinean but I don’t think he is a Che Guevara – he is not Che Guevara, but maybe more like Gorbachev when he had something to say.

Q. Has he opened a channel of communication and changes in the Church?

A. He presented the idea that people should be able to have a conversation about what type of society they want. Who knows whether the bishops under Pope Francis will be braver and if they will actually admit that there are many things in our Church that are unfair and unjust. One of them being the way that women are treated in the Church. They are not treated with the real respect and dignity that comes with women being equal to men.

Q. Do you think gender inequality is one of the major problems in the Church?

A. The idea that you have a corporation, for example Apple, saying tomorrow, we’re not going to have any woman in senior management. It would be crazy for a business to do that or for any other institution. I think it’s crazy for the Church, too. We exclude women at the cost of the Church not being as smart as it could be and should be. So I think when the bishops meet together [they should discuss] maybe the issues of women, about women’s health, women’s lives, women’s meaningful position within the Church – a position that is rightfully theirs and which is half of the church.

Q. What do you think about a priest coming out in public as gay and at the same time admitting to having a boyfriend?

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A. One of the worst-kept secrets in the Catholic Church is that a lot of the clergy are gay. Certainly, I would welcome a more enlightened view of gay people in my Church, but we, the Catholic faithful, would also welcome more truth about divorce and remarriage, about women who have abortions, and about couples that use contraceptives. There are a myriad of issues queuing up to be addressed. With its failure to talk about the real world, the Catholic hierarchy’s sins of omission extend way beyond a gay priest in the Vatican who could no longer live in hypocrisy and lies. The list goes to the very heart of Catholic teaching on issues connected with the pelvic zone. We need a complete overhaul if social justice is to be done – not just gay priests talking about gay priests.

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