The story started with a woman waking up on a park bench one Saturday afternoon in December with no recollection of the past nearly twenty-four hours. She got her mother to take her to the emergency room, where she was treated by Dr. Irmgard Maiworm, the GP on duty at the time. Maiworm suspected she had been drugged and possibly raped. With the patient’s permission, Maiworm called the cops, and prescribed the morning-after pill.
Maiworm then got her assistant to call the gynecological clinic at neighboring St. Vinzenz Hospital to get her a full gynecological examination. No can do, say the folks of St. Vinzenz. We don't do rape cases. We had somebody do that recently and lose their job. For two months new rules had been in effect forbidding Catholic hospitals from providing post-rape exams. These new rules came in response to the increasing use of the morning-after pill. Such a pill, according to the guidelines, was not in keeping with Catholic values.
Maiworm can't believe her ears. She phones another hospital, this time Heilig-Geist Hospital, only to get the same answer. Eventually they find a Protestant hospital that will take her.
I know there are many people out there convinced there is a big daddy in the sky who wants very much for you to do certain things and not do others. I wasn’t born yesterday. I also know Big Daddy is not all that clear on what those things are, but that’s OK. There are people around convinced he has empowered them to speak for him. All you have to do is believe.
Leprechauns. Trolls. Wizards. Witches, Ghosts, Gremlins and Roman Catholic bishops. I have trouble telling them apart.
* * *
Once this story started making the rounds, Germans went ballistic. On one television talk show, moderator Günther Jauch asked his guests what they thought about the Roman Catholic Church in Germany today. His guests were so critical that he felt he needed to do another one, this time with practicing Catholic guests (plus the head of the Protestant Church in Germany who could be guaranteed to be at least diplomatic, and probably totally friendly on ecumenical grounds, which he was.) The Catholic guests fell all over each other distancing themselves from the incident. Lots of use of words like “outrage,” “disgusting” and “shameful,” and virtually everybody agreeing “this is not what the Catholic Church is all about!”
Missing from the discussion was the fact that a hospital spokesman had given a press conference early on in which he insisted the whole story was a media circus full of misinformation. There were no absolute guidelines. Doctors were free, as they have always been, to make their own decisions. One man’s guidelines being another men’s directives, the statement to the press came off pretty much as not very effective damage control. The fact remains the Church had put out a clear condemnation of morning-after pills and the letter was fresh in the minds of hospital employees.
So the Cardinal decided to step in and ask some very smart questions.
How does this pill work, exactly? Does it destroy a fertilized egg? Or does it simply prevent implantation of the sperm?
The distinction, in the Catholic way of thinking, is crucial. If it destroys the fertilized egg, it’s an abortifacient, since a fertilized egg is defined by catholic officialdom as a human baby. It’s a killer. And if it doesn’t, but simply prevents the sperm from reaching the egg, arguably no abortion has taken place. It’s not a killer. It’s just a “preventative.” And, Meisner opines, a “preventative” would be OK. (Details on the pill are available here and here and here.)
Let that sink in.
A form of birth control would be OK?
Did he really say that? The cardinal?
What appears to have happened is that where once there was one rigid, hard-and-fast rule about birth control (it’s a no-no), now there are two:
Rule 1 (for married people): If you’re married, you cannot practice birth control and if you get pregnant you cannot abort the baby. No change in policy, in other words. It’s still a no-no.
(And, just to dot our i’s and cross our t’s, we might consider Rule 1-A: if you’re not married, you don’t need to worry about this because you are not having sex. The birth control issue is irrelevant.)
Rule 2 (for women who are raped): If your rapist’s sperm fertilizes your egg, you are pregnant and you must have the baby. If there is a means of preventing fertilization, such as the “morning after” pill, you may use it.
For the first time, under these limited circumstances, birth control is now allowed.
Meisner’s was not the last word on the subject. The German Bishops have begun debating the issue at their conference now going on in Trier, and speculation is strong they’re going to back Meisner up.
* * *
Meanwhile, over here in America, the story is no longer about the rape victim, but about the fact that the German Catholic Church seems to be ahead of their American counterparts in reconciling the two churches – the official hierarchical structure, on the one hand, and the “people’s church,” the body of believers who focus less on power and more on pastoral concerns, on the other. One Catholic spokesman, James Salt, of Catholics United used the word “amazing” to describe the step of moving from “no birth control” to “birth control under certain very limited circumstances.”
While I have to admit the step from zero to 1 is in most cases a bigger step than from 1 to 2, the only thing I find amazing is that the church once actually held the view that one must take no steps whatsoever to protect the life and well-being of a women who has been raped. I really ought to be a bit more generous and recognize that for Catholics, any step forward toward greater human rights and recognition of the needs of women and others previously excluded by the church – I’m thinking, of course, of gays in particular – is a cause for celebration.
But I can’t help it. I can barely keep back the hysterical laughter and the suggestion we ought to maybe break out the champagne or cry with joy that this retrograde organization has decided to give women a taste of dignity they had not allowed them before.
What will they do for an encore, put full postage on their mail? Start using left-hand turn signals when they turn left?
Just as you needed a Republican like Nixon to open China – because if a leftist had tried it he would have been shot down – Cardinal Meisner was apparently the right guy in the right place at the right time for this job. He isn’t just anybody. Not one of those bleeding-heart liberal types. Not a renegade theologian like Hans Küng, who wants the Catholics and the Protestants to get back together. Not a Garry Wills, who wants to get rid of the priesthood. Not a Leonardo Boff or a Gustavo Gutierrez keeping the Vatican awake at night with their pain-in-the-ass demands for “liberation theology,” trying to make the church less about silken robes and golden rings and more about caring for the poor. Cardinal Meisner is one of Germany’s most prominent Catholic clergy, heading up the largest and the richest diocese in the country. The man whose home is that magnificent Cologne Cathedral. Consider the company Meisner keeps. First off there’s his protégé and right-hand man, Opus Dei Cardinal, Archbishop Rainer Woelki, famous for his description of homosexuality as an “offence against the ‘order of creation’.” Meisner and Woelki’s father went to school together.
And Meisner has long been a personal friend of the pope. When Josef Ratzinger was elected God’s representative on Earth, Meisner, we are told, burst into tears of joy in the Sistine Chapel.
On the occasion of the pope’s 85th birthday, a group of German papal loyalists put out a kind of “Festschrift” to sing his praises. The publisher explained that she was motivated in part by the desire to counter some of the negative press the pope got when he addressed the German parliament and so many people walked out on him. Speaking at the press conference was none other than Georg Gänswein, the pope’s personal secretary and editor of and contributer to the book. Also among those contributors is Meisner. The book is called Benedikt XVI – Prominente über den Papst. (Benedict XVI – Prominent People Speak Out about the Pope).
* * *
It wasn’t missed in church circles that a conservative prelate had moved birth control out of the no-no column into the “under certain circumstances” column. The first question was to what degree was Meisner acting on his own. As if he actually could. Or would. An American publication, The National Catholic Reporter strongly suggested Meisner may actually have cleared his remarks with the Vatican. And a report by the Irish national public service broadcaster, RTÉ confirmed it, straight from the horse’s mouth, almost, by diocese of Cologne spokeswoman Nele Harbeke.
So it’s official. The Vatican has arrived in the modern era by recognizing that sometimes it’s a good idea to get in nature’s way in the baby-making process. The rest of us never had a problem with this, and we wonder why it is the church couldn't have said from the beginning that rape is contrary to the will of God and therefore what goes on in rape is pain, not baby-making. But probably they figured that would only lead to the slippery slope. As it is, one has to wonder how long it will be before somebody decides the church can get behind the blocking of the sperm of a fifteen-year-old boy when it’s heading toward an egg in his fourteen-year-old girlfriend. As long as they do it in a timely fashion.
* * *
So there’s the story. Or so it would seem. The church is getting closer to admitting that
women are equal in God’s eyes to men, and each time there is any progress, no matter how small, we can’t help but speculate how much more freedom from darkness and obedience to blindly held principles might come down the pike. Will they let women speak for the official church as equals one day? Will they recognize that although the animus that once led to the execution of homosexuals is gone, use of language such as “intrinsically disordered” and “offensive to God” when describing their natural desire for physical and emotional union with another person of the same sex still sets the tone for gay-bashing, trivialization and exclusion?
The church has been brought kicking and screaming one more inch closer to the modern age only because it got caught napping. It could have done it without all this embarrassment if it had taken a pastoral approach to rape victims in the first place, and not waited for somebody to test the law.
But that's not the way the church works. It prefers, even now, even after all these years, to argue over the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin.
All this kerfluffle. All these hours of press conferences, emergency sessions of ethics committees, all this hair-splitting. Some people are trying to downplay the event as manipulation. The Catholic News Agency, for example, published an article to that effect. When you look closely at it, though, what you see is some really lousy journalism. You see little more than a conservative doctor trying to “correct” the good Cardinal. He says the cardinal was manipulated, but in fact there is no evidence to back that up.
But there’s no need for conservatives to expend that effort on denying what Meisner has done. All he has actually done is declare that in an act of violence, one we may safely assume was not what God was thinking when he asked us to be fruitful and multiply, there is no harm in preventing the fertilization of an egg in the body of an unwilling victim. We are not preventing a life that was meant to be. We are preventing a life that was not meant to be. And not prevent in the condom sense, but prevent in the “keep these people apart” sense.
When the dust settles, we have to recognize this is not really about birth control at all, since all the old birth control restrictions remain firmly in place. And so is the rule that if the rapist should succeed in getting that sperm into the egg, it’s all over. The baby is on the way. The victim can seek therapy, close her eyes and think of England, or give the baby up for adoption. She just can’t stop the birth.
The church, who speaks for God, has made it clear what God wants. If you get to the sperm in time, he wants you to stop the baby-making process. If you don’t, he clearly means for a baby to be born.
Isn’t it nice to have clarity where once we had a grey area?
* * *
In the final analysis, I think the story will be told this way:
A woman went to a doctor. There was evidence she had had sex without her knowledge and consent. The doctor took action to make sure she wouldn’t have a baby. She didn’t split hairs over whether there was a fertilized egg in her womb; she simply looked out for the welfare of her patient. Call that Irmgard Maiworm’s way.
Agents of the Roman Catholic Church working on what they thought were church guidelines decided the patient should not be treated because such treatment might involve abortion, or the appearance of approval of abortion. When word got out, these agents issued an apology and insisted it was all a misunderstanding.
We now know how to prevent a rape victim from being further victimized. We have the technology to keep her from having to carry a child fathered by her rapist. God appears to favor women who live in advanced countries with access to that technology. If women take advantage of that technology within the first couple of days after being raped, they do not offend him. If they are not in a position to take advantage of that technology, either because they are poor, or uninformed, or because they live too far from people who have that technology, they just have to wait and watch while their ovum becomes fertilized. The correct interpretation of that eventuality, in that case, is that God intends for that baby to be born. Call that Bishop Meisner’s way.
We have two Roman Catholic churches. One, the pastoral church, consists of the majority of people who identify as Catholic. They would like the church to go Irmgard Maiworm’s way. The other consists of an old boys’ club of increasingly irrelevant authoritarians whose desire to maintain control over the institution they run occasionally leads them to cruelty.
If you, or anyone you know, is ever raped, pray you fall into the hands of the Maiworms of this world, and not the Meisners.