Last week, William and Kate, the royal celebrity couple, delivered a healthy little boy. The press coverage was extensive. The couple are seen to be the hope of the monarchy as they cast a youthful and modern glow on that ancient institution. The big question, as media and the world waited with bated breath for the news of the birth, pertained to the gender of the baby. Kate and William had made a decision not to know the baby’s gender before birth. Whatever their reasons for this decision, at least one thing should be noted. This young, highly visible couple sent a clear message to the world – they were anxiously awaiting their baby and its gender was not, in the least, an issue of concern to them. Were they consciously shaping their well-honed public image as one of ethical concern for gender equality? We don’t know if this was the reason for their choice, but they have inadvertently offered the world a model of unbiased love for their unborn child.
Last year, the issue of gender selection came to the attention of the Canadian public. CBC did an investigative piece on The National on 12 June 2012. With so much press being dedicated to the problem we could no longer pretend that it isn’t happening. The CBC used a phrase from the title of a book by Maria Hvistendahl, Unnatural Selection, as the title for their exposé. Hvistendahl’s book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men (Publicaffairs, 2011) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The book revealed a serious problem facing societies and nations: some people are choosing male babies over female babies, and terminating pregnancy when the foetus is discovered to be female.
The question, after the facts about gender selection in utero became known, turned from whether or not it was happening to what to do about it. Many medical professionals declared that they would stop informing patients about foetal gender as a way of halting the practice of choosing for sex. Private ultra sound clinics are still giving this information to women at early stages of pregnancy. Couples seeking verification of gender can choose whether or not to carry the pregnancy to term. We face ethical and social questions about the long term effects of “choosing for boys” on the Canadian and world population.
Historically, the Roman Catholic Church has proclaimed itself the champion of the pro-life movement, and believes itself to be at the forefront of the protest against abortion. There is one problem in the Church’s stance toward the unborn, however. The culture of the Roman Catholic Church subtly, and not so subtly, implies favouritism towards males. In any social organization, traditional gender roles can shape members’ hopes of participation. Wherever there is a high rate of sex selection among pregnant women, the reason is primarily to do with the kind of social and economic power one can expect from male children. In cases where males typically do better than females in achieving social, economic, political and religious status, parents tend to hope for a boy over a girl.
Competition for family property, carrying on the family name and patriarchal inheritance traditions explain a preference for male offspring. In the example of William and Kate, there is a long-standing tradition looming behind them – one that will change because of the Succession to the Crown Act 2013. The act’s intention is “to make succession to the Crown not depend on gender…” But there are complex reasons for what is happening in this and other ancient patriarchal institutions. Modern movements towards gender equality are influencing long-standing traditions. Many people refuse to believe that God prefers males over females for significant roles and functions in society and the religious community. They are challenging an ancient theology. Predominantly male images of God make a huge impact on the believer’s image of the human being. Many believe that it’s time for that theology to go.
It is on this matter that the Roman Catholic Church must be taken to task. Globally visible, the Roman Catholic Church projects an image of gender selection in action. Its resistance to accepting the equality of women as viable leaders sends a clear message. Pope Francis just announced that he will not even consider the ordination of women. The Church’s hierarchy refuses to even consider or discuss the possibility of women taking a role in the clerical positions it so reveres. This sends a clear message to all people: only males are suitable to take on the tasks of leadership. The patriarchal priestly caste not only teaches a preference for males over females. It seeks control over every aspect of women’s participation. Their argument for this behaviour is that God wants it that way.
We must challenge the belief that males are superior to females. Demanding reform of Church policies that discriminate against women will be a gigantic step towards addressing the problem of “choosing for boys” that we now face in our societies. The challenge to the Roman Catholic Church is whether it can do more than pay lip service to its claim that all human beings are created equal. By reforming its policies, the Church can go a long way towards legitimating its position on abortion.
The challenge to the Church is clear. Say what you do and do what you say. Walk the walk and talk the talk. However we want to phrase it, the message is simple. Stop stating that God has mandated that males are preferred at certain levels of social organization. This is the same reasoning that is leading to the mass extermination of females before they even have the chance to experience life in their families and communities.
The present moment holds great promise for the Roman Catholic Church: be a shining example of what belief in human equality looks like, or lose even more credibility in the eyes of the world.