God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

My mother, Carol Marie Linehan, was not a pious woman. She did, of course, instruct us in how to say our prayers, but otherwise I can’t remember her ever uttering the name “Jesus” or mentioning a pope, let alone a bishop. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby seemed to comprise the entirety of her pantheon of Catholic saints, and TV’s The Wonderful World of Walt Disney was as close to religious programming as our family got. Her favorite biblical passage was “God helps those who help themselves,” a proverb I have not been able to find in Scripture.

Although my mother’s father was a lawyer, and had been educated at Boston College High School and College, he chose not to send her to college, and her own religious education, as best I could tell, was derived sketchily from the Baltimore Catechism. Nevertheless, she had a firmly fixed view of the moral universe. No premarital sex, no extramarital sex, and no divorce were the fundamental articles of her faith, and on two or three occasions she explicated with startling crudeness the moral reasoning behind these prohibitions. (As I recall, it had something to do with cows and free milk.) Like many of her generation, she inherited a Catholicism focused almost entirely on a deep belief in the tribal virtues taught by competitive sports—at least for boys—and rigid rules about sexual behavior. For women of her generation, a “bad reputation” could put you on the marital sidelines, and out-of-wedlock pregnancy spelled exile or worse.

My mother put great stock in marriage as the ultimate vocation for a chaste Catholic girl, although I can’t recall her ever using the word “chaste.” My parents were married in November 1950, and I was born nine months later. My brother Steve—a pushy fellow from the start—followed thirteen months after that. In the first ten years of her marriage, our mother was pregnant seven times—two miscarriages and five healthy births. The deliveries were not always easy. She also suffered from severe endometriosis, which caused heavy and almost constant bleeding and considerable pain. These things were not talked about in our family. I remember one bewildering night in my early teens when she collapsed—from a ruptured ovarian cyst, I now assume—and my father raced out of the house to the hospital with her in his arms. No explanations were offered, and no one dared to ask. The week I graduated from college, she collapsed again and underwent an emergency radical hysterectomy. She was forty-three.

This is an all-too-familiar story for Catholic women of a certain age, and I think it should be better known, especially among younger, more fervent Catholics whose idealism—and naïveté—is pandered to by the current emphasis on the Theology of the Body. In the 1960s, after her fifth child was born, my mother’s doctor insisted she go on the Pill to help regulate her menstrual cycles. Dutifully she consulted our parish priest, and was told in no uncertain terms that recourse to the Pill was forbidden under any circumstance. She complied with the priest’s instructions, or so I have been told, until she suffered yet another hemorrhage. Eventually, after several incidents like the one described above, she did go on the Pill, and doing so presumably helped alleviate her symptoms, at least for a time. Of course, my mother never talked to me or my brothers about any of this, though in later years she was more forthcoming with our sisters. I do remember her complaining bitterly, in the proud way the Irish do, about women on the Pill who still presented themselves at the Communion rail. In time my mother stopped going to Mass altogether; during the last thirty-five years of her life, she attended church only for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. She seemed to think that when it came to the church, you were either all in or all out. That was what she had been taught, after all.

I doubt that her personal conflict over the Pill was the only reason my mother stopped going to church, but it surely was the catalyst. Years later I am left to wonder, did she leave the church, or did the church in effect leave her, turning a blind eye, in its customary way, to “women’s complaints”? Either way, it seemed—and seems to me still—a harsh exile for a woman who had risked her body, and on occasion her life, in obedience to the church’s dubious teachings concerning the supposedly self-evident teleology of every sexual act. Despite the reasoned and patient objections of countless theologians and the largely silent defection of the majority of the faithful, the church continues to cling to these teachings, and does so with the fierce desperation of those who are wrong and can’t or won’t admit it. Yet as philosopher Michael Dummett wrote in these pages (“Indefensible,” February 11, 2011), the unpersuasiveness of the current teaching undermines the church’s moral authority in senseless ways. Is this pettifogging about sexuality really what the gospel demands of us? In the meantime, as Eamon Duffy worries, thousands are deprived of the sacramental nourishment only the church can provide.

Catholicism has altered seemingly irreformable teachings on more than a few occasions over the centuries (baptizing the uncircumcised, the perfidy of the Jews, slavery, usury, separation of church and state) yet somehow found a way forward with its identity, focus, and integrity intact; and I hope now that it will muster the will to find its way out of this particular dead end. As my mother, bless her, would say: “God helps those who help themselves.”

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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