Catholic Hysteria over The Handmaid’s Tale

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Today, a Catholic blog I follow with great admiration and interest engaged in what Mencken might describe as the rantings of the booboisie. I was reminded of Mencken’s essays describing the philistinism and paranoia of rural middle-American Christians of his age. A typical example would be any essay in which he visited some small town in the South or Midwest and proceeded to describe in detail the experience of viewing a barely literate preacher haranguing a mob of rubes about the evils of demon rum or jazz music or Collier’s Magazine.

Today I was reminded of such scenes while reading Fr. Zuhlsdorf’s blog entry on Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Zuhlsdoft links to a column on Lifesite, a generally admirable site that publishes news related to abortion and other grave matters.

The Lifesite column reports that a Catholic College in Minneapolis has required The Handmaid’s Tale as part of the Freshman Curriculum. The column’s author, Hilary White, calls the book a “sexually explicit anti-Catholic novel,” and links to the parents group’s protest site that weakly attempts to prove the book’s evil agenda.

Zuhlsdorf obviously agrees and calls the book a “second rate-novella” but it quickly comes apparent that neither White nor Zuhlsdorf seem to have read the novel at all.
I’d agree that the book does not deserve a prominent place in the College’s curriculum, but the absolute hysteria with which these Catholic writers have responded makes me feel like I’m at a school board meeting in rural Kansas where the parents are debating whether or not Huckleberry Finn should be banned for “filthy” language.

So, Hilary White calls the book a “sexually explicit anti-Catholic novel.” I would submit to you that this is a highly dubious description of the book. First of all, the sexual explicitness of the book serves a purpose in describing the true depravity of the totalitarian regime that is in power. At no point are these descriptions actually titillating, and if anyone does find them titillating, he has serious issues.

Secondly, the “Christians” that run the totalitarian regime are obviously modeled on fundamentalist Christians who espouse a sort of deformed Dominionism. Anyone who finds Catholicism in this regime is looking much, much too hard to find an anti-Catholic message.

Let’s look first at the Charges of Anti-Catholicism.

Anyone who has read my columns here on knows that I am not shy about defending the Catholic Church. I’ve done it on numerous occasions and have defended the Church’s position on contraception among other things.

But I honestly don’t see the reason for the fear unto death exhibited by some Catholics over The Handmaid’s Tale (THT).

Let’s look at the basic scenario. THT takes place in a dystopian future in which an obviously Fundamentalist Christian regime has taken over the United States government and instituted a totalitarian system. The regime employs a highly distorted version of Dominionist Theology in which Bible passages are purposely misinterpreted by the regime to serve its interests and to justify its police state. The mere presence of anything resembling Dominionism obviously renders the regime NOT Catholic to anyone who is paying attention, but Ms. White seems to have missed that part.

For some reason (possibly nuclear war) there is widespread sterility and the panic over lost fertility leads to the widespread subjection of women so that they may be used as breeding stock for the regime.

The first thing that happens is the assets of all the women are frozen, and then women are assigned to various sterile members of the ruling class to serve as Handmaids so that the ruling class can reproduce itself. Married ruling class couples that are sterile use the handmaid to reproduce through a ritualized rape session in which the wife is present, but the handmaid serves as a kind of substitute in the hope that pregnancy can be achieved. Any babies that result are considered the children of the ruling class couple and not of the handmaid.

The parent’s group at the Catholic college calling for THT’s banning claim that the book is anti-Catholic because the regime has outlawed abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and is oppressive of women. And because it is patriarchal.

This, claims the parent group, proves that the books Christo-fascist regime is really just a stand-in for the Catholic Church. This is not very convincing -as I’ve already shown, the Theology of the regime is obviously not Catholic.

First of all, the book’s central problem with the laws against abortion, homosexuality, and pornography, is that the standard punishment for favoring such things is death.

Is the Catholic position to prescribe the death penalty for homosexuality, abortion, or for promoting pornography? That wasn’t the Church’s position the last time I checked. Nor does the book imply that this is the Church’s position.

Secondly, The assertion that any fictional theocratic regime that is patriarchal and that oppresses women is reminiscent of the Catholic Church is absolutely ridiculous. The book certainly doesn’t make this assertion. The connection is strictly in the minds of paranoid Catholics. To read a description of the Republic of Gilead and to then think “Gee, that sounds like a really Catholic place!” is bizarre in the extreme.

The parents’ group then point out that the handmaids wear a type of outfit similar to those of Catholic nuns. My response is “so what?” This merely serves to highlight what a dystopian hell the Republic of Gilead is in that it has made rape victims into parodies of celibate female religious.

Indeed, some of the few mentions of Catholicism mention a Catholic priest that is executed by the regime. And it mentions nuns, who are viewed as freaks by the regime for their rejection of sex, and are therefore banished to the war-torn wastelands.

Somebody please point out to me the anti-Catholicism here, because all I’m seeing from the Catholic side so far is a shallow polemic that provides no insight.

The parents group’s other problem with the book is that it contains explicit sexual language. Oh no! We can’t have college students reading bad language, can we? I guess Dante is out the door, as is James Joyce. Or perhaps James Joyce wrote “second rate novellas” also? Now I’m not saying Atwood is Joyce or Dante, but to object to this book on allegedly Catholic grounds is embarrassing to me as a Catholic. I’ve written on this before. Obscene language serves an important literary purpose. Dante used it.

The parents group web site quotes parts of THT at which we are apparently supposed to be aghast at the use of the F word. Well, the contexts of the scenes quoted are all tragic, not erotic. Perhaps Atwood should have used Charlotte Bronte-type language to describe rape? I think not.

Oh, and the book is “insultingly boorish” as well. The horror! Clearly, we should only be reading Victorian literature. And as we all know, Shakespeare’s characters all discussed only the daintiest of subjects.

All I can see at work here is a poorly devised knee-jerk reaction against Atwood who, as a feminist, points out that women are often the object of oppression, and for some reason is therefore an automatic pariah for Zuhlsdorf and White.

The most disturbing part of all of this though, is that these Catholics who are passionately condemning The Handmaid’s Tale seem reluctant to condemn what Atwood condemns. Indeed, I’m left with the impression that some of these critics actually think that the Republic of Gilead is a relatively just society. Should we not be condemning a police state that executes people for being homosexuals? How is that compatible with Catholic theology?

Is a police state full of sex slaves really all that hard to condemn? That should be easy, but instead it seems that the parents group against THT actaully wants the Church to be associated with the Republic of Gilead in the minds of readers. I find that alarming.

Indeed, what takes place in the Republic of Gilead is virtually a point by point violation of virtually every major plank of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. The regime of Gilead (which Atwood obviously condemns) stands diametrically opposed to JPII’s writings on women. So, tell me what exactly is so bad about this brand of feminism?

A wise woman (my wife), who by any measure is a devout Catholic, recently pointed out that many good feminist writers stand up for the dignity of women as individuals who are capable of using their free will and reason to rationally conduct their own lives. What’s not Catholic about that? In first wave feminism especially (including writers like Charlotte Perkins Gilmore and Edith Wharton) there is none of that man-hating angry feminism the right-wing talk show hosts go on about.

She goes on: “In fact, Atwood’s writing has a lot in common with that of Flannery O’Connor in that it describes in grotesque detail the injustices of this world. Women have a lot of experience with this.”

Here’s the best part: “Sticking up for women is not anti-Catholic, and I’ve had enough of Catholic men who think that any women who dares point out the mistreatment of women is part of an anti-Catholic conspiracy.”

Well, now I’ve definitely gone on long enough, so –

Unless Atwood is invincibly stupid, which I doubt she is, she knows that the idea of the handmaid in THT is a profoundly unchristian idea. The Republic of Gilead resembles no Christian society in history. No Christian society ever espoused a model of marriage that involved third parties acting as sex slaves for the ruling class. Is the book then a condemnation of Christian morality? Hardly.

What Atwood describes is a totalitarian regime that abuses scripture to serve a political agenda. The “Christians” of the Republic of Gilead are crazed ideologues who twist the faith to achieve political ends. In this age of a Religious Right that enthusiastically supports the pro-abortion Giuliani while supporting torture, endless war, a police state, and the shredding of the Constitution, why should Atwood’s dystopia seem far-fetched?

1:36 am on October 14, 2007