My mother, a devout Catholic, had heart trouble before having six children in seven years during the 1950s. Exhaustion, combined with her weak heart, contributed to bouts of pneumonia and the removal of a lung.
Afterward, she tried to talk to my equally devout father about using birth control. It upset him.
"We'll go to hell," he said.
"I'm in hell now," she replied, and took a bus 75 miles to Rochester, N.Y., to obtain contraceptives. My parents had no more children. My mother made certain her four daughters had no qualms about using birth control. Still, I wonder whether having such a large family so quickly contributed to her death in her 50s.
Now I am in my 50s with two children of my own. Recently, American Catholic bishops ordered priests to read a letter at Mass denouncing as a violation of religious liberty a proposed federal birth control mandate. Although parish churches are exempt, religious institutions that accept federal funds (and employ many non-Catholics) would have had to make available free contraceptives through health coverage. The controversy forced compromise; the Obama administration passed the mandate onto insurance companies.
Yet the bishops remain unsatisfied. The use of birth control is against Catholic teaching, a sin and part of "a culture of death," as New York's Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan has said.
But the majority of Roman Catholic women — 98 percent according to one poll — have used birth control. Like me, many such women have received periodic fundraising letters from the church usually addressed to the woman of the house. They've enrolled their children in Catholic schools and watched their children participate in the sacraments.
Like me, many would consider themselves irresponsible mothers if they did not tell their children to ignore the church's teaching on birth control — particularly when using birth control makes abortions far less likely.
Of 100 Catholic women friends and acquaintances I could name, 99 use artificial birth control. But have we spoken out? No. Instead, we have spoken to each other, The church has made us Galileo, who, legend says, whispered, "But still it moves!" when theologians forced him to recant his discovery that the Earth revolves around the sun.
Ladies, whispering is no longer good enough. We Catholic women need to raise our voices, acknowledge the vast disconnect between Catholic teaching and the reality of our lives, and we need to do it now.
We need to support the availability of birth control in letters to the editor. We need to write to the White House and Congress. And, we need to say, with respect, "I disagree, Father. I use birth control, and I've told my children to use it, too." Otherwise, the priests, bishops, Republican presidential candidates and scores of male commentators will get away with the pretense that they are speaking for us.
Speaking out is uncomfortable. We don't want the hierarchy to accuse us of being "cafeteria Catholics" or denounce us in other ways. We don't want to debate canon law. We don't feel like experts.
Yet we are: On being women.
Men who denounce birth control in the name of religious liberty will never feel labor pains. They will never understand what we know about being a woman, a wife or a mother.