The promotion of women’s medical expertise in the 1980s and 1990s

The Emmanuel Community, like many groups that emerged after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), demanded a greater participation of the laity in ecclesial life. This participation was promoted through a common theme found in the movements of Specialised Catholic Action, that is, the “ongoing training” of its members. Within this context, the Emmanuel Community founded the Centre International Jean-Paul II in 1979. This centre, which was housed in the Convent of the Annunciation of the Dominicans in Paris (Il est vivant!, June 1979, no. 24, p. 16), was to survive until 1986. From the very beginning, the courses on offer covered both ecclesiastical and secular disciplines, such as psychology, economics, ecology and so on. The theological courses were mostly provided by Dominican brothers, in particular by Marie-Dominique Philippe24 (1912-2006), whereas the secular courses were mostly provided by laypeople, who contributed professional expertise. These evening classes were recorded, marketed in the form of audio cassettes, and sold by mail order through the magazine’s catalogue. This method allowed the Emmanuel Community to spread its message to a wider Catholic audience in the 1980s.

Among the regular speakers at the Centre International Jean-Paul II was the co-founder of the Emmanuel Community: Martine Laffitte-Catta. At that time she was a doctor practising at the Cochin Hospital in Paris, married to Hervé-Marie Catta, a former lawyer responsible for public relations in the Emmanuel Community. It is interesting to note that her lectures did not strictly cover her professional expertise, but always adopted a combined religious and a secular approach. In the first course at the Centre International Jean-Paul II, she gave lectures entitled "medicine and healing”, about the expression of gifts of healing in charismatic prayer groups. In the second course, she also gave lectures on the “psychology of love” and the “psychology of the Christian couple”. These two examples show how her symbolic professional capital (as a doctor) and her social capital (as a wife) could be converted into a symbolic religious capital (of expertise on the theology of charisms and the pastoral care of the family). At the end of 1981, with the help of her husband and another doctor who was a member of the Emmanuel Community, Charles-Éric Hauguel, Martine Laffitte-Catta started to organise the first weekends for couples at the Convent of the Annunciation (II est vivant!, October-November 1981, no. 34, p. 2). These weekend retreats, soon to bear the name Amour et Vérité (Love and Truth), were to become a vehicle for the promotion of natural methods of birth control and of the sexual morality promoted by Pope John Paul II. From 1985 on, Professor Jérôme Lejeune (1926-1994), who discovered the chromosomal abnormality responsible for Down’s syndrome together with Marthe Gautier and Raymond Turpin (1895-1988) and who was a member of Opus Dei and a pro-life activist, was invited to speak at the meetings held by the Emmanuel Community at Paray-le-Monial (Saône-et-Loire). During this time, advertisements began to appear in II est vivant! featuring the Office chrétien des personnes handicapées (Christian Office for People with Disabilities) or the Associations Familiales Catholiques (Catholic Family Associations). These associations also organised pro-life conferences. In short, this pro-family community network that had been formed a few years earlier was gradually gaining ground.

Moving into the 1990s, a discourse constructed specifically around bioethi-cal issues began to emerge. This discourse was no longer confined to the theme of natural birth control. In 1992, the first special issue entitled “50 questions on life and love” was published (Il est vivant!, May-June 1992, no. 90-91). It discussed abortion, contraception, medically assisted reproduction techniques, and

Politicisation of French Catholics 183 euthanasia. What is striking is that the language used is extremely techno-scientific rather than being at all theological. The experts who write these articles are laypeople, mostly women, who have mastered this techno-scientific mode of discourse. For example, the June-July 1995 issue, entitled “Give Life”, was devoted specifically to reproductive and sexual issues (Il est vivant!, June-July 1995, no. 115). It contained 12 in-depth articles, plus various testimonies. To illustrate the typical content of this issue, an insert set out in precise detail all the various possible in vitro fertilisation procedures, such as embryo transfer, intracytoplasmic sperm injection and so on (ibid., p. 24). Six of the articles were written by women, and only one by a man (a priest). This was the only theological reflection in the issue, the main theme of which was the dignity of the embryo. The other five articles were written by couples, in which the woman is not only introduced as the "wife of’ but also has real expertise in the scientific field. These women writers are biologists, doctors and such like. Again, this phenomenon illustrates how a symbolic professional and social capital has been transposed into the religious field. These laypeople do not only translate an authoritative discourse on bioethics into techno-scientific language, but in the 1980s and the 1990s they also gradually became the main vehicles, the “experts”, disseminating such a discourse.

The ubiquitous nature of this scientific language also appears to inflate the importance of problems concerning reproduction and embryo research at the expense of issues more closely related to sexuality or the family. Of course, the first French bioethics laws in 1994 dealt specifically with embryo research and reproduction. Therefore, it is not surprising for a Catholic magazine to mention these issues. However, very little is said, for example, about homosexuality, except in articles about AIDS. In a special issue in February 1993 entitled “Family Today”, it is quite striking to see that the main concern of the authors is the question of hyper-consumption of both material (toys, etc.) and immaterial goods (i.e. the threat that television represents for the family) (Il est vivant!, March 1993, pp. 8-23). There is no mention of new family structures (such as single-parent families or homoparental families). The first articles defending a “traditional” family model appear at the end of the 1990s, in the context of the debates on the Paes bill in France. This law relating to the Civil Solidarity Pact, which was passed in October 1999, offered legal recognition to same-sex couples.

The overrepresentation of women’s medical expertise, which was mentioned above, still persists today. During the observations that I made at the 2017 and 2018 Journées Bioéthique (Bioethics days) in Paris, most of the speakers were women. In the question and answer sessions after each lecture, most of the questions were asked by women, often nurses or doctors, who talked about their own professional experiences.

Of course, we must not think that the readers of II est vivant! fully agree with the rhetoric that features in the magazine. In this respect, the readers' letters column offers a different perspective. Around the time of the Paes bill, in 1999, there were letters criticising II est vivant!, the circulation of which was then at its peak, for not addressing this issue and for failing to incite readers to campaign against the bill (Il est vivant!, February 1999, no. 150, p. 32). The editorial staff responded by calling for participation in the demonstration in Paris on 31 January 1999. This demonstration was later considered to be the biggest anti-Pacs rally, with 100,000 people marching. In many ways, this demonstration foreshadowed the various forms of public action adopted by La Manif’ pour Tous 14 years later to protest against the same-sex marriage bill. As Céline Béraud and Philippe Portier state, “the look of the event has changed (floats were used with variety music, copying Gay Pride parades), as is the look of the demonstrators (casual clothing is recommended)” (Béraud and Portier, 2015: 33). Yet, some readers were unhappy with the call to protest and wrote back to complain about the politicisation of the magazine. During the same period, in readers' letters, several women also strongly contested natural birth control methods. In the March 1997 issue, entitled “Living compassion”, a reader wrote about medically assisted reproductive techniques:

Apart from the processes used, where is the difference? Should an infertile couple be denied the opportunity to give birth? Please do not make young people feel guilty if they cannot have children by natural means and resort to in vitro fertilisation.

(Il est vivant!, March 1997, no. 132, p. 33)

In a social environment where the expertise is traditionally mastered by priests, that is, by men, these bioethical issues offer Catholic laywomen a space that gives them authority in the religious field. We can now focus on how this expertise has become institutionalised.

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