Former President Jimmy Carter isn’t exactly known for withholding his opinion, so it wasn’t surprising on Wednesday to hear him say he typed out and mailed a letter to Pope Francis challenging the pontiff on the status of women in the Catholic Church.
“He promised me he thought women should have a greater role,” the 39th U.S. president told an audience during an appearance at The Washington Post. Carter was promoting his new book “A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power.”
Answering questions from journalists David Ignatius and Sally Quinn, Carter talked about the intersection of religion and gender in a wide range of contexts, including prostitution, scripture and abortion.
He also offered an unexpected example of an instance when he does not share his view: When his offspring sleep with people to whom they aren’t married.
Ignatius noted the traditional upbringing Carter had, and quoted the book as saying the former president and his wife were virgins when they married. Would you still want to marry as a virgin, he asked Carter, if you married today?
The 89-year-old said he would still advise young people “if they can” to refrain from sex before marriage, but said he doesn’t criticize his 12 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren if they go another way. When he sees unmarried offspring sleeping together on a family trip, for example, “we look the other way. I’ve learned we can’t have the same mores.”
Some other religion-gender comments from the hour-long talk:
-- Asked how he sees God’s presence when he considers religious oppression of women, Carter said he doesn’t blame Jesus.
“It would be fruitless to look to scripture to find Jesus not treating women as equal or superior to men,” said Carter, who has been teaching Sunday school for 71 years. Asked about the lack of women among Jesus’s apostles, Carter countered by noting that Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the resurrection.
-- Carter said the very top religious crime against women are abortions that happen because the fetus is female. He said that amounts to tens of millions of “girls missing because they were murdered.”
-- Carter said Americans and American legal authorities ignore prostitution — which he called “enslavement” — and wrongly blame women. “There’s not a whorehouse in American that local officials don’t know about,” he said. “We don’t want to change.” He advocated focusing on prosecuting pimps, brothel owners and customers instead of prostitutes.
-- During the question-and-answer part of the talk, the Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral — a cathedral of the Episcopal Church — asked Carter what the proper role is for faith in public life. In Washington, that phrase “public life” generally implies politics and policy.
“I was taught that we should have a total separation of church and politics,” Carter said. Religious figures, he said, shouldn’t endorse candidates or parties. However, he said, there are non-political areas on which religious figures can and should speak out, including violence against women and human trafficking.