Religion, Faith and Sprituality

Where Are the Women?

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Rescue the Priesthood: Ordain Women


Both the Catholic Church and the priesthood 

itself can survive, but not without a 

correction of the misogyny.

In his essay “Abolish the Priesthood,” (The Atlantic‘s June cover story) author James Carroll identifies the dramatic moment at which it occurred to him that Pope Francis might be lying about his ignorance of the scandal of the Magdalene Laundries. Like many progressive Catholics, Carroll had held out hope that the pontiff might more strenuously challenge what he describes as “the twin pillars of clericalism … the church’s misogynist exclusion of women from the priesthood and the requirement of celibacy for priests.” Carroll knows that the reasoning which keeps the priesthood all-male is insubstantial, and that the androcentrism preserving it is part and parcel of the corruption of Catholic Church clericalism. He suggests forcefully that its institutional misogyny will play a role in the demise of the Catholic Church as we know it. But Carroll also predicts that the Catholic Church will survive. He is right on both counts. Both the Catholic Church and the priesthood itself can survive, but not without a correction of the misogyny. The Vatican must ordain women if for no other reason than to save itself. A woman-rich priesthood will be more capable of addressing the toxic mess that is the institutional Roman Catholic Church.  In characterizing his own experience of moving away from clericalism, Carroll suggests that the survival of the Catholic Church may rest on what he describes as a form of “internal exile” by means of which Catholics will detach in subtle, gradual and sometimes invisible ways from the conventional aspects of clericalism for reasons of conscience. These “conscientious objectors,” as he calls them (us — I am one.) will continue to be Catholic but will do so while detaching from the clutches of clericalism. They will express their Catholicism in hospitals and soup kitchens. They will worship in small communities. Catholic “conscientious objectors” will reject the “caste” of priesthood with its medieval resonances and priest-as-“alter Christos” (another Christ) ontology in favor of a lay leadership more interested in serving than governing. 

In recent years, I have recognized that 

contributing my labor in liturgical context is 

not something I can continue to do in good faith. 

My own “internal exile” has been evolving over the past two decades. About fifteen years ago, after researching the matter of women’s ordination, I began to withhold contributions to (first) my diocese and (later) my parish.  I have walked out of masses celebrated by misogynists and perverts. I have crossed to the other side of Communion lines to avoid receiving Communion from two New York cardinals and the bishop of the diocese in which I worship. I choose my masses carefully, have done more church work than most professional mothers are generally able to manage and have sponsored young women in Catholic Confirmation and conversion. I have, up until recently, chosen to contribute time and talent so as not to "deadbeat" on  the faith and church I love. This, while wrestling mightily with my own conscience on the matter of remaining Catholic. In recent years, I have recognized that contributing my labor in liturgical context is not something I can continue to do in good faith. 

I attended Catholic mass in churches only at Easter, 

Christmas, and for funerals and sometimes felt guilty 

about it.  The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report was 

my “fish rots from the head” moment, the moment 

at which I came to recognize that the Vatican itself 

was driving a horrific criminal coverup.  

For me, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report was what James Carroll described as his “point at which my wire long stretched taught finally snapped.” The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report made obvious to me that I had been worshiping in outposts of a crime ring. As I read the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, I realized that the United States Bishops were still actively engaged in a coverup of horrific crimes against children — human rights violations, really — and that there was no reason to expect that they might desist in this conduct. I also came to understand at this moment that Catholics in the pews would not stop them. I knew people I love and some I respect would go on funding them. This sickened me. I began, organically, as Carroll did, to eschew Sunday mass in Catholic churches. I stopped attending mass in Catholic but began to attend mass in a small Catholic community outside of a parish. I added more non-Catholic (Protestant, mostly) worship to my life of prayer.  I increased my solitary prayer (Rosary). I attended Catholic mass in churches only at Easter, Christmas, and for funerals and sometimes felt guilty about it.  The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report was my “fish rots from the head” moment, the moment at which I came to recognize that the Vatican itself was driving a horrific criminal coverup.  

Assume Pope Francis was not lying; Why then 

did he not know about the Magdalene Laundries? 

Carroll’s “fish rots from the head moment” occurred when it became apparent that Pope Francis might have been lying when he claimed to know nothing about Magdalene Laundries: 
“I had never heard of these mothers,” the pope said. “Never heard of these mothers? When I read that, I said to myself: A lie. Pope Francis is lying.”
Carroll concedes that the pope may have just been ignorant of this chapter of Irish Catholic Church history, but it is hard to imagine that any literate Catholic could have just missed so much Catholic news. ( The New York Times reported on the Magdalene Laundries in 2009 and The Guardian,in 2015. The film, The Forgotten Maggies, was released in 2009.  The United Nations investigated the asylums from between 2010 and 2012.) Despite all of this coverage, the pope claims to have learned for the first time about the torture of the Magdalenes on a visit to Ireland in 2018.Was the pope lying?
Which is worse: the pontiff’s ignorance of the Irish asylums or pretending not to know about them? Assume Pope Francis was not lying; Why then did he not know about the Magdalene Laundries? The pope may not have known about the abused women and babies because the clerical hierarchy of the Catholic Church is just not all that focused on the dignity of women and children, especially when such focus turns attention toward a flaw in its institutional structure. Under toxic clericalism, women are first and foremost helpers, children hold the key to the Catholic Church of tomorrow, and the material world is a kind of dress rehearsal for eternal life. This view may account for the ability of the clerical caste of the Catholic Church to remain silent and complicit in the context of a wide-scale sex crime spree that converted children into rape victims and survivors. 


Toxic clericalism will never be addressed 

so long as men alone interpret and promulgate doctrine. 

The Catholic Church needs women front and center 

in order that fundamental change and reform might take place.

The pope’s ineffectuality in addressing the suffering of children at the hands of the Catholic Church clerics and determination to  preserve institutional misogyny in the Catholic Church are related. Both should be deeply troubling for the many “progressive” Catholics who had high hopes for this Jesuit pontiff. Pope Francis I certainly has changed the style in which the message is delivered, but he has not changed the message. He remains a proponent of patriarchy. Women, for Pope Francis, are "the strawberries on the cake." Half of Catholic children grow up to become women, and women are, in the worldview of the institutional Roman Catholic hierarchy, equal under God yet inferior to men. A “Madonna-whore” ethos has been slow to fade in catechesis and priestly formation even among some Catholics who identify as “progressive.” Women are necessary to the institutional church, but the Vatican, for the most part, still espouses “complementarity.” (“Complementarity” is theory/perspective that views men and women as having distinct and dissimilar roles, talents, obligations and privileges). Toxic clericalism will never be addressed so long as men alone interpreting and promulgate doctrine. The Catholic Church needs women front and center in order that fundamental change and reform might take place. The ordination of women would “right size” the misogynist complementarity doctrine. The ordination of women must happen if the Catholic Church is to survive. Once women are ordained, the Catholic Church will thrive. 

Many of the "it takes a long time to turn a big bus" 

arguments about the Catholic Church's institutional 

misogyny are now advanced by well-educated "feminist" 

academics.

In many ways women who might even identify as "progressive" or "feminist" are helping to entrench the institutional misogyny in the church. I believe their usefulness in this is one of the reasons Catholic universities permit and even encourage women who identify as feminists to engage in advanced study. Many of the "it takes a long time to turn a big bus" arguments about the Catholic Church's institutional misogyny are now advanced by well-educated "feminist" academics. They often remind me somewhat of the "women for Trump" folks. The proponents of institutional misogyny obtain good public relations performance from these women, as they enjoy their most favored women status and become part of the very corps that keeps women out of the priesthood, decision-making, preaching. They keep "complementarity" alive. I found myself having to explain “complementarity” to my two millennial daughters recently. When they queried me about the Catholic ideal of a large family, as part of this conversation, they were interested in knowing whether the large family ideal was the result of the prohibition of artificial contraception or the cause of it. I wasn’t sure how to answer this possibly “chicken and egg” sort of question. Which came first, the prohibition against enjoyment non-procreative sex or the sentimentalized ideal of reckless fecundity? It may be that the prohibition against artificial contraception as much rises out of enchantment with the idealized vision of a large Catholic family as out of doctrine on family.  
  

Wherever one stands on the matter of the ethics and legality of abortion, one must recognize that the conception of the "pro life" Catholic woman was created by men.  

The idealized Catholic woman, if she is not a virgin, is still a Madonna. I am old enough to remember when the "Pro-Life" movement became visible on the parish level in New York City where I lived. It was not until the birth control pill became widely available that one began to see Catholic ladies outside mass with enormous posters of embryos. My devout Irish Roman Catholic grandmother, born in 1900, missed entirely the Catholic politicization of abortion; she and her friends were post-menopausal when anti-abortion advocates took to the streets. My grandmother was incredibly devout but anti-abortion sentiment was not part of this devotion. Wherever one stands on the matter of the ethics and legality of abortion, one must recognize that the conception of the "pro life" Catholic woman was created by men. 

Whether by design or accident, large idealized Catholic families keep women barefoot, pregnant and confined to their complementarity categories cordoned off from ecclesiastical policy-making. Living out this sentimentalized vision of a large Catholic family often requires that one parent focus more than the other upon hearth and children. As a feminist Catholic who put a career on hold to raise three children, and who found the work of caring for and educating my children stimulating, meaningful and enjoyable, I respect a parent’s choice to work at home caring for children. Wealthy families circumvent this dilemma by hiring enough help to support two-career families, but the persistence of a trend whereby Catholic women set aside their professions in order to work at home caring for hearth and children is a boost for complementarity. 


My sense of things, as I follow Catholic news, is that ultra-rich conservative and traditional Catholic women are enjoying a particular ascendancy right now, while "liberal" feminists working for Catholic schools and publications are often receiving a kind of mushroom treatment (fed manure and kept in the dark). 

As I track the fascinating narrative of ultra wealthy politically conservative /religiously traditional Catholics, I notice that voices of wealthy traditional women are prominent, and that extreme wealth often allows traditional Catholic women a complementarity workaround. The progressive-minded feminist Catholic assistant professor or Catholic secondary school teacher, more often than not, is still rearing her own children. My sense of things, as I follow Catholic news, is that ultra rich conservative and traditional Catholic women are enjoying a particular ascendancy right now, while "liberal" feminists working for Catholic schools and publications are often receiving a kind of mushroom treatment (fed manure and kept in the dark). "Liberal" Catholic women are, to varying degrees, being utilized for keeping feminist Catholic women tithing and bringing children into the Catholic Church, reminded at every turn that the institutional church has, for years, upheld special women—Church Doctors, magisterium-compliant nuns and theologians—which is not nothing. 


The re-entrenching of its own bigotry will only increase 
as long as male-only priesthood remains in place.

The fresh need to affirm complementarity that makes clear who the men and women are probably explains, at least in part, the Vatican’s urgency in issuing “Male and Female He Created Them” a transphobic, science-flouting document made public during 2019’s World Pride month. Complementarity requires definitive binarity, a strong unbroken line between those God made male and female. In the eyes of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, women are less than, and forced complementarity enforces sexism. From a doctrinal perspective, the times require novel clarity on the question of gender identity. The re-entrenching of its own bigotry will only increase as long as male-only priesthood remains in place. 


While it is certain that an exodus of traditional Catholics would ensue if the Vatican were to finally ordain women, it certain as well that a great influx of thousands of Catholics who have departed due to the (various) bigotry of the Catholic Church would occur. 

The current institutional church desires the maintenance of sexism, misogyny and complementarity. We have a pope who has publicly called women the “strawberries on the cake.”  More than 90% of Catholics support the use of artificial contraception. On one hand, the current institutional Catholic Church appears to be failing to “read the Catholic room” and appears willfully oblivious to the next generation of educated women unlikely to raise their daughters in a Catholic Church permeated by misogyny. On the other hand, the Vatican's focus is more on the global church. If the global church grows, they are unlikely to care what Western European and American women think about their misogyny, as long as cash enough to to pay for that global church continues to come in. While it is certain that an exodus of traditional Catholics would ensue if the Vatican were to finally ordain women, it certain as well that a great influx of thousands of Catholics who have departed due to the (various) bigotry of the Catholic Church would occur. If the Vatican does not ordain women, the unity of the Catholic Church will be further shattered and the Vatican press team -- it will fall to Catholic schools, publications and traditional Catholics to foot the global church bill. 

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is still lousy with clerics who have shuffled predators, failed to report rapes, engaged in fiscal impropriety, and used parish donations to fund efforts to oppose Child Victims Act legislation. These men are still in power. 

Not all bishops have contempt for women and children but significant numbers of the most prominent Catholic bishops do, and there is a lot of overlap between bishops who hate women and those who believe that men who rape women should be hidden or pardoned due to their ontological uniqueness. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is still lousy with clerics who have shuffled predators, failed to report rapes, engaged in fiscal impropriety, and used parish donations to fund efforts to oppose Child Victims Act legislation. These men are still in power. Why are bishops and other priests who engaged in this conduct not reporting each other?  How could so many bishops just look the other way as children were serially raped and tortured? 


For many clerics the choice to expose the Catholic Church to scandal is a sin more grave than that of failing to report the rape of a child.

The answer, in part, is that the bishops who served as accessories to these crimes may have seen their ungodly choice to sacrifice a children to the greater good of insulating the Catholic Church from scandal as a religious imperative. For many clerics the choice to expose the Catholic Church to scandal is a sin more grave than that of failing to report the rape of a child. Raping an altar boy damages the boy’s earthly life; bringing scandal on the Catholic Church damages “the Church Militant,” Christ’s church on earth. Public scandal, they believe, compromises the power of the earthly church to save souls. Heresy and apostasy are seen by those who embrace this view, as threats to the very foundation of the Catholic Church on earth. 

This “omerta” factor can be disastrous in a number of directions. I am the daughter of a New York Police Department cop who rose to the rank of lieutenant, and in many ways, the clerics’ code of silence reminds me of “the thin blue line.” 

Many of the bishops and possibly the pope himself knew of the depraved conduct of Theodore Cardinal McCarrick long before his sex crimes were spelled out in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Reportand kept silent, not because McCarrick was a brother bishop and friend, but because their fidelity to magisterial teaching trumps the obligation to protect a child from harm. This “omerta” factor can be disastrous in a number of directions. I am the daughter of a New York Police Department cop who rose to the rank of lieutenant, and in many ways, the clerics’ code of silence reminds me of “the thin blue line.” As part of their ordination rites, Catholic priests take vows or make promises to obey their superiors. This obedience, like the confessional seal, is taken seriously by Catholic clerics. Rare is the priest who would defy a bishop’s directive not to report the rape of a child. 

An influx of women into the stagnant, polluted clerical structure of the priesthood would have a cleansing effect. 

I doubt that women bishops would have been as complicit in the coverup of such heinous crimes against children as Bernard Law, Theodore McCarrick and many other bishops were. I live quite near to a famously polluted canal in Brooklyn. I'm a poet; here's a metaphor. when my youngest was in fourth grade, I served as a chaperone on a school trip to the canal where scientists showed us how an influx of small oysters into the canal was cleaning the water. An influx of women into the stagnant, polluted clerical structure of the priesthood would have a cleansing effect. A clerical structure made up of men and women would likely have done more to protect vulnerable young people from predator clerics, and would, today, be more likely to lead the institutional Catholic Church toward justice for those whose souls it has murdered through sexual assault. I don’t believe women bishops would have been so quick to shuffle sex offenders from parish to parish. When women and men together comprise the magisterial structure, the voice of righteousness will be much more likely to register in doctrine.

 Silence is complicity.

The case of Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois who was defrocked in 2012 offers a good illustration of how vows/promises of obedience and the “sin” of heresy work in the context of the Vatican sexual abuse crisis. A Catholic priest, peace activist, Vietnam War veteran, and Nobel Prize nominee, Bourgeois was “laicized” (defrocked) for refusing to publicly recant his support for the ordination of women. Even the “Superior General” of his Maryknoll order couldn’t protect him, because superiors of orders are bound by vows of obedience to Rome. Right around the time the Vatican was preparing to defrock Roy Bourgeois, Bernard Law (whose conduct was the focus of the Academy Award winning film Spotlight) was preparing to resign from the position given to him by Pope John Paul II following Law's decision to flee the United States in order to evade prosecution for his crimes against children. Law died six years after resigning. He was responsible for covering up possibly hundreds of incidences of child rape, but he died a priest with "Saint" John II's help.  Roy Bourgeois was released from his Maryknoll order, defrocked (in 2012) within a year of refusing to obey an order from the Vatican and his order to recant his support for the ordination of women  “Silence is complicity,” Bourgeois wrote in his letter of refusal. If Bourgeois had engaged in the ‘the lesser evil’ of raping a child, he would be celebrating mass today. Silence is complicity.


Abolition of all-male priesthood will reinvest the church with authentic reverence, creativity, Christ-like compassion and conscience. The increase of this more Christ-like sensibility would take root and ramify within the church. 

Under toxic clericalism the transgression of heresy is more egregious than covering up scores of incidences of child rape. The church Roy Bourgeois envisioned, a church with women priests would, I suppose, by necessity emanate from of a Third Vatican Council. Ordaining women would resurrect and reinvigorate the Roman Catholic Church much in the same way the Second Vatican council did. In a sense it would complete the goals of Vatican II. Abolition of all-male priesthood would reinvest the church with authentic reverence, creativity, Christ-like compassion and conscience. The increase of this more Christ-like sensibility would take root and ramify within the church. Practically speaking, ordaining women would almost immediately render the priest shortage a thing of the past. It would catalyze a purging of corruption of the institutional church from within. It would force the Vatican to depart the Medieval era of its patriarchal imagining and enter the 21st Century. The greater good of protecting Mother Church from scandal would no longer be the exigency it is today because a priesthood with women in it would endow the institutional Church with dignity sufficient to foreclose the call for a defense. The Catholic Church would take on the dignity of Mary. Mother Church would then possess honor enough to defend herself. 


I know too many excellent priests to yearn for an abolition of the priesthood. I see their sacrifices, their patience, their holiness, their humility — but I’m with Carroll, in longing for a seismic shift. 

A number of commentaries on James Carroll’s essay have been appeared in the last month, and several take the premise spelled out by the headline, “Abolish the Priesthood,” as their point of departure.  In some instances, these appear to disregard the prose that follows the headline on Carroll’s piece as they offer arguments in favor of retaining the priesthood. All one need do is take a hint from Carroll’s writerly choice to toss a pinch of Finnegan’s Wake into the discussion in order to see that Carroll is using a bit of poetic license in his essay. (Carroll writes novels, plays and poems.)  It is the acrid, thuggish, misogynistic priesthood he wants to abolish — not the priesthood of the fine priests who serve every day with Christ in heart and mind. I know too many excellent priests to yearn for an abolition of the priesthood. I see their sacrifices, their patience, their holiness, their humility — but I’m with Carroll, in longing for a seismic shift. “The church I forsee” Carroll writes, “will be governed by lay people, although the verb ‘govern’ may apply less than ‘serve.’“ In “Abolish the Priesthood,“ James Carroll may be making a case for what theologian, biblical scholar and Harvard Professor Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza calls a “discipleship of equals.”

The temple that is the institutional Roman Catholic Church must be cleansed ...Ordaining women will make the Catholic Church whole. 

Does the leader of a church that enacts misogyny on a daily basis have any legitimate authority at all to preach throughout the globe against bigotry? I say it does not. One cannot publicly condemn bigotry while practicing it. Through its choice to ordain women, the institutional Roman Catholic Church will at last bestow upon itself the new and much needed authority to oppose the sin of discrimination on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation.  It will demonstrate its readiness to correct the historical record on the matter of women priests and bishops. Because women have, for so long, suffered discrimination and erasure in this regard, it is reasonable to imagine their service and formation would be infused with their experience as survivors. Women who answer the call to Roman Catholic ordination will come to their altare dei moment with wisdom, shaped by having transcended persecution, humiliation, scorn dispensed by the church they love. The temple that is the institutional Roman Catholic Church must be cleansed. Bishops participating in the coverup of the wide-spread systematic sexual abuse of must resign, be dismissed, and, wherever possible, be held accountable in secular courts. If the institutional Catholic Church wishes to pull the priesthood out of its man-made hellfire, it still can; but it must clean house. We must drag the thieves out of the temple mire and release the doves from their cages. Ordaining women will make the Catholic Church whole. Without it the institutional Roman Catholic Church as we know it will fail to thrive.   

Michele Somerville
August 12, 2019, NYC