About 700,00 people leave the Catholic Church in America every year. These are not lapsed Catholics who drift away from their religious roots, but members of the church who choose to leave the belief system they were raised with.
There are multiple reasons for these unprecedented numbers, but the most important consideration centers on the dismal failure of the church in dealing with women’s issues.
Talking recently at a symposium titled “The Women the Vatican Couldn’t Silence” in Trinity College, Dublin, former Irish president Mary McAleese, who spent six years in Rome earning a doctorate in theology, bemoaned how “women were deliberately made invisible and programmed to stay invisible” because of church structures that are “designed to create and maintain the invisibility and powerlessness of women.”
Speaking to the same packed auditorium, Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun from Pennsylvania and author of nearly thirty books on various aspects of the spiritual life, was even more damning in her assessment of the church’s attitudes to females: “Silence is the only role a woman has in the Catholic Church. We make good window dressing. What I see in the the Catholic Church is a totally-owned subsidiary of pious males. We are not full members of the church. We are an outside edge.”
The Christian church has a history of misogyny going back to the earliest days. Tertullian lived in the third century and he is often spoken of as a father of the church and is viewed as a prominent moralist and theologian. In his mind, sins relating to sexual desire occupy a special corner of depravity, and he preached that women were the devil’s source of men’s downfall.
Thomas Aquinas, a Doctor of the church whose teachings were the bread and butter of all Catholic seminary theology courses until very recently, lived in the 13th century and wrote bewildering stuff about women, asserting, for instance, that females are really defective males and that they are “necessarily in a state of subjection.”
In the 11th century Pope Gregory introduced clerical celibacy partly to avoid legal claims to church property by priests’ children, but the main reason for this unfortunate change in church discipline related to the arrogant assertion that a priest was not an ordinary human. Instead, according to Gregory, he should be viewed as someone existing above the earthly sphere in a kind of exclusive spiritual cocoon, with celibacy as the main mark of his difference from the general population.
The seeds of the current ecclesiastical sexual abuse crisis can be clearly seen in this foolish perspective that camouflages the priest’s human vulnerabilities and sets him apart from his community.
Moving ahead to our own times, the charismatic John Paul ll’s leadership extended into this century and he was canonized just four years ago. In his book Love and Responsibility he wrote “For the purpose of the sexual act it is enough for a woman to be passive and unresisting, so much so that it can even take place without her volition while she is in a state where she has no awareness at all of what is happening – for instance when she is asleep or unconscious.” Understandably, most women feel diminished by this statement and wonder how the church could canonize a man who seemingly approves of engaging in sexual intimacy with a sleeping female.
A distinguished Irish theologian, the late Fr. Sean Fagan, called the pope out on this appalling statement asking: “Can this really be Catholic Church teaching? It sounds like rape.” Of course, the pope never meant to give credibility or approval to any physical abuse of women, but his words provide a clear testament to the hubris and wild imaginings which so often accompany compulsory celibacy. It is also noteworthy that it was John Paul who issued a solemn edict ruling out women’s ordination to the priesthood – ever.
Church leaders like Tertullian and Gregory and Aquinas were reflecting the prejudices of past centuries and that perspective undoubtedly explains why they expounded some outrageous beliefs about women. Finding any rational explanation for John Paul’s ruminations on sex and love, viewed through the prism of our own time, is much more problematic.
But even today, under a progressive pope, the church seems unable to move away from old paradigms. Francis has assembled three church synods in the last year or so, bringing together ecclesiastical leaders from all over the world for serious consultations about major issues.
The conclusion of each synod involved a series of votes on a final document. Not one woman was allowed to cast a ballot on these recommendations. Only celibate males, mostly well on in years, could participate in this embarrassing effort at church democracy.
A major problem in the church derives from the fact that in their world all authority flows from ordination. Pope Gregory from a thousand years ago certainly left his mark on promoting clericalism which was assiduously cultivated by nearly all the popes since. Power is always seductive and corrupting and men have found spurious arguments to hold on to their prestige in the church, even when the whole edifice is crumbling around them.
Mary McAleese reads the situation clearly and truthfully. Preventing women from being ordained is based on “codology dressed up as theology.”Finding reasons to restrict ordination to men provide classical examples of the fallacy of rationalization, clerics coming up with arguments to bolster traditional practices that do not hold up under close logical analysis.
Francis appointed a commission to examine the roles played by female deacons in the early church and to investigate what functions they performed then in the Christian community. The experts could not agree on these historical matters so the debate goes on. Meanwhile communities all over the world are deprived of pastoral leadership.
This stultifying equivocation about the exact role of deacons two thousand years ago, blocking progress on an issue that has almost universal approval in the pews, is the modern maddening equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns.
Most Catholics want to deal with the problems they face in this century when women provide top leadership in every phase of modern life. That is real progress in civil society in our time while Rome prevaricates about even minor changes in church discipline. John XX111, the last great pope, talked in the 1960’s about opening the windows of the church to allow the fresh air of a new magnanimous spirit to blow through. That metaphor applies even more urgently in our time.