Women Fight Exclusion In Catholic Priesthood
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If ever there were doubt about the relationship between the Catholic Church's spectacular failure to address the clerical child sex abuse crisis and the church's glaring system of gender apartheid, the Vatican put it to rest in July. Engendering a firestorm of criticism, their new canonical guidelines for handling and punishing the most "grave crimes" in church law revealed just how enraged the hierarchy is at women who dare to challenge them. Along with the crimes of sexually molesting children and developmentally disabled adults, and of using and distributing pornography, the Vatican listed: "the attempted sacred ordination of a woman."
In other words, the two greatest problems the Catholic hierarchy faces are women and children.
In reality, this action is yet another desperate response by the Catholic hierarchy to the small but highly visible movement by Catholic women -- sisters and lay women -- to defy the church's ban on women's ordination. The first woman to publicly step up to the altar was Mary Ramerman, a wife and mother, ordained a Catholic priest in 2001 in a theatre in Rochester, New York, before 3,000 jubilant supporters. A year later, seven more women were ordained, on a boat on the Danube River between Austria and Germany.
So threatening was the Danube event that one month after, Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, publicly denounced and excommunicated all seven women. That is a sanction he has never issued-- even now, in the new canonical guidelines -- against a single cleric who raped or sodomized a child or a single bishop who aided and abetted such crimes.
Benedict's actions have not stemmed the tide. Nearly 100 women have been ordained or are in training to be ordained through the Roman Catholic Women Priests movement, vividly documented in Jules Hart's just-released film, Pink Smoke Over the Vatican. The new canonical guidelines call for excommunication of the ordained woman and the priest who ordains her, which is redundant, since the Vatican did that in 2007. But it also authorizes speedy recourse to the ultimate punishment for a priest: laicization, or the end of his priesthood.
That laicization threat shows just how dangerous the hierarchy sees the passionate, public expressions of support from high-profile Catholic priests, like beloved peace activist Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of the School of Americas Watch. Under threat of excommunication for co-presiding at one of the ordinations, Bourgeois remains an outspoken advocate, insisting that "there will never be justice in the Catholic Church until women can be ordained."
Ordination Ban Central to World's Oldest Patriarchy
In a world radically changed by the women's movement, the Catholic Church stands –- proudly -- as one of the last bastions of patriarchy. Led by an unapologetic boys' club, it has embraced a system of gender apartheid, deeply hostile to women's agency, power and voice. Central to that system is the absolute ban on women's ordination. An all-male priesthood deprives women of power by locking them out of the highest levels of leadership and decision-making, including and especially on matters affecting women's most intimate lives, on maternity and sexuality. It also sends a vivid and visible message that women cannot, must not, are utterly unequipped to represent the Divine.
Because religion remains an extremely powerful force in the world, religiously countenanced discrimination against women has wide influence. It undergirds laws, policies and cultural practices that keep women in many places on earth silent and subservient, powerless over their reproductive health and lives, in abusive relationships, and in poverty. The Church refuses to endorse the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, endangering the many women who are powerless to dictate the terms of their sexual relations and at highest risk for the disease; refuses to support birth control, even though spacing births helps reduce the hundreds of thousands of maternal deaths each year, while also increasing the survival of babies; and condemns pregnancy termination even in the most dire circumstances, in Brazil excommunicating the mother and the doctor who ended the pregnancy of a nine-year-old raped by her stepfather.