For a long time now, long enough for the Catholic Church to shrink more than any other denomination in the United States, the targets of its greatest condemnation have been women and the men who support them. While losing 30 million followers in recent years, the church has saved its most incendiary rhetoric and most extreme acts of censure for those who are pro-choice or pro-ordination.
It is no accident that in the Catholic Church today, the greatest, most horrific, most horrendous sin a human being can commit is a woman's sin. Men do not present their bodies for abortions; women do. I felt the impact of that judgment as I'd never felt it before when I sat in St. Peter's Cathedral in my hometown diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in October listening to the letter written by Bishop Joseph Martino. Intended to intimidate Catholics who were thinking they might vote for Barack Obama for president, regardless of his pro-choice views, the letter was required reading by every priest in the diocese, in place of a homily. While careful not to single out the woman who has an abortion, except to chastise her for her "selfishness," the letter came across as a virulent anti-woman screed.
The reading, which lasted over half an hour, said that abortion is "so heinous, so horribly evil, and so absolutely opposite to the law of Almighty God that [it] must take precedence over every other issue." The letter likened the justification for condemning abortion to the justification for denouncing "Nazi officials who murdered mentally ill people." It argued that abortion was actually a graver moral ill than waging a bloody, unprovoked "unjust" war. It likened pro-choice supporters to Cain who murdered his brother Abel -- Cain who knew that in time "everyone that findeth me the murderer shall slay me (Genesis 4:13-14)." It declared pro-choice candidates to be "supporters of homicide."
Sitting there listening to that vitriol, I shuddered. Where is the line, I wondered, between denouncing abortion, and by extension the women who have abortions, and taking up arms -- or torches -- against them?
The Catholic Church's commitment to excommunicating anyone who dares to even express support for the ordination of women is yet another manifestation of the church's continued demonization of women. The church maintains that this is God's law, not its own. And it does this despite the archaeological and Biblical evidence of women priests, deacons and bishops; the conclusion of the Vatican's own Pontifical Biblical Commission that there are no Biblical or Scriptural grounds forbidding women's ordination; and the simple fact that Jesus never ordained anybody.
These two issues have not accidentally come together. Indeed, the church hierarchy's increasingly hysterical opposition to abortion (and the whole range of women's reproductive health issues) and to women's ordination grows from a fundamental tenet of all patriarchal religions: that women cannot represent the Divine because women's bodies are the locus for humanity's greatest sins. Empowered women are dangerous.
What's new in this new millennium is that an increasing number of Catholics are fighting back. Despite the excoriations of bishops like Martino, the majority of Catholics, 54 percent, voted for Obama for president. So did a whopping 67 percent of Hispanics -- the fastest growing group of Catholics in America.
Despite decrees of excommunication -- which bar a Catholic from receiving the Eucharist, a Catholic burial, all of the sacraments -- scores of women have been ordained priests through the provocative and burgeoning Roman Catholic Women Priests Movement. And they've done so with the support of a growing number of Roman Catholics, including priests -- most recently, the legendary and beloved anti-war activist, Father Roy Bourgeois.
A Maryknoll priest for 36 years, Bourgeois is a giant in the peace movement, a Vietnam vet, a Purple heart recipient, and founder of the School of the Americas Watch. SOA Watch is devoted to ending U.S. training of Latin American military at what is now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, military personnel who in the past have committed grave atrocities.
Following in the footsteps of Father James Callan -- who participated in the pioneering public ordination of pastoral minister Mary Ramerman in Rochester, New York, in 2001, before 3,000 ebullient supporters, after which both were excommunicated -- Bourgeois co-presided and gave the homily at the ordination ceremony of his long-time peace activist friend Janice Sevre-Duszynska. Because Sevre-Duszynska is a member of what has become a very high profile international women's ordination movement, Bourgeois' participation did not go unnoticed.
In response to the Vatican's letter demanding that he recant his support for women's ordination or be excommunicated, Bourgeios issued his own excoriation. "Women in our church are telling us that God is calling them to the priesthood," he wrote. "Who are we, as men, to say to women, 'Our call is valid, but yours is not.'"
Equating his support for women's ordination with the whole of the social justice agenda, he went on: "Eight years ago, while in Rome for a conference on peace and justice, I was invited to speak about the SOA on Vatican Radio. During the interview, I stated that I could not address the injustice of the SOA and remain silent about injustice in my church. I ended the interview by saying, 'There will never be justice in the Catholic Church until women can be ordained.' I remain committed to this belief today."
Crediting his faith in the church's sacred concept of conscience, the final barometer of what is right and wrong, Bourgeois refused to recant his "belief and public statements that support the ordination of women in our church." He warned his fellow priests against being the "voice of complicity" and urged them to "break our silence."
Father Roy's excommunication is all but certain. But so it seems is a growing Catholic rejection of the all-male hierarchy's self-serving positions on issues that deeply affect women. The fevered pitch of ecclesiastical rhetoric is living proof of the power of those voices, which are now coming from the pews--and from the altar.
This piece was written for The Women's Media Center website (www.womensmediacenter.com). The WMC is a non-profit organization founded by Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and Robin Morgan, dedicated to making women visible and powerful in the media."