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Michele Somerville Headshot

Female Priests: As Sinful as Pedophiles?

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On July 15, the Vatican issued changes in Roman Catholic canon law that would make it easier for Church authorities to internally discipline priests who abuse children. Many Catholics had held out hope that these revisions might include a more substantive commitment to helping victims and holding perpetrators accountable, but instead, the changes offered a rather pro forma extension in the (canon law) statute of limitations for reporting abuse, and diverted attention from the abuse scandal to the purported sinfulness of ordaining women.

So how did rethinking the guidelines for disciplining priests who rape morph into condemning women's ordination? And why is the Vatican digging in its heels when it should be doing penance?

Because the Vatican is anxious.

The Vatican does not like that the world knows the extent to which its own bishops betrayed Catholic children. The Vatican does not like that many practicing Catholics are declining to support the Church financially. The Vatican does not like that the number of female priests is growing as male vocations flounder. The Vatican doesn't like that people like me, who love the Church and who lack neither the capacity nor the inclination to look to its leadership for wisdom, no longer care what the Vatican thinks about the ordination of women. The women's ordination genie is out of the bottle; no pope can stop it. Perhaps most frustrating for the Vatican is its growing awareness that for many Catholics of strong faith, the threat of excommunication means nothing.

In May of this year, the Church publicly excommunicated Phoenix nun and hospital administrator Sister Margaret McBride for signing off on an abortion to save the life of a woman suffering from pulmonary hypertension. The patient was 11 weeks pregnant, and time did not allow for transferring her to a non-Catholic facility for the procedure her doctors believed could save her life. The mother of five had the abortion, which saved her life. However, because Church doctrine calls, in such a situation, for the sacrifice of the lives of both the 11-week-old fetus and the woman in question, Sister Margaret McBride, who devoted her life to helping the sick and poor, was publicly excommunicated for her role in the killing of "an unborn child."

One need not engage in such extraordinary (or in my estimation heroic) actions as saving the life of a mother of five or becoming a woman priest in order to earn the distinction of being excommunicated. Excommunication is complex (theologically), but not rare. McBride's was a public excommunication, but Catholic church pews and altars are filled with ipso facto "excommunicants." Many devout Catholics are privately self-excommunicated.

A priest who ordains a woman excommunicates himself through his actions. A woman who receives the Sacrament of Holy Orders (ordination) is automatically excommunicated. Catholics who divorce, remarry and receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist excommunicate themselves, as do couples who have sex outside marriage, married couples who use artificial contraception, sexually active gay people in committed relationships, and sexually active unmarried Catholics -- if they receive the sacraments. And not only do heretics, schismatics and those who criticize the Holy See self-excommunicate, but also those who enjoy or read their work risk excommunication. (So if you are Catholic and still reading this, you might wish to step away, lest you risk "occult" excommunication.)

Catholics who support pro-choice candidates risk excommunication, but because it is so often in the hierarchy's best financial interest to publicly support pro-choice candidates, one never hears of a bishop being excommunicated for that transgression. The pro-choice mayor of my town, New York City, enjoyed widespread support from local bishops when first he ran for office here. The one or two Catholics I know who voted for a "pro-life" candidate in any election last November voted for one with a vaguely pro-choice running mate. But even though bishops don't get nailed for it, supporting a candidate who supports a woman's right to a safe and legal abortion is an excommunication-worthy offense.

A Sister of Mercy who saves the life of a mother of five gets publicly excommunicated for "killing" a fetus Thomas Aquinas, the father of Catholic theology, might barely have considered as having a soul in order to save the life of a mother of five.

But what does a cardinal get, whose callous disregard for "born" children results in their spiritual, emotional and psychological battering? Excommunicated? Not exactly. He gets a promotion: a big job in the Vatican.

When I began to attend Roman Catholic mass regularly about 10 years ago, I became friendly with a church lady old enough to be my mother. Her extraordinary commitment to working with the poor drew me to her. Quite naturally, the question of the religious education of my own children arose. Why had I not had them baptized into the Church? (There are two reasons, one having nothing to do with the corruption in Church leadership.) I began to answer her question by saying, "I could never baptize my daughters into a faith that does not ordain women."

What I didn't know then was that my faith does ordain women. The number of women priests is growing every day; this, as the number of male vocations, at least in the United States, continues to decline. The Vatican's failure to recognize the ordination of women is the Vatican's problem.

The Vatican has worse problems.

The new guidelines outlined in "Part One" of "Substantive Norms" (the Vatican document which contains the revised guidelines) will not make much substantive difference. The Vatican has not budged on the matter of holding accessories to child-abuse crimes accountable to any court, ecclesiastical or otherwise. Though the revisions extend the ecclesiastical statute of limitations for handling abuse claims, they affect internal inquiries and trials only, not secular ones. In many places, my own diocese among them, bishops are campaigning vigorously against secular legislation that would extend statutes of limitations for reporting sex crimes against children.

The changes in policy spelled out in the articles of "Substantive Norms" offer too little and add insult to injury by reminding the world that although the Vatican may be subject to secular law, it is determined to police itself to whatever extent it can. (For more on my thoughts regarding problems with this arrangement, see "Church Child Abuse Scandal: Seeking Accountability.")

The Vatican acknowledges that Church authorities now have little choice but to report priests who rape children when/where local governments compel them to do so, but it implies forcefully, through what the recently issued revisions leave out, its disinclination to be proactive in reporting crimes against children in jurisdictions that don't require it. In other words, the Vatican asserts its right to hide behind non-church law whenever possible.

Although this readiness to hide behind the protections of secular law strikes me as deeply sinful, I can't help but admire how deft these canon law revisions are in insulating the pope from prosecution. Joseph Ratzinger lives in a sovereign nation. Do the laws of Vatican City require witnesses to report sex crimes?

Like a petulant child in tantrum mode, the Vatican is anxious and insecure, knowing the world is watching its bad behavior.

So what should Catholics do? Many will answer, "Leave." I don't think Catholics should leave, but I do believe we Catholics must protest, with mouths, pens, keyboards and -- most of all -- wallets.

I have done my part to keep my parish in the black, but I have never supported a diocesan appeal. It's not easy to control every dime, but Catholics are, in my opinion, now obliged to try. It is possible to support some Catholic endeavors and not others. Catholic mass is free.

More than half of the Catholics in the world want to see female priests ordained. An overwhelming majority of us wish to see the male bishops who facilitated hundreds of rapes of children held accountable. Ratzinger et al cannot stop these just and most Christian longings.

Ten years ago, the aforementioned church lady agreed that the Church ought to ordain priests, but added that women's ordination was not at the top of her own Roman Catholic wish list. A decade later, this same traditionally devout 70-something friend put me in touch with a newly ordained Catholic priest she admires. The priest celebrates mass once a month in an exquisite Protestant Church. The priest is a woman.

Come Sunday, I'll attend mass at my parish church as I do each Sunday, but this week, but I think I'll send my offertory envelope to that woman priest to help her get her ministry off the ground.

As I see it, the Vatican renewed its commitment to misogyny this week and reminded us all that the crusade to prop up its degenerating (pardon the pun) hierarchy takes precedence over any sorrow it might have for inflicting so much avoidable suffering on its children.

What I want to know is, where's the contrition? And where's the Christ?

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