On Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI asked the crowd gathered in St. Peter's Square to pray that his first visit to the United States as pontiff this week would "be a time of spiritual renewal for all Americans." Surely spiritual renewal would be beneficial to all of us -- not least the pope and his Church.
Benedict's visit is an appropriate time for American Catholics to call upon him to recognize that spiritual renewal, like charity, begins at home. The pope must take action to revive a Church in desperate need of revolutionary renewal by pushing significant reform in the area of its largest failings: policies concerning women and sex. Faced in recent years with what may be its greatest crisis since the abuses of the Renaissance papacy five hundred years ago stimulated the Protestant Reformation, the Church has to seize the opportunity to reverse two thousand years of misguided views on women.
This pope's history offers little hope that he will do so. He was, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the principal author of the Vatican's 2004 letter to bishops, "On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World." In that document the Church once more chose to blame the victim rather than to examine its own major role in the problem.
Modern feminism is the trouble, the old men who cling to power in Rome contend. "Faced with the abuse of power," the Vatican letter complained of feminism, "the answer for women is to seek power." Well, yes. And if the men of the Church--and men more generally--had not been abusing power for thousands of years, there would be no need for women to seek ways to redress the balance.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the homily Cardinal Ratzinger gave on the day before the convening of the conclave that selected him as pope. He denounced a "dictatorship of relativism" that, he contended, threatens to undermine the fundamental teachings of Christianity. What Benedict XVI and other anti-progressive Catholics fail to realize is that the current teachings of the Church on a host of interrelated issues -- women priests, clerical celibacy, birth control, abortion, homosexuality, and, most basic of all, the sex of God -- are themselves the result of the Church at various times in the past having been, in Ratzinger's words the day before he became pope, "tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching" to conform to the practices and prejudices of societies now long gone.
What Pope Benedict XVI should, but almost certainly will not, do is call a council of the Church to address these intertwined issues and to recognize that the Church's positions on them are not based on the teachings of Jesus. The Church established from the time of St. Paul onward was set up as a No-Woman's Land. The general views on the inferiority of women come from Paul's interpretation of the literally incredible story of the creation of Eve from Adam, a story that men had made up to overcome their feelings of inferiority because of women's capacity to give birth. The ban on women priests also emanates from Paul's reliance on Genesis and from the Early Church Fathers' rejection of the role of women around Jesus and particularly the centrality of Mary Magdalene as one equal to St. Peter.
Priestly celibacy was not established as a requirement until the Middle Ages and was based on the belief that women are unclean because they menstruate (another indication of the envy of female capacities that is the root of all the restrictions men place on women). When Thomas Aquinas declared in the thirteenth century that "woman is defective and misbegotten," he was echoing Paul, Genesis, and Aristotle -- not Jesus.
The Church's opposition to birth control and to abortion even early in pregnancy is largely an outgrowth of its all-male composition and those males' attempts to degrade women's physical powers by asserting that women and the intercourse into which they putatively tempt men are necessary evils ("It is well for a man not to touch a woman," Paul instructed the Christians of Corinth), the only purpose of which is procreation. The condemnation of homosexuals is based entirely on Old Testament rules established by men who feared anything that placed in question their insistence on the polarity of the sexes.
The idea that God is solely male is the work of the Church Fathers who chose which gospel accounts to include in the official New Testament and excluded all the Gnostic Gospels that contain references to an androgynous God, and of the bishops who met at Constantinople in 381 and modified the Creed to say that the Holy Spirit is male. The idea that a Creator could be of only one sex is absurd on its face. Yet this nonsensical belief, which actually diminishes God, has been one of the main bases for the subordination of women and values associated with them -- precisely the values taught by Jesus -- throughout the history of the Church.
The bottom line is that none of the Church's positions on women and sex come from the teachings of Jesus. All of them are the products of the very relativism that the current pope decries. The relativism of an earlier day has become the dogma of today.
A popular hymn asserts that the Church's one foundation is Jesus Christ. The truth, however, is that since the early centuries of the religion that took up the name of Christianity, the Church's one foundation has been male insecurity and its consequent subordination of women. Peter may have been the rock upon which Jesus sought to build his Church, but the rock upon which those who built Christianity in the early centuries after Jesus was the misogyny of their societies. Benedict XVI needs to lead the Church in a true revolution: a circling back to the actual teachings of Jesus and away from the perversions of those teachings by the early Church Fathers and their successors.
During the second week of his papacy in 1978, John Paul I sensibly declared that God "is a Mother as well as a Father." Eighteen days later John Paul I was dead, only 33 days after his election. Despite that unfortunate example and his own stance against desperately needed reform, Benedict XVI owes it to Catholics to take the bold steps needed to break the hold on the Church of earlier flings with relativism and to bring the institution he heads into line both with the needs of the modern world and with the teachings of Jesus.
Robert S. McElvaine teaches history at Millsaps College. This piece is based in part on his new book, Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America, which has just been published by Crown.