Women and the Church -- Catholicism's Original Sin

04/14/2008 12:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Talking about the Catholic Church without talking about the place of women is like talking about the history of South Africa while ignoring apartheid. It completely denies the realities of the Catholic Church today, which include:

* The exclusion of women from the ranks of cardinals, bishops, priests and deacons -- an exclusion that contributes to an attitude of condescension toward women and children, which surely influenced the hierarchy's condescending response to decades of complaints about clergy child sexual abuse.

* The ban on women presiding at Mass, celebrating Eucharist, hearing confessions, baptizing, and anointing the dying, even as hundreds of thousands of Catholics worldwide go without priests.

* The prohibition on women at Mass proclaiming the Gospel or preaching a sermon, in direct contradiction to Christ's clear instruction to Mary Magdalene to "go and tell my brothers' that I am risen."

* The obfuscation of the true place of women in Christian history -- such as the deacon Phoebe, the bishop Theodora, the apostle Junia -- by the hierarchy's insisting that when applied to women, "deacon" doesn't mean "deacon," "bishop" doesn't mean "bishop" and "apostle" doesn't mean "apostle."

* The rejection of any language for a female face of God, despite Her existence in the Bible and reminders by esteemed female Catholic theologians like Elizabeth Johnson that "God created humankind in his image...male and female he created them."

* The minimization of the impact of the clergy child sexual abuse scandal on girls, who made up nearly 20% of the victims; were in fact more likely than boys to be sexually abused up to the age of seven; and after the age of puberty, were held accountable themselves for the abuse, or seen as "normal" targets for priest experimentation.

* The perpetuation of the myth of a celibate priesthood, despite estimates that at any one time nearly half of all Catholic priests are involved in some kind of sexual activity, most of it with adults, and worldwide reports of priests sexually abusing and exploiting women. Pregnancies have been met by priests' insisting the women have abortions, or by their abandoning the women and their own children.

* The denial of the relationship between forced childbearing -- as promoted by Church teachings against birth control and abortion -- and poverty for women, children and families in the developing world.

* The belief that "natural law" -- on which the Church bases its opposition to birth control, condoms, emergency contraception, sterilization, infertility treatments, and pregnancy termination -- should apply not just to Catholics, but to everyone. This is a position that the Catholic Church alone among the world's religions can promote from its seat as a Non-Member State Permanent Observer at the United Nations.

* The silencing and excommunication of women who dare to challenge the status quo.

The invisible, indeed maligned, women I interviewed for Good Catholic Girls who are struggling to change the Catholic Church are part of a vibrant global movement of women -- Muslim, Jewish, Christian. They know that we cannot ignore the place of women in the world's major religions and still change women's second-class status in so much of the world.

For Pope Benedict's visit, the question to ponder is this: In the face of the Church's blatant discrimination against women and its consequences, to which Benedict has mightily contributed, what exactly is the basis for the Catholic Church hierarchy's moral authority?