If doubts remained 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 them 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 theater 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 award-winning 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 threatened the hierarchy feels by 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 and nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. 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.
The church fights for laws that forbid divorce, and some priests still counsel abused women to stay with their abusers, bolstered by the church's setting Elizabeth Canori Mora, a woman who was physically and psychologically abused by her errant husband, on the track to sainthood for her "absolute fidelity" to the sacrament of marriage.
Furthermore, the church's entrenched discrimination has bred an attitude of condescension, even contempt, towards women. Surely that made it much easier for the all-male hierarchy to ignore the mothers who came to them, begging for action against the priests who molested their children. It also led the hierarchy to dismiss the sexual molestation of girls after puberty and the sexual exploitation of adult women by repeatedly and unconscionably blaming them for their own abuse.
Catholic Women Lead Charge Against the Status Quo
As more and more cases of child abuse and cover-up emerge and the church escalates actions aimed at controlling women -- and not just Catholic women -- the all-male hierarchy finds itself in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. Their power is being roundly challenged, and Catholic women are leading the charge.
Exhibit A is the Vatican's announcement last year that it would be launching two investigations into the lives of American sisters -- one on the "quality" of their religious lives, the other on "the soundness of doctrine held and taught" by the sisters on contentious issues like homosexuality, celibacy and the ban on women's ordination. In defense of the sisters, the Catholic and mainstream press have denounced those investigations, and rightly so. But this action by the Vatican confirms that while the sisters have gone about their critical work of sheltering the homeless and feeding the hungry, some have also posed a tremendous challenge to the power elite.
Despite the implicit threat of punishment the investigations carry, the sisters have not retreated. One very public face-off took place during the closing days of the Obama Administration's fight for health care reform. The U.S. bishops had been playing a central role in reviewing the legislative drafts, demanding that no federal funds pay for abortions. In an action that could have killed health care reform altogether, they rejected a Senate version, even though it did not authorize federal funds for abortions and established onerous red tape if women wanted to buy insurance on their own.
The bishops did not have the last word. Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, made a statement of support for health care reform, followed days later by a letter, released to the media, to all members of Congress from NETWORK (the national Catholic social justice lobby). Signed by leaders of Catholic religious orders representing 90 percent of the 59,000 U.S. women religious, the sisters in that letter attacked the "false claim" that federal funds would support elective abortions, and hailed the new funding in the bill for pregnant women, which they wrote represented "a REAL pro-life stance." Their support was widely regarded as helping to push the bill over the finish line.
In response, the U.S. bishops became downright apoplectic. Ultra-conservative Archbishop Raymond Burke said, "in defying Rome and the Church's teaching on life," the women represented "an absurdity of the most tragic kind." In a whiny public statement, the U.S. Bishops complained that their position had been "misrepresented, misunderstood and misused," their "right to speak questioned," and "even" their leadership role subject to "criticism."
The sisters remained undeterred (though NETWORK did remove the letter to Congress from its website). Keehan graciously accepted a pen President Obama used to sign the reform bill as well as his videotaped gratitude to the Catholic Health Association and to her personally, for her "extraordinary leadership ... in advancing our national discussion."
Another face-off is ongoing and has been widely publicized. It concerns Sister Margaret McBride, a hospital executive and member of St. Joseph's Hospital Ethics Committee in Phoenix, Arizona. She was excommunicated, relieved of her position, and condemned for approving the termination of the life-threatening, 11-week pregnancy of a 27-year-old mother of four.
Without a scintilla of empathy or sympathy for the critically-ill woman, Bishop Thomas Olmsted said, "The direct killing of an unborn child is always immoral, no matter the circumstances." The correct moral action: Let the mother and the fetus die. Hospital vice-president Suzanne Pfister defended the hospital's action, on behalf of the hospital, its parent company Catholic Healthcare West, and McBride's entire religious order, the Sisters of Mercy. The response -- from the public and the Catholic press -- has been a groundswell of condemnation for Olmsted's actions and vociferous support for Sister Margaret.
Catholic Women Advocating for Survivors and Gays
Catholic women have been leading advocates for survivors of clergy sexual abuse. Had there been no Barbara Blaine, there would be no Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. She founded SNAP in 1989, after spending nearly a decade seeking justice from the archdiocese of Toledo for the sexual molestation she suffered as a girl at the hands of a local parish priest.
Today, SNAP is the largest and most powerful voice for clergy sex abuse survivors nationwide; it is also a major watchdog of the Vatican and the bishops' actions regarding survivors. SNAP members -- half of them, and over half of the organization's leaders, women -- hold support groups all over the country, stage protests outside churches and bishops' conferences, and fight for legislative relief for victims, like extending statutes of limitations for reporting child sex crimes.
The Vatican's new canonical rules for handling priest child molesters extend its own statute of limitations -- beyond which it absolves itself of taking any action against an offending priest -- and allows for quicker laicization, but they fail to require what victims' advocates really want: action against colluding bishops, an end to the bishops' lobbying against extending civil statutes of limitations, and required reporting to civil authorities.
"This tiny, timid and flawed Vatican move redoubles our commitment to win secular reforms that will truly protect kids and upholds our long-standing policy of gently, but firmly, nudging victims, witnesses and whistleblowers to call law enforcement -- not church officials -- when they see or suspect child sex crimes or cover-ups," says Joelle Casteix, Western Regional Director of SNAP.
Catholic women have taken on the most contentious issues on the reform agenda. Sister Jeannine Gramick spent three decades building a pioneering ministry to gays and lesbians, despite relentless and unsuccessful efforts by then Cardinal Ratzinger to silence her and ban her work. Among the creative contributions of Frances Kissling, retired president of Catholics for Choice, were a worldwide Condoms4Life campaign and the See Change Campaign -- the first coordinated challenge to the Holy See's singular status among the world's religions as a UN Non-Member State Permanent Observer.
Watching Power Fracture
As a result of these and other challenges from women (such as bringing a feminist viewpoint to theology, making up the vast majority of those in lay Catholic ministry), something very important is happening: the power of the all-male hierarchy, of the Vatican and the Bishops Conferences, is beginning to fracture. Other Catholic voices, women's voices, are being heeded -- in the church and in the public square.
What will come of all of this remains to be seen. Many feel the Catholic Church is on its way to becoming a much smaller, ultra-orthodox fundamentalist institution. Indeed, the church's opening its arms to disaffected Anglicans who also virulently oppose women's ordination does not bode well for change.
But another scenario would see the alternative voices getting louder, the reform movements growing larger, and more and more women priests leading more and more small faith communities until the parallel church on the ground becomes so strong that the medieval institution has to change. Or the parallel church bypasses it entirely, and thrives.
For now, I see the church continuing to "bleed women," as Sister Joan Chittister once put it. Those who remain will be subject to a hierarchy that is clinging desperately to sexist man-made laws and sexist interpretations of tradition and Scripture, then passing their sexist messages on to young Catholic girls.
A cradle Catholic, it took me a long time to develop a voice inside that was loud enough to drown out those messages. It saddens me that many Catholic girls will spend years of their lives doing the same. But that is the inevitable consequence of institutionalized discrimination. And that is not ending in the Catholic Church any time soon.
This article originally appeared in On the Issues magazine's summer issue, "How Do We Reach Equality for Women? Is It the Summit of Our Aspirations?