Sex and the City of God, Part 1: The Catholic Church's Treatment of Women

06/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"The Church is our mother and we love her, but she's a whore."

This saying gets used a lot in Catholic circles. It's attributed to Saint Augustine, who probably never said or wrote it. Is the Church a whore? If "she" is, it is the hierarchy that turns her out every time it puts its own primacy and potency before her essence and substance. In other words, the hierarchy objectifies her. The Church is, after all, a "she," and she is treated accordingly. Such is the hierarchy's regard for the female half of its Church. The Church would experience great growth and healing were its leadership to find the courage to take its foot off the neck of its women.

It was my privilege to sponsor a young woman entering the Roman Catholic Church recently, which makes me something like her god-mother. Why a reasonable woman would sign on to the Church at this time is a topic for another discussion; her decision long predated my involvement. I still manage to love my Church and was honored to serve. It is customary for a person receiving the sacrament of Confirmation to assume a new name, and I was pleased to stand with a friend who had taken the name Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene is a mystery, but looking at how Catholics perceive her is telling. The version of her that Dan Brown presents in The Da Vinci Code isn't based on any reliable scholarship, but neither is the long-standing presumption that Mary was a prostitute. A Jewish woman of uncertain parentage would have been an outcast in the world of Jesus; a girl past puberty without a husband, a woman who had been raped, and a woman traveling alone with money of her own would each have been taken for prostitute. Church teaching discounts the (Gnostic) Gospel of Mary and cites her non-membership in "the twelve" as the central clue to Jesus' clear and obvious disinclination to include her -- or anyone of her gender -- in the priesthood. Defenders of a "male-only" priesthood make much of the fact that none of the four approved accounts of the Last Supper refers to Mary by name, despite the fact that of "the twelve," only Judas and Peter are mentioned by name. And yet according to the Catholic gospels, Mary Magdalene was the first to see the risen Christ. Mark, Matthew, and John have her at the foot of the cross on the occasion of the crucifixion. There is nothing to indicate that Mary was not at the Last Supper, and there is no cause to assume that she and his mother would not have celebrated Pesach with Jesus.

Catholic teaching tells us that the seeds of Catholic thought sprouted from Jesus' Jewish worship and heritage. His Adonai was a male creator, a king, and certainly his religion was patriarchal. But the religious life of Jews in antiquity was various, and there was within it a place and thriving regard for female wisdom, teaching, and mysticism. The Gospels tell us that Jesus worshiped among women and traveled with women, that he touched women some might have considered unclean. There is good reason to believe that Jesus sought to challenge the patriarchy and include women fully in his earthly ministry, but the men in miters fear this. In ordaining women, the hierarchy would give women power -- which, they fear, would undercut their sovereignty.

Those who defend the Church hierarchy against accusations that it is misogynistic are quick to point out the ways in which the Church has honored women and the female aspect: the several female saints who have been designated as "Doctors of the Church"; Mary, the mother of Jesus, the only human being ever conceived without sin; that the Church herself is called "the Mother Church." But the Vatican has dug in its heels on the matter of ordaining women, going so far as to declare the debate on it closed.

The year 1976 was a big one for the question of ordaining women. In 1976, the Pontifical Biblical Commission determined that there was no scriptural reason to deny ordination to women, but the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith slapped them down on the grounds that ordaining women would violate both the Church's "constant tradition" and "Christ's will," arguing that the "sacramental nature" of the priesthood is essentially male in character. But even a cursory look at the early history of the papacy reveals that there really was no "constant tradition" in the papacy until almost a thousand years after the death of Jesus. The papacy was in wild flux -- up for grabs. Secular rulers wrote religious law. A rich man could buy a bishop's appointment. Local clerics shaped religious policy at will, and during the first five to seven hundred years of Church history, thousands of women were ordained as deacons and, possibly, as priests. Any claims about Jesus' preferences with regard to the gender of priests are fantasy. The notion that the sanctity of our sacraments depends upon the presence of male genitalia under the albs and chasubles is as inane as it is perverse.

The good news is that women are being ordained as Catholic priests today. The Vatican's own bishops ordain them at great risk, under the pontifical radar. That the Papacy does not acknowledge the ordination of these women doesn't mean they aren't priests. The clandestine Apostolic Visitations conducted by the Vatican's aptly named "Office of Inquisitions," which have been in the news recently, are, at least in part, not-so-thinly veiled (pun intended) campaigns to flush out women's ordination activity. The Vatican has good reason to be nervous. Some convents are hotbeds for ordination reform, and many women who are called to the priesthood wind up as nuns.

The sexism of Church teaching and structure is nowhere more observable than in the religious orders. When a woman becomes a nun, she becomes a handmaid, or bride, of Christ. When a man becomes a priest, he becomes an earthly stand-in for Christ. Almost all nuns take vows of poverty, while only some priests do. Nuns take vows of chastity. Most priests make "promises" to be "celibate." In "Churchspeak," promises and vows are not equivalent, and "chastity" and "celibacy" are not synonymous. The priest's promise to be celibate is a promise not to marry. Some but not all priests take vows of chastity.

Outside the convent, a Catholic woman who wishes to live in full compliance with the Vatican's rules can either live without sex, or with it so long as she is married in the Church and willing to welcome any children that result from sex with her spouse. If she marries at the age of 25 and does not default on her "marital debt" (what Aquinas called sex between spouses), she can easily wind up with a dozen children. Church educators will instruct her in "Natural Family Planning" (which would work well to prevent pregnancy -- if combined with, say, a condom!) but forbids the use of artificial contraception, even in cases where one partner is infected with HIV or AIDS.

Because having several children generally limits a woman's economic viability, often leaving her dependent in the extreme (whether upon a man or the State), the Vatican's policy on contraception proves a tidy plan for keeping female members of the Church submissive to both husbands and the Vatican. In deeming all sex sinful except that which increases the flock, Church leadership is able to keep women "in their place," while simultaneously ensuring its own steady access to fresh Catholic babies.

The pimping of children and the readiness to sacrifice them on the altar of Vatican public relations, the fear and distrust of women, and the compulsory celibacy for priests -- are all interrelated. They're bundled in the twisted, deep-rooted tangle of the erotic pathology that burns within and radiates outward from the College of Cardinals, pitting the Church's venality against the gentleness of the Christ in its people. The Vatican's megalomaniacal dysfunctions and failures of imagination -- which take the forms of misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and a readiness to victimize its most vulnerable -- are inextricably bound; they are low-hanging fruit of the poisoned tree of the Vatican's commitment to ruling by fear, when it should be guiding by love.

Next: homosexuality, celibacy, and the child rape crisis.