THE BLOG
05/06/2015 02:54 pm ET Updated May 06, 2016

If the Pope Is Really Serious About Fair Pay Then He Should Make Altar Girls Mandatory

ALBERTO PIZZOLI via Getty Images

Last week, Pope Francis decried the international gender pay gap as a "pure scandal" that good Christians need to do something about. It was refreshing to hear him say that sexist attitudes about gender and work are a kind of "machismo" based on men wanting "to dominate women."

The Pope may want women to be paid more fairly, however, this does not a feminist make. While he is lauded as a champion of liberalization, he draws a firm line at girls and women. He is the head of the largest and most influential fraternities in the world and has no plans to disrupt its sex-based legacy. The steps necessary to achieve women's economic parity are significantly inhibited by Catholic policies and beliefs about complementary roles for men and women, the outcome of which is widespread gender-based injustice.

If Pope Francis really wants women to be paid fairly, there is something he can do today that would alter his culture in a disruptive and transformational way: he should make the appointment of altar girls a priority and begin the process of allowing women to be priests and cardinals. It would be nice if he publicly recognized the ways in which the Church's policies on women's reproductive rights significantly impair women's health, economic wellbeing and long-term financial and physical security. These steps, as likely as a blinding snowstorm hitting Tahiti today, would signal a profound commitment to women's equality.

Why start with altar girls? Because what families see and do in their places of worship, at the direction of men they're told have power over their eternal lives, shapes people and has a butterfly effect in society and institutions. Children's ambitions, expectations, capabilities, confidence and sense of what constitutes fairness and justice are tied to how they are treated by their families and their religions.

Once every few years since 1994, the year when the Catholic Church first allowed altar girls, the issue of banning them returns. Take, for example, this year when Joseph Illo, a San Francisco priest, announced the barring of girls from Catholic services in his diocese. He gave many good reasons for doing this in a public statement. He explained, that boys lose interest because girls do a better job; the role of altar boy is tied to an all-male priesthood, so it makes no sense to have altar girls; being an altar boy is what sparks a desire to be a priest so boys need to do it; and, go on, read it, girls distract the boys who are meant to serve. Altar girls are, in effect, the religious equivalent of a gateway drug.

The argument articulated by Illo, a standard one, was also made by Raymond Burke, a conservative American Cardinal in Rome. Burke likes to throw around the word "feminized," in a very traditional, pejorative way.

What does he mean? There are no official women priests and no women are allowed in the senior hierarchy of the Vatican. There are no women in position of power or authority in the Church who do not report to a man. There are barely any in the Vatican itself. At last count, out of the city-state's roughly 550 citizens, 32 were women -- 1 nun and 31 lay women. Roughly 82 percent of employees of the Holy See are men and just two women work as undersecretaries in the Vatican. There is also the growing influence of the ultra secretive and conservative lay organization, Opus Dei, known for conservative sex segregation and even more extreme, gender hierarchical practices. One of the few exceptions to the exclusion of women in senior, influential roles used to be the significant number of women who served as presidents of Catholic colleges and universities, a number that exceeded women's representation in non-Catholic schools. (The majority of Catholic colleges were founded by women religious orders and were sex-segregated. Once desegregation began, women lost ground. Not one woman has been named president in the increasing trend of hiring lay people to head up Catholic colleges and universities.)

Catholics are no more or less blind to sexism than other people, most of whom overlook sexism. However, in the case of an all-male priesthood, the not seeing is striking. In 2003, a study, "Is the Roman Catholic Prohibition of Female Priests Sexist?: How Catholic College Students Think about Women's Ordination and Sexism," completed at Loyola University, found that most Catholic students disagreed with the statement "Women should not be allowed to be clergy (priests, pastors, imams, rabbis, etc." At the same time, they overwhelming agreed that "Sexism is wrong." Researchers were amazed that the respondents saw no relationship between the two.

Given that most people don't recognize sexism, discrimination on the basis of sex, until it's revealed as such...

Thing 1: Barring girls from serving at altars and women from being priests is sexism

Thing 2: Traditional sexism is still sexism.

Thing 3: Religious sexism is still sexism.

The Church maintains that it is not sexist, that it, indeed, abhors sexism. Instead, women have important, uniquely female roles in the faith and are respected for those roles. The church maintains that priesthood, not a right but a male calling, has nothing to do with power, but is about submission. And yet, somehow, it is women who are expected to submit to men, the way men are expected to submit to God.

Complementarianism, the belief in equal but separate and complementary roles for men and women, is a primary reason we have a pay gap and an unbalanced distribution of labor, including whose is considered important. The pay gap starts in homes and churches, between parents and with children; between priests and their constituents. People go from these places and take their beliefs with them into the workplace.

For example, studies, such as "Marriage Structure and Resistance to the Gender Revolution in the Workplace," repeatedly show that men with stay-at-home wives are markedly hostile to women's success and leadership in the workplace. A woman working for a man with a stay at home wife has reduced chances of getting a promotion, being paid fairly or getting a raise. A survey of 1,200 executives conducted by Families and Work Institute revealed that 75 percent of the men had stay-at-home wives. I'd bet a fair amount of money that the numbers for political representatives (also roughly 83 percent male, more for state representation and governorships) are similar.

Of the Fortune 1000 only 14.3 percent have female board members. People managing boards, businesses and companies are overwhelmingly men (84 percent).

In traditional families with fathers as heads of households and ultimate arbiters of decisions, there are clear imbalances in how chores are assigned and how allowances are distributed. There are also imbalances in whose public speech and authority are legitimized, critically important dimensions of work life and success.

When girls go to Catholic churches where there are no women priests (or similarly, rabbis or imams) they learn to be quiet. They are taught, through thousands of small interactions, language and rules, that their words cannot and do not have power and that access to God has to be mediated always through boys and men. Their eternal salvation depends on men who are granted authority, and disproportionate responsibilities. They learn that some humans are more closely created in God's image and that they are not among them. They learn that expectations about self-control and sacrifice and authority are gendered and imbalanced. When they are told to step down so that boys cannot be distracted or shown up, they learn that their abilities and desires must be sublimated so that boys' abilities and desires can be prioritized and fulfilled.

Boys learn these things as well, and also get very different messages. They learn that they are special by comparison. They learn to act and speak publicly. They learn to be authoritative and that they are deserving of public respect. They learn that their words and work have power and public value and that they have a unique, compared to their sisters, relationship with those who wield it. They learn that the society that they live in values what they have to say, because they are boys saying it. They learn that they will not be held accountable for their actions. They learn that their needs have primacy. They learn that they can gain status and privilege by socially sanctioned discrimination. They may be expected to submit to God, but girls and women are expected to submit to them. Really, don't listen to me, just read Illo's statement.

All over the world, attitudes, beliefs and practices such as these are why we have an enduring pay gap. If people think that women "make choices" that lead to this gap, at the very least they should acknowledge that they are doing it subject to socialized constraints that degrade both men and women's autonomy.

This obviously isn't uniquely a Catholic problem, but the Church has the choice to be part of the solution and the Vatican is rejecting to do so.

The shining lights in this situation are American activist nuns and Catholic women priests, who run their own churches. There are now more than 100 ordained women priests in the United States.That and the fact that the Church hierarchy really doesn't represent most Catholics in terms of practical day to day life. Barring altar girls, however, is more than just vestigial sexism, it's obstructionist and grounded in misogynistic ideas.

A Church genuinely committed to addressing the needs of the marginalized would startwith the ordination of women, not end here, centuries from now. The problem for the Church isn't girls who stay, it's the girls they turn away, each of whom realizes she is, for no legitimate moral or ethical reason, not respected as an equal, regardless of what the Pope says. As long as girls have to fight to be recognized in their own churches the Pope's protestations ring hollow. In the meantime, every altar girl this Church turns away is a gift to the rest of the world. Those girls, and the people who support them, are the ones who will eventually close the pay gap.

Portions of this essay have been published in Whatever Works: Feminists of Faith Speak,
Trista Hendren
 (Editor), Pat Daly (Editor), Amina Wadud (Foreword)