During a recent visit to the Republic of Ireland, the Papal Nuncio to that country, Archbishop Charles Brown, was interviewed by The Irish Independent. He was asked about the future for women as priests in The Church, and replied "The Catholic faith exists in part because of the tradition of the faith, and the tradition on that point is totally clear, completely clear. The Holy Father has spoken on that and I don't think as a result we're going to have women priests."
Seventy-seven percent of the Irish population is in favor of allowing women to become priests. Democratic ideals, though, are not quite what the Church has in mind in its dealings with its flock. Indeed, the flock has no authority at all. So those Irish will just have to live with the continuing top-down male rigidity with which Catholics world-wide have had to contend for the last 2,000 years.
Archbishop Brown, who is an American, is no doubt aware of a similar upsurge in support for women in the priesthood in his own country. He is, one would imagine, as recalcitrant on the matter on the Lower East Side, where he was born, as he is in Dublin.
Traditions change, and faith changes, as has been made abundantly clear over the many centuries of The Church's history. The priesthood may not approve, but large social changes and important thinking have brought about tectonic shifts over the centuries, which the Church has resisted at almost every turn. Galileo, for example. Christopher Columbus. Science. Voltaire. Non-religious art (and in some case, religious art that, for whatever reason, the Church thinks comes from the devil in disguise). The French Revolution. Democratically elected governments. The Pill. Just to name a few. In response, an undemocratic bureaucracy elected by no one, with no accountability to the vast majority of the members of the organization, renders iron-clad restrictions that are based on centuries-old received wisdom and unexamined assumptions about what tradition calls for and faith would require.
The restrictions are basically made out of self-interest, in order to keep the bureaucracy in a position of power. I think the rabidity of the Church's current insistence on certain matters of faith, morals and politics shows its defensive fear -- and its anger at being so ignored by the populace. The priest/bureaucracy rests like a drowned hulk between the faithful and the burning light of their faith. Even the simplest one-to-one personal relationship in The Church, the institution of Confession, places a priest between a believer and his or her God, a priest who turns the wish for forgiveness on the part of the believer to whatever purpose he may wish to impose. The only activity that you can undertake without a priest invading the moment is silent prayer, and I imagine many popes, archbishops and local pastors have gone to their graves unhappy about that.
All those fearful men, terrified by an onslaught of women bringing well thought-out change, new levels of heartfelt love and charitableness, and, perhaps, even humor to the institution, have put their foot down. So, women will have to bide their time for maybe a few centuries more. Maybe.
But I have a modest proposal. The sclerotic bureaucracy of the priesthood is itself the problem. Becoming a member of it could very well infect the new women priests with the hardening of The Church's arteries that has made the institution so nuttily inconsequential. Why do that? The Church is beside the point. Many of the previous faiths that have been destroyed by the Catholic Church had very prominent places for women, and they were faiths based on pagan-animist respect for nature, the stars, the planets, fruition, love and sensual beauty. As Shakespeare put it, "tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything."
That's a faith I could buy into.
Former Catholic Terence Clarke's new novel, 'The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro,' about The Catholic Church versus a world-famous artist, will be published next year.