Why the Priesthood Needs Women

Protesters outside St. Peter’s Basilica on the day of the opening of a global child protection summit for reflections on the sex abuse crisis within the Catholic Church, at the Vatican, on Thursday. Credit Giuseppe Lami/EPA, via Shutterstock
Protesters outside St. Peter’s Basilica on the day of the opening of a global child protection summit for reflections on the sex abuse crisis within the Catholic Church, at the Vatican, on Thursday. Credit Giuseppe Lami/EPA, via Shutterstock

No Christian should need to be reminded of the moral error of discrimination. We hold at the center of our faith the belief that every human life is of equal value. And yet the Roman Catholic Church, my church, excludes more than half its members from full participation by barring women, for reasons of gender alone, from the priesthood.

The moral consequences of this failing become abundantly clear each time another instance of clergy abuse, and cover-up, is revealed. It is the inevitable logic of discrimination: If one life, one person, is of more value than another, then “the other,” the lesser, is dispensable. For the male leaders of the Catholic Church, the lives of women and children become secondary to the concerns of the more worthy, the more powerful, the more essential person — the male person, themselves.

The Catholic Church needs to correct this moral error.

I was visiting a Catholic university in Boston in 2002 as the clergy abuse scandal involving Cardinal Bernard Law was breaking. I was there to discuss a novel I had written, but the questions from the audience at my talk — and at the book signing after, and on the sidewalk as I walked to my car — were mostly, if passionately, rhetorical: What do we do now? Where do we go from here? Do you think the church understands our pain? Do you think the church understands what we’ve lost? How much corruption should we tolerate?

At the time, I could offer only small commiseration — as well as my regret that these Catholics had been so betrayed by their spiritual leaders that they were left to seek solace from the likes of me, a reluctant and often contrarian Catholic, a novelist, a woman. “Awful, yes,” I said. “Outrageous, yes.” “Hope,” I said now and again. “Hope for change, perhaps.”

In the intervening years, the institutional church has learned to expand its vocabulary to include such words as “transparency” and “victim” and even “prosecute.” In the intervening years, wrists have been slapped, apologies made, some twisted souls have been sent to jail. But even as bishops and other Catholic leaders gather in Rome this weekend to address the abuse crisis, no Catholic I know feels assured that real change will come, that the worst is behind us, that some prince of the church, even a sainted pope, won’t eventually be revealed as a predator, an enabler.

For those of us trying to hang on to our affiliation with the Catholic Church, Pope Francis’s recent defrocking of Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal and archbishop of Washington, though commendable, is no recompense for the blindness, the arrogance, the cruelty of a system that allowed that pathetic man to become the shepherd of one of the most visible dioceses in the world. We fear that boys’ club secrecy and prancing misogyny, the profound moral error of discrimination, will prevail.

For myself, and for many of the Catholics I know (especially women), the question of how much corruption we can tolerate is now weighed against the tremendous loss we would feel, if we left this church. It’s an institution that has shaped us, comforted us, guided and informed us, that is the center of our spiritual lives as well as our community lives and family lives, the source of our own moral strength, of our faith in the substance of things hoped for. And yet small commiserations can no longer placate our outrage. A sea change is required.

Forty years ago, when, as the evidence now shows, abusive priests and winking bishops were flourishing throughout the world, Sister Theresa Kane of the Sisters of Mercy stirred a bit of outrage in the Catholic rank and file when she implored Pope John Paul II, on his first trip to the United States, to “be open to, and respond to, the voices coming from the women of this country.” She added later that “serious social injustices” were imposed on Catholic women by the “very system” of their church, and that until the church began reckoning with this uncomfortable fact, it could not “give witness to justice in the world.”

Sister Theresa was not the first voice in the Catholic Church to suggest that discrimination against women was at odds with the church’s core mission. More than a decade before, in 1965, the Second Vatican Council released a document called “Gaudium et Spes,” or “Joy and Hope” — two gifts now in short supply among the Catholics I know. It said, in part: “With respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent.”

In barring women from the priesthood, then, what Sister Theresa called the “very system” of the Catholic Church is adhering to a rule, a mere custom, that is contrary to God’s intent. It is this grave moral error, far more than priestly celibacy or Catholic sexual repression, that provides the implicit rationale for abusive priests and, more insidious still, for the men who excuse and protect them.

Rape and abuse is not about sexual longing or loneliness. It is about power. It is about the cruel dehumanization of the other, the perceived lesser being, in order to gain, and retain, power. The institutionalized misogyny of the Catholic Church reinforces the notion of women, and their children, as the lesser. Catholic women, and their children, can have no assurance that the church can reform itself until that essential error is addressed and corrected. And that error cannot be corrected as long as women cannot be priests.

Lately, as I have listened to the conversations of my dismayed and discouraged fellow Catholics, I have thought of the Catholic women who have shaped my own faith — nuns, teachers, mothers, friends. I’ve recalled the particular sound of these women’s voices when they have come to the end of their patience; it’s a calm, powerful, sober sound, a formidable voice that can bring children up short, silence excuses, restore order to chaos. It’s the voice of a woman saying, simply: “All right. That’s enough.”

It’s the voice the Catholic hierarchy needs to hear.

Alice McDermott is a professor of humanities at Johns Hopkins University and the author, most recently, of the novel The Ninth Hour.

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