By Richard Wagner
In this my inaugural column, I’d like to give you one simple cipher that will help you decode, and hopefully put in perspective, the whole of Roman Catholic moral (sexual) theology. I put the word sexual in parenthesis because, even though the Church insists that moral theology encompasses social justice, medical ethics and various other doctrine on individual moral virtue; it is sex that is THE Catholic sin. It’s also the only reason this column is being written.
In mid-July the Vatican issued a revised set of in-house rules in response to the international clerical sex abuse scandal. Nothing new surfaced in these dictums. For example, we won’t be seeing the transparency victim advocacy groups are looking for, nor will there be a “one-strike and you’re out” policy for pedophile priests. And bishops still aren’t expected to report molester priests to civil authorities. (I’ll address some of these issues in a later column.) But for now I have another reason for calling your attention to this particular Vatican ruling; and it is not clergy sex abuse.
These new Vatican rules cover the canonical (Church law) penalties and procedures used for the most grave crimes in the church. As one would suspect, the Vatican considers clerical sex abuse a “grave crime”. What no one was expecting, certainly not in a document that deals with pedophile clergy, was the startling inclusion of the attempted ordination of women as a “grave crime” subject to the same set of procedures and punishments meted out for sex abuse.
This drew immediate criticism from many Catholic women and men, who said making women priests the moral equivalent of child rapists was deeply offensive.
Despite the repugnant nature of this Vatican rule, it does clearly elucidate the cipher I promised I’d give you. To get a handle on Catholic moral theology one must first grasp the depth and breath of it’s institutionalized misogyny.
Less than a hundred years ago, women had little standing in the church. Women were not allowed to receive communion during their monthly periods; and after giving birth to a child they needed to be ‘purified’ (or ‘churched’ as it was called) before re-entering a church building.
Women were strictly forbidden to touch ‘sacred objects’, such as the chalice, the paten or altar linen. They were certainly never to distribute Holy Communion. And while in church, a woman needed to have her head veiled at all times.
Women were also barred from:
- entering the sanctuary except for cleaning purposes;
- reading Sacred Scripture from the pulpit;
- singing in a church choir;
- being servers at Mass.
But the most important restriction of all — women were barred from receiving Holy Orders; being ordained as deacons, priests or bishops.
When I was in seminary in the mid 1970’s the movement to ordain women was just finding its footing. The official rationale for refusing women to the priesthood back then, as it is now, is that a priest must physically resemble Jesus. The priest acts ‘in the person of Christ’. Since Jesus was a man, only a male priest can signify Christ at the Eucharist.
I used to get such a kick out of that reasoning, because when I was ordained the bishop laid his hands on my head to ordain me. And since women also have heads, I just figured that the bishop was laying his hand on the wrong part of my anatomy if he wanted the part that made me physically resemble Jesus.
The truth of the matter is that every aspect of Catholic moral theology from birth control to homosexuality; from the ordination of women to pre-marital sex, from abortion to celibacy is rooted in a medieval theology that still holds sway today. Every woman is ‘a defective male’, ‘born through an accident’, ‘a monster of nature’; as Thomas Aquinas put it. Procreation was attributed to the father alone: the whole future child is carried in his sperm. The mother was seen to be only the ‘soil’ in which the seed developed.
Institutionalized misogyny of this magnitude leaves some Catholic faithful in a quandary. How do I remain faithful to my baptism, but resist what, I know in my heart, is not right? The answer is the principle of the primacy of one’s conscience. According to this belief, one must follow the sure judgment of his/her conscience even when, through no fault of one’s own, it might be mistaken. This is the cornerstone of all Catholic, and indeed all Christian, teaching. No law, no dictum, no dogma can take precedence over an individual’s conscience. Our conscience is our connection with our God.
This principal has allowed tens of thousands of Catholics over the years, both religious and lay; to stand against the unconscionable second-class status afforded women in the Church. And despite institutional resistance, great strides have been made over the last fifty years in toppling this gender-based injustice. Women are now included in many aspects of church life that were once closed to them.