A Woman's Place Is in the Church

By Miller, Lisa | Newsweek, April 12, 2010 | Go to article overview

A Woman's Place Is in the Church


Miller, Lisa, Newsweek


Byline: Lisa Miller; With Pat Wingert, Jessica Ramirez, Ian Yarett, and Daniel Stone

The cause of the Catholic clergy's sex-abuse scandal is no mystery: insular groups of men often do bad things. So why not break up the all-male club?

Here they are, the members of history's oldest and most elite all-male club, trying to manage what began as a domestic crisis. For decades, certain priests in America, Europe, Ireland, Brazil (and God knows where else) abused--raped or otherwise molested--children and teenagers not in the frescoed halls of the Vatican but in their own backyards: on camping trips and in cars, in dormitories and confessionals. Those few boys and girls confident enough to tell their secret whispered it to the women they trusted: mothers, aunts, grandmothers. Those few women brave enough to question authority or seek justice from the bishops were hushed up and shut down. In this case Jesus was wrong: the meek did not inherit the earth. They received pious and self-serving sermonizing.

"To be sure," wrote Boston's Cardinal Humberto Medeiros to one mother incensed over the sexual abuse of seven boys in her own family, "we cannot accept sin, but we know well that we must love the sinner."

Even with a mother, Mary, at the center of the Christian story, the women of today's church have found themselves marginalized and preached to amid the interminable revelations of the sexual-abuse scandals. Their prayers to the Virgin, protector of humanity, seem to have gone unanswered.

No wonder the men now charged with damage control face such a credibility gap, a sense that they--who read apologies from teleprompters--appear insufficiently aghast at the damage done. On Palm Sunday in New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan condemned sex abuse from his throne in St. Patrick's looking for all the world like a well-fed Fortune 500 CEO. A YouTube clip shows Cardinal Sean Brady of Ireland--where 15,000 children were abused over four decades--peremptorily dismissing calls for his resignation. After a New York Times story reported that Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) failed to defrock a priest who abused 200 deaf children in Wisconsin, the pope lashed out against the news media. Faith, he said, allows one not "to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion." Time and again, the pope and his surrogates fail to convince us of their grief.

The problem is not, as so many progressives claim, the fact of their celibacy. Nor is it their costumes--the miters and capes--though these vanities do serve as reminders of the great distance between the men with power and the people without. The problem--bluntly put--is that the bishops and cardinals who manage the institutional church live behind guarded walls in a pre-Enlightenment world. Within their enclave, they remain largely untouched by the democratic revolutions in France and America. On questions of morality, they hold the group--in this case, the church--above the individual and regard modernity as a threat. We in the democratic West who criticize the hierarchy for its shocking inaction take the supremacy of the individual for granted. They in the Vatican who blast the media for bias against the pope value ecclesiastical cohesion over all. The gap is real. We don't get them. And they don't get us.

By keeping modernity at bay, though, the men who run the Catholic Church have willfully ignored one of the great achievements of the modern age: the integration of women in the workforce and public life. In America, 50 million women work full time; in the European Union that number is 68 million. Within most mainline Protestant denominations, these battles over the professionalization of women were fought--and lost--half a century ago. In Denmark, Lutheran women were granted ordination rights in 1948; in the U.S., the first female Episcopalian priest was ordained in 1976.

But in the Roman Catholic corporation, the senior executives live and work, as they have for a thousand years, eschewing not just marriage, but intimacy with women and professional relationships with women--not to mention any chance to familiarize themselves with the earthy, primal messiness of families and children. …

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