The Vatican and Women: Casting the First Stone

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Pope Benedict XVI

What a rich coincidence we Roman Catholics got to experience at Mass on Sunday, July 18. The scheduled Gospel passage was Luke's story about Jesus visiting the sisters Martha and Mary of Bethany (who Catholic tradition says was Mary Magdalene). Many biblical scholars believe the narrative shows Jesus encouraging Mary to assume the role of a disciple, like Peter and the guys. That notion lent some cable-news significance to the reading — coming as it did just days after the Vatican issued an avowal, as obtuse as it was malicious, that ordaining women into the priesthood was a sin on par with pedophilia.

Rome's misogynous declaration, tossed into its new guidelines on reporting clerical sexual abuse, did more than just highlight the church's hoary horror at the idea of female priests — or its penchant of late for sticking its papal slippers in its mouth every chance it gets. It also pointed up an increasingly spiteful rhetoric of bigotry. When Argentina in mid-July legalized gay marriage, the country's Catholic bishops weren't content to simply denounce the legislation; they used the occasion to argue for the subhumanity of homosexual men and lesbians, the way many white Southern preachers weren't ashamed to degrade African Americans during the civil rights movement. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio not only called the new law "a scheme to destroy God's plan"; he termed it "a real and dire anthropological throwback," as if homosexuality were evolutionarily inferior to heterosexuality.

U.S. bishops haven't been much kinder on this issue, which is all the more regrettable since they were among the civil rights movement's champions. But that was a half-century ago, when the church's tone was influenced by humane thinkers like the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray. Bergoglio and many American prelates today are simply parroting their new Pope, Benedict XVI, who in 2008 said saving humanity from homosexuality was as crucial as rescuing rain forests from lumberjacks. And did we mention this papacy's disastrous p.r. with Jews and Muslims?

How did it come to this? The answer lies in why the Vatican felt compelled to throw its antifemale jab into the sexual-abuse directives. When any institution is as convinced of its own moral infallibility as the Catholic Church is, it tends to lash out at criticism — especially charges as serious as the priestly rape of children — with Dostoyevskian paranoia. And the church then fortifies its less popular stances, like an all-male priesthood or the condemnation of gays, in the process becoming even more uncompromising. Most Catholics, according to polls in the U.S. and abroad, support women's ordination, but the church peevishly views that trend as an insidious subagenda of its sexual-abuse accusers. Hence last week's astonishing aside from Rome that both the ordination of female priests and pedophilia are graviora delicta, or grave crimes.

The real offense is the church's theological sophistry. Its argument for keeping women out of the priesthood — Jesus had no female apostles — is as shamefully bogus as it is unjust. The hierarchy, threatened by claims of Mary Magdalene's ministerial status, has long tried to identify her with the unnamed "woman caught in adultery" in the Gospel of St. John. When that woman was dragged before Jesus for judgment — death by stoning, the men demanded — Christ famously said, "He who is without sin, cast the first stone." The church wants us to embrace that compassionate teaching when it comes to pedophile priests, and yet it is deaf enough to cast stones at the "crime" of female priests.

What's at stake is the Catholic Church's ability to salvage any moral authority from the sexual-abuse tragedy. The fact is, it can still do that without ordaining women. But it can't do it while digging itself a deeper hole like a defendant hurling insults at a judge. It can't do it by excommunicating a hospital nun, as an Arizona bishop recently did, because she signed off on an abortion that saved a mother's life. It can't do it by losing sight of the difference between dogged traditionalism and mean-spirited obscurantism, as it so often does these days.

And it's sounding that way to Catholics as much as it is to non-Catholics. Many if not most of us Catholics remain Catholics today not because of the church's leadership but in spite of it. In a new Gallup poll, 62% of U.S. Catholics say gay relationships are morally acceptable. Which means we're not thrilled to have our religion represented by a bunch of homophobes wearing miters. Even those of us who sharply disagree with the church on a number of doctrinal issues still want to believe it can be a helpful, contemplative guide in matters spiritual and social. But if it keeps up the hateful discourse, it will lose whatever modicum of attention my generation of Catholics still pays it — and it can forget about my children's generation.

My daughter happened to be serving as an altar girl at Mass on Sunday. She was smart enough to sense that in the gospel reading, Jesus was relating to Mary as if she were a disciple. And she'll learn that the New Testament is full of other passages that indicate Jesus believed women could be alteri Christi, or "other Christs," as priests often call themselves. Real Catholicism encourages that kind of enlightened thinking — and it certainly doesn't call it, as the Catholic Church does, a crime.