There’s a new joke circulating among lay Catholics these days. A young priest approaches an older priest and says to him, with the utmost anxiety, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” The older priest looks grave and replies, “Continue, my son.” The first priest falls to his knees and whispers, “I have thoughts of fondling young boys.” His elder heaves a great sigh of relief and says heartily, “Is that all? I thought you were going to say you wanted to ordain women.”
For many Roman Catholics the scandals of the past year are a perfect example of why the traditional church hierarchy needs to go, starting with the all-male celibate priesthood. Instead of embracing the possibility of change, however, the Vatican’s going retrograde. On November 13 officials announced that accused clergy should be tried in special church tribunals with no public oversight. They have also refused to censure bishops who protect or have protected abusive priests by moving them from one parish to another. And, to the profound sadness of many progressive Catholics, the Vatican is openly discussing some kind of screening process to weed out future homosexual clergy.
Meanwhile, what little momentum there was toward opening the priesthood to women has ground to a halt. This summer, just as the U.S. Bishops Conference started drafting a policy to flush out sex abusers, Pope John Paul II excommunicated seven women who had themselves ordained as Roman Catholic priests in an “outlaw” ceremony on the banks of the Danube in Austria. Only those perceived as beyond redemption are cast out of the fold in this way; for true believers, it’s a one-way ticket to hell. “How revealing,” says Dagmar Braun Celeste, 60, and the lone American among the seven, “that the church will toss out a bunch of elderly women because of their spiritual beliefs, but is using canon law to protect known sex offenders.”
And there are plenty more dark doings within the church that have yet to be fully revealed. Sister Maura O’Donohue, a physician and member of the Medical Missionaries of Mary, compiled a report back in 1994 detailing numerous incidents from around the world of abuse of power by priests who regularly demand sex from nuns or novices in exchange for special perks, such as permission or certification to work in a certain diocese.
In Africa, a continent ravaged by HIV and AIDS, young nuns are routinely seduced and even raped by spiritual leaders because they’re perceived as disease-free. In some cases, wrote O’Donohue, priests forced victims to have abortions to avoid disclosure of their crime. And in at least one known instance, a nun died during an abortion procedure; her requiem mass was performed by the priest who impregnated her. O’Donohue’s report chronicles such sexual abuse in 23 countries, including the United States, but says it’s most prevalent in Africa and Latin America. Her findings have been corroborated by other missionaries around the world, most notably by Sister Marie McDonald, of Our Lady of Africa, who released a similar report in 1998.
Both these women contacted Vatican officials and shared their information. O’Donohue met with Cardinal Eduardo Martinez, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Religious Life in 1995, and in 1998 McDonald spoke about sexual abuse of religious and lay women by priests in front of the Council of 16, a triannual gathering of religious leaders in Rome. Neither event yielded much in the way of change. In fact, one of the cases cited by O’Donohue—the mass firing of the entire leadership team of a diocesan women’s commission in Malawi by a local bishop because they complained about local priests impregnating 29 young nuns—had been reported to Martinez several years earlier, but so far no attempts have been made to reinstate the dismissed women or to halt the abuse. The true scope of women’s sexual exploitation within the church has yet to be fully investigated, and few laypeople even realize such a problem exists.
It’s devilish details like these that undermine the faith of many female Catholics, and the move toward secret tribunals makes them feel even less included. Therese Ragen is one of a new wave of feminist activists who believe getting women ordained is an important first step on a much longer journey. “I’d like a Nicene Mass that talks about Our Redeemer instead of Our Father,” says Ragen, an NYU adjunct professor and clinical psychologist, “and for that to happen, the Roman Catholic Church is going to have to be torn all the way down and built back up again.”
Ragen, who grew up Irish Catholic in Chicago and briefly joined the Sisters of Mercy order in her early twenties, just donated $10,000 to the Virginia-based Women’s Ordination Conference to launch a media campaign in favor of women priests. She’s contemplating buying some billboard space in Manhattan, or maybe papering city buses and subways with her message. “I saw a billboard in Chicago that I liked. It said, ‘Looking for a Sign From God? Here’s One: Ordain Women.’ ”
As far as the Vatican is concerned, that’ll happen when hell freezes over. The hierarchy is adamant that being a priest requires “proper form” and “proper matter” and women simply aren’t anatomically correct. It’s an argument as old as the church itself: In the 16th century, when Lucrezia Borgia temporarily filled in for her father, Pope Alexander VI, a cardinal challenged her qualifications by asking pointedly, “Ubi est penna vostra?” (Where is your pen?). (Of course, by the same church regulations, Alexander had no business fathering children, but that type of transgression has historically been easily overlooked.)
“The Vatican will never acknowledge women as spiritual equals,” insists Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for Free Choice. “This is the most elitist group of people in the world. They don’t have a democratic bone in their bodies.” Kissling is all for getting females into priestly robes, but doesn’t think that alone will help move women out of the handmaiden role. “It’s like a Fortune 500 company,” she says. “Just because they let women in doesn’t make them progressive—or egalitarian.” Certainly, Vatican City is overwhelmingly male. Of the 3800 people who permanently live or work there, only 400 are women. The majority are nuns, housekeepers of churchmen, secretaries, or middle-level managers for the papal administration. Moving women one rung higher on the ladder won’t automatically rearrange this pattern, according to Kissling.
In the U.S., the numbers are reversed, but the division of labor persists. A study done by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) found that women hold 75 percent of paid parish leadership positions. Armed with master’s degrees in ministry, laywomen are the majority in children’s religious education and sacramental preparation, accounting and business, music ministry and youth ministry. At the same time, there are nearly 3000 parishes in the U.S. with no resident priest, and CARA’s last count showed that only 450 males were being ordained each year. In locations where priests and parishioners are amenable, women are allowed to unofficially fill the role of pastoral associate, which often comes with all the responsibilities of priesthood except permission to administer the seven sacraments. More frequently church leaders work with Rome to import priests from Eastern Europe and Latin America. In particularly underserviced areas, it’s very often women who provide the daily rituals of religion—priests are called in only when a sacrament must be performed.
The Vatican prefers not to dwell on such realities, but there probably will come a day when American Catholics get tired of living in a missionary country and want some homegrown priests. It’s already happening—in Rochester, New York, a woman priest delivers a sermon to a congregation of 1500 every Sunday in the Roman Catholic-identified Spiritus Christi Church. The parishioners don’t seem to mind; actually, they were instrumental in convincing Reverend Mary Ramerman to honor her calling. And her deacon, Denise Donato, will be ordained as a priest in February. Only in the Vatican, where priests, bishops, and cardinals jockey for jobs that come with lifetime guarantees and residents live tax-free in well-appointed papal apartments, does the thought of elevating women beyond server status seem untenable. “There’s no getting around it,” says Ragen. “The Vatican’s got one hell of a stained-glass ceiling.”