The Wrong Side of History

In assessing Roman Catholicism's role as a source of the advancement of progressive social change, what is to be made of the Church's age-old and continuing exclusion of black Catholics from the priesthood? That is an admittedly rhetorical question, premised on a half-truth, since the Church excludes only some blacks from the priesthood, which keeps the policy from being racist. If the Roman Catholic Church were an officially and openly white supremacist organization, not even the niceties of church-state separation would keep progressive critics silent, and it is hard to imagine that, in the American civil rights era, the courts themselves would not have found grounds to challenge the policy.

The black Catholics who are excluded from the priesthood, of course, are women. Their exclusion, shared with all women, is a matter of gender, not race. In recent years, the Vatican has so forcefully restated the traditional prohibition of women in orders that senior Church officials now declare that the all-male priesthood is a matter of infallible doctrine. Catholics have been enjoined by these officials from even discussing the question further. (Since I am a Catholic, my writing this article qualifies as disobedience.) Given the devotion of the present pope and his curia to the restoration of a medieval-style Catholicism, it is not surprising that they have held this line so firmly.

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What is surprising is the docility with which most contemporary Catholics have accepted the Church's overtly asserted male supremacism. A small cohort of Catholic feminists-- female and male--have consistently objected to this policy, but they have been marginalized both by the Church hierarchy and by the secular media. Equally surprising is the deference shown the Church on this question by those media, especially the social critics, editorialists, and liberal advocates who have otherwise worked across the board to advance equal rights for women as a matter of basic justice. After all, there is no moral difference between discrimination by race and discrimination by gender. If the outrage of white supremacism is so clear, why has the massive male supremacism of the Catholic Church provoked so little in the way, even, of broadly felt social discomfort, much less protest?

Certainly, the answer lies elsewhere than in the significance of the Church as an institution that crosses the boundaries of culture, class, and geography. The equal rights movement for women is sometimes derided as the selfindulgence of relatively affluent women, yet socially enforced female inferiority is one of the most devastating aspects of life in impoverished cultures. In the developing world, a rise in literacy rates among women, for example, is one of the surest signals of progressive social change. A shift in the status of women is a sine qua non for meaningful development in the Southern Hemisphere, and it is far from incidental to this problem that hundreds of millions of those women are faithful Catholics who still hear a message from the altar that they are lesser beings. Equally disheartening, and perhaps more damaging, is that their male co-religionists have their assumption of innate superiority reinforced by divine sanction.

Roman Catholic sexism, enshrined in the prohibition of women from the priesthood, is one of the most socially regressive forces at work in the world today. This is, of course, an urgent problem for Catholics. Young Catholics, perhaps especially girls, are either quietly alienated from the Church by this policy or, if they accept it unquestioningly, perhaps especially boys, they are corrupted by sexism. And the Church's efficacy as a progressive advocate on a host of other issues (rampant individualism of the consumerist economy, overreliance on military force, capital punishment, debt forgiveness) is needlessly vitiated.

In 1963, Pope John XXIII issued his ground-breaking encyclical "Pacem in Terris," and in it he recognized one of the signs of the times as the coming feminist revolution. "Since women are becoming ever more conscious of their human dignity," he wrote, "they will not tolerate being treated as mere material instruments, but demand rights befitting a human person both in domestic and in public life." Alas, Catholic leaders since John XXIII have been less adept at reading the signs of the times, with disastrous consequences, in this case, to women, to men, to the Catholic Church, and to the many societies of which the Church is so important a part. But Pope John understood the power of women to bring about a change in their status, and he seemed to grasp that, however delayed, that change will simply not be stopped.

Much like the white knights of the Old South when the civil rights movement burst upon them, the hierarchs of today's Catholic Church are on the wrong side of history. It is already possible to imagine a future pope welcoming women to the altar as priests--as equals. Predictably, that pope will offer an apology for the ancient sexism of the Church, but who will apologize for the otherwise progressive people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who took such rank discrimination for granted and thereby helped the unjust exclusion of women from the priesthood survive long past its time? ¤

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