Vatican Paper Asks: “Where Were The Women”?

For many years, it seemed that the institutional Church was content to ignore the unfolding stories of widespread sexual abuse by priests, or at best to address only the specific problems of individual perpetrators and the pain of victims. Recently, as the scale of the problems expands (Switzerland is the latest country reported to be investigating complaints) numerous observers have remarked on how swiftly the tone has changed, with an increasing number of high ranking prelates starting to talk about the real issues contributing to the enabling environment. Just in the past few days, Cardinals from Austria (Schonborn) and Brazil (Hummes) have been calling into question the rigid rule on compulsory celibacy.

Times have changed, and society too, and the Church will have to consider how this type of life can be maintained or what it has to change,” Salzburg Archbishop Alois Kothgasser said on Austria’s ORF television on Thursday evening.

In a diocesan newsletter, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna said the Church had to ask difficult questions about the abuse scandals. “That includes the issue of celibacy and the personal development” of priests, he wrote.


The Catholic Church is studying ways to loosen the centuries-old requirement that priests abstain from sex in an effort to rebuild its image in the wake of pedophile scandals, Rome-based la Repubblica reported today. Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, who once said “celibacy is not a dogma,” is in charge of the project as head the congregation of the clergy, according to the report.

Business Week

Outside the ranks of the powerful others have been calling for greater lay participation in the selection and oversight of their bishops.

Now, right at the heart of the Vatican, the newspaper L’Osservatore Romano is suggesting that it is time to revisit that other church bugbear – the place of women. The article does not call for women’s ordination, mind – it stresses the old discredited “separate but equal” argument. still, it has the honesty to admit that up to now, we have had separate but not equal, and calls for this to change. I was personally interested to see the use of an argument I made in a comment here at the OT, in the thread relating to women’s ordination: that at one time, the Church was ahead of society in the place and status it gave to women. In modern tmies however, as women have made giant advances in the secular world, the Church has fallen behind.

Now, I do not for a second believe that the sudden upsurge of institutional concern about the growing number of complaints of sexual abuse will lead any time soon to married priests, full female inclusion, or democratic election of bishops. I do think however, that it is significant that these issues are now being raised, and raised by ecclesiastical insiders, and no longer just the progressive fringe. For years, the official position was that these were sacred cows, which could not even be discussed. That approach is simply no longer tenable. they must be discussed, and will be discussed, more and more frankly. As he scale of internal disagreements becomes clear, the path to genuine reform will become open. The important remaining question is not “Will there be reform?”, but “When?”. Will it arrive in time to stave off a full scale revolt, in a new Reformation?

(These extracts from L’Osservatore are taken from an English translation posted at Whispers in the Loggia, where you can read the full article):

The changes in Western society that have allowed women to occupy spaces previously reserved only to men — changes that are influencing other cultures in the world — have provoked a revolution in the configuration of gender roles, also placing before the Catholic church the question of enlarging the role of women. It brings up a problem of equality on which the Christian tradition has been quite clear since its origins, sparking an authentic revolution in the clashes over ways of conceiving sexual differences. In its time, this radical change originated contemporaneously with the feminist revolution in Western society. But if, in centuries past, the church showed itself more open than the secular world in confronting the issue of woman, today the situation is turned on its head, and the external and internal pressure is strong and urgent for the Catholic world to tackle it.

John Paul II’s Mulieris dignitatem indeed reminded us that women must be attributed roles of equal importance, albeit of different nature, to those of men in the life of the Church, a principle likewise recalled by Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in hisLetter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and the World.

The problem, however, is that this important theoretical articulation was not also followed up with as clear a transformation in the female participation in the life of the church, or at least, a participation which, even if significantly broadened, has been almost always kept outside the spheres of decision-making, and the areas of cultural expression.

One example suffices: in the sorrowing and shameful situations in which the molestation and sexual abuse by ecclesiastics on the young entrusted to them come to light, we can hypothesize that a greater, non-subordinated feminine presence would have been able to rip the veil of the code of masculine silence [“omertà”] that in the past often covered over in silence the denunciation of misdeeds. Indeed, women, religious and lay, would be by nature more inclined to the defense of the young in cases of sexual abuse, ridding the church of the evils that these guilty attitudes have procured for it.

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3 Responses to “Vatican Paper Asks: “Where Were The Women”?”

  1. Phillip Clark Says:

    It is unfortunate that under these specific and highly detestable circumstances that the Church’s dirty laundry has been exposed for all to see, but perhaps this is how the Reformation of our era is supposed to begin.

    It is greatly encouraging to see such high ranking prelates expressing dismay at the current norms regarding priestly celibacy within the Latin rite and how this could be the very cause behind all of these issues involving children.

    I hope and pray that amidst all of this sorrow and turmoil, the torrential storm of secrecy and sin within the Church might be calmed and give way to true, geunine, and comprehensive reform and renewal of the universal Church at all its levels.

  2. Phillip Clark Says:

    Also, it’s very promising and extremely signifigant that this question regarding how all of these issues might have been handled differently if women were somehow involved in upper-level Church decision making has been made on the pages of L’Osservatore Romano no less! Let’s hope that this leads to a more open and inclusive debate on the roles that women should play in the spirit of the Gospel within the Church today.

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      Phillip, as John McNeill regularly reminds me in these comments threads, he has been writing for years about the theology of the fallible church – the idea that out of the obvious faults and weaknesses of the Church, the Holy Spirit is working to transform it and created something new. We are, he says, in a true Kairos moment. The evidence is mounting daily just how right he is.

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