The Vatican has now clarified—ordaining women is not quite as grave a crime as raping children.
On Thursday, the Vatican issued revisions to church law making it easier to punish pedophile priests, a welcome development. Yet it shocked much of the world by including, in its list of “more grave delicts,” not just the sexual abuse of children and the possession of child pornography, but also the attempted ordination of women priests. At the same time, the new rules have nothing to say about priests who fail to respond adequately to reports of sexual abuse. (If they did, writes Thomas Doyle in The National Catholic Reporter, they “would obviously nail the majority of U.S. bishops, both retired and active.”)
The church treated protecting its own norms about sex and gender as more important than protecting the children under its care.
On Friday, amid widespread outrage, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, who helped formulate the new rules, tried to walk back any suggestion of equivalency between female ordination and pederasty, telling Reuters that while both canonical crimes are listed in the same document, “this does not put them on the same level or assign them the same gravity.”
Hidden in all the uproar was an unfortunate truth. It would actually be a step forward if the church were to assign the same gravity to the sexual violation of children as it has to violations of its rigid doctrines on gender. Compare the church’s sluggish, defensive, obfuscatory record on sex abuse with its zealous prosecution of dissent against the all-male celibate priesthood. It’s been quite clear for a long time where its priorities lay.
Throughout the last two papacies, even as pedophile priests were coddled and protected, clergy and theologians who drifted away from church orthodoxy, particularly on sexual matters, have been hounded. “From the very beginning of his pontificate John Paul II decided to systematically crush dissent by Catholic theologians and to marginalize critics so they would no longer stir up unwanted discussion within the Church,” wrote Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi in their biography of Pope John Paul II, His Holiness. “With the appointment of Joseph Ratzinger”—the current pope—“as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in November 1981, it became clear that this was official policy.”
Father Charles Curran, a professor at the Catholic University of America, was removed from his post and barred from teaching theology as a result of questioning church teachings on contraception, divorce, and homosexuality. Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle came under investigation for allowing the gay Catholic group Dignity to celebrate mass, among other infractions. As Bernstein and Politi reported, Hunthausen was subjected to a two-year investigation, which included interviews with 70 witnesses from his diocese and a 13-hour interrogation. He eventually retired early. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is currently engaged in a sweeping investigation of American nuns, apparently because they’re seen as insufficiently conservative.
Had similar inquisitorial energy been spent on rooting out abusive priests, far fewer children’s lives would have been blighted. But it wasn’t—perhaps because conservatives worried that sex abuse scandals would call priestly celibacy and the exclusion of women into question. As the historian Garry Wills wrote in his book Papal Sins, “For a priest to be a pedophile raises the question whether the celibate discipline for a whole class of men (not just for the spiritually gifted individual) is a false, because unrealizable, ideal.” Thus the church treated protecting its own norms about sex and gender as more important than protecting the children under its care.
Though the church denies it, the ban on women priests is deeply rooted in misogyny. “Since any supremacy of rank cannot be expressed in the female sex, which has the status of an inferior, that sex cannot receive ordination,” declared Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century Catholic theological giant. Women, Wills reminds us, were long seen as too profoundly impure to come near the church altar. Hence the tradition of castrating boys to sing soprano in Catholic choirs, a tradition that lingered into the beginning of the 20th century.
The case of the castrati is instructive, since it demonstrates the Vatican’s historic willingness to sanction true perversity in the interest of male supremacy. There is, as yet, not much indication that that has changed.
Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.