Women's role in church not likely to change with new pope


We are about to witness again in the coming months the most lavish imperial splendour surviving in the modern world: the election and inauguration of a new pope of the Roman Catholic Church, whether on the steps of St Peter’s Basilica or within the basilica itself, with rows upon rows of prelates in scarlet red, the golden instruments, and the placing of the pallium, woven from wool from sheep raised by Trappist monks, on the shoulders of the new pontiff.

And not a woman in sight, except among the excited audience restrained behind barriers on St Peter’s Square.

The pope will have been chosen by 137 overeducated and undersensitised elderly men, all chosen by the two previous popes for membership of the College of Cardinals. The prelates, we will be assured, will have been guided by the Holy Spirit in their enclosed election conclave that will outdo a Fianna Fáil selection convention for intrigue and machination.

Again, no woman in sight.

Pockets of obedience

The spectacle will remind the audience of tens of thousands in person, and hundreds of millions on television, of the pontiff’s unfettered authority, distracting from the diminished authority of the pope among the “faithful” and “faithless”, aside from pockets of obedience, notably in Latin America, parts of Asia and the Philippines.

It may have been the contraceptive pill that did most to diminish the authority of the pontiff among the “faithful” for it prompted the revolt of the ranks of previously obedient women to papal stricture, preferring their own autonomous consciences to the dictates of a male celibate priesthood.

But the revelation of complicity by the highest echelons of the church in the buggery, rape and molestation of children caused a collapse of respect and of much of the surviving subservience.

However, the church remains a powerful cultural influence across societies, especially in how it engenders and perpetuates patriarchy and the misogyny it engenders and perpetuates. Aided and abetted of course by other factors.

The depth of that misogyny is most apparent in the manner in which the most strident defenders of the church, against that charge, argue the defence. They speak of how crucial women are in the liturgy, in the increasing role they play in ceremony, even in the administration of Communion, in how intellectually women are now much respected in church academia, in how women were powerful figures in the church especially prior to the Reformation.

A respected Catholic theologian recently told me of how influential women such as Catherine of Siena were within the church in the middle ages. She was nominated patron saint of Italy in 1940 and a doctor of the church in 1970. Pope John Paul II declared her patron saint of Europe in 1999. Catherine of Siena was courageously outspoken but was probably delusional (she believed she had a mystical marriage with Jesus, from whom she believed she received Communion).

Women are excluded of course from the priesthood. This is the office that supposedly has the power to transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, the office that has the moral authority to hand down and, where possible, enforce, the moral precepts of that religion, that has the power to forgive sin or to withhold forgiveness.

The priest is also the person to whom Catholics must go to confess their most intimate thoughts and most shameful deeds.

That women should be excluded from such office signifies more eloquently than almost anything else their inferiority within the orders of humankind. And none of the condescending blather of how important women are in the eyes of the church diminishes that.

The church did not invent patriarchy, nor did any religion. Very probably that arose from the emergence of the phenomenon of private property. Men felt the need to know who their progeny were, so as to be sure their property went to their offspring, hence the need for men to control women, especially the need for men to control women’s sexuality.

Control of women

Or at least patriarchy was stepped up several levels with the emergence of private property. And in the enculturation of society into patriarchy, religion became a crucial device. That explains, I think, how the Bible became the handbook for the control of women.

The new pontiff will be an ideological clone of the two previous popes – as all the electors of the new pope have been created electors by the two previous popes. There is a chance that the new pope might be spared Benedict XVI’s obsession with Islam, although that obsession led him into interesting insights concerning his views on Christianity.

In that speech early in his pontificate in which he denigrated Islam, he argued Islam was merely a religion of the book, whereas Christianity was a religion of the book and of reason, for it was a fusion of the teachings of Christ and of Greek philosophy.

Itself a curious concession for a pontiff.

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