The recent reaction by the Vatican to an association of American nuns, for “spending too much time on poverty and social justice concerns”, reinforces many of the points I’ve been expressing about organized religion. Just when a believer argues that oppressive church practices aren’t relevant any longer, something comes bubbling to the surface, such as the Pope condemning gay marriage, or in the case of this most recent controversy, women not following orders. Granted, we aren’t living in a world where the church can persecute under pain of death, those that don’t follow the script, nevertheless, these practices impact lives negatively.
You see nuns, who devote no more or less to a life of religious devotion than do their male counterparts, are essentially considered second class citizens in their own religion. To take a position politically, socially, or religiously that differs with that of a bishop or any other male religious figure, is unaccepted according to the Vatican, because men are the only “authentic teachers of faith and morals” in Catholicism.
Take a second to allow this blatant sexism to wash over you and consider, that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), who is comprised of about 50,000 American nuns, has taken a more modern stance on the question of abortion, how to politically help the poor, gay and lesbian rights, as well as women’s rights in general. In this seemingly positive undertaking, that happens to somehow stray, with semi-autonomous inclinations, from what the Vatican perceives are the issues of the day, they are being condemned and forced to acquiesce to church doctrine. In fact, the Pope has placed a council of high ranking American bishops and Archbishops to “reform” the statutes and policies of the LCWR, in a way that suits the Vatican.
None of this should surprise any of us, but what is surprising is that men like the Pope, during an age when organized religion is waning, cannot comprehend that policies like this, that are exclusory in their categorization of women, are not helping to stuff the ranks with future Catholics. In fact, it’s antiquated philosophies like this, that do much to drive people away from Catholicism, in favor of something less strict and less….old in thought.
It is the 21st century, and a woman still cannot be ordained as a priest. I can’t fathom what the explanation for that might be, outside of reciting the aforementioned stance of the Vatican, which states that bishops (i.e. men) are the “authentic teachers of faith and morals.” Authentic in what way? What gives them moral supremacy? I don’t need to remind the reader about the sexual misconduct that has come to light in recent years, regarding priests. It would be a gross exaggeration to imply that all priests behave this way, but in referencing this misconduct, it illuminates the absurdity of claiming that male priests have some kind of authentic claim to morality and faith. This of course I don’t find at all surprising; repressing the natural sexual urges one has as a human being, is in fact unnatural, and therefore it shouldn’t shock us to learn that men are infallible and can, break under the stress. That’s not a justification of child molestation or rape. I’m merely underscoring the inanity of sexual abstention, and how it can in fact, lead to dangerous consequences.
This patriarchal slant has a deep history, and it begins with a cultural shift. Ancient societies, almost unanimously, used to worship some version of the Goddess. Women were considered sacred because of their ability to give birth. This is of course where we find our foundation for the term, Mother Earth or Mother Nature (nature actually coming from the Latin word, natura, which means birth or character). During this time women held an equal, if not superior, place in society, participating in politics, leading religious ceremonies as priestesses, and generally enjoying a mutual respect, if not reverence, for what they meant to the continuation of life. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans created incarnations of the Mother Goddess, and it was SHE that was worshiped as the creator of all things. The symbolic import of the earth’s fertility, fecundity, and agricultural bounty, was also a metaphor for the birth-giving abilities of woman, affording her a power and influence that many would argue, she still doesn’t enjoy again, to this day.
As the human species evolved, and more and more cultures found themselves living nomadic lifestyles that presented ubiquitous existential threats, a psychological shift began to occur, dominated by the theory that women were not strong enough to fight off potential threats, and that it was in fact man, with his brute force and ability to wage war, that should be celebrated and revered. These cultures, with their emphasis on war, began promoting the ascension of male deities as symbols of power. The brutality of life could no longer afford to be viewed under the influence and guidance of a feminine spirit. It simply didn’t make sense anymore. And so gradually, the Goddess was purged, not completely, as we still have incarnations of her in the Bible, such as the character Mary and her experience of the virgin birth. So while the male God came to represent the creator and mover of all things, the Goddess was not completely expunged. She was, however, relegated to a lesser role. This seemingly harmless and logical evolution (or devolution depending on your perspective) has had severe consequences that we, and women in particular, are still feeling.
Once the male God took precedence, the place of the real world woman became one of less import. Her sole purpose in the eyes of patriarchal society, was to give birth and raise children. Her influence was extirpated; she could no longer participate in politics, societal decisions, or religious ceremonies. She was to become a second class citizen. And this influence was so vast that the authors of the Old Testament, when dealing with the issue of evil and its entrance into the world, made women the initial deceiver of men. It was through Eve that the serpent (which oddly enough in older myths was considered a creature of wisdom, but in Christianity became the possessor of knowledge with a penchant for deception) coerced humanity into tasting the forbidden fruit, thereby explaining why we were cast out of Eden. Man, as the “Old Testes” told it, was merely an innocent bystander, thwarted by woman, as he still is to this day.
And with Christianity’s popularity, and eventually that of Islam, women have found their lot in life, increasingly belittled. Believers will claim that this history no longer applies to modern Christianity or Islam, but that’s not true. The Vatican’s response to the American nuns, who dare to profess their own agendas and perspectives on what they think should take precedence, proves that the church is still the repressive institution it has always been. If that were it, it would be offensive and backwards enough. The fact is, this mentality originates from mythological and superstitious beliefs, and is in no way founded on any intrinsic right or logical principle. How any rational thinker, unbiased and unbound by theological prejudice, could imagine that these ideas can dictate the plight of women, is at once staggering and frightening. I’m uncertain what’s worse, the fact that the Pope and his entourage believe this to be just, or that millions of people have been indoctrinated to the point that they miss the contradiction all together? The Pope believes Catholic women aren’t allowed to think for themselves or make decisions about church policy. It is “unacceptable” to go against doctrine. So I’d ask a believer to explain to me the foundation for this perverse manner of thought? What, if not for something biblical (which should be considered in the appropriate historical context referenced above) would give the impression to men like the Pope and other Catholic leaders, that women aren’t capable of making decisions about the church? Why is it “unacceptable” for them to challenge, critique, and influence Catholic policy?
To me this is just another example of an outdated institution, that does not understand the modern world, and rigidly refuses to evolve. It would prefer to adhere to discriminating policies, based on nothing more than superstition, and the inconsistent writings that date back two millennia. I say this constantly, but it bears repeating- why don’t more people, particularly women, know the history of this institution and say thanks, but I’d prefer equality? Is the fear that strong that it can blind them from seeing the obvious hypocrisy, deceit, injustice, cruelty, and oppression? This latest attempt to silence and “reform” a group of nuns that are collectively attacking issues they believe are relevant, at no expense or threat to the Pope or Catholic teachings, should inspire outrage from all people, but particularly the female community. Instead of working to dissuade independent thought, or to persecute those who strive to question the church’s direction, wouldn’t the Vatican’s efforts be better spent, helping people who need it, with an understanding and gracious spirit, inclusive and not exclusive in nature, much like the man/God in whom they allege to emulate?
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