Women and the Papacy

The Papacy is not other than the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.”

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Lots of people think they know how the Pope should be running the show. That explains the abundance of suggestions he’s received in the last couple years. First it’s a bunch of women trying to tell him what should be done about celibacy and then it’s a couple of renegade clerics supported by assorted priests. Collectively they are all thorns in the Pope’s crown.

On March 28, 2010, a Lettera aperta a Benedetto XVI was published in Il Dialogo in Italy. The letter was signed by forty women who were speaking out against the Church’s insistence that priests be celibate. The letter was apparently precipitated by a brief exchange between Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, and Vatican spokespeople. In his archdiocesan magazine in early March 2010 the Cardinal said that the question of priest celibacy and the question of personality development needed to be looked at by the Vatican. The Vatican said that the Cardinal’s comment had been misinterpreted and the Cardinal’s spokesman said the Cardinal was not “not any way seeking to challenge the Catholic Church’s celibacy rule” The women were uniquely well suited to comment on the rule since all of them were in relationships with non-celibate priests. These relationships, like the relationships many priests have had with children, are equally disapproved of by the Vatican. The letter was very respectful.

The women began by identifying themselves as women “from all parts of Italy, who have lived or are still living in a relationship with a priest. . . .” They said that the rule of celibacy “is being maintained without addressing the fundamental rights of people. . . The contempt with which they have attempted for centuries and in recent statements to silence the cry of men and women who have suffered in the already tattered shroud of mandatory celibacy hurts us.” Celibacy, they said, has nothing to do with the “scriptures in general, or with the Gospels in particular, or with Jesus, who never spoke about it.” They said that economic interest and expediency motivated the church in introducing celibacy into the priesthood and subequently it was “marinated in a certain amount of misogyny and hostility toward the body, psychological drives and its primary needs.” An online search does not disclose whether the Pope had the time or inclination to respond to the letter. He probably didn’t. But the annoying problem of women’s relationship to the church continues.

In May 2011, William Morris, the Bishop of Toowoomba, Australia was forced to resign his post, a post he had held since 1992. What was described as his forced resignation was the result of having addressed the shortage of priests in his diocese in an Advent letter he wrote in 2006 in which he said, among other things, that in order to increase the number of priests available to serve congregants, the church should consider ordaining women and married men. The Pope told Bishop Morris that the ban on ordaining women was infallible and gave Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado an all expense paid trip to Australia to investigate Bishop Morris. (Bishop Chaput was an excellent choice to conduct the investigation. He was the prelate who during the 2004 presidential election said anyone who voted for John Kerry was committing a sin for which he/she would have to confess before receiving communion since Senator Kerry supported a woman’s right to choose. He is now the Archbishop of Philadelphia where he has a bigger pulpit from which to preach his brand of Christian tolerance.) The results of the investigation were not surprising and Archbishop Morris was removed in May.

Father Bourgeois is a priest who is a member of the Maryknoll religious order. In 2008 he participated in the ordination of a woman conducted by a group known as the Roman Catholic Womenpriests. In response to his participation he received a letter from the Vatican telling him to recant or face excommunication. (The women were automatically excommunicated.) He responded to the Vatican in a lengthy missive to which he, like the writers of the a lettera received no reply. In late 2008 he was excommunicated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith but not dismissed from the Maryknolls. However, in 2011 the Maryknolls sent him the first, of two required demands, that he recant or face dismissal from the order. He has not recanted. He has found support.

In July, 157 Roman Catholic priests sent a letter to the superior general of Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers supporting Father Bourgeois “and his right to speak from his conscience.” (The National Council of Priests of Australia were more outspoken in complaining of Bishop Morris’s dismissal. They said it was influenced by people who “have limited pastoral experience.”)

When first confronted by the Vatican following his participation in the ordination, Father Bourgeois said: “Who are we as men to say that we are called by God to the ministry of priesthood, but women are not.” Now that he’s been excommunicated he has the answer- the Pope. He should let Bishop Morris know.

Christopher Brauchli is an attorney living in Boulder, Colorado. He can be e-mailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.

Christopher Brauchli can be e-mailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu. For political commentary see his web page at http://humanraceandothersports.com