Just last week, reports surfaced of yet another community of innocents whom predatory priests have been preying upon for decades, this time communities of nuns who now are defying cultural expectations to share stories of assault, rape, abortions, AIDS-related illnesses and ecclesial impassivity bordering on abandonment. The torrent of reports is as heartbreaking as it is infuriating.
However, it is not about the guilt of clergy that this brief commentary concerns itself; rather, it is a call to the lay population of the Church—especially lay leaders and insiders— to engage in a process of self-reflection and to contemplate any abandonment of the ‘straight path’ in our individual lives. I am, of course, not accusing the lay population of the crimes that continue to roil the Church, nor am I suggesting that the malfeasance of the credibly accused and convicted should taint those who are sincerely attempting to bring light and reform to the institutional body. However, while there is justifiable condemnation of abuse and complicity, we the laity must also look to ourselves and consider our own attitudes and behaviors with regard to currents of sexism, racism and classism that so bedevil society still.
Permit me to draw on Dante and his “divine’ journey,” which was not simply some fantastic narrative of an individual navigating the spiritual realms of the soul; rather, it was the anguished contemplation of a troubled man who finally had come to recognize that while he had always been swift to judge and censure the failures of so many others, including the Church, he had not really considered his own participation in the moral and cultural upheaval that vexed Florence and its environs at the time.
It is with Dante’s own reckoning in mind that we should reflect on one of the great failings of the Church and society; that is, the prejudicial disregard of women. That failing finds ample corroboration in much of contemporary society as well as in the Church and thus, it may be argued, that lay Catholic men (and some women) may be just as much at fault as clergy in sustaining an ontological distinction of the sexes, asserting secondary status to the female in all significant ways. For example, Pope Francis has made clear his categorical rejection of an equal presence of women in the Church, and yet even he had to confess the ugly reality of decades-long predatory abuse of nuns by priests and bishops. However, he did so to a strikingly quiet audience, and within 24 hours of the Pope’s comments, the Vatican issued another statement—a fervent clarification of the rhetorical turn of the Pope, pulling back comments about the ‘sexual slavery’ to which nuns in the global Church (including Europe) had been subjected, and falling into a miasma of sophistry that asserted that the “slavery” to which Francis had referred should rather more properly be understood as “manipulation” or a simple type of abuse of power. The statement was as embarrassing as it was hypocritical.
Such collusions of misogyny of course confound the moral status of the Church and, to some degree, modern society. Can modern institutions populated by male leaders (and some few women) proffer any claim about universal human dignity while separating out women (and girls) as something “other” and therefore lacking any claim to be heard or validated? That there are so many (lay) men (and some women) who do not even consider misogyny a moral failure but simply a caricatured ‘battle of the sexes” points to a fundamental flaw in the moral foundation of society as well as the Church. As long as a certain population of clerical and lay men (and some women) sustains by word, deed or implication, the premise of a distinct ontology for men and another (inferior) for women, then all claims of moral restitution ring hollow.
As a result, there are many lay women in the Church who are no more sanguine about the role and agenda of lay men (howsoever self-styled “progressive”) in the “rebuilding” of the Church (and perhaps society?) than they are about any shift in understanding on the part of clerical leaders. As long as there is still inherent in the secular as well as clerical cultures a disposition to accord men an essential primary of place, there can be no sustained and meaningful rectification of abuses perpetrated by clergy, because in both secular and religious cultures, men have still been granted a metaphysical authority over women… and so everyone.
Perhaps an authentic reconstruction of the Church can only occur when everyone is willing to “dive deeply” as did Dante, and become fully self-aware, not simply about obvious tendencies but about the entrenched beliefs that guide daily lives.
June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.