Lessons for the Church from the Weinsten affair

The Harvey Weinstein scandal has given women permission to speak out about sexually inappropriate behaviour by men in a way we haven’t heard before. For years Weinstein’s sordid activities were hidden in plain view. Many were aware of his reputation, but his power and money enabled him to threaten or pay off his accusers. No doubt he felt invincible. But now that the dam has burst, more and more women, no longer cowed, are coming forward to share their experience of sexual abuse and harassment. And those powerful men who knew or suspected what was going on have begun to sheepishly express regret for their failure to act.
Harvey Weinstein isn’t the first media heavyweight to fall. Fox News has paid out tens of millions of dollars to employees who were sexually harassed by former CEO Roger Ailes and talk show host, Bill O’Reilly. Author and political analyst Mark Halperin has been fired following claims by five women of sexual harassment during his time with ABC News. Almost daily, it seems, new names are added to the list. Women have found their voice and are speaking out like never before.
Allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards women have also been made against Donald Trump, who was heard on tape talking about women in a way that should have automatically disqualified him from office. The Access Hollywood tape, he claimed, was “just locker room talk,” as if that made it acceptable.
Women have always been treated thus. The beauty, fashion, and advertising industries continue to objectify women. A woman cannot wear what she chooses without being told it’s her fault if anything sinister happens to her. And while there’s no doubting the tremendous progress the women’s movement has made in the last century, many still do not feel safe walking or travelling alone, and are judged, and not just in Hollywood, on their looks rather than on their qualifications and professionalism. Put a lascivious man alone in a room with a woman and we know who’s got the power.
As a man, I am ashamed of the way our sex treats women. I am ashamed of the hurt and fear that men have caused women. I apologise if I have ever looked at or treated a woman in any way that could be interpreted as sexist or degrading.
As a man who is also a Roman Catholic priest, I feel even more ashamed, not only because of individual priests’ sins against women and the vulnerable, but also because our church as institution offends women.
When one considers the role of women in the Catholic Church, some things are obvious. Women not only make up a large majority of weekly church-goers, they play the primary role in handing on the faith. Traditionally, women have done much of the church’s dirty work. Think of religious education (nuns); parish administration (secretaries); upkeep of churches (altar societies and Martha Ministers), care of priests (housekeepers and helpers). If women downed tools the church would scarcely be able to function. But because they love the church, not only do they continue to occupy the pews every Sunday, women also serve on parish pastoral councils, teach religion, study theology, do voluntary work, and assist at Mass.
The commitment of so many women is extraordinary given that only the ordained are allowed make the big decisions in the Catholic Church – and the ordained are men. Women are without power. The Catholic Church is the last great Western institution that systematically discriminates against women. That will always be the case as long as power is bound up with ordination rather than with baptism.
It is not enough to pay lip service to the dignity and vocation of women in the church, as church leaders do. Equal involvement in the life of the church is not a privilege women must earn but a right that belongs to them by virtue of their creation in the image of God and their cooperation into Christ through baptism. I am ashamed that women are treated as second class members of my church. In condemning the appalling behaviour of Harvey Weinstein and his ilk, we clerics must also acknowledge our church’s shameful treatment of women and demand that it be addressed.

 

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We need equality for women in the church

Yesterday was Women’s Equality Day, a day set aside to celebrate the progress women have made in their struggle for equality and also to recognize the very many challenges women still face in achieving full equality with the males of the species.

It’s hard to believe that one hundred years ago, women in most western countries did not have the right to vote. Now the United States is on the verge of electing its first female president. It’s hard to believe that less than 50 years ago, Irish women had to leave the civil service once they started a family. And while more and more women are fighting their way up the corporate and political ladders in more and more countries, there is still an enormous amount of work to be done before there is anything like full equality with men. Hollywood leading ladies are still paid substantially less than their male counterparts. Female sports stars get less recognition and reward than the men. The same is true of so many other sectors, organizations, and industries.

It is most certainly true of the Catholic Church.

It took me years before I noticed the maleness of the leadership of the church. During my youth and seminary days, I was oblivious to it, as I’m sure most others were too. Altars and sanctuaries and seminaries and synods were men only because only men could be ordained, and only men had authority in the church. I didn’t question it; it was just the way things were. And then I began to not only notice it but to become embarrassingly aware of it, especially at big liturgical events where there were lots of clergy. Here were all these men in splendid vestments assembled in solemn procession or gathered around an altar and not a woman in sight. And I wondered how that made women in the congregation feel. Some women, of course, fail to notice it or have no problem with it, but for many others it is a source of great pain. Now I do not concelebrate at Mass at all, if I have the choice. I do not want to add to the maleness of the celebration. So I prefer to sit in the pews with the people of God.

Church leaders routinely speak about the equality of women, yet a few years ago they introduced a new English translation of the liturgy that is sexist in its language and gratuitously insulting to women. The sexist language could easily have been avoided but those in charge chose not to. It boggles the mind.

The church emphasizes the importance of the family, yet at the two sessions of the Synod on the Family, which concluded last year, there was just a few women, and none at all who had voting rights. It’s hard to imagine how you can have a real debate about family and family life in the 21st century if women aren’t part of the debate.

The real problem, of course, is that power in the church is bound up with holy orders, which is limited to males. At local level, the parish priest is the ultimate authority. He can ignore the wishes of the parish council if he wants, and there’s nothing they can do about it. The leadership of the church in every diocese and in every country is male. In the hierarchical institution that is the church, lay people are at the bottom of the ladder, and because women are women and cannot be ordained, every woman is at the bottom of the ladder. Unless power is separated from priesthood, or women are allowed to be ordained, the fact is women can never have full equality with men in the Catholic Church.

One significant hopeful move towards a greater say for women in the church is the decision by Pope Francis to set up a commission to took at women deacons. Another positive step is that 50 percent of its members are female. Nothing may come of this commission, but the very fact that it was set up in the first place is a most welcome development.

I do not know if I will be alive to celebrate the day when women in the church will have full equality with men, but I hope I do. It would be wonderful to see a sanctuary populated with women as well as men, and to hear their voices as equals and partners. It would truly bring new life to this trembling church of ours.