It seems virginity is popular. Of all my post-Christmas posts, my little reflection on ‘The church, women, and the cult of virginity’ has got the biggest response. No surprise, I suppose, since anything to do with sex attracts attention. But I think a better explanation for its popularity is that people agree with what I wrote. The Catholic Church’s seeming fixation with sex, and with female virginity, resonates with a lot of readers. This obsession is fundamentally about the exercise (by celibate males) of power and control. Think about the ‘churching’ of new mothers, a type of ritual purification women had to go through shortly after childbirth. Think about the shame and shaming of unmarried mothers and how so many of these women were treated in the not so recent past, while the men involved suffered no major repercussions. Women were ‘fallen,’ men were not. It wasn’t just a church obsession but a societal one too.
Confession has been used for a similar purpose. In some places it still is. Asking intrusive questions, seeking intimate details, about what a penitent did or did not do, or what the penitent thought or did not think, was a method of control. It was and is an abuse of a beautiful sacrament. It is extraordinary how many (primarily) older people are crippled with scruples or worried about ‘bad thoughts’ or minor infractions which occurred long ago but that continue to torment them. In church teaching and preaching, there was a negative attitude toward sex and sexuality. Sex within marriage was understood as something functional, mechanical, cold; an activity to be endured rather than enjoyed. Sex, and anything to do with it, was dirty. And so any expression of sexual intimacy induced tremendous feelings of guilt.
But sex is good and our sexuality used constructively is a beautiful thing. Our sexuality is a gift from God and so is something wonderful. It is no coincidence that Pope Francis writes about the ‘joy’ of love.
The ‘MeToo’ movement is about women demanding respect. It is insisting that (powerful) men treat women and their bodies with the dignity that is their right. That we need a movement such as MeToo in the 21st century is sad. That the church needs to examine its language about sex and sexual morality is also not only necessary but urgent.
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.