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The Vatican and women: Beyond sex, lies and scandals

Although the new Pope is seen as a reformer, equality for women clearly isn't on the agenda.

Last Modified: 26 May 2013 18:39
Marwan Bishara

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.
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Pope Francis so far has refused to acquiesce to advancing women into the priesthood [AP]

In light of the historic resignation of one pope and the election of another, Empire has travelled to Rome asking after the future of the Catholic Church as it bleeds worshipers and loses influence. As we take stock of the new Pope's priorities, it's clear that the role of the women in Church isn't one of them.

Ever since the 4th century Christianisation of the Roman Empire, which gave birth to an imperial Vatican, the Church has had a global reach like no other.

The Vatican has enjoyed religious authority worldwide, directly controlling more than a million bishops and nuns who are followed by 1.2 billion worshipers: more than any other Christian sect.

However, in recent decades, the Church has been losing the faithful at an alarming rate.

In Latin America, the home of half a billion Catholics, the Church has been losing more than a million adherents each year.

And in North America, US bishops closed down 1,373 churches from 1995 to 2010, according to Jason Berry, author of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church - that's more than one parish per week for fifteen years.

While there's been a surge of believers in Africa and Asia, the Church has lost even more in Europe, including in Italy, which has witnessed a two thirds-drop among churchgoers over the last several decades.

Sex abuse scandals

There is little doubt that the latest sex abuse scandals have played a major role in shrinking the Church's membership and undermining its credibility.

In a recent New York Times article "Beyond the Bedroom", columnist Frank Bruni argued that, "It's on matters of sexual morality that the church has lost much of its authority. And it's on matters of sexual morality that it largely wastes its breath."

And that's true to a large degree, Ending mandatory celibacy would go a long way to deal with much of the hypocrisy witnessed over the years. It would also confirm the Church's pronounced commitment to the family and so-called "family values".

However, sexual matters in all forms - abusive, excessive, "sinful" - are symptoms of a greater problem facing not only the Vatican but also the other organised Abrahamic faiths.

The problem is the monopolisation of power among old men who are unwilling to change any aspect of religion or matter of faith.

Indeed, it's the absence of women from the all decisive and leadership roles that sets up the antiquated Vatican and other organised religions against progress.

Keeping the women down

Within the church, it's the hundreds of thousands of nuns that are the true global foot soldiers for the Catholic empire.

They staff and "man" healthcare centres, hospitals, schools, and orphanages in mostly impoverished Catholic societies around the world where people earn on average less than $2 a day.

Catholics hope new pope will restore order

But women can't ever reach senior positions in the church. They can't become priests, let alone cardinals or popes: positions that determine the governance of the church and the articulation of its doctrines.

The Vatican has rejected pleas by one umbrella group that represents most American nuns to include women "in all ministries of our church", including the priesthood.

Instead, the Vatican accused the "Leadership Conference of Women Religious" last year of numerous grave breaches of doctrine and decorum.

According to news reports, the Vatican has rebuked the organised nuns for spending extra time "promoting issues of social justice" and not enough time speaking about "issues of crucial importance to the life of the church and society", such as abortion and gay marriage.

The new, conservative Pope Francis has thus far shown himself to be more humble and open than his predecessor. But avid observers I spoke with in Rome don't see him as an advocate of equality for women in the Church.

It's no coincidence then that American nuns are also leaving the church in record numbers, according to Catholic World News. Their number has dropped from 180,000 nuns in 1965 to 75,000 in 2002, and to 56,000 today. They are expected to drop to well below 40,000 by 2020.

Democratising the Church

The Church has long made humanitarianism, at least in theory, a hallmark of its Christian mission. But the humanitarian surely begins with fairness and equality to half of humanity: women.

It is common sense that women who make up the majority of the Church's worshipers, should have equal influence over a church in crisis and incapable of truly reforming itself.

Strangely, the Church recognises hundreds of women as "Saints" for their "great deeds or meritorious conduct", yet won't recognise them as priests or cardinals.

Many women have lost their lives in defence of the faith, but they aren't entrusted with the bureaucracy of the Church.

Just as women are breaking the glass ceiling everywhere to become ever more influential in most fields, the Vatican is lowering the ceiling on its own.

But Pope Francis who comes from a predominantly Catholic country knows all too well that Argentina and its neighbours Brazil and Chile - all influential Latin American nations - have been led by democratically elected women, Kirchner, Dilma, and Bachelet, respectively.

Why not the Vatican? Why should it remain an exclusive club for men?

It's hardly revolutionary to argue that progressive and feminist voices are ever more needed - on all levels of authority - to undo the terrible imbalances and abuses of power in the church.

In fact, only such infusion could truly save the church from its own excesses and better prepare it to deal with modernity. And I don't mean dealing with issues limited to women such as contraception, but rather the broader challenges facing the church in the 21st century.

And this is a bottom-up struggle as it is a top-down necessity.

While I am not sure that nuns can or even want to liberalise the church, I am certain women are more likely to be progressive and fair than the men currently controlling and, in some cases, abusing the power of the Vatican's bureaucracy, the Curia.

Alas, lack of fairness and equality isn't limited only to the Vatican. After all, a woman cannot become Pontiff for the same reason that she can't become an Ayatollah, a Chief Rabbi, head of Al Azhar, or a Patriarch: it's about old men controlling powerful institutions in the name of god.

Remember, power has no religion.

Tune in to catch this episode of Empire, which can be seen from Sunday, May 26, at the following times GMT:

Sunday: 20:00; Monday: 12:00; Tuesday: 01:00; Wednesday: 06:00.

You can follow Empire on Facebook: /AJEmpire

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst of Al Jazeera English and the author of The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution.

Follow him on Twitter: @marwanbishara

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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