A CATHOLIC priest has admitted that the Church has traditionally treated woman very badly, and effectively still does.
Fr Kevin McNamara of Moyvane, Co. Kerry made the admission during a documentary about the decline of Catholic traditions within the Church today.
“As a church we have been very, very, very hurtful to women and still are,” said Fr McNamara in The Confessors, which aired on RTE One on Monday night.
“The Church is all male, all the time. We really need to look at that,” he added.
“We should put our hands up sooner rather than later.”
He went on to admit the devastation he felt at the flood of revelations of child sexual abuse perpetrated by the clergy.
“I actually cried my way through a Mass at the height of the child sexual abuse [scandal]. How people in authority could have blatantly told so many lies, or opted not to tell the truth,” he said, before adding that staying quiet about such atrocities was “the devil’s work”.
With the tagline “a study of sin and redemption as told by Irish priests through the prism of the Confession box”, The Confessors features accounts from 15 priests – of all ages and from all corners of the country.
It also features a priest who says he won’t wear a dog collar for fear of being attacked outside work, and priests who admit that confessional boxes go more-or-less unused for most of the year.
A grim little vaudeville act is currently touring some of Scotland’s Catholic parishes, featuring the remains of Thérèse of Lisieux, a long-dead French nun. Thérèse died of tuberculosis at the age of 24 in 1897 and was canonised in 1925, becoming Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. By all accounts, this young woman developed an exemplary devotion to her faith and was the author of some beautiful (if slightly ripe) spiritual tracts. I’m not sure she deserved the fate of having some of her remains bumped in and out of cars and through the hills of South Lanarkshire and Paisley for the devoted titillation of the faithful.
These relics of Saint Thérèse are considered to be “first class”, this being the ultimate seal of Vatican authentication. To be accorded this distinction, they must be parts of the bodies of the saints, such as fragments of bone, skin, blood, hair or ash. Apparently, poor dead Thérèse (or parts thereof) has been getting ferried like this throughout the Catholic world since 1994. Is there no one to call a halt to this unedifying distortion of faith? Can we not let this blameless lassie rest in peace?
In secular society, we similarly raise up those who have performed feats of heroism that inspire us to make more of ourselves or to come to the aid of those in need. Behold the Scotland national football team. Our squad hasn’t qualified for a proper international tournament for 21 years and has long been tormented by the feats of better generations. The ghosts of great Scottish managers and players still haunt Hampden Park and our modern performers seem mesmerised by their shadows as they struggle to master the basics of the game. Thus, there were more people interested in attending Scotland’s rugby international against Georgia than our footballers’ encounter with Russia on Friday night. Perhaps we could seek permission from the families of Bill Shankly, Jim Baxter and Jimmy Johnstone to exhume their bodies in the national interest.
A lock of Shankly’s hair or Baxter’s left metatarsal or a bone fragment from Jinky’s hips, which he used to swivel and pirouette away from defenders, could be secured and placed in a casket. These could then be borne aloft through the neighbourhoods that reared these great footballers for the purposes of rekindling interest among these communities for our national sport. Perhaps, too, something of the sorcery interred in their bones might escape into the feet of a passing urchin and transport him to greatness in a dark blue jersey.
When the church’s spinmeisters urge its followers to bow down in medieval veneration to the bleached fragments of dead heroes you know that political machinations lie beneath. Our secular aristocracy relies on the fecundity of the royal family or the sacrifice of its soldiers in contrived theatres of war to avert our gaze from problems nearer to home. And the Roman Catholic church, still reeling from the global crisis of clerical sex abuse, is keen to encourage supernatural devotion like this for the purposes of redirecting scrutiny of its own grievous failings.
The success of the Reformation lay in freeing people from the spiritual slavery of Rome, where the bones of saints and counterfeit fragments of the Holy Cross had become an industry. The profits from this paid for the ruinous and brutal Crusades (and the beginning of Islamophobia).
The reformers offered a purer and less unequal route to heaven and the mercy of God, unencumbered by profiteering, exploitation and superstition. It wasn’t just a theological revolution, but a temporal one, which seemed to say that you didn’t need to wait until you entered paradise to experience equality and fairness.
While Saint Thérèse’s relics continue on their ghostly tour up and down the hills and glens, the visit to Scotland takes place of the American cardinal Raymond Burke, perhaps the most powerful Catholic churchman after Pope Francis. Burke, who has long viewed the current pope’s relaxed and compassionate views on human sexuality and the environment with deep suspicion, has become his greatest critic. He has thus become a totem for rightwing Catholic conservatives, a powerful and influential lobby, which is currently being wooed by Donald Trump and his chosen acolyte in this field, Steve Bannon. Perhaps it’s merely a coincidence that Thérèse’s posthumous visit to Scotland is occurring at the same time as Burke’s live one, but I hae ma doots.
Among the cardinal’s wide range of reactionary views is that female altar servers are a wretched sign of the increased “feminisation” of the church. “The introduction of girl servers led many boys to abandon altar service,” he has said. “Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural.” This is rubbish, of course. Where I grew up, if young female altar servers had been allowed there would have been a stampede among the boys to toil in the Lord’s vineyard alongside them. Burke also views any form of gay relationships as “evil” and has encouraged Catholics not to expose their children to close relatives who are actively gay. He’s had less to say about why the God he purports to serve and who does not make mistakes created, in His wisdom, gay people.
The familiars and acolytes attending this false prophet will include a shadowy assortment of arcane organisations that seek to preserve unfettered clerical control and power by means of exclusion and unholy inquisition. Spare a thought for us Catholics at this time. Not only are we seeking to deal with Brexit in the secular world but leave this shower of ecclesiastical Blimps in the spiritual one.
Ally Kateusz is a research associate at the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research. Earlier this year, she published a thought provoking book entitled ‘Mary and Early Christian Women – Hidden Leadership’. It punctures a hole in the Vatican argument against female ordination on the basis of tradition.
In the book, Kateusz shows how early-Christian documents revealing women in leadership positions were later censored to exclude them. She concludes that (i) there was a significant gender role modelled by Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the first phase of the Christian church; (ii) that women who were called apostles evangelised, preached, baptised and performed exorcisms and (iii) that women who presided at the altar table were called president, bishop, priest, presbyter, deacon and minister.
She also outlines the lives of four extraordinary women in the early church – Marianne, Irene, Nino and Thekla.
Nino, for example, baptised 40 women on her missionary journey to Iberia, where she preached and baptised several tribes, including their queen. Thekla was instructed by St Paul to preach and baptise. A later document censored the baptismal part of the instruction.
On July 2, at a conference of the International Society of Biblical Literature, which was held in the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Dr Kateusz outlined her research to the participants. She drew on iconography from ancient Christian art to buttress her argument that, in the early church, women served as deacons, priests and bishops.
One of the artefacts is an ivory reliquary box, kept in the old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, dating from the fifth century. It shows a man and women standing on either side of the altar, each raising a chalice. Two other artefacts – a stone sarcophagus front in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and an ivory hyx in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, dating respectively from the fifth and sixth centuries – demonstrate similar female prominence.
Dr Kateusz believes that these images are significant because they show women and men in parallel roles, their bodies and gestures mirroring one another. She argues that this parallelism indicates their equality in liturgical roles, saying that the images ‘illustrate that early Christian women routinely preformed as clergy in Orthodox churches’. “The art speaks for itself because women are seen at the Church altar in three of the most important churches in Christendom,” she says.
No specific texts about male or female ordination exist for the first seven centuries of Christianity. Female ordination had been prohibited. The artefacts survived because they were buried and dug up in the 20th century. They provide ‘precious windows through which we can see the early Christian Liturgy as it was once performed’.
One of the participants at the conference, Miriam Duignan, was impressed by the research. She commented: “The Vatican will undoubtedly be reluctant to engage with these findings because they have led a campaign to exclude women via the current argument of tradition. But for most Catholics, the research will confirm what they suspected all along – that the ban on female clergy has always been about the silencing and suppression of women and never about the tradition.”
There is “overwhelming evidence” that women served as clergy in the early years of Christianity – and some of the evidence was deliberately hidden by the Vatican, according to ground-breaking new research.
Experts in theology and the early history of the Catholic Church heard Dr Ally Kateusz, research associate at the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, outline the findings at a conference hosted by the International Society of Biblical Literature at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome yesterday.
Dr Kateusz, the author of ‘Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership’, bases her research findings on the depiction of women as clergy in ancient artefacts and a mosaic in a Roman church in which Mary, the mother of Jesus, is depicted as a bishop.
She revealed that this mosaic contained a red cross on a vestment that only bishops wore.
But it was covered over with white paint on the orders of the Vatican “to disguise the fact that Mary was portrayed as a bishop”.
The findings are set to challenge the long-held dogma in Catholicism that women cannot be priests, strictly enforced since Pope John Paul II, who also ruled that the issue of female priests could not even be discussed on pain of excommunication.
Some of the six Irish priests who have been censured by the Vatican in recent years were targeted over their support for women in the priesthood.
According to Dr Kateusz, the three oldest artefacts anywhere in the world depicting Christians at the altar in churches all portray a woman at the altar.
“They depict women at the altar in three of Christendom’s most important churches – St Peter’s in Rome, the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem,” she said.
Miriam Duignan, spokesperson for the Wijngaards Institute, said: “This is evidence that women served as clergy in some of the most important churches in Christendom.”
Some of the research relates to an ivory reliquary box dated around 430AD which shows a female priest at the altar in Old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Speaking about the Lateran Baptistery in Rome and the hidden mosaic there, Dr Kateusz said: “Pope Theodore commissioned this mosaic including the bishop’s pallium [on Mary]. Her arms are raised as if performing the Eucharist. It is a symbolic way of saying Mary was a church leader.”
Sister Joan Chittister, a well-known American nun, feminist and scholar, was looking forward to speaking at a Catholic education conference in Australia next year, figuring there would be plenty to discuss in a country where Catholic schools educate roughly one in five children.
But then Sister Joan, 83, received an email a few weeks ago effectively telling her not to come, saying that the Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, had not endorsed the invitation.
No reason was given, she said. But to Sister Joan and her supporters, the message was clear: The leaders of the church don’t like her ideas — especially her call to empower women and laypeople — so they plan to suppress them.
“It is pathetic,” Sister Joan said on Monday in an interview from Erie, Pa., where she has lived and worked with the needy for most of her life. “These teachers for the next generation of thinkers are being denied the right to pursue ideas.”
“I see it as a lot bigger than one conference,” she added. “I see it as an attitude of mind that is dangerous to the church.”
The dispute over her invitation, unreported until now, arrives at a time of division and tension for Australia’s Catholic Church.
Cardinal George Pell, a former archbishop of Melbourne who also served as the Vatican’s treasurer, will soon learn whether the appeal of his conviction in December for molesting two choir boys in 1996 has been successful. Cardinal Pell, the highest-ranking Catholic official found guilty of criminal charges in the church’s child sexual-abuse crisis, was sentenced to six years in prison.
But close observers suggest the cardinal has a good chance of winning his appeal, which would ignite another round of anger among Catholics who believe the church is not doing enough to loosen priests’ grip on authority, contributing to a culture of secrecy that allowed the sexual abuse problem to fester.
The rejection of Sister Joan is fuel for the fire.
“The archbishop has made a serious mistake,” said Gail Grossman Freyne, a family therapist, author and friend of Sister Joan’s in Melbourne. “This ban will in no way hinder Sister Joan in pursuing her apostolate. In fact, it will only increase the number of people in Melbourne, in all of Australia, who will come to hear her speak and buy her books. What kind of threat is this 83-year-old Benedictine who has spent her life preaching the gospel?”
The Archdiocese of Melbourne did not respond to requests for comment.
Jim Miles, acting executive director of Catholic Education Melbourne — one of the groups organizing the National Catholic Education Commission’s annual conference, where Sister Joan had expected to speak in September 2020 — characterized the dispute as a communications failure. He said no one, including Sister Joan, had yet been formally invited to address the gathering.
“It is regrettable that Sister Joan Chittister may have been given the impression that she was invited to speak at the conference,” he said. “The conference organizing committee is working to ensure that this type of miscommunication does not occur again.”
Sister Joan, however, said that she had clearly been invited, and that she later received an apologetic email rescinding the invitation.
“I am very saddened to say that while our organizing committee strongly supported the inclusion of Sr Joan as a speaker at the conference, the Archbishop of Melbourne has failed to endorse her inclusion,” the email said.
Catholic scholars said they were not surprised by the dispute; Archbishop Comensoli is a conservative moral theologian who previously served as an auxiliary bishop in Sydney under Cardinal Pell when he was the archbishop there.
His views generally reflect the widening divide between the church’s leadership and many everyday Catholics. On issues like the role of women and acceptance of homosexuality, priests and bishops steeped in the doctrinal and social conservatism of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI continue to be opposed by Catholics who have moved to the left, and want to see the church change with the times.
The current pontiff, Pope Francis, has tried to bridge this divide, calling for the church to be more inclusive, while upholding church teachings that prohibit gay marriage and ordaining women as priests or deacons. He has taken only modest steps on both the sexual abuse crisis and broader reforms. On Monday, he cracked open the door to ordaining married, elderly men as priests in remote areas of the Amazon, where the shortage of priests is dire.
In Australia, as in many countries, the divisions have contributed to the faith’s steep decline: Just over 10 percent of Catholics in Australia attend church weekly, down from 74 percent in the 1950s. And while the country’s Catholic schools are still well attended, thanks in part to government funding, they are also the forum where the Church’s generational and cultural rifts are most apparent.
Young Australians who identify as Catholic, for example, are far more liberal than the leaders of their faith. According to an independent study from the Australian National University, eight in 10 Catholic teenagers in Australia support same-sex marriage, and roughly the same percentage support the right of L.G.B.T. students to express their sexuality in schools.
“There is often a misalignment between the laity and the hierarchy, particularly with anything considered socially progressive,” said Andrew Singleton, an associate professor of sociology at Deakin University near Melbourne who worked on the study. “The hierarchy takes its lead from Rome, whereas the laity takes its lead from a wide array of sources, not just the Church.”
Sister Joan is familiar with the fault line. In 2001, Vatican officials directed her order, the Benedictines, to keep her from speaking at a Women’s Ordination Worldwide conference in Dublin. Her religious community refused, and she spoke anyway.
She has gone on to say that the ordination of women — which is not allowed in the Catholic Church — is not her main concern. But for educators in particular, Sister Joan’s acts of resistance make her a rich source of discussion about both the Church and activist faith in general.
For more than 50 years, she has combined Scripture with stories of modern inspirational figures and demands for equality. Friendly and relentless, she rose to prominence in the 1980s with her opposition to nuclear proliferation. Through countless lectures and more than 50 books, she has developed a worldwide following for highlighting the role of women in religious orders, for calling on the church to change and reconnect with the faithful, and for providing a model of spiritual leadership focused on social justice.
Her most recent book, “The Time Is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage,” is in many ways a cri de coeur against the status quo and for a bold spirituality to fight injustice.