For the past week, I’ve not been able to shake from my imagination the image that Maureen Dowd described in her op-ed column in the New York Times on April 11. She contrasted “educated and sophisticated young professional women” in Saudi Arabia who put up with “an inbred and autocratic state more like an archaic men’s club than a modern state” with faithful, dedicated Catholic women and men who continue to celebrate and practice their faith in a church which, for all practical purposes, looks very much like “an inbred and wealthy men’s club cloistered behind walls and disdaining modernity … an autocratic society that repressed women and ignored their progress in the secular world.”
Ouch! My discomfort became all the more painful when Dowd went on with a bit of theological-historical analysis: “To circumscribe women, Saudi Arabia took Islam’s moral codes and orthdoxy to extremes not outlined by Muhammad; the Catholic Church took its moral codes and orthodoxy to extremes not outlined by Jesus. In the New Testament, Jesus is surrounded by strong women and never advocates that any woman — whether she’s his mother or a prostitute — be treated as a second-class citizen.”
Dowd’s right. There are no theological or historical supports in what we know of the mission of Jesus and the early years of the church to support obligatory celibacy for the priesthood or to exclude women from the priestly ministry. None. The present practice can be called an aberration.
Dowd’s mirror-images of Saudi Arabia and the Catholic Church pushed me to stand back and take a sobering look at this church that I love: It is one of the few surviving (if not the only surviving) absolute monarchies to exist on this planet. It is run by a man and his entourage called the Curia who are all male and who, in the name of celibacy, have denied themselves the experience of intimate love of another human being, which means they have denied themselves “the earthy, primal messiness of families and children.” (Lisa Miller quoted by Dowd)
And they exercise their power over the church in almost complete secrecy, without any recognized checks and balances. The Pope’s authority, as defined by the First and Second Vatican Councils is “full, supreme, and universal” and the pope can “always exercise this authority as he chooses.” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, par. 22)
I invite my fellow Catholics to step back with me, take an honest look at the monarchical, exclusively-male, family-estranged authority structures of our church and ask ourselves the simple but sobering question: Can this be the will of God? Can such a church really be what the God of Jesus — what Jesus — would approve of?
Or, must we say, as some Latin American theologian friends of mine put it: This Catholic Church is the church of Jesus (along with other churches). But this Catholic Church is not the church that Jesus wanted.
If we Catholics really feel that the present state of our church — with its absolute, monarchical, all-male structures –is not God’s will, what should be do?
Right now, I don’t want to take up that question. I just want all of us Catholics to ask ourselves this question: can the present state of our church be the will of God? And let the answer sink in. Really sink in. Take firm hold of our minds and hearts.
If the answer to this question does sink deeply into our Catholic identities, if it shakes us up, if it stirs our feelings, it will slowly but surely be translated into actions — actions that will bring us together to reform our church.
Hans Küng has recently called for such actions on the part of the bishops. We have to talk more about what his call implies for the laity.