Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On the Theology of the Body as About Assuring Heterosexual Male Domination

Yesterday, I wrote, “The theology of the body is all about maintaining the domination of the world by heterosexual men in the name of God and divine order.”

After posting that statement here, I also cross-posted my piece at the Open Tabernacle blogsite, where a reader replied to my statement about the theology of the body, asking,

C’mon. Do you have any evidence to suggest that is true? 

This response makes me wonder if many Catholics today simply don't know or have not quite understood the history of the preceding papacy, that of John Paul II, and what the previous pope chose to do to women in the church.  Perhaps I remember that history because I lived through it--I lived through it as a Catholic theologian. 

After the reforms of Vatican II prompted lively theological discussion about many issues, including the possibility of ordaining women, Pope John Paul II slammed the door shut--definitively, he hoped--on any further discussion of women's ordination with his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis.  Though this document fell short of declaring the pope's views about women's ordination infallible, it was intended to communicate that the pope had spoken definitively and decisively about this topic, and that this was the last word we might expect from Rome re: women's ordination.  Women's ordination was closed to further discussion, the pope decreed with this Roman document.

The apostolic letter declared that women must stop hoping for what is impossible: the church's hands are tied by scripture and tradition, and it cannot ordain women because both scripture and tradition forbid this.  As many right-wing Catholics fond of the circular argument offered by Ordinatio sacerdotalis like to say, "There will never be priestess [sic] in the Roman Catholic Church. Theological impossibility."  (This statement occurs in the thread appended to the article to which I've just linked.)

Note the tautology: it is impossible to ordain a woman because scripture and tradition say that it is impossible to ordain a woman.  It is impossible to find any theological basis for ordaining a women in scripture and tradition because papal fiat has declared this to be the case.  Discussion ended.  Let's please now move on to the realm of what is possible.  And I will tell you what is or is not possible. 

There is a direct genetic line between John Paul II's closing of the conversation about women's ordination through papal dictate and the recent Vatican document which couples penalties for abusive clerics and anyone attempting to ordain a woman.  As critics of this Vatican document note, though pastoral authority has been extremely slow to impose penalties on bishops who shelter clerics abusing minors or on those clerics themselves, the penalty for attempting to ordain a woman is swift and merciless: automatic excommunication. 

And, even as bishops (e.g., Cardinal Bernard Law) with an atrocious history of protecting and shifting about clerics abusing minors have not only not been punished, but have been awarded cushy sinecures and impressive new titles, church officials have repeatedly acted quickly and without mercy against women who in any way appear to provide support for discussion of the possibility of women's ordination.  In 1995, Sister of Mercy Carmel McEnroy was fired from her position as a tenured professor of theology at St. Meinrad's University.  Her crime?  She had signed a letter calling for further discussion of the issue of women's ordination. 

In 2008, just before Archbishop Raymond Burke assumed a prestigious new position in Rome, he declared an interdict against Sister of Charity Louise Lears, a longtime pastoral minister and religious educator in the St. Louis diocese.  Her "grave crime"?  She attended a women's ordination ceremony (the two women ordained were immediately excommunicated).

In 2009, longtime Catholic lay minister Ruth Kolpack of Beloit, Wisconsin, was fired by Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison.  Her transgression?  It was thought that she supports women's ordination.  And she refused to renounce a master's thesis in which she argued for the use of inclusive language in the liturgy.

The intent of John Paul II's 1994 document about women's ordination was, in short, punitive, and it has had a strongly punitive effect in the life of the church since it was issued. It was intended to put the possibility of any theological discussion of an issue that, in the view of theologians, remains open, completely off-limits.  It hedges about any further theological discussion or action premised on that discussion with fierce penalties, including, in the case of those who attempt to ordain a woman, the ultimate penalty of excommunication.

John Paul II intended to put women in their place.  Decisively so.  Shutting women out of ordination is shutting them out of the power structures and governance of a church in which clerical status confers power and privilege denied to all non-clerics. This intent is clearly evident in John Paul's 1988 apostolic letter on the place of women in church and world, Mulieris dignitatem.

Though this document speaks in flowery language about the equality of men and women, and about women's significant feminizing gifts and feminizing role in the plan of salvation, it also declares in no uncertain terms that men are meant by natural law and the divine plan to rule and women to obey.  Basing its observations about the complementary roles of men and women on his theology of the body, John Paul II reminds women that the task of imaging Jesus as a shepherd within the church is reserved to men alone.  It is as impossible for women to image Christ in this way as it is for women to be ordained.

As Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham, Alabama, told the Catholic Medical Association of Atlanta in 2007,*

[In Mulieris dignitatem], [t]he pope indicates that one can also appreciate that the presence of "a certain diversity of roles" [based on gender] is in no way prejudicial to women, provided that this diversity of roles is not the result of arbitrary imposition, but is, rather, an expression of what is specific to being male and female.  "This issue," he points out, "also has a particular application within the church.  If Christ--by his free and sovereign choice clearly attested to by the gospel and by the church's constant tradition--entrusted only to men the task of being an "icon" of his countenance as "shepherd" and "bridegroom" of the church through the exercise of the ministerial priesthood, this in no way detracts from the role of women . . . .

Women are equal to men in the eyes of God.  But God has designed the created world such that men and women have distinct and complementary roles.  In the church itself, men are icons of the Savior in a unique way foreclosed by biological facticity to women, who cannot mirror Christ as shepherd or bridegroom because (tautology again) only those with male genitalia can mirror a Savior who was incarnate in the body of a male.

With all this weight of testimony--and there is much, much more to be cited--I wonder why any Catholics today doubt that there is strong evidence to suggest that John Paul II's theology of the body is all about assuring the domination of church and society by heterosexual men. I haven't, of course, touched on the question of the same pope's attitudes towards gay and lesbian Catholics, which fit hand in glove with his attitudes towards women.

Just as John Paul II developed the innovative new, non-traditional theology of the body, which hinges natural law, scripture, and tradition on the biological fact of gender difference, making that fact central to the drama of salvation, he also gave his stamp of approval to the 1986 document of Cardinal Ratzinger on the pastoral care of homosexual persons, which also developed a draconian innovative new language to describe gay and lesbian persons as intrinsically disordered.  

We would be foolish--we would be extremely misguided--not to understand the Vatican's attempt to clamp down on discussions of women's ordination and the role of women in the church as one facet of an agenda that is all about shoring up the claims of patriarchy at a time in which these claims are contested, another facet of which is the attempt to shame openly gay and lesbian Catholics and drive them from the church.  Make no mistake about it: the theology of the body is all about maintaining the domination of  the world by heterosexual men in the name of God and divine order.

The actions of John Paul II and his right-hand man, the current pope Benedict, demonstrate this intent with crystal clarity.

*I have taken the liberty of removing typos (e.g., "prejudical," "contenance" [Bishop Baker's document also says "complimentary" when it clearly means "complementary"]) from this document.  I have also corrected various errors of punctuation and taken the text from all caps to lowercase with capital letters when warranted.