The Vatican, the Kremlin and the Feminine

Lavinia Byrne
10 April 2005

The serried ranks of cardinals gave Pope John Paul II a fabulous send-off at his funeral. Yet the pope’s simple wooden coffin dominated the event, occupying the space before the altar and turned so that he was facing the crowds of world leaders and devout believers who had gathered in St Peter’s Square. A powerful and colourful image of the influence he exercised during the twenty-six years of his pontificate.

The bell tolled as he was carried to his final resting-place. And now the commentary and analysis can begin.

Power and the pope

This pope was great because he was a charismatic figure. He had the added charm of coming from the east, from Poland. He contributed to the demise of communism.

He also ruled the Catholic church with a rod of iron during his pontificate. Characteristically though, he was deeply evangelical and sought every opportunity he could to travel and to be a figure on the world stage. That is why kings, queens and presidents showed up for his funeral.

Now there is a legacy to be addressed and a new pope to be appointed. After a fat pope, a thin pope; after a tall pope, a short pope, the old adage goes. And after a charismatic pope, what does the church most need? There are those who argue that what is most needed now is a good bureaucrat, a good civil servant – for the church needs someone who can realign the balance of power.

Also in openDemocracy on the Catholic church and democracy:

Ariel Dorfman, “The five minutes of Pope John Paul II”

Neal Ascherson, “Pope John Paul II and democracy”

Austen Ivereigh, “Through the Vatican white smoke”

Michael Walsh, “Cutting the Vatican down to size”

Laura Greenhalgh, “Cardinal Arns of Brazil on Pope John Paul II, the Vatican and the poor”

Please join the lively, informed debates in our forum involving writers such as Dorothea McEwan; and if you can afford it send openDemocracy a donation to help us continue our work.

In a curious way, John Paul II was directly influenced by the fight he waged against communism. The novelist John Le Carré, most famous for creating the character of the spymaster George Smiley, saw a profound human truth: that we become like the enemies we oppose. In Smiley’s case, the enemy was his Soviet adversary, Karla, and Smiley became tainted with attributes he learnt directly from him. In Karol Wojtyła’s case the enemy was the Kremlin.

Yet, ironically, he began to build a centralised force, a Kremlin-lookalike, within the heart of the Vatican. So his Catholic church became strangely like the very structure it opposed. The balance of power became skewed as power was taken away from bishops and national and local churches and invested in the centre.

Add another dimension, that with the pope’s declining health, greater authority devolved to Vatican officials rather than the papacy, and the church now faces a real problem. At its heart is a secretive, male and highly clerical power structure. These are people who will not easily give up the jobs, the apartments, the privileges of office. Yet this is precisely what the church needs. If the new pope turns out to be a brilliant and inspired administrator, he has a unique chance to implement change – which is what the church now requires.

Rereading women and scripture

So what areas of Christian and Catholic life need review? I advocate the ordination of women to the priesthood, and seek debate on this question to be reopened. The arguments against women’s ordination have never really been spelt out conclusively. They appear to be based in a false anthropology that has nothing to do with the tenets of democracy. Woman remains irrevocably the “misbegotten male”, beloved of Aristotle or the “devil’s gateway” identified by Tertullian. The church is called “she”, “holy mother church” and only male celibates can marry the church, which is why a male clergy is deemed essential. Women, at root, are a source of temptation because when Eve fell by taking the apple in the garden of Eden, all women fell.

Nowadays, there are many women who challenge this reading of the scriptures. They are not alone. A chorus of protest challenges an antiquated anthropology. One of the greatest projects of the Christian churches over the past one hundred years has been the education of women. And when women receive a good education – especially the benign and focussed teaching they received in their convent schools – their aspirations change. That is why we have so many successful and influential women in public life.

How can the church go on denying their democratic status as beloved daughters of God, available to serve the church as priests? The role of teacher, administrator, spiritual director, cleaner is fine, but why not ratchet up the contribution of women to the life of the church by admitting them to the priesthood?

After all, they might make an invaluable contribution to some of the debates which can no longer be ignored, or stuffed into dark corners: about the spread of HIV/Aids in Africa, for instance; about the essential hypocrisy that pretends to defend the church’s teaching on birth control. Go to a Catholic church on any Sunday in the year and it is evident that couples are practising artificial contraception. The evidence is plain to see as families with two or maybe three children go up the aisle to take their place in the pews. This means that in the most intimate arena of their married lives, couples are closing their bedroom doors on papal teaching. This teaching does not work for them and so they are ignoring it.

The church forbids the use of condoms, as it continues to teach that every sexual act must remain open to the possibility of procreation or conception. Yet even nature is not so presumptive. A woman is only fertile for a limited number of days each month. Sex is about more than having babies. It looks as though God, through the workings of nature, intended sex to be about love, shared passion and intimacy. In Africa innumerable lives could have been saved, had this insight been implemented in church teaching.

The new pope will have a massive task. But equally he will have a great deal of goodwill and prayer to support him as he takes up his appointment. People like me, the dissenters, will be praying for him – and for the church – as it begins to adjust to a 21st-century world.

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