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Will the Church Ever Overcome Sexism?

The Catholic Church has long regarded itself as a bastion of religious ethics. While it is undeniable numerous charitable efforts and organizations have arisen thanks to its emphasis on its morals, repetitive scandals of sexual abuse knocked the Church down a few pegs in the public eye. 

Not that that was without precedent: Athenian pederasty was once championed, not despised, in the sixth century BCE. The word itself is derived from pais (child, boy) and erastes (lover), or ‘lover of boys.’ It was once an ideal, not an aberration. Mix a cocktail of old religious lore with abstinence and the results will not be favorable.

Yet we’ve evolved socially over the last 2,600 years, and the Church seems to be trying to gain ground. That’s what one would believe with the mainstream fascination with Pope Francis, a man who offered a (kind of) positive acceptance of atheism and downplayed religious fanaticism in regards to gay marriage and abortion. Time named his Man of the Year and Rolling Stone threw him on a cover. The man shuns the bulletproof Popemobile, snaps selfies with fans and even washes the feet of the disabled and women, much to the chagrin of his colleagues.

Foot scrubs and pedicures might be all Francis is doing for women, however. As writer and literary critic Mary Gordon points out in Harpers, the positive PR of the popular pope is overshadowing the continued oppression of nuns in the Church. While even some agnostics cheer his seemingly liberal policies, Francis chastised nuns for acting out the words he speaks. Do as I preach, unless you are female, in which case do as I command.

The double standards in the Church are mystifying. Due to nuns’ roles in supporting social justice issues, such as Obamacare, a bishop must now be present at annual conventions. Church officials cited low enrollment rates in convents for the clamping down. Yet priestly turnout isn’t faring any better. Still, no oversight on the men has been implemented.

This is especially troubling since, as Gordon points out, the Church has paid out roughly $2 billion for pedophilia charges. Much has been done in public to attempt reparations with men sexually abused in childhood. Still, Gordon points out, 

Girls who have been molested by priests never come into the conversation.

With a growing worldwide trend towards atheism and agnosticism and dwindling attendance in the pews, Gordon cites an established patriarchy as the reason for this recent focus on stifling nuns. If Church leaders cannot convince the public of its importance, they can at least flex their muscles internally and dominate the female members of their tribe.

Which, of course, is a feedback loop that will not help outreach efforts. The most surprising aspect of Gordon’s article was near the end, when she interviewed Sister Simone Campbell. Shel organized Nuns on the Bus, a caravan that rolled around the country supporting President Obama’s health care plan.

Campbell has been one of the major targets of Church hierarchy. When Gordon asked her why she would remain in an institution bent on oppressing her, Campbell’s response reached for the ultimate aims of the religious life.

Why would I leave a way of life that’s been so fruitful for me, that’s given me so much, that allows me to live in a way that is so right for me? … We offer community, we offer a real spirituality, we know how to listen, we know how to be with the dying… And I’d much rather focus on than on the famous ‘dwindling numbers.’ It’s not about numbers. It’s about who we are, what we are and can be in the world. 

Gordon eloquently concludes with this concise sentiment distilling sexism and male aggression in the Church:

Weeping, listening, the dying, the poor. These are the word Sister Simone uses when discussing the work of American nuns. Censure, disobedience, investigation. These are the Vatican’s words. Which would Jesus choose? 

Image: anneka/


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