I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. Johnson: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all,” James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson.
The Vatican has just released its much-touted new norms for dealing with clerics found to be sexually abusing minors. And what is attracting international media attention in the new norms issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which reserves to itself the right to handle clerical abuse cases worldwide, is not their guidelines for handling abuse cases. It is, instead, the norms’ equation of the “attempt” to ordain a woman with pedophilia.
Or with heresy and schism, as John Hooper notes in the Guardian.
An English translation of the norms is available at the website of the Vatican Information Service. The norms dealing with the “attempted ordination” of women are found in article 5, which notes that the attempt to ordain a woman is a “more grave delict” “reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.” The article notes that both those who “attempt” to ordain a woman and she who “attempts” to receive ordination incur automatic excommunication—automatic because they have attempted what is ipso facto impossible on theological grounds, one understands, though those grounds are not spelled out in this document.
The logic of the document is, rather, What is, is. And when what is has been declared to be what it is, one who questions what has been declared to be automatically places him- or herself beyond the church’s pale. By the very fact that she or he is challenging the definition of “is.” Which is established and handed down from the top of the church—from the pope—to the rest of us.
The discussion of article 5 and the “attempt” to ordain women is preceded in article 1 by a laying of the ground rules—by an assertion of who has the right to define whom. This article notes that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly headed by the current pope, Benedict) has the right to judge delicts (i.e., crimes) against the faith, including the graver delicts committed against morals and in celebration of the sacraments. The “attempt” to ordain women appears to fall into the latter category, though, again, precisely how it does so is not spelled out in this document. Article 2 notes that delicts against the faith include heresy, apostasy, and schism—with which the “attempt” to ordain a woman is now being equated, along with priestly pedophilia.
And what to make of this foolishness, which sounds curiously like the mad Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland shouting, “Sentence first—verdict afterwards”? Rachel Donadio, in the New York Times, notes many Catholics’ astonishment not precisely at the Vatican’s attempt once again to squelch movements to ordain women, but at the clumsy, ill-advised decision to include this ante-upped prohibition against women’s ordination in a document whose ostensible purpose is to lay down guidelines for handling priests abusing minors:
But what astonished many Catholics was the inclusion of the attempt to ordain women in a list of the “more grave delicts,” or offenses, which included pedophilia, as well as heresy, apostasy and schism. The issue, some critics said, was less the ordination of women, which is not discussed seriously inside the church hierarchy, but the Vatican’s suggestion that pedophilia is a comparable crime in a document billed a response to the sexual abuse crisis.
Writing at Religion Dispatches, Catholic theologian Mary Hunt notes that these guidelines reaffirm the CDF’s declaration of 2008, noting that women who imagine they are being ordained are only “simulating” ordination. Hunt thinks that whatever wager the Vatican imagines itself to be making by equating the “attempted” or “simulated” ordination of women with pedophilia (and heresy and schism) is a bet that the Vatican will most likely lose:
Stay tuned, but I think they [i.e., Vatican officials] miss their guess. There is simply no comparison between a theological argument over who is “fit matter” to be ordained and the destruction of a child’s life; not to mention the thousands of people who have been abused by clergy. The public simply won’t buy it, and the end result is that the institutional Roman Catholic Church will look even more out of touch with reality than ever.
“Sentence first—verdict afterwards” has a nice, authoritative ring to it, when one wishes to assert absolute authority over others. But as a rational, convincing argument in a world that expects religion and reason somehow to connect, it falls somewhat short. When authority asserts itself in ever more strident terms, in the absence of dialogue and convincing rational argument, one begins to suspect that the loud volume of the assertion is directly related to the lack of real authority in the authority figures shouting that they have the right to declare what is, is.
In what follows, I’d like to reflect briefly about what I think may be going on in this Vatican move to increase the ecclesial penalties for “simulating” women’s ordination, and in the decision to equate the “attempted” ordination of a woman with priestly pedophilia. I am certainly interested in what the document has to say about its ostensible primary purpose—about how abuse cases are now to be handled.
And I may comment on that aspect of this Vatican document later. Meanwhile, I’ll note that I am persuaded by the response of groups like the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) to this Vatican document. As SNAP Outreach Director Barbara Dorris notes,
There needs to be massive overhaul, not mere tweaking, of how the church deals with abuse and cover up . . . .We don’t need minor changes to church policy but massive changes to church practice and culture. History has shown that in this secretive, ancient, rigid all-male monarchy, abuse policies are widely ignored.
While this document tweaks, and continues to make verbal promises that may or may not be honored by action, the ceiling of the organization doing the tweaking is caving in—and far more than tweaking is demanded.
Here, I’m interested in the underlying logic of the Vatican argument that those who “attempt” to ordain a woman are merely “simulating” ordination—just as a dog walking on its hind legs is simulating walking, or a woman preaching is merely attempting to preach. What is at stake in the logic of the Roman document declaring the “attempt” to ordain a woman a grave canonical crime is the bald assertion of the right of church officials to define everyone else in the church.
At the heart of the logic governing this document’s statements about women’s ordination is the unsubstantiated assertion (unsubstantiated because entertaining dialogue and theological discussion is viewed by the authorities making this assertion as an admission of weakness) that the rulers of the church have the right to define. And the ruled do not have that right.
If they claim that right, they are claiming what cannot be, what is therefore bogus and imitative—simulated and attempted, rather than real and effected. This document’s assertion of the right to declare any and all ordinations of women mere “attempts” at ordination that incur a grave ecclesiastical penalty is, quite simply, assertion and nothing more, nothing backed by logic or cogent argument: it is an assertion, in the face of all critics, including those who point to the cover-up of abuse cases (which the CDF asserts it alone has the ultimate right to handle) as a serious moral failing on the part of Catholic pastoral leaders, of those leaders’ right to continue defining what is.
Where does this thinking, so deeply rooted and seemingly intractable in the Catholic hierarchy at present, come from? In my view, it is a continuation of the Roman legal concept of patria potestas (or potestas patris), a concept that framed many Roman juridical notions, above all those governing family law. This concept entered the theological thought of the Roman church at an early period, was subsumed into canon law, and has never been repudiated by those governing the church, though the documents of Vatican II (not to mention the scriptures themselves) implicitly critique many of its most fundamental assertions.
What, precisely, is the Roman legal notion of patria potestas? It’s the belief—the assertion—that the father of a family has the absolute right to dispose of all of his property, and of all family members under his authority, as he wishes. Without restraint.
This presupposition governed Roman legal understandings of family, marriage, and the relation of men to women (and of a husband to his wife and a father to his children). Since the Romans practiced slavery and slaves fell under patria potestas as members of a family who also happened to be held as chattel by the father of the family, the concept of patria potestas also extended to the right of a father of a family to make absolute, life-or-death decisions regarding the slaves who belonged to him.
As John Austin, Robert Campbell, and Sarah Austin note in their classic study of legal philosophy entitled Lectures on Jurisprudence: Or the Philosophy of Positive Law (London: J. Murray, 1885), in formulations of Roman law protecting the absolute right of a slaveholder over his slave property, we see exposed the inner logic, the heart of the assumptions, of the Roman concept of patria potestas: it is a legal concept that turns everyone but the father into a thing, a concept that reserves to the father the right to consider all those under his authority as objects defined and used by him as he wishes:
In styling the slave a thing, they considered him from a certain aspect: namely, as being the subject of a right residing in another person, and availing against third persons. And (as I have proved to satiety) the analogy which led these lawyers to rank the slave with things, would justify the extension of the term thing to any person who is the subject of any right (vol. 1, p. 399).
As Bruce W. Frier and Thomas A.J. McGinn note in their study entitled Casebook on Roman Family Law (NY: Oxford UP, 2004),
. . . [P]atres familias, as the wielders of patria potestas, could decide whether those in their power lived or died, whether and whom they could marry and for how long, whether they could treat any property as their own (even though the pater always remained the true owner), and so on (p. 189).
As I’ve said, this logic continues to lie buried deep within the thinking of the hierarchy in the Roman church about the rights, privileges, and role of the church’s pastoral leaders. As theologian John Wijngaards notes in an essay about the role of women leaders in the Catholic church, it does so because, as the Roman church amalgamated with the Roman Empire following Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and his choice to make that religion the official religion of the Empire, the church assimilated into its canonical codes of discipline much of Roman law, including the legal philosophy undergirding that law.
Western patristic thinkers took the concept of patria potestas for granted, and applied it to the paternal authority of members of the hierarchy. Because it was taken for granted by one patristic authority after another in the West, the concept made its way into the monumental, foundational compilation of canon law entitled Corpus Iuris Canonici.
And there it remains, hidden within and running through the Roman church’s system of canon law and the assumptions of the Roman church’s pastoral leaders about their rights and privileges, and their relationship to the laity. Following Roman law and the concept of patria potestas, that relationship is framed in terms of the rights enjoyed by the hierarchy, and the lack of rights on the part of the laity.
In the matter of women and what they are permitted to “attempt” and “simulate,” the thinking of the pastoral leaders of the Roman church is highly colored by the Roman legal concept that men own women, and that a father/husband has the absolute right to dispose of his daughter/wife as he chooses. The right to declare what is, for those who are under his authority.
The right to declare that, if a woman claims to have been ordained, she is merely “simulating” and “attempting” what no woman has any right to do or possibility of doing. Because, by definition, that right is reserved to men only.
This is the logic we see once again asserting itself in this latest Roman document. It is the kind of logic that always asserts itself when authority figures feel embattled, and have no resort—no real resort, one based in rational arguments developed in respectful dialogue—left to bolster their waning moral authority, other than a bald, loudly asserted right to define what is.
Whether Catholics as a whole will continue to permit their hierarchical leaders to abdicate their gospel-mandated role to be servant leaders and not little lords of all remains anyone’s guess. If this document doesn’t convince Catholics at large that something is seriously awry with the thinking of the current leaders of the church, and their failed response to the crisis of sexual abuse by priests, then I can’t imagine what will.
The graphic is an illustration by New York artist Matt Dorfman for Julie Irwin Zimmerman’s commentary in Cincinnati Magazine re: the punishment received by Sr. Akers received in 2009 from church authorities because she refuses to renounce her support for women’s ordination.
Cross-posted from Bilgrimage, 16 July 2010.