Benedict in America: The Man Show

On Benedict XVI's much-heralded first papal visit to the United States, we witnessed once again the spectacle and pageantry of the Catholic Church's unapologetically all-male hierarchy.
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On Benedict XVI's much-heralded first papal visit to the United States, we witnessed once again the spectacle and pageantry of the Catholic Church's unapologetically all-male hierarchy.

Despite the blatant exclusion of women from the Catholic Church's highest levels of power, I could find no piece in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time or Newsweek, or on Jim Lehrer, Chris Matthews, Anderson Cooper, Keith Oberman, or any major network evening newscast focused on the role of women in the Catholic Church.

Yet, that role remains a subservient one, and Pope Benedict, including in his prior incarnation as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has played a major part in maintaining that role.

This is the man who authored the notorious letter to the world's bishops "On the Collaboration Between Women and Men in the Church and in the World." He defended a sacred "complementarity" of the sexes, essentially relegating women to the service of others and to her own biology, from which she is cautioned not to seek "liberation."

He has fought any idea of a female face of God, nonsexist liturgy, and the validity of the highly regarded field of feminist theology, essentially founded by Catholic women. He expanded canon law to make refusal to accept the Church's ban on women's ordination grounds for excommunication, despite the fact that many respected Catholic theologians and a special Papal Commission have disputed that ban.

In 2002, Benedict used those grounds to excommunicate seven devout Catholic women who dared to step forward to be ordained Catholic priests in an irregular ceremony, following the example of the Episcopal women who did the same in 1974. That is a public sanction that he has never issued against a single priest who sexually molested a child or against a single bishop who molested or enabled such molestation to occur.

As far as the subject of clergy sex abuse of minors is concerned, an avalanche of news reports during Benedict's visit documented the comfort many victims found in his repeated acknowledgement of deep regret over the raping, sodomizing and sexual terrorizing of thousands of boys and girls by Catholic priests; his appeals for bishops, priests and all Catholics to extend compassion and pastoral care to the victims; and his meeting with five victims.

At the same time, those press accolades for Benedict's expressed regret--as "historic, unprecedented, significant, and amazing"--were in themselves amazing. It is the Pope's job to address the pain and heartache of his flock, not to minimize it until the pressure is so great that the institution begins to crumble.

Benedict knew the most ugly details of the abuse for years, as the person who reviewed the cases at the Vatican. Yet neither he nor his predecessor, John Paul II, took significant action, and not just for six years, since the scandal broke in Boston in 2002, as the press kept reporting, but for nearly 25 years.

In 1991, I wrote a story for Ms. about a teenage girl sexually molested by her priest confessor in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, who with other priests took her to a hotel that they rented by the hour. Journalist Jason Berry broke the story of a major priest pedophilia case in Lafayette, Louisiana, in the mid-1980s, around the same time that Father Thomas Doyle co-authored a Vatican report identifying the crisis, predicting dire financial consequences for the Church, and doing everything in his power to encourage the U.S. bishops to act, to no avail.

Overall, the coverage of the visitor once known as "God's Rottweiler" was clearly aimed at bringing us a redeemed Pope Benedict--a "really nice guy," "humble," "sweet," "kindly," "shy," and "a good listener who loves dialogue."

Given that, kudos go to the newscasters who provided some historical context. ABC Evening News deserves credit for Dan Harris's reminder of Benedict's original public reaction when the sex abuse scandals broke in 2002, when the most comfort he could offer was to say: "Always temptations of human beings are present. Also for the priests, so always we have to accept that." And credit goes to Good Morning America's Brian Ross for a report on the 19 bishops and cardinals accused of abuse or cover-up of abuse who had neither lost their titles nor been prosecuted; his prime example was the cushy fate of former Palm Beach, Florida, Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell, who admitted to sexually abusing a teenage seminary student and is now comfortably ensconced in a lovely Trappist Abbey.

There were talking heads (mostly male) like ubiquitous journalist David Gibson describing the Pope's disdain for those cafeteria Catholics who pick and choose what they believe are the Church's most important teachings. But I saw no report about cafeteria popes.

Yet, Benedict has his own ladder of absolute teachings. Only one, at the top of that ladder, allows for not a single extenuating circumstance. In keeping with a Church history of women's greater culpability in all things evil, ending a pregnancy, even at the zygote stage, apparently trumps everything as the greatest sin of the 21st century,.

For example, it was Dolores Huerta's pro-choice views, according to the LA Times, that got her uninvited to speak at a California school where her subject had nothing to do with choice but was to be about founding the United Farm Workers' Union and the importance of public service.

Contrast that with Benedict's eloquent defense of international diplomacy as opposed to violence to solve the world's conflicts. A past critic of President George W. Bush's preemptive war in Iraq, Benedict didn't let that criticism interfere with a friendly joint appearance in the Rose Garden and a private meeting where reportedly the subject of preemptive war didn't even come up.

While a seemingly robust Benedict spent the week in a blizzard of appearances, I spent the week on an emotional roller coaster. I felt indignation at the complete absence of women among the throngs of church leaders, even as the subject of the Church's dire priest shortage came up again and again. I had to chuckle when Benedict shyly admitted to his youth rally audience--after rising to leave but being pulled back by an aide--that "I forgot my Spanish part." I felt pleasure witnessing his obvious delight at the loving reaction of the tens of thousands who came out to greet him.

But the strongest feeling came as I watched a young woman chanting the Litany of Saints at that outdoor youth rally. Her name did not flash on the screen. She wasn't wearing scarlet or ivory or gold. She was an ordinary woman in a simple back dress. She had a clear face and long dark hair, gently lifted by the wind. Bold and insistent, she chanted the names of beloved women, beloved men, and then the refrain, in which the crowd joined in: "pray for us."

The Pope stood through the litany. Hands folded in prayer, he listened intently to her voice, waited for her call, followed her lead. I was transfixed--by the power of her chants and by his response.

Tears came. I clicked off the remote. I wish I could turn off being Catholic that easily. "What is God whispering to you?" Benedict asked at one point. For women like me, the answer is: All this, Holy Father, and more.

First published as Women's Media Center Exclusive: