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Monday, July 14, 2014
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Published: Monday, 4/18/2005

Church leadership marginalizes women

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not the most enlightened husband in the world.

In a million small ways I show myself every day to be the only partially repentant product of a traditional home in which my Dad's idea of cooking his own dinner was to slap together a cold baked-bean sandwich.

But I think I've come a long way from the days of my youth, when clean clothes appeared as if by magic in my bureau and looking for something I needed always started with the shout, "Ma, do you know where "

The progress I have made from Neanderthal to sometime-homo sapiens, halting though it may at times have been, is progress nonetheless and apparently more than many of my gender could claim.

Take, for instance, the recent stand taken by Saudi Arabian clerics against the practice of fathers forcing marriage partners on their daughters.

According to the Saudi mufti Sheik Abdul-Aziz bin Al al-Sheik, speaking for a board of top clerics, coercing women into marriage is "un-Islamic" and fathers who insist on doing so should be thrown in prison until they change their minds.

Well, isn't this a good thing, you ask?

Sure, it's altogether admirable. But when's the last time someone had to remind you that treating your female children like chattel is a no-no?

Unfortunately, Saudi fathers are not alone in their need to be reminded that women are people, too.

There are places in the world where female babies are sometimes routinely killed because sons are more highly prized. In other places, husbands throw acid onto the faces of wives who have "dishonored" them; brothers kill sisters for dating; female genitalia are mutilated under the guise of ethnic or religious tradition, and women and girls are sold into sexual slavery.

The bottom line is that even at the beginning of the 21st century, half the world's population frequently treats the other half little better than animals. And even in the so-called "enlightened" West, in addition to the comparatively small indignities of smaller paychecks and more constrained career opportunities, women are treated - and encouraged to view themselves - as second-class citizens.

But I'm not telling you anything you haven't heard before, so why bring it up now?

Because today we will witness another, albeit subtler, example of the disdain in which men still hold women when, in a tradition nearly 2,000 years in the making, 115 old men with little more than a theoretical knowledge of women will shut themselves up inside the Sistine Chapel to choose the next leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, about half of whom, as it happens, are female.

The conclave of cardinals is the good ol' boy network taken to its illogical extreme. The pope creates the cardinals, who elect the next pope, who creates more cardinals, and on it goes. A self-perpetuating bureaucracy run amok. The only things missing will be the whiskey and cigar smoke Well, maybe those won't be missing either.

"Come on," you say. "You can't compare men running the Catholic church to the rape, murder, and mutilation of women in other cultures."

Nope, but they both speak to an attitude toward women that ultimately makes atrocities possible, and in the Catholic church there has always been this Mary/Eve duality in which women are at the same time loved as the daughters of Jesus' mother and hated as the daughters of original sin.

Steeped in tradition and rationalized by the weight of Scripture, it is not likely the patriarchal leadership of the church will allow women into the halls of power anytime soon. But let's not fool ourselves. The leaders of the church should recognize that by not doing so they add some small portion of their weight to a worldwide culture that often devalues, degrades, marginalizes, and dehumanizes women.

They are part of the problem.



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