Archbishop Baurillo Rodríguez of Toledo, Spain, drew deserved social media scorn from around the world for remarks in his Feast of the Sacred Family homily on December 27, 2015. Addressing the rise in divorce and perceived causes for family division, Rodríguez demonstrated his—and by extension, the church’s—view of the relationship between women and men as a fundamentally hierarchical one. “Most women who are murdered by their husbands,” the archbishop said, “do not accept them, or have not accepted their demands. Frequently, the macho reaction has its origin in a time when the woman asked for a separation.”
Put aside, if you can, the archbishop’s blaming of the victim and exoneration of the murderer. There’s also a big problem with his logic. Domestic violence can’t be adequately solved by “just talking it out” because abuse isn’t just about disagreement between male and female; it’s about power and control. Emphasizing the differences in gender in this context serves to legitimatize male dominance.
The United States Catholic bishops say as much in a relatively unknown document on pastoral responses to domestic violence, "When I Call for Help": “Domestic violence is learned behavior. Men who batter learn to abuse through observation, experience, and reinforcement. They believe that they have a right to use violence; they are also rewarded, that is, their behavior gives them power and control over their partner.” In complete contradiction to Baurillo Rodríguez, the bishops write: “Ultimately, abused women must make their own decisions about staying or leaving,” and “violence and abuse, not divorce, break up a marriage.”
“Many abusive men hold a view of women as inferior,” another section of the document explains: “Their conversation and language reveal their attitude towards a woman's place in society. Many believe that men are meant to dominate and control women.” Now, where do you think they got idea?
As helpful and informative about “women’s issues” the USCCB’s "When I Call for Help" might be, there are nonetheless parts of it that reinforce the sexism at the root of church teaching on gender. The first instruction for church ministers responding to domestic disputes is: “Listen to and believe the victim’s story.” Even having to stipulate this acknowledges the fact that most automatically don’t believe, unconsciously, because of the victim’s gender. To abusers, the bishops say: “Admit that the abuse is your problem, not your partner's, and have the manly courage to seek help.” What is the difference between manly courage and womanly courage? And why insist on a difference?
The way the bishops position themselves publicly on domestic violence (e.g. releasing a statement of concern about Obama’s Prevention of Violence Against Women Act in 2013 because of clauses suggesting acceptance of same-sex marriage and language referring to birth-control coverage in the Affordable Care Act) you’d think they didn’t believe 90 percent of their own words anyway. And who would? Hoping that the very institution that remains a symbol of male power over women will adequately and courageously work to end domestic violence is delusional, especially considering how uncompromising it has been about excluding women from decision-making at all levels.
For some recent examples, Pope John Paul II formally declared the door to all conversation on the subject of ordaining women “closed” in 1994 by publishing Ordinatio sacerdotalis (“On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone”). Pope Benedict reaffirmed the ban in 2012, saying it was part of the Church's "divine constitution," after it was challenged by a group of Austrian priests; and in 2013 when rumors began circulating that Pope Francis might name some women cardinals, the pontiff told the Italian daily La Stampa: "I don't know where any such an idea came from…. Women in the Church must be valued, not 'clericalised.'" All of these cases follow a familiar, calculatedly circular argument that opponents to women’s ordination make: being a priest shouldn’t have anything to do with power, and so using civil-rights rhetoric to demand inclusion goes against the very function of the sacrament of Holy Orders. It’s really an ingenious argument, because by branding women who advocate for themselves as un-priestly (thereby supposedly un-Christlike), it cancels any opportunity for a conversation about women’s ordination. If women can’t advocate for themselves, who will? Many of the few men who have spoken up on behalf of women’s ordination are put under extreme pressure from Rome and—as in the recent case of Roy Bourgeois of Maryknoll—sometimes excommunicated. As Benedict suggested to the defiant Austrian priests who supported women’s ordination “disobedience” is not a “path for renewal in the church.”
Of course being a priest is not about power, it’s about being pastoral. And, considering the numbers, chances are there are many women in the flock who live with violence, as so many women generally do. The day after Archbishop Rodríguez gave his homily, a woman was drowned by her partner in Madrid (in Spain, fifty-six women were killed by abusive partners in 2015 alone). Although little data is available—due in part to victims’ reluctance to report and a lack of surveys conducted—the UN’s 2013 Global Study on Homicide found that of all women who were the victims of homicide globally in 2012, almost half were killed by intimate partners or family members, compared to less than six percent of men killed in the same year. The World Health Organization estimates that 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives, and according to United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs in some nations the figure is as high as 70 percent. In the United States, 63.8 percent of women who reported being raped, physically assaulted, and/or stalked since age eighteen were victimized by a current or former husband, cohabiting partner, boyfriend, or date. It can be argued that the very concept of exerting power over someone, which is often at the root of violent crime, is patriarchal. The entire system depends on the belief that by virtue of your gender you have a right to control someone else, to the degree of having ownership over that person. An all-male priesthood not only reinforces patriarchy, but also elevates it to an absurd dimension: men are Christlike, made somehow more in the image of God as Jesus was, being God’s son, than women are. This is extremely problematic for many women, not only ideologically, but physically. The way that women internalize such subordination aids abusers in continuing to abuse, creating a cycle of violence that becomes normal as it is passed down from generation to generation.
Archbishop Baurillo Rodríguez with his remarks speaks for a system that perpetuates domination, justified by unscientific ideas of natural law and maintained by an enforced silence. The very idea of women as priests puts the concept of male dominance at question. And it seems that the fear it will become increasingly irrelevant has something to do with the ban. After all, the three main arguments against ordaining women (Jesus chose twelve male disciples; it has been tradition for so long; and in becoming incarnate as Jesus, God assumed his gender) have already been refuted, most deftly by Elizabeth Johnson in Commonweal in 1996.
Let’s continue this conversation toward women’s ordination, not because there are power-hungry clerics-in-waiting who want control of the church, but because the needs of so many women are misunderstood by church leaders and ministers, and because rape and domestic violence will remain inevitable when the hierarchical understanding of male-female relationships has an implicit theological blessing.