When I was little, I wanted to be a priest. Our family was Catholic, and I was the most fervent. We celebrated every feast day. I crowned Mary with flowers in May and blessed my cat with holy water to honor St. Francis of Assisi. I once nearly scalded myself to death by adding boiling water to the bathtub because I’d heard saints mortified their flesh. Then, one Sunday when my brother and I were too sick to leave the house, I blessed some bread and fed it to him so he could receive Holy Communion.
My CCD teacher screamed at me. I could never do that, never, because it was for priests to do, and girls could not be priests. God chose the clergy to serve Him, and all those clergy— from the pope down to Father Joe, who quoted Monty Python and kept a pack of Marlboros in his cassock — were men, because God was a man. I could be a nun. I could serve priests. But to serve God directly — it was sinful for a girl to even want it, let alone attempt it.
It is a painful question, how much women are worth to God. Before a woman thinks to ask it, she has likely encountered suppression, repression, and her own deep anger. That wound was opened once again last week, when Pope Francis finally admitted to the epidemic of priests sexually abusing and assaulting nuns — something the church has been conspicuously silent on for decades, despite public reports going back to the early 1990s. In response, Catholic women are demanding that the men of the church give up their exclusive hold on power.
The church has long faced allegations of systemic child sexual abuse. In January alone, the Catholic Church of Texas released the names of 300 credibly accused priests. Those allegations have been comparatively well-publicized. There have been documentaries, newspaper exposés, a true crime series on Netflix. Yet behind that controversy, another evil lay unacknowledged: women of God being raped by men in positions of godly authority and then expelled from the church, sometimes after being forced to undergo abortions so as to remove the evidence.
“The sexual harassment and rape of Catholic sisters by priests and bishops has been discussed in meetings of leaders of orders of Catholic sisters from around the world for almost 20 years,” according to a statement by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents 80 percent of U.S. nuns.
In response, the group is calling to radically redefine the structure of the church: Change, it writes, must “[refashion] the leadership structures of the church… [to] ensure that power and authority are shared with members of the laity. The revelations of the extent of abuse indicate clearly that the current structures must change if the church is to regain its moral credibility and have a viable future.”
The LCWR does not mention gender or female leadership, yet it radiates from the space between every line. “Members of the laity” is a term that includes both everyday Catholics and nuns, who are a step down from clergy; that is to say, it includes literally any woman involved with the Catholic Church. Sharing power with laypeople is the only way for women to have any power at all.
This, itself, is a symptom of the problem: The Catholic Church has been noticeably more reluctant than other Christian denominations to embrace women’s leadership. Catholicism doesn’t just forbid women from being ordained; it requires priests to be unmarried, as if any regular or intimate contact with a woman would corrupt them. Lucetta Scaraffia, who has led the charge to expose sexual abuse of nuns, points out that women do not head Vatican councils or even teach in seminaries: “Young people going to seminary see women only as those who are preparing food or cleaning,” she says.
Men were not punished for raping, but women were punished for thinking. You can see the problem.
It is hardly surprising, then, that when those men graduate, “nuns are often treated like indentured servants by cardinals and bishops, for whom they cook and clean for next to no pay.” Nor is it surprising that those men come to believe nuns exist to serve them in other ways—as nonconsenting sexual outlets and targets of violence. Unchallenged male power always breeds abuse; from the time he begins his training, a priest is protected from seeing women as anything other than subordinate, and he learns to treat them accordingly.
The problem is compounded by the church’s attacks on women who attempt to wield spiritual authority. The LCWR’s implicit call for female leadership, for example, calls to mind its own three-year investigation by the Vatican, which lasted from 2012 through to 2015. The sisters stood accused of the heresy of “radical feminism.” Specifically, some of its members had written letters of protest to the church for not permitting women’s ordination and for anti-LGBT teachings (or, as the Catholic Church wrote, the nuns held subversive ideas about “the problem of homosexuality”). They had also endorsed the Affordable Care Act without demanding abortion restrictions.
The church was particularly scathing on those women’s claims that their positions might derive from their own understanding of God: “An authentic teaching of the Church calls for the religious submission of intellect and will,” the doctrinal review found, whereas the LCWR’s position “[justified] dissent by positing the possibility of divergence between the Church’s magisterium and the ‘legitimate’ theological intuition of some of the faithful.”
Even as the church was wracked with hundreds of sexual abuse cases, the Vatican devoted its resources to scolding nuns who weren’t homophobic enough and raking them over the coals for believing they had the right to disagree with male clergy. Men were not punished for raping, but women were punished for thinking. You can see the problem.
Of course, sexual abuse and misogyny are not unique to the Catholic Church. There are predators and sexists in every congregation and every faith. (In my post-Catholic life, I was briefly a student at Noah Levine’s Dharma Punx, and, well, I sure know how to pick ’em.) I am not an atheist, and I can’t blame anyone who feels closest to God in a Catholic church. Yet the Catholic Church is seemingly unable to clean up its own mess, in part because it refuses to jettison the outdated beliefs about women and sexuality that have empowered its predatory priests.
For many non-Catholics, the most outrageous part of these scandals is the hypocrisy: The church, which has long been a loud foe of abortion rights, forces women in its care to get abortions. Yet for those of us who have been in the church, this is the least surprising element. Forcing women to have unwanted abortions, like forcing them to keep unwanted pregnancies, is about control. Using women as sexual dumping grounds may seem incompatible with a faith that condemns sex for pleasure, but both are rooted in a fundamental disregard for women’s desires.
None of this is actually out of line with a faith that still requires women to get the approval of a male clergy member before filing for divorce, or that considers reproductive health care sinful if it “interferes” with conception, or that condemns not just same-sex activity but any form of sex that does not end with a man ejaculating into a woman’s vagina, up to and including consensual, heterosexual oral sex between married people. (Which doesn’t work, by the way: Catholic women have abortions at higher rates than other religious women, precisely because they’re having sex just as often as everyone else but have less access to birth control.) Fundamentally, the Catholic Church still clings to the dogma that women, particularly women who’ve had sex, are worth less than men; accordingly, it sexually humiliates, violates, and excludes women from leadership.
This doesn’t have to happen in the 21st century any more than the church still has to excommunicate people for claiming the Earth revolves around the sun. But it cannot get better unless the church heeds the women who are demanding change. The men in power may continue to freeze them out, but if they choose to do so, the faith itself may fall.
The day my CCD teacher screamed at me was the first time I’d ever been told I couldn’t do something just because I was female. I tried to adjust my expectations. I toured convents. But there was a shadow over my faith that never lifted. In time, I discovered feminism, and my mother wanted a divorce the Catholic Church wouldn’t grant, and reports of sexual abuse began appearing in the media; by the time I graduated from high school, our family wasn’t Catholic anymore. We are far from unique. In 2015, Pew found that “32% of Americans were raised Catholic [but] just 21% remained so.” That’s more than a third of us; meanwhile, Protestants and Muslims and pagans and Buddhists and more or less everyone else are picking up more converts, in part because there are so many ex-Catholics looking for a place to go. Those who leave are turning their backs, not on religion, but on a church that has broken their trust. And as the scandals keep coming, the exodus is picking up speed.
Female leadership of the Catholic Church may not stop the decline, nor will it necessarily make Catholicism 100 percent palatable to feminists. (Scaraffia, for example, is virulently anti-abortion.) But it can’t hurt — at least, it can’t hurt more than millennia of exclusively male leadership already has. It is only fitting that women, who so frequently bear the brunt of priestly ignorance, would be the ones to step up in a moment of crisis. Maybe the next time a girl reaches out for something holy, the church won’t push her away.