Why Women Aren’t Heard | Silencing of Women in the Catholic Church

October 10, 2018

The #MeToo movement has grown tremendously in the past year. The MeToo Movement urges us to look honestly at the widespread, worldwide mistreatment of women.

Institutions everywhere are supposed to learn to take seriously women’s repeated complaints against sexual assault and sexual harassment.

The importance of the movement for women’s rights was reemphasized when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two activists, from Iraq and the Congo, who vigorously oppose rape as a weapon of war.

Catholic institutions have often been silent on the MeToo front. Their stories have not often received a lot of coverage. Many people assume a religious institution would not mistreat women because that would be unreligious.

This past July, however, the National Catholic Reporter ran a story titled “Catholic #MeToo Victims and Advocates Face Backlash.” One Catholic schoolteacher in that story is part of a movement to report violations of women in Catholic institutions.

She reports that, in response to her movement, a

disproportionate number of people have been making incredibly ugly comments about rape victims: defending the school, questioning rape victims’ mental health, questioning their credibility…. It was astounding just how angry people were—not that [sexual assault] had occurred, but that someone dared to expose it…. I didn’t expect standing up for rape victims to be a controversial position.

That teacher was even sued for defamation for publishing documents about rape.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s complaints of sexual assault against now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh raised Catholic questions anew. Kavanaugh is the alumnus of a Catholic high school, where he was a student when the alleged attack occurred.

That situation has again raised questions of whether religious institutions would really allow any mistreatment of women, even though Ford told a detailed, horrible story with clear, 100 percent recollection that Kavanaugh was her abuser.

It’s a good time to remember what one learns about women at a Catholic school, hospital, or church. The answer is nothing that emphasizes women’s autonomy or good judgment or encourages victims to speak about their abuse. The church’s basic teachings about women’s lives include:

The Church is ruled by a male pope, bishops, and priests.

Women can never be priests.

Men, i.e., the priests and bishops, are the teachers of the church.

Moreover, the pope can be infallible.

Abortion is not permitted, even to save the life of the mother. Contraception is not allowed either. Neither is sterilization.

Divorce is strongly opposed.

The church—including its schools, hospitals, and other religious organizations—can fire ministerial employees without legal harm to the church itself. Ministerial status is an affirmative defense for the church in employment lawsuits. And, in court, numerous Catholic laywomen have had their lawsuits dismissed because they—lay teachers and principals, e.g.,—are labeled ministers by the courts at the church’s request.

The church defends these teachings in politics and the law, where it has won exemptions from contraception and other procedures for Catholic employers.

Those exemptions have grown since Donald Trump committed to a platform of “religious freedom” (meaning not having to follow the law and obey women’s rights) for many employers.

For years, some lawyers and judges have explained that Griswold and Roe—the Supreme Court’s cases about contraception and abortion—made the fundamental point that women possess a constitutional right to privacy that extends to a woman’s right to make her own personal medical decisions.

Feminists have long understood that if women are to be free, they must have choice over their own decisions and lives, not just in the reproductive area but everywhere.

The Catholic Church has never supported such freedom for women. Reread the whole list of teachings above. Women’s choices never come first. Instead, women are always taught to obey the teachings of the men in charge. It is a culture that encourages confidence for the men and self-doubt for the women. In such a setting, it is unlikely that women’s voices will be heard and listened to. Instead, the church’s goal is to promote men’s teachings at the expense of women across the world.

It is understandable in such a setting that women stay silent in a culture that encourages them to be treated last. Feminists need to vigorously reject the anti-feminist church teachings and urge women to defend their own rights—especially when their church is not doing so—and urge victims of sexual harassment, assault, or rape to speak up even when the church tells them not to or opposes them when they do.