Vatican stirs storm on women priests in clarifying law on clergy abuse

The Vatican tries to clarify laws on women priests and clergy abuse after critics were outraged by inclusion of women's ordination on a list of grave crimes.

Riccardo De Luca/AP
Members of the Women's Ordination Conference celebrate a mass at the Anglican church in Rome, Wednesday, June 9, 2010. Groups that have long demanded that women be ordained Roman Catholic priests took advantage of the Vatican's crisis over clerical sex abuse to press their cause demanding the Vatican open discussions on letting women join the priesthood.

Vatican officials today said the attempt to ordain women in the Roman Catholic Church is not an equal crime to priestly pedophilia – even as critics point out that in practice, the ordination of women is dealt with more harshly inside the church than are charges of priests abusing children.

The Vatican clarification came on the heels of uproar in and out of the church after issuing new rules that made it easier to discipline priests. The rules lengthened the church’s statue of limitations on investigating victims from 10 to 20 years – and included women’s ordination among a list of grave crimes.

Women’s groups, theologians, and reform Catholic organizations disagreed sharply with the content and appearance of an issuance of church law that had ordination of women on a list that included heresy, schism, and pedophilia

“We completely disagree with ordination being raised inside a document and announcement on pedophiles and important crimes,” says Raquel Mallavibarrena of the Madrid branch of “We Are Church,” an international reform group whose European and American branches issued a protest today. “We are fighting for the ordination of women and supporting the equality of women in the church.”

'Not on the same level'

A Vatican official, Charles Sciciuna of the church doctrinal department, however, told Reuters agency that the two issues “are in the same document, but this does not put them on the same level or assign them the same gravity …  this is not putting everything into one basket.”

The revelations of priestly child abuse this year put the Vatican on the defensive, airing in the world’s press as the problem extended past the United States to Ireland, Austria, Belgium, Germany, and elsewhere. The new Vatican rules on pedophilia are seen as a response to anger and a loss of trust in the church.

 Many Catholic reform groups, particularly in the US, have pushed for the ordination of women as a response to an institution dominated for generations by men and male sensibility.

The argument has tracked a number of directions, including a more modern understanding of female spirituality, as well as a pragmatic argument that women priests would begin to take up what is an evident decline in the number of new priests.

The Vatican statement this week on women’s ordination appears to be a major orthodox pushback against this view, which is seen as liberal and “un-Catholic,” experts say. Currently, women or those ordaining women are quickly excommunicated as a violation of sacramental law.

Priests found abusing children, however, are disciplined under a different canonical law and rarely excommunicated.

Differing interpretations

The pedophilia scandal has brought internal disagreements over “authority” and correct interpretations in the Vatican, most of which have been dominated by Pope Benedict’s vision of a traditional if not orthodox Catholicism.

Leading Jesuits, such as the late Karl Rahner, once thought to be a candidate for pope, argued in the 1970s that women should be ordained, and pointed to the prominent position of females in the early church. He pointed out in his writings that the first person Jesus met after the resurrection was a woman.

Catholic theologian Karl Joseph Kuschel, a reformer at the University of Tubingen, argues that in the orthodox position that the pope represents, “the bottom line is that the priest acts as the person of Christ. Dating back to the church fathers, and before them the apostles and the person of Jesus, it was all ‘himselves’…. the position is not a sexist one, but a literalist one – Jesus was a man.”


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