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Letters & Op-Eds - 2005

american prospect

Forbid Me, Father

Frances Kissling

5 April 2005

I spent the weekend watching Pat Robertson, Henry Kissinger, George W. Bush, and dozens of others laud the contributions of Pope John Paul II to the downfall of communism and the promotion of human rights; they hailed his clarion call to fight Third World poverty and his uncompromising commitment to respect the dignity of every human person. Never mind that these leaders and many of the commentators, both lay and clerical, have themselves shown little commitment to peace and justice. We all fall far short of our ideals. Never mind the gross oversimplification of various aspects of the pope’s political agenda. Was opposition to communism the same as promoting democracy? How did the call for forgiveness of Third World debt square with finger-shaking at Sandinista priests or calling Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador on the carpet for not listening enough to the rich Catholics of that country? Timing is everything. And in the drawn-out time frame between papal death and the selection of a new pope, a degree of hyperbole and unquestioning praise for a public life extraordinarily well lived (and a death well faced) is a small price to pay for this monumental and contradictory figure.

But the pride Catholics take in the pope’s efforts to reach out to a world permeated by greed and violence is tempered by 26 years of what George Lakoff would surely consider the role model for the punitive father, whose need to control his one-billion-strong family has left the church in profound disarray and distress. While some of us were favored children, all of us were children -- from the older brother bishops to the baby girls. The man who exhorted world leaders to extend democracy and human rights in the world used every means at his disposal to deny Catholics that freedom in the church. He told us women in the global north that we were selfish and individualistic. He romanticized Third World women, who, he believed, care not about themselves but lived for their children and husbands. He told those who were at risk of HIV/AIDS that death is better than sex with condoms. Married priests who longed to be both priests and husbands were sent the message that their desires for human relationships and love were not only unworthy of the priesthood but unworthy of even dispensation from the priesthood. By denying them dispensations from their vows, he condemned them to ecclesiastical limbo -- neither fully priest nor fully husbands. Women who felt called to the priesthood were completely invisible. No need to punish them: one simply told them that even to mention women priests was taboo, beyond the pale of respectable debate.

In no area was the punitive father more evident than in the pope’s reaction to those who, as children, were sexually abused by priests. The man who was able to meet with Kurt Waldheim refused to meet with a single victim of clerical sexual abuse.

Most painfully, the pope helped divide us from each other. He favored those children who were patriarchal like him, appointing them to key Vatican posts, inviting them to conferences and concerts in the Vatican and to late-night suppers. He did nothing to tame those bullies who roamed the halls of Catholic institutions turning in the bad kids and did everything to encourage them. Groups like Opus Dei were protected from their local bishops and made responsible to him alone, while religious orders like the Jesuits found themselves under strict Vatican supervision. Even bishops were publicly humiliated, removed from authority in their dioceses whenever they deviated from papal orthodoxies. Brilliant theologians who questioned the pope’s interpretation of moral theology lost their jobs or simply decided that teaching in Catholic institutions was too risky. The result is a deeply divided church more polarized than the red and the blue states of America with no popular election in sight to reverse the tide.

Frances Kissling is president of Catholics for a Free Choice.