Pharisees in Manila

By Luis H. Francia
The Inquirer
October 28, 2010

NEW YORK, United States—Why can't a woman be a priest? Why can't there be a Mama instead of Il Papa? Why can't the Catholic Church grow up?

When the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines let it be known that President Aquino might face excommunication were he to support a reproductive health bill that would reduce the country's population growth, it was yet another blazingly clear instance of the institutional Church's retrograde nature.

The drivel that population growth has nothing to do with the sorry state of the nation's economy and resources has long been camouflaged as unassailable truth. Confusing contraception with inception, the dim bulbs among the clerics immediately went on the offensive (and in the process became offensive), and displayed their all-too-familiar, holier-than-thou stance.

If anyone needs sex education, it is these men of the cloth: they should do themselves and the nation a favor and get to know the difference between a condom (that which a man slips on) and a condo (in which one can live, eat, and sleep in).

When gadfly Carlos Celdran, in a getup suggesting Jose Rizal, offended the eminences when he drew a comparison between them and the fictional, slimy but utterly believable Padre Damaso, and demanded that they keep their paws off the RH bill, were they put off because the allusion was cutting it too close to certain personal truths they would rather the public not know?

But first, what does this have to do with allowing women into the Church's sacerdotal realm?

Simple: Power holders hate giving up power and the princes of the church are no exception. Hence, any liberalizing of traditional church doctrine that results in empowering women is anathema to the Vatican. Behind the fear of family planning lies the deeper fear of having women control their own bodies, and shaping their roles, whether in civil or religious society. If there were women deacons, priests, bishops, and an Il Mama, the church as we know it would be fundamentally changed. For one thing, it would come to represent much more faithfully its congregation.

Alas, the Vatican finds such potential change so unnerving that since 2008 it has threatened with excommunication any woman ordained as a priest and the person ordaining her. In its eyes, being a female priest is as grave a moral offense as pedophilia. That is correct: a woman at the altar saying mass is equated with a priest sexually abusing young boys and girls. And yet we all know how reluctant the Vatican has been in purging its priestly ranks of pedophiles. In fact, then, a woman in priestly robes presents a more repulsive sight to the Vatican than a priest out of his robes and getting down and dirty.

This past August, Sr. Fran Ferder, a Franciscan nun and clinical psychologist, and Fr. John Heagle, a priest, psychotherapist, and canon lawyer, both professors at Seattle University, had this to say in The National Catholic Reporter: "The refusal to allow women into the inner sanctum of ecclesial power may well be related to clergy sexual abuse, and to the Vatican's impotence in addressing this crime in a truly pastoral way. Is the attempted ordination of women a crime, or is the real crime the refusal to allow it?"

I learned fairly recently that there are already women priests who are Catholic. They don't belong to Rome, but to the Old Catholic Church, which sprung up in the mid-19th century when its members rejected Rome's centrality and the doctrine of papal infallibility. It has its churches mainly in Italy and Switzerland, which are part of the Union of Utrecht and in full communion with the Anglican Church. As with the Anglicans, OCC priests are allowed to marry and raise children.

Coincidentally, the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, or Philippine Independent Church, whose congregants are better known as Aglipayans (after its first head, the secular priest Gregorio Aglipay, military vicar for Aguinaldo's army), participates in communion with the Anglican Church, and is thus loosely affiliated with the OCC. Founded in 1902 initially as a reaction against the Spanish friars who saw no difference between themselves and the colonial state, the PIC has a nationalist orientation, and is less dogmatic than that other home-grown, Christian-derived Iglesia ni Kristo, run as a personal fiefdom by the Manalo family.

I wonder if my late sister Myrna knew about the OCC. She would have fit right in, as the OCC is much more relaxed about gender roles, and disdains the conventions with which they come cloaked. Myrna passed away last June, claimed by a cancer that had ravaged her body, though not her spirit. She had been a nun for more than forty years, a member of the ICM Congregation, the order that founded and runs the St. Theresa schools in the Philippines, from Quezon City to Cebu to Baguio (and which this year celebrates the centennial of its presence in the islands). In her spiritual journey, my sister came to view gender as more symbolic when it came to spiritual matters. She referred to Mother Jesus, to God as a woman, and no doubt shocked some of her more conservative co-sisters (though I must say that this past summer having gotten to know the community of nuns with whom she lived for most of her life, they all seemed to have their feet planted firmly on the ground, their spirituality tempered by the unforgiving realities that surround us.)

When I first wrote on Myrna's spiritual odyssey in Eye of the Fish: A Personal Archipelago, I envisioned her as a pre-Hispanic babaylan, after having visited Mt. Banahaw and its various spiritual sects. One of these, Tres Personas Solo Dios (Three Persons, One God), limits its priestly ranks to women, a link to the babaylan tradition. Myrna would not have been out of place in a spiritual community that was more empowering of her as a woman. In her homily on the occasion of her twenty-fifth anniversary as an ICM nun, she quoted Rilke (her favorite poet) and referred to "a steadfast compassionate Mother God who knows where we are going even if we ourselves sometimes don't." On that occasion fifteen priests concelebrated Mass, for my sister and six other celebrants. I found it ironic then, as I do now, that no woman was at that altar, and can't say if anyone of those priests would have objected to a woman as one of their number.

I don't know if my sister would have opted to don a priest's robes even if she could but she surely would have made an excellent priest, were the Vatican not so testosterone driven. An acquaintance remarked that with a replica of a Spanish galleon docked at Manila earlier this month, and the Church's continuing medieval diatribes, it seemed to him that the country was in a time warp. Indeed, it is.

One could say that the institutional church is rife with Pharisees, keen on the letter of the law but dead to its spirit. The temple needs to be purged of them. They threaten to excommunicate those who dare question their dogmas, when the truth is so many of us have beaten them to the punch and excommunicated them.


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