Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Women, power of dress or of deed, Why to the priesthood?

Clotel died outside the White House, a house of power. Religion enforced slavery in her case. How many women die in the hands of church law?

Ulrichkirche in Vienna. Pic by H.A.Niederle
So very often, women are heard to argue that they are divested of power in holy structures. So it is easy to see on a Catholic altar, to give an example which was live this Sunday 3rd of February 2013 on Austrian nationally televised mass (ORF 2) – a male colony. The priests, the attendants, the singers in the choir were all male as the mass was celebrated in the male Cistercian monastery of Heiligenkreuz. In the congragation there were women of course.

Many western religions cannot tolerate female presence on the altars. Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and still quite some Protestant as well as some Muslim rites forbid female inclusion. But at what level should women really get concerned about religious participation?  
In the village where I was born in Kenya, the same thing happens in the church. The altar is reserved for men. Girls and women only come to the fringes of the altar, or on the steps that lead to it. Even so, I note in that at home in Kenya, women and girls are made to feel much more part of the congregation through their participation in flowery prayers of the faithful which are readily grabbed as the chance of the faithful to speak out – to intervene. But where is the power of these women when it comes to decisions affecting their own wombs, legs and family? Do they not even hear of the condemnation of a slit in their skirts as part of the congregation?

In contrast in Europe, these prayers of the faithful, bidding prayers, are still very guided. I have seen them read out in St. Olav´s church in Norway during the Phillippina Mass. They appear to be still written down for the prayer reader to follow. That was what happened in Kenyan school masses in the seventies. In many ways Europe is lagging behind in making the ritual of the mass their own, in actual fact, there is no comparison with Africa as far as I know it. Faith there is very personalized and brought home including to the beat of the dance.

But Europe leads the bandwagon in written critical analysis of the role of women in the priesthood and arguing for more of them to be ordained priests. I was in Rome in the 1980s when Baby Paivi entered the Vatican, got into a chapel, dressed in the holy robes and appeared on the altar to serve mass and was then arrested by Swiss Guards and other carabinieri and I do not know where she ended up. She was an activist for women on the altar.

Beyond participation on the altar, women who follow the Catholic faith in all parts of the world have other obligations. The Catholic Church has always provided medical help in hospitals in both the developed and the churches in new emerging markets of the south. What is hardly ever discussed is the quality of the medicine and of the personnel that the church provides. Most of the workers at this level are also consecrated members of the church. And even if they were not, what is the conscience of nurse who confesses the Catholic faith in Kenya today like? Medical personnel who profess the Catholic faith are not supposed to attend to patients in hospitals that allow abortion. In other cases, in the event of the rape of a woman, such personnel cannot recommend the morning after pill in the case of conception. And it does not matter if the patient confesses the Catholic faith or not. A nurse or doctor in this case is first and foremost a believer in the Catholic faith. Is there no conflict with the Geneva Declaration beyond the Hippocratic Oath?

Can any conscience justify the abandonment of a woman who has been raped or a woman in the middle of the expulsion of a foetus on the basis of being of a particular faith? Pray what would be the reaction of a human being in a world where they had never heard of such teachings upon finding a woman writhing in pain under such conditions? Would abandoning be condoned by a human conscience? Matters of morals are very complex in the Catholic faith and what is more, they are not to be questioned.

This church as most people are aware of has a strict code on matters moral. Here everything to do with morality begins in marriage, as before marriage the teaching is to keep off all matters carnal. Marriage is between two, a man and a woman. Marriage is for procreation. Abortion is forbidden. Therefore, whereas separation of couples is viable under strict conditions one of which includes proof of non-consummation of marriage (Marriage in which it can be proven that sex did not occur before the couple parted) there is no divorce. Separated couples do not re-marry. If they should do so, they cannot take part in Communion. Communion is only for those who are clean of soul through confession of sins.

But even before we come to the rate of separation we know that many girls and women have sex outside of marriage. We know that sometimes, their own lives are interfered with brutally by men who then force the girls to move on in different ways. Some of them help them procure abortions, others just abandon them and women and girls at this time also need medical help in many cases. Ultimately, it is the girls and the women that bear the brunt of these situations for they carry the pregnancies and are most affected by the decisions that are made around the matter whether they keep the baby or not.

Under such difficult teachings, I want to refer to my village again. The time came in the 80s when family planning was introduced into general hospitals. Catholics like all others were reached. Some of my adult relatives had Catholic friends who opted to plan their families. This church forbade this but they still did. Of course the conditions of family planning were still not perfect. There are many women who died because Depo Provera was administered badly to them. There were many botched up abortions deaths. Now there were two types of Catholics. The ones who opened up to the new ways and planned their families in more than just the accepted natural family planning method. I knew the two teams. One relation of mine who is still a perfect practicing Catholic knows all her friends were taking family planning pills and no more. We know not what went on between the priest and his flock but they practiced to the end. But she argued that she was lucky that the medicines came when she was menopausal and did not need to worry about this. She said she escaped the hard decisions. But her daughter was one of the first ones to do an abortion in her life. She got help from an aunt to do it and went back to her faith with a big struggle. A big one indeed for it included bouts of depression so big that she would act the local bishop, blessing everyone in the psychiatry ward where she was admitted. It needed no expertise to tell you how guilt plagued her while the other relative went on saying she was lucky she skipped having to make such decisions. How could it be fair to leave such a burden on some generations of women who find themselves at the time of a world invention that includes their own moral lives one way or another? Women who are not even often married to Catholic partners and who are subjected to doing what their church teaches against also at home – that is even if they tried to follow the church?

At what point have we been brutal to women and to so many other people? One time a Catholic gynaecologist in Nairobi told me that he could not operate in about all the hospitals available because abortions were carried out in each one of them. He had resorted to small clinics to keep his faith pure. He was separated from his wife but had children for he adored them with a young student he attracted whilst speaking about gynaecological issues in a college. Well, he was considered important for he was fiercely anti-abortion. He spoke on radio and other media about his fierce pro-life stand. But one of the things he also told me was that at the time he could not work also at the biggest Catholic hospitals in the city. The Mater Misericordiae Hospital because at the time, I repeat at the time, Catholic nuns had abortions there.

Now all this was to remain private matter. And yet Aids had come into the picture already. What was wrong in saying the truth? That nuns were having abortions? We heard more things about who was responsible for the abortions. What this story teaches me is that there is a lot to be examined and re-examined in the Catholic fold, not for any other reason but so that the season of greater honesty may come in. A deeper examination.

On a BBC radio program a young woman said she would rather not be a priest. The discussion was held at the time of John Paul IIs demise. Journalists asked her why and she said first she did not like the kind of dresses priests wear since they put on women‘s clothes and keep women off the altar and secondly that there was no need in joining the same power that is so rigid and averse criticism because it would make her a woman so rigid and against criticism. She and bishop Kilaini of Dar es Salaam were on the program. She persuaded the bishop to tell the Vatican to allow the use of condoms for the sake of saving people from HIV deaths. She sounded very revolutionary then. The bishop said no but said he would try.

In the year 2010, Benedict the XVI spoke a totally different language concerning condoms and HIV. It had not been heard before in the Catholic Church. He said in an interview with Light of the World:

"She [the Catholic Church] of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality."

Benedict cited the example of the use of condoms by male prostitutes as "a first step towards moralisation", even though condoms are "not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection". Reaffirming that the Church considered prostitution "gravely immoral", the statement continued:

"However, those involved in prostitution who are HIV positive and who seek to diminish the risk of contagion by the use of a condom may be taking the first step in respecting the life of another even if the evil of prostitution remains in all its gravity.“

But in the above matters and others, Catholics seemed to have abdicated their personal consciences, the primacy of conscience is not practicable. To this day in Austria, a Catholic, a woman who wanted to have artificial intervention to have a child was threatened with being sacked. She was forbidden to even entertain the very idea. The price would be the loss of her job. It does not end there. The report below is filed in Germany:

Catholic Hospitals which are part of the Hospitals Unions – Unionsvereinigung St. Marien GmbH – declared in a press release from January 16th, 2013 that they provide medical help to all people in the Northern part of Cologne who need it. Why this press release? We naturally imagine that medical help is given to all who need it and no press release is necessary for that. What really happened?

In two Catholic hospitals doctors denied medical treatment to a young woman who was a victim of rape. They sent her away. They are bound but cannot be forced to help as much as possible to support and protect, save lives. The physicians did not even want to start with investigation. They uphold the Hippocratic Oath.

In a German city one should go to a hospital where the treatment of raped women is guaranteed. In many – not only German cities – many hospitals are in Catholic hands. In a case of emergency we do not expect a patient to think first if they are Catholic, Protestant or Muslim. The person will be rushed to the nearest facility. It is clear that if one goes to a Catholic one there will be no help – but will the rape or eventual infection with the HIV virus disappear?

Why did the physicians refuse to help? Because they are not allowed to give the contraceptive pill and almost every woman who is raped tries to avoid a pregnancy. Catholic hospitals are nothing else as enterprises which follow the regulations of the Catholic church but they are supported by the taxes of the majorities and governments. Unless these apparatus are completely private, questions have to be raised about their denial of basic services to a woman in need. In Africa, will they give the anti-retroviral tablets which might also have the impact of the morning after pill. What happens to nuns who are raped in conflict zones? In our research we have heard such nuns get the morning after pill.

If women in need have to go another hospital, a situation that is viable in Europe but hardly in parts of the world, then it is not enough to have the Catholic Primary Health units. It is not to be forgotten that it is torture for a woman to have to go to different hospitals to verbalise her rape again and again. She is not at the time ready for that.
© Helmuth A. Niederle & Philo Ikonya