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RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 29 2013 (IPS) - Jorge Bergoglio begins his papacy as Francis I facing the challenge of a Catholic Church caught up in a burdensome contradiction with modern society, because of its negative attitude to sexuality and women.
“There would be much more common sense, efficiency and tenderness in the church, rather than that immense wave of paedophilia and paederasty in the hierarchy and the Catholic schools” if the Catholic Church had incorporated women into the priesthood and the different leadership roles in the institution, said João Tavares, a married former priest living in São Luis, in northeastern Brazil.
Women, who are “the real pillar of Christian communities,” can no longer remain without equal rights within the church, “as if they were second-class human beings,” he said in an interview with IPS.
As well as being excluded from the hierarchy, a woman cannot even become the partner of a priest without invalidating his ministry, unless they both live a secret, hypocritical life. In practice, women are depicted by the church as a contagious source of sin.
The Catholic Church is characterised by androcentrism, excluding women from its decisions and the performance of its celebrations, although they are the majority of the faithful and the greatest “consumers of spiritual goods,” complained Regina Jurkewicz, one of the coordinators of Católicas pelo Direito de Decidir (CDD – a partner of the U.S.-based Catholics for Choice) in Brazil.
The church’s discrimination against women contrasts with other faiths, such as Afro-Brazilian religions which have male and female priests and priestesses, or Buddhists, who admit women monks, or Anglicans who have women bishops, Jurkewicz, who holds a doctorate in sociology of religion, told IPS.
The clash with reality is even more marked because Catholicism predominates in some regions where women have made great progress in terms of their rights.
CDD is a Latin American network formed in 1996 in association with Catholics for Choice. “We fight for changes in the cultural patterns that restrict the autonomy of persons in our societies, especially women,” the network says on its web page.
The Brazilian branch emerged in 1993, and one of its founders was Jurkewicz, who was active in social pastoral work from a young age. In the early 1990s she encountered feminist ideas and joined other activists in discussing the role of women in the Catholic Church.
The conferences organised by the United Nations in the 1990s, including the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, were important for the development of concepts like sexual and reproductive rights, in spite of opposition from the Vatican, Jurkewicz said.
With “such blinkered sexual morality and such blindness to reality,” the Catholic Church remains a hurdle to progress on these rights and is sliding backwards, she said. The hierarchy continues to reject condom use, contraceptives, abortion, same-sex couples and married priests.
“One consequence of Rome’s imposition of this line is loss of the faithful. Brazil, and other Latin American nations, can no longer call themselves ‘Catholic countries,’ when new religions are springing up like mushrooms,” she said.
The decline in the number of Catholics must have been one of the factors that led to the election of Bergoglio of Argentina, the first Latin American pope, Jurkewicz said.
But in spite of the strides made by evangelical faiths, the region still has a Catholic majority. And unlike in Europe, there is a high level of participation by young people – a decisive factor for the future of the church.
But it is difficult to maintain youth participation levels when running counter to public opinion. A survey carried out by the Datafolha Institute on Mar. 20-21 found that 93 percent of Catholic respondents were in favour of condom use, 64 percent thought that women should be able to celebrate mass, and 51 percent approved of priests marrying and having families.
The poll also found slightly lower percentages saying the new pope should lead the Catholic Church down these paths favoured by the majority. For instance, 58 percent of those surveyed wanted the Vatican to support women in the priesthood, and 48 percent wanted official support for married priests, while 41 percent were against.
Furthermore, 87 percent of respondents from the general population, and 86 percent of Catholics, believed that some priests were involved in paedophilia and sexual abuse.
But the obligation of priestly celibacy “was never a dogma and has no natural, biblical, philosophical or theological foundation; it was a sorry invention of the Catholic Church hierarchy,” said Tavares, in charge of communications for the Movimento Nacional das Famílias dos Padres Casados (MFPC – National Movement of Families of Married Priests).
Questions of “organisation and power,” because it’s harder to control priests who have wives and children, and of economics, because of savings on family support, are behind the rule of celibacy adopted in the 11th century, according to Tavares, who was married in 1979 to Sofía, a philosopher and theologian.
“I loved the priesthood very much,” he said, but he left it after years of reflection, dissatisfied with the “humanly impoverished life” and the mentality of a Church that “instead of being light, salt and leaven for the world preferred power, vanity, great cathedrals and the domination of consciences.”
He joined the Movement of Married Priests, which he presided from 2000 to 2002, in a search for shared values. An estimated 5,000 priests in Brazil have got married, like Tavares, who has two daughters and a granddaughter.
The new pope has already made “captivating, engaging gestures,” such as the choice of his name, his simple lifestyle and his vow of poverty, said Tavares. But, he added, Francis has declared his opposition to abortion and same-sex unions, “so not much can be hoped for on these fronts. Only time will tell if there will be any changes,” he said.
But there is “a certain fear of, or even aversion to, sexuality in the Western Catholic hierarchy,” which from its origins has been associated with “Platonism, in which the body is evil and the soul, trapped within it, longs to be freed,” he said. He also alleged that the last two popes had tried to cover up “the tsunami of homosexuality and paedophilia.”
Pope Francis, as a South American, might want to pay attention to “those two serious and urgent problems,” celibacy and the exclusion of women, said Tavares.
Born in Portugal, the former priest has lived since 1967 in the northeastern Brazilian state of Maranhão, first as a missionary in rural areas and later as a professor of philosophy at a public university in the state capital, São Luis.
Jurkewicz, however, said that only a “conversion” like that undergone by Oscar Arnulfo Romero, a conservative turned progressive archbishop in El Salvador who was assassinated in 1980 for his actions on behalf of the poor and human rights, could move Francis to promote major changes in the Church.
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