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That Notorious Good Friday Homily

Raniero Cantalamessa

In his controversial sermon at St. Peter’s last week, Reverend Raniero Cantalamessa expressed no concern for Catholic Church policies that endanger women, writes Angela Bonavoglia, author of “Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church.”

It was indeed outrageous that Reverend Raniero Cantalamessa in his Good Friday homily at St. Peter’s Basilica, with Pope Benedict in eyeshot, compared the public denunciation of the Catholic Church hierarchy for harboring child molesting priests to the homicidal viciousness of anti-Semitism.

While not nearly so shocking, there was another reason to be troubled by that homily. Cantalamessa chose to focus a part of his talk on the need to end violence against women, which is crucial, but he did so without any acknowledgement of the church’s own culpability in the abuse, endangerment and intimidation of women.

“Much of this violence,” he declared, “has a sexual background.” Yes, let’s start there. In 2001, a year before the pedophilia crisis hit the news, the National Catholic Reporter analyzed internal church reports written by two Catholic nuns—a physician who was a Medical Missionary of Mary and the AIDS coordinator for the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development—documenting the sexual exploitation of nuns by priests in 23 countries on five continents.

One of the most stunning allegations concerned a nun impregnated by a priest, who forced her to have an abortion that killed her and then officiated at her funeral. Priests were alleged to have raped young nuns who approached them for the required certificates to enter religious orders; to have told nuns that oral contraceptives would protect them from AIDS; and to have used nuns as “safe” alternatives to prostitutes in countries plagued by AIDS—with some priests going so far as to demand that heads of convents make the nuns sexually available to them.

And it is not just nuns, of course. Like the recently reported case of a 14 year-old Minnesota girl allegedly molested by a priest who was not removed from ministry but simply transferred to a parish in India (this after the Vatican supposedly toughened up its policies), thousands of girls, from infancy through adolescence, have been molested by priests. Adult Catholic women have been subject to clerical transgressions from sexual exploitation to harassment to rape to beatings to potentially negligent homicide. Many sexually active priests have left a trail of wounded women and fatherless progeny in their wake—testament to the hypocrisy in the claim of a celibate priesthood.

Cantalamessa expressed great concern about violence “in the relationship between husband and wife,” crediting “many associations and institutions” that provide women with support. Yet, the founders of those associations and institutions were not Catholic clergy, but secular feminists, whom the church hierarchy regularly and ruthlessly condemns. And if domestic violence is such a priority for the church, why did Pope John Paul II beatify Elizabeth Canori Mora—the path toward sainthood—a beaten, abused woman, subject to both physical and psychological violence at the hands of her errant husband, for her “absolute fidelity” to the sacrament of marriage? And what of the church’s policies—so well known—that endanger women worldwide?

Its condemnation of birth control, despite the fact that voluntary family planning not only prevents maternal deaths (which take half a million women's lives each year) by helping women delay risky early pregnancies, space births, and reduce HIV transmission, but also increases the survival of babies, who are most likely to survive in the developing world when they are adequately spaced.

Its refusal to approve condoms to prevent AIDS, a position that 60 nuns calling themselves Sisters for Justice of Johannesburg publicly decried several years ago on behalf of women and girls. They urged the oblivious Church fathers to change their life-threatening theology and recognize that 14 to 19 year-old girls faced the greatest incidence of new HIV infections because of the “high incidence of forced or reluctant sexual intercourse” and that women were at great risk of infection due to “abusive, oppressive or desperate relationships or circumstances.”

Its absolute condemnation of pregnancy termination, leaving 60,000 women to die each year from botched procedures, a position so extreme that they excommunicated the mother of, and the doctor who ended the pregnancy of, a nine-year-old girl raped by her stepfather.

Cantalamessa pointed out that intimidation is violence too, empathizing with the “wife and children [who] live under constant threat of ‘Daddy’s anger.’” Yet, this church, this Pope, this hierarchy, continue to threaten any woman in the church who dares challenge authority and call for radical change. And make no mistake; it is women in the church who are the ones clamoring for change.

It is Catholic women who have written about gender-inclusive prayer language and been fired for it; defended the rights of gays and lesbians and being silenced for it; fought for women’s ordination and been excommunicated for it; blown the whistle on priest sexual shenanigans and been relieved of their duties for it.

Many of these change-makers are nuns. Witness the 60 leaders of religious orders, representing 90 percent of the 59,000 Catholic women religious in the United States, who defied the American bishops and supported health care reform, insisting that legislation that helped pregnant women was “a REAL pro-life stance.”

Representative Bart “I-don’t-call-up-the-nuns” Stupak—who at that point, like the bishops, opposed health care reform for being insufficiently pro-life—tried to minimize their power, but it is real. It is why the Vatican has launched two confidential investigations into the lives of American nuns—not American bishops. One is examining the “quality” of their religious lives; the other is focused on their alleged “doctrinal” failures—like questioning an all-male priesthood.

In relationship to that angry dad, Cantalamessa suggested reminding him that “The word addressed to Eve after the fall: ‘He (the man) shall rule over you’…was a bitter forecast, not an authorization.”

Someone ought to tell the church fathers that.

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