Wednesday, March 8, 2023

How the Roman Catholic Church Uses Gender Ideology to Threaten Human Rights by Dianne Willman

(Address  by Dianne Willman at United Nations: CSW WOW -Side-event​​​​​ on 6 March 2023)

How the Roman Catholic Church uses gender ideology to threaten human rights

By Dianne Willman



There are various issues in the RCC that relate to and detrimentally impact women. Today, only speak to the ban on women’s ordination to the priesthood in the RCC. I also use a broad understanding of gender ideology as a backdrop, namely the assignment of certain roles, responsibilities and rights to men and women, supportedby beliefs that maintain a status quo of inequality.

With this in mind, I approach today’s topic in two ways:

First, the ban on women receiving the sacrament of holy orders or ordination to the priesthood as a human rights issue from a South African perspective, which is one that arises from the experience of apartheid, and
Second, the existence of gender apartheid in the RCCagain based on the South African experience

In the time available, I am only able to speak to these two issues at a high level. It is hoped however that some contribution is made to the current discourse on women’s ordination in the RCC from a uniquely South African position.

I begin first with some context for this exploration, namely an overview of apartheid

Note: I am not speaking in an official capacity neither on behalf of my professional organisation nor that of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement. I do however draw on available material and lived experience.

Dianne Willman RCWP- South Africa 


Apartheid context

South Africa is a country that endured the horrors of apartheid, which is a recognised crime against humanity. It was a system of oppression carefully crafted along both racial and gender lines, which employed, amongst others, particular political philosophy concerning race using religious justification and natural characteristics of differences between people to justify oppression.

It was a system of state control. The more attempts were made to raise consciousness and counter the oppression, the harsher the reaction of the stateAmongst others, information was censored, and fear and violence was used.

Justice Ngcobo in a case in the South African Constitutional Court aptly describes the apartheid system[it was] a legal order that did not respect human dignity, equality and freedom for all people. Discrimination fuelled by prejudice was the norm. Black people were denied respect and dignity. They were regarded as inferior to other races.

In brief, one small group of people dominated anotherlarger group of people in an oppressive manner premised on severe prejudice arising from a particular ideology. Anti-Apartheid activist Stephen Biko is noted to have saidthe greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressedThus captured, the engine of oppression could continue to operate. 

The political notion of “separate but equal” was and is a liethat protected those in power.

We entertain no doubt that apartheid was evil.

Human rights were transgressed as a matter of course, some key ones being the rightto equalityhuman dignityand freedom.

It is out of this context that a bill of rights was crafted and South Africa transitioned into a new dispensation.

A brief look now at the country’s Constitution and the interpretation of human rights provides useful considerations that address the first issue mentioned at the outset: could the ban on women’s ordination constitute a human rights issue in South Africa?


South Africa’s constitutional order and its impact on the ban on female priestly ordination

The Constitution recognises core values which include dignity, equality and freedom. Academic writers on the issue point out that the ban on women from the priesthood undermines these values in various ways, and key humanrights are triggered: for example the rights of equality and dignity, and occupation.

Researchers have observed that the Church in its various legal instruments has focused on women’s functions in relation to motherhood, domesticity and nurturing. In the apartheid context, this translated to women being deemed weak, unable to reason and inadequate to engage in public and political activities. Women, as it has been argued, are in an inferior position to men as a resultSince priestly ordination includes leadership and decision-making functions, from which women are excluded, women remain in an inferior position to men in the Church contextIn addition, women are not able to participate meaningfully in the beliefs and practices of their faith tradition, and their evolution. All these speak to human rights issues.

It is a given that human rights are not absolute in nature. Freedom of religion for example is not absolute especially when its female members are subordinated, discriminated against and marginalised by those in power. Anything that reinforces stereotyping of women and patriarchy is rejectedin our constitutional dispensation.

The Constitution provides for a limitation clause in which human rights may be limited if, amongst others, it is reasonable and justifiable to do so. A case can be made out for example that freedom of expression and religion can be reasonably and justifiably limited in respect of the ban on women from priestly ordination:

there is a shortage of male priests and thus a need exists for female priests;
RCWP priests minister to those who are marginalised by the RCC’s beliefs and practises and therefore give effect to the spirit of the Constitution;
the lived reality is that women feel called to be priests, congregants desire such change as appears from synod reports from this region, and some male clergysupport such changeeach party desiring to practise their Catholic faith, that is, to maintain their association in the institution;
a further reality is that of clerical abuse that arises from, amongst others, a belief system concerning male priests only being able to represent Christ

Our courts have made human rights findings that impact particular religious traditions. They have stepped into the private sphere if constitutional values are undermined. It has been held that a small group’s beliefs and values cannot trump constitutional values. Our Constitutional Court and dispensation is not afraid of being at odds with the RCC – for example, the court’s recognition of same sex marriage stands in direct contrast to teachings of the Catholic Church. The Constitutional Court has held that religious discourse is not a means to interpret the constitution. Religion in South Africa is not a monolithic structure that cannot be penetrated.

Significantlyas one writer has indicated, constitutional validity is assessed in the context of the diversity of the South African society – simply put, diversity is valued and informs human rights interpretation. The Constitution tolerates and celebrates diversity. The latter adds a novel dimension – the Constitution is a living document that supports a living organism, namely South Africa.

South Africa’s human rights regime aims at being transformative in nature: recalling the past and creating a new dispensation at the same timeThis new order includes transformation of power relations between women, men, institutions and laws. It is about addressing patriarchy and gender oppression.

Transformation includes considerations of caring for another and implementing steps that are meaningful – transformation is not simply a matter of inserting different bodies into previously excluded spaces.

To this end, South Africa is influenced by an African concept called ubuntu: this is the recognition that our relationships with one another are critical to our growth as individuals and communityto put it simply, I am because you are. South Africa is relational and communitarian in nature. Respect and affirmation are important qualities.The Catholic Church’s practice of excluding women from ordination may raise questions from the perspective of ubuntu.

South African constitutional interpretation is, as writers have indicated, informed by the “never again” principleNelson Mandela declared in his inauguration speech in 1994never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another ….. This is a powerful influencing factor in determinations that are made. The exclusion of a certain group of persons by anothernamely the clerical caste, would need to pass through this lens.

In conclusion, there is a strain of thought that the ban on women from ordained ministry amounts to unfair discrimination based on genderThe Constitutional Court as some authors have argued would have jurisdiction to entertain such litigation. Even if this position is wrong, the necessary attention will be drawn to the issue and serve to raise awareness. It is a win-win situation.


Gender apartheid in the RCC

Against the backdrop of apartheid, could we speak of a gender apartheid that exists in the RCC based on the ban on women being ordained?

This idea of gender apartheid is not new. Retired Catholic Woman Bishop Patricia FresenSouth African theologian who was ordained through the Roman Catholic Womenpriest movement spoke of it in an address in 2005:

“Today, in this post apartheid time, what we have is a transformed South Africa, a rainbow nation,  . . . Now we in the Church are on another ‘long walk to freedom’, this time freedom from sexism, from unjust discrimination against women in the church, freedom from oppression by the privileged clerical caste in the church.”

Academic writers such as Ann Mayer have also introduced the notion of gender apartheid in other religious contexts albeit in the context of state entities. There is still value in adopting this concept in non-state contexts. It provides a language and a lens to assess the nature of and extent of injustice. A few reflective thoughts are shared in this regard.  

First, the law of the RCC is clear on the discriminationonly baptised males may receive the sacrament of holy orders. See Canon 1024As in the case of apartheid, it is a ban that rests on natural human differences, being gender in this case

Second, the discrimination is arguably supported by a systemic order / infrastructure. I name a few:

church law as described above 
a particular institutional arrangement that re-inforcesthe discrimination: it is re-iterated through the performance of sacred actions like the sacraments using selected sacred texts and a particular exclusive language (information about female religious leadership is controlled through the selective use of readings in the lectionary)
a clerical caste is established holding higher rank and authority than members.
paradigm exists through the theological fiction of “in persona Christi” which associates priests as speaking for God and representing Christ.
A penal system exists in respect of non-compliancewith church law, namely that of excommunication in the case of attempted ordination by women

Third, the discrimination is an infringement of human rights as described earlier.

Finally, the exclusion of women from the priesthood is based on the same lie as apartheid: separate but not equal. 

For these reasons, it is not difficult to conclude that the exclusivist practices of the RCC in the context of women’s ordination are tantamount to gender based apartheid.


Concluding remarks: there is hope

Apartheid was dismantled and is still being dismantled. Concerted efforts aimed at transformation deconstructed the oppressive system and reconstructed a new reality.South Africans have a strong sense of the evolutionary nature of change, or the “long walk to freedom” as Mandela described. We can therefore hope for change in the RCCthat is effected in a liberating, healing and non-violent way.

There are many ways in which the desired transformation in respect of women’s ordination has already commenced: consciousness has been raised through feminist theologians and advocacy groups, as well as thembodiment of the change through RCWP, its priests and communities.

A leader also exists in the form of Jesus who empowered women, and envisioned and established a new way of being community which involved a different expression of power relations. A founding document if you like exists in the form of the Gospels that provide the values that the church itself attempts to espouse. We also have the primacy of conscience that the RCC sanctions. Finally, there is the Holy Spirit, the advocate, who is always at work, blowing where she wills.

Thank you.


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