Peggy Noonan believes she has figured out how to save the Catholic Church from the effects of the recent child sexual abuse scandals. She advocates a three-part “reform” agenda to “turn the Church around.” First, Noonan reiterates her longstanding position that the Church needs to retire Cardinal Bernard Law, who headed the Boston archdiocese when it became the scandal’s focus. Second, she suggests that the Church should promote younger nuns and priests to positions of authority in the Catholic hierarchy. Third, she says, “most especially and most immediately, they need to elevate women.”
There is no doubt about Noonan’s desire to see the Church flourish. She acknowledges that “the verities it speaks of and stands for are timeless and transcendent.” She wrote a laudatory book about Pope John Paul II.
Unlike Maureen Dowd, Noonan does not expressly advocate putting a nun in the Papacy (Nope for Pope). Instead, Noonan demands the immediate elevation of women to unspecified positions of authority in the Church.
The question of women’s role in Christ’s church is not a new one. Especially in recent decades, Christians everywhere have struggled to define women’s role in the Church in light of (or in contrast to) women’s changing role in society. Baptists, for example, espouse the priesthood of all believers, including men and women. From that notion, one might logically find no theological objection to women serving in the ministry or leading churches. Many Baptists, however, believe that “pastoral leadership is assigned to men,” meaning that women should not serve as pastors. For support, they point to Paul’s statements that women should remain silent in church and should not teach or have authority over a man. They consider these universal proscriptions, in contrast to Paul’s injunctions for women to refrain from wearing gold and to keep their heads covered when praying. These latter pronouncements are somehow contextually bound and culturally contingent.
Catholics have longstanding theological objections to elevating women to roles of authority in the Church, including the priesthood. They rely on the same Pauline statements and also note that the Twelve who Jesus chose were all men, even though other first-century religious sects employed priestesses. They also point out that Jesus was, in effect, something of a women’s libber, so his choice of the male-only Twelve must represent a purposeful statement about the role of women. Further, Catholics see the Church as the bride of Christ and, in the Eucharist, the priest stands in the place of Christ, the bridegroom of the Church.
Whether you agree or disagree with Noonan’s opposition to more than two thousand years of Church history and practice, you might reasonably expect Noonan to bear the burden of persuasion to show how her proposal would save the Church.
In that regard, Noonan’s only apparent evidence is a nun’s comment to her that “if a woman had been sitting beside a bishop transferring a priest with a history of abuse, she would have said, ‘Hey, wait a minute!’” Really?
Hey, wait a minute. A brief survey of the Bible suggests that sin is evenly distributed across the sexes. Adam and Eve both ate the forbidden fruit (and not in that order, as Paul was quick to point out). Rachel stole her father’s idols to worship them. Sarah’s jealousy subjected Hagar to vicious cruelty. And, long before Anita Hill, Potiphar’s wife put an undeserved dent in Joseph’s professional reputation and nearly destroyed his career.
Salome’s request for John the Baptist’s head on a platter infamously and murderously succeeded. The woman at the well had married five times and was a sixth man’s concubine. The woman caught in adultery escaped stoning only when Jesus intervened to shame her accusers (whereas, thanks to the prevailing male hierarchy, her counterpart’s survival did not require divine intervention). In short, women are just as likely as men are to sin for just as many reasons as men sin.
Noonan’s proposal has the beauty of simplicity, equality, and political correctness. Even if men are, on average, more likely to commit sex offenses, Noonan does not suggest that no men should serve as priests. Instead, she seems to focus on the composition of those Church leaders who decide whether to report or discipline priests suspected of child sexual abuse. And yet, she offers little if anything in support of her reform agenda other than her “wait a minute” anecdote. Noonan gives no evidence to show that women would more likely report or discipline priests suspected of child abuse. Nor does she provide any reason to conclude that female Church leaders would less likely err than men did in the handling of these cases.
In some sense, Noonan’s argument implicitly relies on maternal stereotypes of women as more nurturing and protective of children than are men. However, a significant body of evidence demonstrates that fathers actually can play an important role in protecting children from physical and sexual abuse.
Ultimately, if elevating women into positions of authority would “save” the Church from a scandal that presents an existential threat, as Noonan claims, she provides scant explanation, much less a cogent explanation, to support her theory.