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The Catholic Church & Feminism in the Age of #MeToo

For the first time, Pope Francis publicly acknowledged that nuns have been sexually assaulted by priests in the Catholic Church. On his returning plane ride from Rome from the United Arab Emirates, he said, “It’s true. There are priests and bishops who have done that.”

He admitted that the church has already taken action in the past by suspending clerics. And he added, “Should more be done? Yes. Do we have the will? Yes. But it is a path that we have already begun.”

While this is the first time the pope has publicly acknowledged the issue, it is something that has plagued the Catholic Church for decades. Nuns have suffered from sexual assault and rape, which have led to forced abortions and fatherless children.

There are documented cases of the sexual assault of nuns by male members of the church as early as 1994. Sister Maura O’Donohue sent the Vatican the results of her multiyear, 23-nation survey, which documents cases of abuse. In one case, 29 nuns had been impregnated in a single congregation. According to her findings, priests thought of nuns as “safe” sexual partners, as they feared prostitutes or other women had HIV.

On another note, celibacy isn’t a law of the Catholic Church despite what many may think. University of Florida professor Angel Kwolek-Folland has a Ph.D. in U.S. Women’s History. Dr. Kwolek-Folland is also the former Director of UF’s Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research and President of the South Eastern Women’s Studies Association.

“The requirements of celibacy for priests is not a commandment, nor a teaching of Jesus, nor even a law of the Church,” Kwolek Folland said. “It is a tradition that emerged in the middle ages and could be overturned with a stroke of the pope’s pen…So, really, none of the revelations about priests engaging in sexual activity are a surprise, especially after what we have learned about what went on in the US Church over the past 20 years.”

Kwolek-Folland said that mandating anti-sex practices results in institutional secrecy and that sexual activity is not the same as non-consensual sex, whether it be with minors or nuns who are bound to the church and therefore are powerless. She finds the most surprising aspect though, to be the church’s cover-ups of the numerous sexual assaults.

“What no one is really talking about is what must have happened as a result of the rape of nuns – abortions or children,” Kwolek-Folland said. “The cover-ups for those will no doubt ultimately come out, and I would like to hear how the church and Catholics explain that, given their focus on the “sanctity” of marriage and prohibition against abortion.”

A prominent public figure in the sphere of Catholicism is professor Lucetta Scaraffia. She is the editor of the Vatican’s women’s magazine, Women Church World.

“If the church continues to close its eyes to the scandal — made even worse by the fact that abuse of women brings about procreation and is therefore at the origin of forced abortions and children who aren’t recognized by priests — the condition of oppression of women in the church will never change,” Scaraffia said.

Scaraffia garnered attention in the past with other remarks, like her 2012 statement: “There is misogyny in the church [and] women in the church are angry!” She has long been an outspoken “Catholic feminist” fighting for equality of opportunity for women in the church. She believes women should carry out more leadership roles in the church but also does not believe women should be able to hold the position of priest

While it seems modern-day feminism typically aligns with more left-wing ideologies, there are plenty of people working to change that perception. Feminism and Faith in Union is an organization that attempts to incorporate feminist energy and truth into all kinds of religious institutions. In January of 2018, they held a rally (inspired by the Women’s Marches) in New York at Union Square Park in order to spread their message.

However, Dr. Kwolek-Folland argues that modern feminism isn’t truly left-wing.

“Feminism is a theory and philosophy that focuses on progressive empowerment for women,” Kwolek-Folland said. “But that is not the property of any particular political stance. There are many strains of feminism, both currently and historically.”

She goes even further to say Catholicism is a faith which may potentially uplift women.

“The Catholic Church has been known as an important supporter and nurturer of female empowerment since its inception,” she said. “It’s the only mainstream religion that continues to hold up a woman as a leader and role model (the Virgin Mary), and it has numerous female saints who express important tenets of the faith…So in that sense, Catholicism has the potential to empower women, and in many ways does.”

Kaya Oakes is a woman who identifies as a Catholic feminist. She has often been questioned as to how she can be both a Catholic and a feminist.

“Believing the testimony of women is what makes the #MeToo movement so crucial. . . Feminism is both necessary for being a Catholic woman and one of the reasons you will be tested as a Catholic feminist…We are both Catholic and women,” she said. “God created us to be our full, authentic selves, and God sees us as our full, authentic selves. And sometimes we have to stand up and say this: We hope the church can do the same.”

Cassidy Hopson is a junior at the University of Florida majoring in journalism. Follow her on Twitter @CassidyHopson.
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