Mar 4, 2019

The recent Hollywood movie, On the basis of sex, tells the story of the first successful court case argued by Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the 9th Circuit Court. The subject matter was discrimination by the Federal Tax Laws, against a man who was denied a tax concession as his mother’s carer, on the grounds that only women were regarded as carers. It was the early 1960s, and one wonders how such an antiquated view could have still prevailed in the USA legal system.

The court room scenes make for compelling viewing. The three judges’ comments are equally riveting.

As the trial proceeds we come to hear that the judges hold their antiquated views for many reasons . Firstly, they argue from their own and others’ family experience: mothers are the Natural carers; men are the bread winners. Secondly they argue that this understanding has existed since creation: in essence, these are the God-given roles of men and women. One judge even reminds Mrs Ginsburg, that the word “woman” is not even mentioned in the American Constitution (presumably implying that men are to make and interpret the law). She replies: “neither is the word freedom”, a comment which makes a solid impact on the judges.

She goes on to win the case, and thus change 1/270 pieces of legislation in the USA which are built on discrimination, and which must each be dismantled individually. The struggle is not yet completed.

What is the point of this story? The simple answer is akin to the well know Australian political expression:” It’s the economy stupid”. In this case, “It’s the system , stupid”. In Bader’s case, it was all the assumptions under-pinning the law.

The Catholic Church’s current crisis is also anchored in more than sex only. The confusion and disbelief experienced by many people at Cardinal Pell ‘s being found guilty, is often expressed as “How could he do such awful things as a priest.” The “awful things” are the sexual acts he allegedly engaged in with minors. This is a shallow understanding of the complexity of the problem.

“It’s the system stupid !”

For centuries the church has developed a complex theology, anthropology, ecclesiology, and canon law, that together have formed a system of beliefs and practices that have generally not been subject to sustained and systematic challenge. Whilst the Church says that it is always in need of reform, it usually does not take kindly to serious reform efforts e.g. Luther, the Protestant Reformation, Liberation Theology, the Second Vatican Council to name a few.

Occasionally a victory in one part of the system is acknowledged. A few years ago the Church agreed to dispense with the theological teaching about Limbo being the eternal resting place of innocent babies who died without baptism. One has to ask what kind of a God did the Church imagine at the time that this theological doctrine was being developed, and supported for centuries.

Now the “ontologically different” theological teaching about the nature of being a priest, is being questioned. Again it is based on some very strange notions of God, priesthood, and obedience. I suspect that teaching’s days are numbered.

Canon Law holds that only clerics can have a deliberative vote in the Australian Plenary Council underway at present. One wonders why, when most of the thinking is being done by religious and laity

Women are still regarded as either inferior or dangerous to the clerical order.

Having survived years of scorn from some of the Church’s saints and leading theologians, women are still not accorded a rightful and equal place in the Church’s decision making structures—especially where the big decisions are made.

Pope Francis has criticised much of the self-referential nature of contemporary ecclesiology (understanding of the Church as Church). He is trying to lead the Church to a vision more closely aligned to that expressed in Vat 11 documents, especially in The Church in the Modern World. Why does he struggle?

It’s the system stupid.

The system has given rise to many problems for the church, yet the biggest problem is the system itself. This complex web of traditions, beliefs , practices, laws, structures, ways of making decisions, un-examined value stances, attitudes, and defence mechanisms, has made real and effective change almost impossible.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg knew that she would have to dismantle one piece of legislation at a time, if all people were to be treated equally under the Law in the USA. Catholics are facing the same task with the institution called Church.

It’s not sex only that is the problem.

Garry is a retired adult educator and facilitator of change in institutions. He is an active member of the Catholic Church.

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