Canadian Human Rights and the Vatican’s “Closed Door” Policy

This week in Canada marked the official opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. The historical movement in Canada for equal rights for women and the end to discrimination based on gender is sure to be a central focus of the museum. There will be exhibits about women’s suffrage, about women in the workplace, about women in politics and in the universities. We often think of museums as housing artifacts from the past, but in many dimensions of Canadian society, the movement for women’s equality continues and, in some social institutions at least, it is still in its infancy. The Roman Catholic Church in Canada is one such institution.

Early in his papacy, Pope Francis said, “With regards to the ordination of women, the church has spoken and says no. Pope John Paul [II] said so with a formula that was definitive. That door is closed.”

When that door closed is a matter of some reckoning, but with each new pontiff, closed doors must be checked for cracks of sunlight that may be making their way through, and re-closed if need be. Pope Francis had obviously exercised due diligence in his door checking and was emphatic that the door was safely, securely closed against any intruders who may have threatened the Vatican stronghold.

Many doors have been slammed shut in the faces of members of the Church by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The door that closed on women’s ordination, finally, firmly and forever protects the all-male caste of priests who operate with relative impunity behind it. On the other side of that door, many people – both men and women – who had been pounding on the door and asking the warden to open it have slowly walked away. With them, I find myself on the wrong side of the door, closed out from full participation in the complete life of the Roman Catholic Church because I am a woman.

This experience has been definitive in my relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.

Something about the opening of the Canadian Museum for Human rights has moved me to try writing about this topic at least once more. As I contemplate the great strides women have made in Canadian society, I am a bit ashamed that I have stood, staring at a closed door for an unreasonably long time.

Among the many artifacts housed in the museum, there will not be one that describes the overcoming of the Roman Catholic Church’s discrimination against women and the event of the first official ordination of a Canadian woman. Among the many artifacts describing women’s achievements, illustrating the movement of women into arenas of social life that were formerly only open to men, there will be accounts of other religious evolutions that ended gender discrimination. That is encouraging and these artifacts depict a vibrant tradition, in Canada, of striving towards full human equality in all areas of social life.

Those artifacts will show closed doors only in rear view mirrors – doors that now stand either partially or fully open, visible in backward glances and perhaps one day completely lost to view, except in museums.

The closed door that is marked “Roman Catholic Women’s Ordination” is only one of many doorways, thank God. When we turn around and look at the world, we can see very plainly that this closed door is of very little consequence when there are so many other open doorways beckoning to us in a world where intelligence, reasonableness and responsibility trump tradition and allow for things to evolve and change.

Women in Canadian society gave up waiting for change, and instead moved toward full participation and an end to their discrimination. Women changed their own behaviours and stopped their complicity in systems that sought to limit their involvement and to keep them in place. Women today can see more clearly how they are involved in the dynamic of deceptions that determine not only how they cooperate with their own oppression, but how they have been unwittingly complicit in their own manipulation.

We still have a long way to go. In fifty years, will the Canadian Museum for Human Rights house an artifact that describes the progress of the Roman Catholic Church towards full equality for women?

Only time will tell.


About Kathryn Perry

Kathryn Perry, MDiv, is an alumna of Regis College, Toronto. She is the author of The Courage To Dare: The Spirituality of Catherine Donnelly, Founder of the Sisters of Service (Novalis 2013).
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One Response to Canadian Human Rights and the Vatican’s “Closed Door” Policy

  1. Shaunagh says:

    Awesome post, Kathy! Great to hear you are back at it after the summer. We will have to re-connect and make that last foiled phone call happen once again! Winnipeg is my home town, a friends daughter is working at the museum. I will have to get out there one of these days.

    Gmail is my new account.



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