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Mystifying Male Power As Domination: Theological Roots Of Child Sex Abuse

By Carol P. Christ

17 April, 2010

Mary Daly said that when God is man, man is God. The theological mystification of male power as domination or power-over is one of the key roots of child abuse. Men in general and priests in particular have been taught that it is their God-given right to exercise power over women and children. The ability of priests to get away with child abuse and the failure of the Roman Catholic Church to respond stop it can be traced directly to the notion that a priest reflects the power of God to his congregation. Because children are taught to think of priests as holy men who are “like God,” it is hard for them to recognize that priests who abuse are doing something wrong. Because the Church is invested in maintaining the fiction that priests are “like God,” it has found it difficult to acknowledge that some priests were and are using their power in decisively evil ways.

In its defense the Vatican has stated that child abuse is more likely to be perpetrated by family members, friends, and neighbors than by priests. This is undoubtedly true. When I taught Women’s Studies at San Jose State University and at Harvard Divinity School in the 1980s many of my students told me blood-chilling stories of abuse by their fathers, brothers, and grandfathers. However, this only goes to prove my point: not only “the Holy Father” but all fathers and indeed all males benefit from the mystification of male power as domination. It is hard for victims and other witnesses (including wives and mothers) to believe that allegedly all-powerful males are doing something wrong. A church that teaches that God is male is responsible when children and adults conclude that the male is God.

In a recent statement the Vatican alleges that only a small number of priests are actually child abusers, arguing that 80-90% of the reported abuse was by “homosexual” priests who were “attracted” to boys between the ages of 11 and 17. According to the Vatican’s logic, 11 to 17 year-old boys should not be considered children and thus the offense is not so great. Give me a break! An 11 or 12 year-old and even a 16 or 17 year-old who has been taught that the priest is his “Holy Father” is still a child and is still a victim of the abuse of power. The abuse of slightly older children is in some ways a more heinous crime, because such children can more readily be convinced that in some way they “wanted it” or “asked for it.”

In 2008 the Vatican declared that changing male God language to gender neutral terms like Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier would invalidate baptism. Baptism, it insisted, must be in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Vatican is quite well-aware that to tamper with traditional male-only language for the Trinity is to question the direct line of male authority that moves from God the Father, to the Holy Father, to priestly Fathers, and to all other fathers.

The project of changing male (dominant) language for God to which I have dedicated much of my life is neither insignificant nor trivial. Mary Daly was also correct when she wrote that God the Father presides over the “Unholy Trinity” of Rape, Genocide, and War. Women still need the Goddess and we all need a Goddess/God who is omnipresent but not omnipotent, a Goddess/God who shares our joys and sorrows and who would never ask us to follow blindly or to submit to any abuse of power in family, church, or society.

Carol P. Christ, author of Rebirth of the Goddess and She Who Changes, has worked to end racism, sexism, and war all of her adult life. She leads Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete to share a vision of an ancient culture that honored women and the earth and did not celebrate war. Space is still available on the spring and fall 2010 pilgrimages.