In the Wake of #NunsToo, It’s Time for Repentance and Conversion

It didn’t take long for #ChurchToo to follow #MeToo as survivors came forward to name the harassment, abuse, and assault they had experienced at the hands of clergy. Now we’ve added #NunsToo to the list, as the Pope has at last publicly acknowledged priests’ abuse and sexual assault of nuns. All this, of course, follows on the scandal—still not fully exposed—of widespread sexual abuse of children by priests.

It’s all so terribly mortifying—and even worse, not at all surprising.

The sexual abuse of nuns is not the problem. It’s the symptom. The problem is patriarchy—and the church’s participation in, benefit from and maintenance of sexist structures of power.(Victoria Pickering / Creative Commons)

Feminist theologians have been pointing out the patriarchal underpinnings of the church for decades; when feminist philosopher Mary Daly realized she couldn’t separate Christianity from patriarchy, she abandoned it all. While most feminist theologians don’t go quite that far, we remain clear in our calls for change that transformation won’t be found in a few tweaks to church policy.

What the Church needs—both the Roman Catholic proper and the notion universal—is conversion. Rather than being a radical, counter-cultural force for love and justice in the world, the Christian church has instead mostly been an active participant in a status quo that devalues, exploits and violates women with impunity. The church has shown that at its core, it believes in, embodies and propagates patriarchy.

Christian theology begins with misogynistic views of women’s responsibility for the Fall, women’s weaker nature, women’s greater distance from God-likeness, God’s inherent maleness, women’s exclusion from ordained ministry and male authority. Priests have a lifetime of being told that men are more like God than women, that women are subordinate to men, that women are temptresses responsible for men’s desire. Within the Church, they’re told they’ve been called by God—that they, and only they, have the power to administer the sacraments; that they act on behalf of God and in God’s stead.

In this context, how could anyone surprised that priests abuse nuns? 

Allowing priests to marry is not the answer for this problem—though that’s an important, separate question that the Church should address. Priests don’t rape nuns because they want to have sex. Priests rape nuns because they want to exert power. Allowing priests to marry won’t change that. (One needs to look no further than the number of married men who the world over commit sexual abuse and assault for proof.)

This is not a case of a few bad apples. Christian misogyny is institutionalized in the structures of the Church and the church, and these structures exist mostly to benefit men—particularly the men who receive the most power from them as priests and pastors. In the Church’s hierarchy, nuns answer to the authority of men. When men have unconstrained authority over women, abuse inevitably follows.

The proof is in what we are witnessing. The Church is still unable to come to a full accounting of its abuse of children; it still hedges, deflects and denies. The Church also knew about the abuse of nuns, long before the Pope’s acknowledgement—and in light of its excruciatingly slow response to child abuse by priests, the Pope’s promise to do something about the abuse of nuns doesn’t provide much comfort.

Exactly how much is the Pope willing to do anyway, if he still clings to the notion that women belong under the authority of men in God’s house? This Pope may be a kinder, gentler patriarch, but he is still a patriarch. He may be moving the Church forward on some issues, but he still reinforces women’s subordination. (This dichotomy alone reminds us how critical an intersectional analysis of power remains in communities of faith.) Radical reform of priests’ treatment of women will not come as long as the Church continues to teach that women are secondary—that women cannot represent Christ to the congregation and are somehow still just a little less like God than men.

The sexual abuse of nuns is not the problem. It’s the symptom. The problem is patriarchy—and the church’s participation in, benefit from and maintenance of sexist structures of power.

The way forward lies, ironically enough, in the language of theology. Repentance involves a deep and thorough self-examination of wrong-doing, a full accounting of the harm done and a sincere commitment to restitution and reparation. Conversion means making a 180: repenting and making right the wrongs done to women as well as transforming every inch of the life of the church from its center to ensure welcome, respect, equity and justice for them, across their differences and in every facet of life.

It’s time for the church to renounce its misogyny. It’s time for the church to refuse patriarchy. It’s time for us to construct a new beloved community—a true and inclusive kin-dom of God.


Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.