The Catholic Church is not only one of the world’s oldest and largest organizations, but also one of the most resistant to change. The Church is presently struggling with many disturbing internal matters, including a wide-spread sex abuse scandal (and cover-ups), and international resistance to its policies towards abortion and birth control. The patriarchal roots of these issues intersects with another on-going controversy of note—which is the focus of “Pink Smoke Over the Vatican”—the ordination of female priests.
Viewers may be surprised to learn of the early days of Christian history, in which women played a prominent role. The film discusses the organized efforts of male leaders to expunge female leaders from positions of authority, including those who were “called” to the priesthood. In doing so, the significance of gender in the socially constructed history of the Church becomes all to apparent.
The film reveals that the issue of ordination is not only about whether women can be ordained, but also what to do with the women who already have been ordained. A variety of interesting interviews introduce a lot of female priests from numerous countries. The strategy of pro-female ordination supporters has been for sympathetic male bishops to ordain women priests and then to eventually ordain some of them as bishops, too. Then, these women bishops had the power to begin ordaining women themselves, mainly in Europe, but now also in North America.
One of the more paradigm-shifting elements to “Pink Smoke” is the footage of female priests leading mass and other religious ceremonies. For Catholics who have only known men to assume these roles, such events will look other-worldly. The faithful—and definitely religious Catholics—are the intended audience of the film, and as such the film is sometimes a bit “churchy” (especially true for non-Catholics and the non-religious). But, even for others, the film explores the crucial points of debate around the issue that even lay-non-laity audience can appreciate. Some of the female priests go as far to argue that many of the other scandals (e.g. regarding sexual abuse) would be better addressed by female leaders. While it does not take much counter-evidence to show the wide-spread corruption of female political leaders (particularly heads-of-state), there is a qualitative point to make about the starkly different gendered approaches that women may bring to the Church’s leadership. Many of the interviewees point to gendered double-standards: the all-male Church hierarchy maintains the status quo by reference to Church laws that were made by earlier men (which they assert are not God-derived laws). Interestingly but unsurprisingly, many of the ordination supporters were inspired by other social movements, including South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement and the American civil rights movement.
Perhaps the predictable post-script to “Pink Smoke” has been the Church’s reaction to the ordained women. Many have been excommunicated or are being threatened with it. Roy Bourgeois—the director of the School of the Americas Watch and a male supporter of female ordination—was interviewed prominently in the film, but after the film’s release, he has since been excommunicated from his Maryknoll order.
Topics: sociology of religion, gender, social change