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Sinead and the pope pic: in footsteps of St. Brigid.

Sinead O'Connor rips up a picture of Pope John Paul II on "Saturday Night Live." NBC censors cut the segment from later broadcasts. Joe Pesci, the next host of SNL, says he would have hit O'Connor. She is hissed by rock fans at a Bob Dylan concert; Dylan, once a famous iconoclast, does not defend her. Her record sales fall off. Madonna, whose outrages are not political but commercial, criticizes Sinead. Madonna's sales, presumably, go up. What Sinead did, meanwhile, speaks for itself, a shockingly eloquent symbolic gesture that requires not explanation but response. Here is mine.

The outrage is not that a picture was torn up but that the Catholic Church under this pope's leadership has become so fixed in its position as the enemy of women. The outrage is that Catholicism is an obstacle to peace in Ireland. Because her act so powerfully confronts the church's desperate need for reform and takes the church seriously enough to demand it, I salute this woman.

Sinead O'Connor's rejection of papal authority may seem extreme, but it is tame compared with what another woman did a long time ago. I am thinking of St. Brigid of Sweden, who dared tell the pope to his face that he was going to hell. Brigid lived in the 14th century. She was a fierce critic of the decades-long corruption known as "The Avignon Captivity," one of the low points of church history. Popes became so embroiled in the power politics of feuding French and Italian potentates that the spiritual mission of Catholicism was mortally compromised.

A century and a half before Luther, St. Brigid made a resounding call for church reform. In an elegant Latinism, she was known as "The Admonitrix of Popes." In 1373, she confronted Gregory XI with a vision in which she dared to speak as Christ: "Gregory, why dost thou hate me? ... Thou dost rob Me. of innumerable souls; for almost all who come to thy court dost thou cast into the hell of fire.... Rise up manfully, put on thy strength, and begin to renovate my church which I acquired with my own blood. . . . If thou dost not obey my will, I will cast thee down from the court of heaven, and all the devils of bell shall divide thy soul."

Perhaps so many Irish women are named "Brigid" out of the wish to reclaim such fierce integrity. Certainly it is no accident that Sinead O'Connor is Irish. She displays the fury of the colonized rebelling against an imperial master. Ireland, so famously oppressed by London, is oppressed as well by Rome; witness the church's steady refusal to accommodate pluralism in Ireland, even in the face of the sectarian violence that results. Protestants in the North are right to resist domination by a Dublin government that still sings the church's tune on divorce, contraception, abortion and freedom of conscience generally. The pope, of course, could change all that, but be doesn't. And Sinead knows better than we do how the Irish continue to suffer.

But it is as the deed of a woman that O'Connor's ripping up the pope's picture resonates most powerfully. John Paul has become an emblem of sexist patriarchy. He has intervened repeatedly to prevent reconsideration of the unjust exclusion of women from the Catholic priesthood. John Paul's insistence on this point has derailed the movement toward Christian reunion, which his predecessors regarded as a sacred obligation. His reiteration of the ban on contraception not only limits the meaning of sexuality to procreation, demeaning sex as an expression of love, but it also impedes the urgent tasks of slowing population growth and stemming the AIDS epidemic through condom use, and despite church rhetoric, it makes abortion all the more prevalent as a form of birth control.

In each of these instances, women suffer consequences of John Paul's policies in ways that men can barely comprehend.

It wasn't always like this. In 1963, Pope John XXIII issued his momentous encyclical "Pacem in Terris." He identified what he called three great signs of the times: the end of colonialism, improvement in the lives of workers and "women's increasing awareness of their dignity." John XXIII began a process of reform that John Paul has killed. His determination to keep power centralized in the Vatican amounts to "the Roman Captivity" of Catholicism. It is the captivity of theologians who seek to continue the reform, like Hans Kung or Leonardo Boff who are silenced or driven from the priesthood. The captivity of children who have been abused by priests whom John Paul's patriarchal system protects. The captivity of gays and lesbians whose civil rights the Vatican aggressively opposes. The captivity of churchwomen assigned to the margins of the ministry. Pope John Paul II would keep all women captive in a male-dominated sexual ethos. Those of us who long to practice our faith as respectful Catholics have been captive of an inbred reluctance to raise our voices in protest. But these are serious problems. The church is in peril. Reform is overdue. People are suffering because of John Paul II. The time for decorum and good manners is past. We need more St. Brigids. We need Sinead.
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Title Annotation:Sinead O'Connor
Author:Carroll, James
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Dec 4, 1992
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