There was some more bad news for women out of the Vatican this week. Or maybe not, depending on your point of view and career aspirations. The Swiss Guards, those gaily clad men who protect the pope and provide security in Vatican City, won't be admitting women to their ranks.
At a press conference to talk about plans for the Guard's 500th anniversary next year, the commander, Colonel Elmar Mader, said the reason women need not apply was that the quarters are "small and cramped." The Guards, he said, are "young, and I don't want to enlist problems. I'm not saying that women are not qualified to be in security forces," he added, "but it is a question of discipline."
Reading the quote reminded me of one of the more light-hearted breaches of discipline I witnessed at the Vatican.
A few years ago during one of the synods that happen periodically, a group of American nuns decided to hold a small, peaceful demonstration in St Peter's Square to protest against the ban on women being ordained as priests. It is, however, illegal to do that kind of thing in the square, which is Vatican territory. Ever since the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II the Italian police have had the job of working with the Swiss Guards to protect the square. As soon as the nuns unfurled their banners, a young carabinieri officer was on the scene.
He politely asked the nuns to roll up their banners and leave. The nuns explained to him in English what they were doing, adding that they felt they had a right to be there. He didn't understand a word, and one of them spoke Italian, which gave them the advantage of being able to plead ignorance of what was being said, even though it was obvious.
After several more futile attempts to communicate, the policeman turned to us and asked if we could explain to situation to the protesters in Italian.
"They know you want them to move," I said, "but they think they have a right to be here. They're nuns."
Since the women were from a progressive order that eschews the traditional habit in favor of conventional, if sober clothing, it took a few seconds for the policeman to accept that the answer was serious.
It was a first to see a carabinieri at a loss for words. Being Italian, he had a huge problem. Law breakers or not, one simply does not manhandle women the age of your mother. With "nun" added to the mix, he was totally flummoxed.
Being the kind of people nuns are, the protesters wanted to spare the young officer embarrassment almost as much as they wanted to make their point, so everything ended politely and peacefully. But it was a small example of the problem the Vatican has in dealing with anything related to sex, be it in the gender or practice sense.
The latest somewhat confusing attempt is the issue of homosexuals in the priesthood. The official Catholic Church position is that homosexual acts are "grave sins." A long-awaited church document on the subject bars "those who practice homosexuality, present deeply rooted homosexual tendencies or support so-called gay culture" from being ordained or entering seminaries.
The directive says that if the "problem" is "a case of homosexual tendencies that are merely the expression of a transitory problem (for example, as in the case of an unfinished adolescence), they must have been clearly overcome for at least three years before ordination as a deacon.
What is not clear, at least from what has been released and discussed so far, is what connection the Vatican makes between adolescence and homosexuality, and, more perplexing, how those who must judge would-be priests will determine whether or not the "tendencies" have been "overcome" for three years. What, one has to wonder, will be the litmus test?
And then there is the question of why should it matter. A priest acquaintance whom I have no reason to consider homosexual made the point that if you maintain your vow of celibacy, your orientation is irrelevant.
The church elders give every impression of being as confused as the hapless carabinieri.
By Allen Pizzey