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The cautionary tale of Pastor Amy

Pastor Amy Butler (Getty)

Those who think a female priesthood is the answer to the Church's woes need to consider this story

Trouble roils Manhattan’s Riverside Church, the neo-Gothic behemoth on the Upper West Side that serves as one of the enduring bastions of American liberal Protestantism. As the New York Post (where I serve as op-ed editor) first reported last week, the church and its pastor, the Rev Dr Amy Butler, mutually parted ways amid accusations that Butler, known as “Pastor Amy”, had taken underlings and a congregant on a sex toy shopping spree.

So much for liberal Catholics’ undying belief that ordaining women is the answer to our troubles.

While visiting Minneapolis for a homiletics festival in May, Pastor Amy allegedly took two junior ministers and a congregant to a sex shop called the Smitten Kitten, per the Post. There, she spent $200 for a “bunny-shaped blue vibrator called a Beaded Rabbit for one minister – a single mom of two who was celebrating her 40th birthday – as well as more pleasure gadgets for the congregant and herself.”

The alleged element of coercion – the junior ministers reportedly didn’t want to join Pastor Amy on the raunchy shopping trip but feared retaliation if they declined to go along – led to a formal harassment complaint days later and a third-party investigation. Eventually, Riverside and Pastor Amy concluded that the latter’s position was “untenable”, per the Post’s sources.

In an apparent attempt to forestall the Post’s exposé, Pastor Amy’s allies ran to the New York Times. The Grey Lady duly obliged with a story that painted the pastor as a victim of sexism and a progressive champion, who had written “in searing, and deeply personal, terms about her decision years ago to have a late-term abortion”.

The Times also politely alluded to the pastor’s “push for a substantial raise”, another point of contention with Riverside that predated the sex toy episode. But according to the Post, Pastor Amy was seeking $100,000 in additional compensation that would come on top of her $250,000 salary, plus a six-month housing allowance worth $48,000 and “annual retirement contributions of $59,000 for three years”.

I enumerate these details because they should (but won’t) disabuse liberals within our fold that the celibate male priesthood is somehow to blame for Catholic sexual abuse crisis and ordained women are the unum necessarium, the one thing needful, to fix the Church. That notion has received a lot of play in the liberal media in the aftermath of the McCarrick affair, with the New York Times as usual leading efforts to remake Catholicism in liberalism’s image.

“In barring women from the priesthood … the Catholic Church is adhering to a rule, a mere custom, that is contrary to God’s intent,” cried humanities professor Alice McDermott in a Times op-ed in February. “It is this grave moral error, far more than priestly celibacy or Catholic sexual repression, that provides the implicit rationale for abusive priests.”

Set aside the specious claims about “God’s intent”, how, exactly, is a male priesthood as such the “rationale” for abuse?

McDermott raised the question and offered a series of non sequiturs in answer: “The institutionalised misogyny of the Catholic Church reinforces the notion of women, and their children, as the lesser … That error cannot be corrected as long as women cannot be priests.”

But see the problem of sexual abuse by Catholic nuns, which has bedeviled us for decades but which has only come to light in recent years. By 2006, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) had received some 400 reports of sex abuse by nuns in the United States, a figure that the organisation’s director said only “scratches the surface”. The rates are now receding, in part due to aggressive anti-abuse protocols implemented across the Church and in part to the overall decline in the number of women religious.

Women can be sexually abusive or coercive, too. Women as much as men, in the secular and religious realms, can be prone to any sin. It would be a great folly for Catholicism to trade the male-only priesthood – with its deep roots in Scripture, history, Christ’s identity and the nuptial mystery of the Church – for Pastor Amy’s mess of pottage. The better course would be to double down on the ascetic, spiritual struggle against sin.

It is worth noting that Pastor Amy’s first predecessor at Riverside was Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969), who declared: “Of course, I do not believe in the Virgin Birth or in that old-fashioned … doctrine of atonement, and I do not know any intelligent Christian minister who does.” May the Ever-Virgin Mother of God shield the Catholic Church from that Riverside brand of intelligence.

Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald. He is at work on a book exploring 12 questions our culture doesn’t ask