It won’t wash with women

 — Mar. 15, 199715 mars 1997

Part of the challenge to the Irish Catholic Church comes from the changing role of women. A professor of law at Belfast University points out that mainstream opinion now holds positions which the Irish hierarchy cannot yet cope with.

Have any Catholic bishops in Ireland undergone equal-opportunities training? It is a serious question that I have asked before with a depressingly predictable answer. I could have asked the same question about the Pope and the entire Curia and been tolerably sure of the answer.

The fact that the answer is a resounding no is problematic today in a way that it was not even four or five years ago. The Western secular world has felt the impact of decades of serious equal opportunities debate, critique, research and legislation. Its momentum has gathered in Ireland as in many other countries, bringing all of us up a steep learning curve which has changed the face of education, employment, social policy, politics, human relationships and cultural perspectives. Some bastions of conservatism remain slumped at the bottom of the curve. Others climbed it reluctantly, some were pushed and yet others jumped it.

In a small, relatively homogeneous country such as Ireland, with a well-educated and well-read population, there was always the possibility that a fluent and persuasive argument would over time produce a critical mass of converts. There was also the possibility that the Church’s isolated, single-sex power structure, with its communication highway facilitating the downward but not the upward flow of information, would be slow to appreciate what the chattering classes were saying, thinking and concluding. The upshot is that within the Irish Church as elsewhere there is a nervous deadlock between those who believe in the God-ordained equality of women and those who do not.

It has never been just a debate between men and women. Rather, it has been a debate between the rigid, conditioning forces of an old world and the challenging, insistent voices of the new emerging world. What is more, the latter, despite the recent chilling retrenchment on the ordination of women and indeed possibly because of it, scent victory not far off.

Not so long ago the voices alleging that sexism was grotesquely disfiguring Christ’s Church on earth were voices from the margins, shouting at an edifice, a citadel, so well protected it seemed to be impenetrable. Inside the Irish division of that edifice, an all-male clergy had a perfect and seemingly safe alliance with Irish mothers. Faith flowed from generation to generation, down the conduit established by that formidable partnership. It flowed freely because there was trust, deference, even servitude on one side, presumption and paternalism on the other.

The poet W.B. Yeats describes the relationship as a code of ignoble submission — a harsh judgment perhaps, given the adverse social status of women across the globe and in virtually every religious denomination in his day. His words, however, find an echo in the more recent words of Pope John Paul II when he said: In every time and place our conditioning has been an obstacle to the progress of women. Women’s dignity has often been unacknowledged, they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude. . . . If objective blame especially in historical contexts has belonged to not just a few members of the Church for this, I am truly sorry.

The very fact that this Pope has felt it necessary to return frequently in the past few years to the subject of women, tells its own story. His words are not those of a man who believes he is on the comfortable side of a debate. Far from it; they are the words of a man who is slowly realising that the citadel’s defences have been breached and its once staunch defenders are a declining population.

Nowadays, when voices are raised in support of a much more radical view of the role of women in the Church, the voices do not come from remote margins or fringes. They are not the testy voices of those whose frustrations have driven them out of the Church; they are instead the voices of people (men, women, priests, nuns and the occasional bishop) whose feet and faith are planted foursquare inside the Church, who love it, live it and are determined to stay in it and to change it. Anyone attending church-based meetings where the subject of women and the Church is being discussed cannot help but notice, as I have, that the faithful mainstream has changed sides. The conversion process is not yet complete but it is not far from it.

There are those who assert that the current hiatus in trust between the faithful and the institutional Church has been largely caused by the recent spate of child sexual abuse scandals affecting clergy, and their poor management by church authorities. The truth, rather, is that they have merely quickened the pace of decline in the deteriorating relationship between the faithful (particularly women) and the Church’s power structures. The sexist conditioning which Pope John Paul mentioned is no longer mysterious terrain. It has been picked over, its layers exposed, its insidious little ways outed. Most intelligent men and women can recognise sexist cant, no matter how nobly dressed up, no matter how elevated the speaker, from miles away. So when the Holy Father admits the Church just might have been a teensie-weensie bit sexist at times, we wait for the next obvious statement — that the Church is going to take a long, hard, scholarly look at itself.

It is going to try to understand how its own thinking, its very own understanding of God, has been skewed and damaged by 2,000 years of shameful codology dressed up as theology and, worse still, God’s will. But the statement does not come. Instead the big gun, the howitzer of Infallibility, is armed and aimed.

Do the faithful lie down and take it? Do they humbly submit to an edict which purports to bind in perpetuity? Not in Ireland, they don’t. Nowadays, they argue back, armed with the insights of fresh, modern scholarship which puts conservative dogmatic theologians under a harsh and unforgiving spotlight. Nowadays, women of profound faith can be heard to say that they feel called to the priesthood. They speak with a new-found confidence and are listened to with a new-found respect.

The dynamics of priesthood have altered radically along fault lines some of which have yet to be openly acknowledged and explored. Women have observed the enormous drain of heterosexual males from the priesthood and the growing phenomenon of gay priests. They are quietly asking what is happening at the core of the call to priesthood that attracts homosexuals in much greater numbers than their population distribution would explain. These questions are not being raised in any homophobic way but are among the raft of questions bubbling to the surface as we struggle to come to terms with the manifest demise of the model of priesthood on which the priest-mother alliance was once founded and is now foundering.

A crucial irony exists in this debate. Both sides believe they are fighting for the very life and existence of the Church. They cannot both be right. Defenders of the Vatican line, who sound more and more like Communist Party apparatchiks hawking redundant clichés, have often in the past characterised Ireland as Catholicism’s heartland, the one place where the faith would never waver, where a sure witness to fidelity could be always found.

Curiously, I believe they are right — but for the wrong reasons. Few hierarchies face as tough a battle to maintain credibility and relevance as the Irish hierarchy. They need allies, in particular among women of faith. Those women are willing to forge new alliances, but today the women talk a language many of these men simply do not understand and have difficulty relating to. It is the language of tomorrow’s world, not the language of yesterday’s seminary.

That old language has yet to be unlearnt. It is rapidly becoming a badge of irrelevance and long past its sell-by date.

Posted: Mar. 15, 1997 • Permanent link:
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