The other half of the Church

 — Apr. 16, 200516 avril 2005

This is an edited version of a speech made to the annual meeting of the National Board of Catholic Women, held in Coventry on Saturday 9 April.

For all the Vatican’s increasingly enlightened view of women’s role in the world, prejudice still prevents many from participating fully within Catholicism. Changing that needs to be high on the next pope’s agenda

Last week I stood in a pew at Westminster Cathedral watching the procession to the altar for Solemn Vespers for Pope John Paul II. It was an impressive, dignified sight, with Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the bishops of Westminster diocese, priests, ecumenical and interfaith guests, and the choir gathering for a service to commemorate John Paul II. Both the procession and the service could be perceived as a metaphor for the Church and its relationship with women. The voice of a woman was heard just once, reading a bidding prayer and the reader, a cleric from another denomination, was one of just two females in the procession. The other was a young teenage altar server. The congregation, however, was different: I would estimate that more than half the people attending were women.

The same was true of the Pope’s funeral last week. One woman read a lesson; another read the bidding prayers; while others brought gifts to the altar. We don’t always notice the extent to which the Church remains dominated by men when attending our own parish churches, where one parish priest works alongside many women involved in the Church’s life. But the funeral Mass for John Paul II with its row upon row of cardinals, of bishops, and priests makes it all too apparent: the Catholic Church, for all the progress that women have made within it, remains dominated by men. There the power still lies.

The question as to how the experience and role of women can be reaffirmed within a Church which is run by men — and which upholds a masculine characterisation of God — has of course been the cause of much debate in recent years. Certainly, it will be difficult to shift from the patriarchal attitudes we still have in the Church — where masculine language is the norm.

Do words matter? Yes, because in them we find fundamental beliefs and thoughts, and a predominantly male vocabulary in relation to God can be damaging to faith, understanding and action. Many women have been alienated by this over the years.

Conversely, in Scripture, the image of God as a woman has been used time and time again as a metaphor — at least, the love of a mother for her child has been used in this way. One example of this is in Isaiah 66, verse 9 where we read: ‘As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.’

This metaphorical language was successfully adopted by the Catholic Church, and, unlike Protestant Christianity, Catholicism continues to see the Church as a maternal body, a community of salvation, of interdependence brought to life by the sacramental presence of Christ.

Yet for all this, and the well-known gospel accounts of Christ’s warm, affirming encounters with women, the Church has long had difficult relationships with them, even with those such as Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila, eventually recognised as not only saints but doctors of the Church. (However, it has to be acknowledged that Catholicism is arguably unique among religions in keeping alive the writings of so many women mystics and saints.)

In the 40 years since the Second Vatican Council, there has been change. The altar is no longer the preserve of men. That service at Westminster Cathedral last week was, I am glad to say, an unusual experience for me. Usually when I go to Mass nowadays, I will find plenty of women there, participating as readers, and as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, giving out Communion, and involved in music ministry.

Many priests do welcome women. They encourage girls to work alongside boys as altar servers; sometimes what they do makes women realise how culturally conditioned they are. I was at Mass once on Ash Wednesday and the elderly priest asked a woman extraordinary minister of the Eucharist to help him distribute the ashes: she looked as surprised as I was by this request. But of course there was absolutely no reason why she shouldn’t do this.

Women are also heavily involved in other aspects of the Church: in catechetics, preparing people for sacraments, such as baptism; in education; and in social action. They have been at the forefront for many years of campaigning on justice issues such as debt relief, and in projects with the poor, homeless and with prisoners.

Despite such involvement, the desire to exclude women lingers, as was noticed a couple of years ago by the then Nuncio, Archbishop Pablo Puente. In his address to European Catholic women at a conference in London Colney, he said: “When [women] seek to participate in deliberations and decisions, then sometimes the alarm bell rings’ in certain environments, some people still do not allow women to be the ‘thinking Church’. And you are and must be the thinking Church.”

Then, last year, the Vatican couched its overtures to women in terms of the need for partnership when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith produced its letter to Catholic bishops on ‘the collaboration of men and women in the Church and in the world’. Much of it was an idealised portrait of women, who were perceived by its author, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as essentially maternal, loving and faithful.

But Cardinal Ratzinger also took aim at thinking that suggests that powerful women have to be ‘adversaries of men’. This, he says, can have ‘lethal effects on the structure of the family’. Gender wars also lead to a blurring in thinking, says the cardinal, and ‘differences tend to be denied, viewed as mere effects of historical and cultural conditioning’.

A thorough reading of the document reveals some surprising, and welcome, thoughts. Take this comment, for example: ‘Women should be present in the world of work and in the organisation of society… women should have access to positions of responsibility which allow them to inspire the policies of nations and to promote innovative solutions to economic and social problems.’

It later reminds the reader that unjust sexual discrimination must be combated. That might not seem much to Westerners (although 35 years after the Equal Pay Act women in this country don’t have equal pay), but the document was not just being published in Europe and the United States. It was also to be read by bishops in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

When the Vatican talks about women, it’s not so much the CEO of an American blue-chip it has in mind but a woman working 16-hour days for a few pence in Cambodia to make designer shirts for our markets, or an Hispanic migrant subsiding relatives back home by cleaning toilets in Los Angeles. Consequently, Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter emphasises the importance of women working outside the home being ‘able to do so with an appropriate work-schedule, and not have to choose between relinquishing their family life, or enduring continual stress, with negative consequences for one’s own equilibrium and the harmony of the family.’

Men and women should have relationships of harmony, of mutuality, it says, reflecting on the meaning of the Genesis story of Adam and Eve. A woman should not be an inferior in her relationship with a man, but his helpmate, his partner, his vital helper, Cardinal Ratzinger writes, warming to his theme.

To Catholics more used to the Church thinking in terms of women’s acquiescence and subservience, this is a welcome revelation. A pity, then, that the document does not give credit to the people who first began interpreting the Creation story in this way — feminist theologians. A pity, too, that the document does not follow its own theme — collaboration — and point out that being ‘helpmates’ requires fathers to be just as involved in child-rearing as women. And a pity, too, for all the Vatican’s increasingly enlightened thinking on the role of women in the world, its more familiar prejudices come shining through in its attitude to women in the Church itself. It still remains the case that the further down the Church you go, the more women there are. Women are at the base of the pyramid but as you look up toward the apex, the women thin out.

Today, there is an undoubted shortage of priests in Britain and Western Europe, but it is clear that in the Church’s eyes, the solution does not lie with women’s ordination. The late Pope not only ruled out women being admitted to the priesthood but said there should be no more discussion of the issue.

Yet without women, could the Church really cope with this crisis? Throughout the West, it is the laity who are doing more and more of the work once done by priests in the parishes, and for the large part that usually means women propping up the pyramid. Sometimes of course it is the laity, including women, who are unwilling to embrace change; they are not culturally conditioned for it. Sometimes the status quo is just easier, and all too often, the women are either taken-for-granted volunteers, or are low-paid pastoral assistants. That surely needs to change.

There is no reason why women should not be involved in the work of the Church further up the pyramid either. It is 17 years since the National Board of Catholic Women’s report revealed discontent among many women because they were so discriminated against in the Church. Women felt their skills and experience were not being used in areas such as marriage tribunals, higher education, child welfare, finance, ecumenical issues and vocations. Today, they feel that expertise is still not being valued.

Occasionally one sees signs of change. As women have grown used to being taken more seriously in the outside world, so more of them expect the same respect from the Catholic Church, and insist that there is no reason why women cannot be involved in the governance of the Church at the highest levels.

Last year several women took up positions within the Vatican. The Harvard professor, Mary Ann Glendon, was appointed to lead the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, while Sister Enrica Rosanna became number three in the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life. Elsewhere in the Church a growing number of women are becoming theologians and canon lawyers and, armed with knowledge, are challenging the Church. But not enough of the fine words, which we hear from time to time from the hierarchy acknowledging women’s worth, have been followed up by action.

John Paul II leaves behind him Catholic women who are grateful for the work that he did. They understood what he achieved by his witness for people, regardless of gender, speaking up for the dignity of the human person. If you are a woman who lived under Communism in Eastern Europe, a woman who has worked in sweatshops in Asia, or a woman in the West who has heard the Church speak up against the increasing sexualisation of young girls, then you will be giving thanks for the last pontificate.

John Paul II in his teachings emphasised continually the role of women in the family, as the rock on which it would be built. While secular feminists might perceive this as a patriarchal analysis, for most women the family undoubtedly is vital for self-worth, enrichment and commitment. It is also clear that the late Pope saw the greater participation of women in public life as vital to their well-being as a whole and as a counter-weight in the societies where they are exploited.

As we await the election of the next pope to lead a Church with such a powerful sacramental theology, for which the priest is key, what else does it offer women? What are the key issues that they would like to be confronted during the next papacy?

A new pope who welcomes women would understand that it is important to go further in dialogue with them, and that means going beyond the appointment of a few to head up pontifical academies that have advisory roles. Instead women should be appointed to run curial dicasteries, which execute policy, are full-time and require residence in Rome. Pope John Paul ensured that in his lifetime these headships were entirely male.

There is the risk of assuming that women priests are the only answer to women’s greater involvement in the Church. The danger is that women’s ordination would re-emphasise clericalism, and just expand the clerical class. Do we really want the Church to remain a pyramid — with layers of laity, then priests, bishops, cardinals and finally the pope at the very apex? Or do we want a collaborative Church symbolised not by the pyramid but by a circle, of arms locked in unison?

For many women who have no interest in positions of governance, or even in greater participation at parish level, there is one issue above all which needs addressing, and that is birth control. While the Second Vatican council’s document Gaudium et Spes evaluated sexual acts as expressions of conjugal love, and emphasised love that leads to lasting fidelity, the Church’s view that such acts should be open to the possibility of conception, is one based on centuries of philosophical and theological teaching. If Pope Paul VI had taken the advice of his commission on birth control, that teaching would have been re-interpreted. But at the last minute he changed his mind. Since then, that traditional teaching, in the West at least, has been ignored, for all its reiteration by the late Pope in his apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio. I imagine many Catholics who ignore it do not think twice about doing so. For teaching to be so out of step with the experience of good, loyal Catholics and to be so flouted cannot but harm the Church’s credibility.

Archbishop Puente spoke of the need for women to be part of the thinking church. Cardinal Hume, in the document ‘Unity and Diversity’ in 1999, said that ‘the decision-makers are men, bishops and priests. Many of the decisions they take directly affect women, who are not always consulted.’

People who are consulted, people who are thinking: these are vital roles for women to play. They will, women must hope and pray, be the next steps, for they have waited so long for them. But is it enough? Would it not be just for women to be allowed to be among those making the decisions for themselves?

How far away from such justice we are we will discover in the coming weeks. But there is a possible tension here between different calls for justice. For many believe the most progressive thing to happen would be for a black pope to be elected. Certainly, Africa is where the Church is growing, and Catholicism is a universal, not a European Church. But welcoming a pope because he’s African is rather like welcoming Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister because she’s a woman. Symbolically, it would be an amazing moment, but in practice, for women, it could be a deeply worrying appointment.

None of this should detract from how the Church has changed in the past 40 years. But there is one significant example in the Church’s life that proves how much further it could go. While its record on gender equality is poor, on racial equality it has made huge advances. In Britain this might be because it is a church of immigrants — first the Irish, then Poles and Italians, now people from Africa, Latin America and the Philippines. It has spoken up for people time and again over race.

Today there are churches all over Britain where Catholics are helping refugees and asylum seekers — with shelter, with food, with legal help. Catholics number significantly among the lawyers working to fight the government on issues such as incarceration without trial and house arrest. Priests have opened their homes and taken in refugees with nowhere to go. This is a remarkable and little-known story of the Church’s opposition to discrimination. Let us hope that it can be matched with the recognition of another inequality in the years to come.

Posted: Apr. 16, 2005 • Permanent link:
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