A Plea for Reform from a Lay Woman

A Plea for Reform from a Lay Woman
I’ve just read a book recently published by Brian Lennon, sj  the title of which is “Can I Stay in the Catholic Church”.   I bought the book because I was fascinated with the title.  I’m a practicing Catholic all my life and what struck me was that I never asked myself this question despite the fact that I found a lot wrong with the Catholic Church down the years.  So it has forced me now to ask myself the same question.   However, my immediate response was I would never leave the Catholic Church because it has been a very important part of my life since birth when my parents baptized me into it and within which I have grown in my relationship with God.  Would I get to God outside the Church?  I’m sure I would, but I would prefer to do it as part of a believing community where I could learn the truths passed down from Christ, be challenged by it’s teachings and interpretations, share the Eucharistic celebration which Christ asked us to do ‘in memory of him’ , celebrate the sacramental nature of the church and celebrate the life and death of all those who were part of the Church down the centuries.     However, when I look at what is wrong in the Church, it comes down to an un-democratic structure, inequality towards women, and a lack of compassion towards those on the margins,  which I believe is very far removed from what Jesus Christ envisaged.
For many years I worked in a Public Sector Trade Union.   I was attracted to this because of injustices I had seen in the workplace.  I noticed immediately that it was inclusive.   As a woman I was entitled to the same membership and decision-making process as a man. The Unions had fought for years to achieve equality for women and these were slowly achieved because women got together and were given a voice. Once you became a member of the Union and paid your fees you had the same rights as everyone else.   You were entitled to free speech, you had a vote at conference, you had a say in the formation of motions and could vote on them.  You had an input into policy.   You could vote for those put up for election.   You might not always like the outcome but the process was democratic.   The purpose of the movement was to fight for justice and human rights in the workplace and as time evolved this was extended to justice, peace and human rights in society at large.  Much of what informed us came out of catholic social teaching which may not have been acknowledged at the time.   Pope John Paul 11 gave a whole new meaning to the word Solidarity when the Church rowed in behind the Trade Union movement in the Eastern Block to free people from unjust structures and organizations that kept them in slavery.   We took up international causes like the anti-apartheid struggle and many more, all the time proclaiming that we were brothers and sisters working in solidarity with each other to achieve a more just and equal society.       This was in the 70’s before the Celtic Tiger.  I remember in my early years having to go to international conferences in Geneva and trade union representatives would meet there from all over the world, from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, England, Ireland, etc.    We were from different cultures,  we were of different colour, different languages and I’m sure different faith churches, but when we spoke we were all brothers and sisters working towards a common agenda, i.e. the fight for justice and human rights for all.   I never felt different or excluded because I was a woman.   I was never asked whether I was single, married or divorced, gay or lesbian, because it didn’t matter, what was important as we sat around that conference table was that we shared a common cause and we faced the challenges that confronted us to make this a better world for our brothers and sisters who were suffering all kinds of discriminations by employers, and others.   It was a solidarity movement with our suffering brothers and sisters.
Then I would go into the Church to pray.  I felt lonely.   In my mind I would often picture us all sitting around the conference table in Geneva and imagine the same group sitting  around the table of the Lord sharing the same issues and fighting the same fight in solidarity with each other.     Then my fantasy would stop and I would be hit with the reality of it all.
I would then see all these men standing up behind the altar, standing all around the altar preaching down to the rest of us with a superior edge.   As a woman I felt I should be under the table, if I was gay I’m sure I would feel I shouldn’t be at the altar at all and if I was divorced well there was no place for me.    And yet if Jesus was sitting at the altar I felt we could all be around him and he would be there talking to us all as equals and teaching us in a compassionate but challenging way what we must do to find peace in our hearts and happiness in God’s kingdom and we would all be so enriched from the experience. I have no doubt we would be able to acknowledge our moral weaknesses and that He would push us further to find the good in each other and to build on that.
I’m still a practicing catholic and If Jesus walked into the Church today I feel I could walk over to him and say howya Jesus and he would put his arms around me and hug me and say back I’m great how are you and we could sit down  and talk and he would listen to me, he would hear my concerns, he wouldn’t judge me, he wouldn’t discriminate against me because I’m a woman, he would encourage me and he would tell me to keep working for change and an inclusive church with democratic structures  where we could all  feel equal,  because that is the way God sees us and that is how he wants us to experience ourselves and each other.
On the other hand if the Pope walked into the church I wouldn’t feel I could walk up to him and say hello. (Leaving protocol aside) I would have to have made an appointment, I would have to wait in line until all the more important ‘others’ in the church  had seen him first like the Cardinals, and the Bishops and the Priests and then the important Leaders in our society (mostly men), so as a woman I would be far down the line.  I would probably have to wear black and put on a black mantilla, and genuflect and kiss his ring and by the time I would have that done I wouldn’t really know what to say to him other than I don’t feel I belong here, I feel somehow inferior in your presence, discriminated against, I have no say in how this churcht is run or organized despite the fact that I pay my dues, but I’m staying because that is what God wants me to do.    God tells me we are all equal in His eyes and promised he is accessible to us all and in a more intimate way within the sacramental nature of our church and I’m entitled to be part of that and receive it the way he envisaged, so what are you going to do to make this possible?
I want to remain part of the Catholic Church.    I don’t want to leave it, I want to be part of a believing community where we can journey together in solidarity with each other towards God’s Kingdom where we can learn the truth passed down to us by Christ, continue to be inspired by the early church fathers, be challenged by the Gospel message , be in a place where we are all equal and everyone is respected.   I therefore want the structures to change. I want a democratic church but we need leadership and support from within the church as well as from outside to help us make this possible.

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  1. Thank you. You have described an inclusive community, a group celebrating Eucharist after the example of Jesus. Everyone is welcome to ‘come as they are.’ I agree with your vision of Jesus. He would not be into protocol at all. To Him, only love, justice and truth would matter. Your reflections on the Trade Union movement reminded me of the Dunnes Stores workers going on strike against apartheid in the 70s. It was a powerful act of solidarity with oppressed people and it cost the strikers dearly in economic terms. What will it cost to free women in the Catholic Church from oppression? We are only at the stage of identifying the injustice. The hierarchy of the institutional Church isn’t even at that stage!

  2. Kathleen Faley says:

    I agree totally with the lay woman seeking reform. Everything you say in regard to the inequality towards women in the Church is so true. The major crisis for believers in the Catholic Church at the present time is whether to follow Christ or follow the Vatican version of the Catholic Church. When Jesus said “Follow Me” (John21:19) he was asking us to follow Him as the Way, the Truth and the Life. The Way of Jesus is the Way of Love, Mercy, Forgiveness, Compassion, Friendship, Approachability and Authenticity. When we hear homilies on Sunday they never stress the Radical Liberator that Jesus was. His subversive overturning of corrupt systems is rarely mentioned. We are never encouraged to become liberating subversives as Jesus was. We are not encouraged to raise our voices in dissent against unjust systems or if we are they are usually in reference to Third World hunger and poverty, lack of healthcare, lack of education, oppression and cruel militarist regimes. Yet there are injutices against believing Catholics in the Church also but they are carefully overlooked and we are rebuked and penalised for daring to raise our heads and our voices to highlight those injustices. We have been so silenced and conditioned to never speak up or think for ourselves that it is difficult for Catholic believers to do so now and they are blamed for not taking ownership and responsibility now when there is such a need for them to do so. The role of the laity is still very much subservient, still doing what they are told. New ideas are not welcome and lay persons with new ideas are even less welcome and are ignored and isolated for voicing their thoughts. For too long in the Church decisions have been taken over and against the laity with such comments as “they’re not ready for such changes yet” or “that wouldn’t work here”.
    Jesus told his disciples that His Kingdom is not of this world so why do we have a Vatican State? When Jesus commissioned Peter with the words Thou art Peter and upon this ROCK I will build my Church he was building it on the foundation stone of a flawed human being who was remorseful for his denial of Jesus which of course was a lesson Peter had to learn in response to his overconfident arrogant assertion that he, Peter, would never deny Jesus. I don’t think Jesus was thinking of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem or the Rock of the Seven Hills of Rome when he build his Church on the ROCK of Peter. I don’t think he wanted elite class dividing Palaces and Kingly titles. It was not those in power he sought out during his ministry but those who were marginalised and treated as outcasts.
    The Church has much to reform within this century and entrenched mindsets to change also if it is to become liberated from manmade hierarchical structures and gender inequalities which will no longer be tolerated by women who are now educated and will increasingly “Be Not Afraid” to raise their voices on the injustices being perpetrated against them.

  3. Hilary Wakeman says:

    Thank you, Martina Killeavy, for that piece. Your comparison between a trades union meeting and the way we gather around the Eucharistic table, and your imagined meeting with Jesus and then with the Pope, are so very moving – and put in a nutshell what is wrong with the Church. I hope you will be at the Assembly on May 7.

  4. Eddie Finnegan says:

    I’ve just seen Martina Killeavy’s excellent Plea for Reform, and Seán Freyne, too, seems to have been reading my thoughts. His Rite & Reason column in this morning’s Irish Times concludes that Vatican bureaucracy once more models itself on the old Roman imperial cult of the divine Caesar. As Cassius put it: “But why should Caesar be a tyrant then? Poor man! I know he would not be a wolf but that he sees the Romans are but sheep.” No better image required than our own flock of shepherds bowing and scraping and ring-kissing when they met their brother bishop, Benedict, at his little place two years ago. At least Bill Murphy of Kerry had the grace to be embarrassed afterwards: the first man in the line-up did it, so the rest of us followed. Ever watch sheep going through a gap? Poor Benedict was probably the most embarrassed of the lot. Half a century ago Bill Conway used squirm a bit when all the “oul’ wans” descended on his ring-finger after parish Confirmations.
    Seán Freyne’s comparison of today’s Vaticaneaucracy with pre-Christian Roman imperialism becomes even more telling when you contrast the creeping, or galloping, centralisation with the hopes from the Council when bishops seemed to find their voice and their heads. The revisionism of the past twenty-five years, with all its “authentic re-interpretation” of what happened in the previous twenty-five, brings us closer to the dissimulation and make-believe that Augustus and his successors contrived to sell to the “Senatus Populusque Romanus”. The Republic still continues, the Senate (=Synod) still meets, the Senators still discuss and decide (mar dheá), the governors govern their far-flung provinces, and Divine Imperial Caesar is just doing what your two Consuls used to do. Of course, if I ever suggest appointing my horse as consul, I’m sure you’ll understand. So, a perfect hermeneutic of continuity, if everyone plays his part in the double-speak, make-believe, flattery and deification of immortal Caesar. Santo subito!
    Emperors were only successful when they made clear to the Senate what they wanted the senators to discuss and which conclusions they must reach. If senators wished to discuss extra-curricular matters or reach conclusions at variance with imperial decree, an element of enforcement or elimination might prove necessary. Some emperors made greater use of ‘delatores’ or informers than others. Part of the genius of Latin is that one verb ‘deferre’ gives us both ‘deference’ and ‘delation’. Delators can only swim happily and effectively in a sea of deference. Not, of course, that that has any relevance to the golden age of freedom and open discourse we inhabit today.
    But maybe we don’t have to go to ancient Rome for our comparisons. Here in Westminster, for instance, I see a growing number of married parish priests, introduced since the mid-1990s courtesy of the late Basil Hume and John Paul II, drawn from the Anglican pool “till the net was almost bursting” of those who couldn’t bear the thought of serving alongside women priests or, perish the blasphemous and sacrilegious thought, of serving under women bishops. And now their numbers increase with Benedict’s new Ordinariate, arranged hugger-mugger and most unecumenically behind Rowan Williams’ back. (Any wonder the poor man wants to quit at the end of the year?) Meanwhile, Catholic bishops from Toowoomba to Too-Honest-by-Half are hauled to Rome and dumped for even mentioning married priests or women priests. And honest Irish priests and theologians are silenced and threatened with loss of their priestly faculties for even thinking such thoughts aloud. All with the essential help of Rome’s trusty delatores.
    All of this, along with Benedict’s courting and restoration of the Vat II-denying SSPX, is no more than the “stroke politics” more at home in Kinsealy, Inisvickillane or Drumcondra-St Luke’s than in imperial Rome. The new GUBU: gerontocratic – uncollegial – byzantine – unecumenical.

  5. Elizabeth Byrnes says:

    I just want to say ‘thank you’ to all of you for waht you have expressed for what you have all said is exactly what I am feeling about our Church today.
    Like you, I, too, want to stay a member of the Catholic Church because it is my heritage, I am born and baptised into this Church and I am entitled to belong in it.
    Furthermore I will remain a Catholic forever because I have no wish to be bullied out of the church – my church – by a male hierarchy that denies women and other marginalised categories their rightful place in the community of Jesus Christ.
    They will plead that they do listen to women but the re-instatement of ultra conservative right wing organisations along with the admittance to a special category of priestly ministry in our Church of former Anglican priests who left their church because of the ordination of women speaks louder than words.
    Don’t get me wrong, I love the Catholic Church but I would love it to be open and inclusive of all. Jesus specifically went out of his way to include the marginalized in his day and to give them dignity when the religious leaders of Hid day refused to do so. I believe He would do the same today.
    I will remain a Catholic but I fera that, for the rest of my days, I will not be a happy catholic.

  6. Thank you for this post and website. I am an Orthodox Christian and rejoice in the ‘ordinary’ Catholic voice becoming stronger – or so it seems to me. I am quite jealous as in Orthodoxy it seems to me the vast majority won’t even raise a question and so give to the clergy an almost semi-divine status. I am very appreciative of the imagery of Christ in dialogue round the table with others; is that not what he did with his disciples, in synagogues and temple too? In ‘Church’ it seems we have no more than a monologue to be blindly followed.
    A number in Orthodoxy are converts, more Orthodox than the Orthodox, and bring with them the prejudices felt against their former spiritual home and it becomes very difficult to think that engaging in any explorative dialogue will ever happen – ‘he who shouts loudest’ etc.
    On a final note (sorry!), I hear the loudest voices from those opposed to any explorative dialogue, and all too often in terms which I am sure Christ would not have used round His table!

  7. Firstly I agree with a lot of what has been said – the church is of course far from perfect: she is after all only human, made up of humans. However, what I think has been overlooked by concentrating on the merely human side to the church is the guarantee of authority which Christ gave her: ‘ I will send you the spirit of truth’. The authority of the Church does not therefore come from the human hierarchy of bishops on their own but it comes directly from the holy spirit working through them. The hierarchical structure is precisely what allows Christ’s authority and truth to be passed down.
    It seems to me therefore a good idea to be cautious when attacking what may seem like a ‘bullying’ church hierarchy. Granted, all bishops and cardinals will have their weaknesses but it is also up to them to ensure that Christ’s truth is passed down in its entirety and not according to what we all would like – no matter how good our intentions may be. Of course you do not feel the same attraction to go and bow before the Pope as you do Jesus – he is a Christ’s vicar on earth and Jesus is Christ himself – God!

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