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.
A Plea for Reform from a Lay Woman