Still in the back pew

Over 50 years ago, a cardinal asked the Vatican Council: ‘Where’s the other half of humanity?’ In her own inimitable way, Mary McAleese last week posed the same question, writes TP O’ Mahony.

ON October 11, 1962, in front of a phalanx of photographers, 2,400 bishops from all over the globe filed into St Peter’s Basilica in Rome for the opening session of the Second Vatican Council. Inside the vast basilica, Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens of Belgium watched as the bishops took their seats. Then he turned to a colleague and asked: “Where is the other half of humanity?”

He was remarking on the total absence of women from the Council, and their exclusion from the decision-making processes that would determine the future of the Catholic Church. Half a century later, and as the Church prepares for a Synod of Bishops in October, the question posed by Cardinal Suenens still resonates.

It formed the background to the controversial comment last week by former President Mary McAleese, when she described Pope Francis’s plans to hold a Synod consisting of only male celibates to advise him on family life as “completely bonkers”.

Speaking in a public interview at UCD, where she received the university’s Ulysses medal, Mrs McAleese said there was “something profoundly wrong and skewed” about asking male celibates to review the Church’s teaching on family life.

“The very idea of 150 people who have decided they are not going to have any children, not going to have families, not going to be fathers and not going to be spouses — so they have no adult experience of family life as the rest of us know it — but they are going to advise the Pope on family life: It is completely bonkers,” she said. The counter-argument from the Vatican is that, last year, in preparation for the forthcoming Synod, it circulated a detailed questionnaire to Catholics worldwide asking for their views of pastoral issues of marriage and family life.

In her UCD interview, Mrs McAleese said: “I wrote back and said I’ve got a much simpler questionnaire, and it’s only got one question, and here it is: ‘How many of the men who will gather to advise you as Pope have ever changed a baby’s nappy?’ I regard that as a very, very serious question.”

Later in the week, in the first public response by a bishop to the former President’s controversial remarks, the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, took issue with her description of the Pope’s plan to ask “150 male celibates” to review the Church’s teaching on marriage and family life as “completely bonkers”.

He said: “The language isn’t the language of public debate but I know and respect Mary McAleese very well.” I suspect Mrs McAleese, on mature reflection, would have preferred not to use the word “bonkers” in the context in which she did, without in any way deviating from her criticisms of the Synod.

The Archbishop, not surprisingly, said he didn’t agree with the criticism. “I don’t,” he said. “I will be at the Synod. I have been at other Synods. There will be lots of married people at the Synod. The bishops are the formal delegates but there will be lots of married people there.”

I have also covered previous Synods — indeed, I first met Diarmuid Martin (long before he became Archbishop) when he was handling the English-language press briefings at one such Synod — and while there are always people on the periphery of the Synods, they have no formal role. This is especially true of women.

This is precisely Mrs McAleese’s point, and it goes to the core of Church governance in the 21st century and the way authority is exercised within the Church. The reality is the institution, in all its decision-making manifestations and procedures, is male-dominated — and by celibate males at that. Like his four predecessors since Vatican II ended in 1965, it doesn’t seem at all likely that Pope Francis, despite the many good things he has done in a relatively short time, will change any of this. A profound mistrust of lay people, and of women in particular, is deep-wired into the mind-set of a Church hierarchy who for ages assumed that the role of the laity was to “pray, pay, and obey”.

All of that has changed today — and the change can really be dated from the worldwide rejection of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 anti-contraception encyclical Humanae Vitae by Catholic married couples. Today Pope and bishops are no longer dealing with a submissive, acquiescent laity.

Writing in the English Catholic weekly in March 1997, before she was nominated for the Irish Presidency, Mrs McAleese sounded a warning about today’s laity. “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.” In many places, perhaps here and abroad, but not, crucially, in Rome. The voices of women go largely unheeded.

Yes, it is true that in 1988 Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic exhortation entitled Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women), containing what he characterised as his “new feminism”. In his book The Pope in Winter, John Cornwell had this to say about it: “He congratulated women on the great revolution in their lives and opportunities. He approved of them working, and praised their ‘special sensitivity’. But they must accept, he wrote, their God-given role as mother [whether they have children or not], and they must not resist the ‘authenticity’ of their God-given gender — namely, their divinely ordained acquiescence”.

SIX years later, in 1994, John Paul II took that gender issue a stage further when he issued a statement in which he definitively, and for all time, ensured that women in the Catholic Church would be excluded from the ministerial priesthood. In November 2013, Pope Francis, in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), reiterated John Paul II’s ban on the ordination of women.

“Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded. The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion…”

Equality in dignity clearly has its limits in the eyes of Rome. This is part of the problem that the forthcoming Synod of Bishops faces. Pope Francis has said “we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church”, including “settings where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures”.

But how is this to be accomplished? Create some female Cardinals (cardinals do not have to be ordained)? Appoint some women to key posts within the Roman Curia (central bureaucracy)? Choose some women to serve as papal nuncios? Holding a Pastoral Synod on family life, with equal clerical and lay participation?

Any or all of the above would herald a significant change in the status and role of women in the Church. Calling a new Council (Vatican III) and placing the question of the ordination of women high on its agenda would be a much more profound move. Meanwhile, and in the absence of any of these initiatives, the substance of former President McAleese’s criticisms (minus the word “bonkers”) cannot just be brushed aside.


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  1. 127. Vatican II was a new Pentecost,[144] equipping the Church for the new evangelisation that popes since the council have called for. The council gave a renewed emphasis to the traditional idea that all of the baptised have a sensus fidei, and the sensus fidei constitutes a most important resource for the new evangelisation.[145] By means of the sensus fidei, the faithful are able not only to recognise what is in accordance with the Gospel and to reject what is contrary to it, but also to sense what Pope Francis has called ‘new ways for the journey’ in faith of the whole pilgrim people.
    One of the reasons why bishops and priests need to be close to their people on the journey and to walk with them is precisely so as to recognise ‘new ways’ as they are sensed by the people.[146] The discernment of such new ways, opened up and illumined by the Holy Spirit, will be vital for the new evangelisation.
    The above paragraph is from the Vatican’s document regarding the essentials of faith. I wanted to highlight paragraph 127, the conclusion…where it is stated that the Magisterium must be listening to the laity as they often have “new ways for the journey”, something Pope Francis is quoted as saying. It is also stated that Vatican II was a New Pentecost, which I disagree with…I think, it was an impetus for change that could lead to a New Pentecost. In that new Pentecost must be evangelizing roles for women, especially. Of course, we always risk excommunication for our New Ways.. Well, No Pain, No Gain?
    Thank you
    Darlene Starrs

  2. Lots of saints said each moment was an evangelising opportunity and anyone can take that role – in the workplace, at the bus-stop, in the hills, on the farm, in the woods, at the shop, on a fishing boat, etc…

  3. I’ve just come back from a visit to the midlands. At Sunday Mass the parish priest talked in a loud metallic voice that hurt my head. A parishioner did a reading. It was all hurried and mechanical. (“Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang”) Can’t remember who wrote that. There was no real human voice or human prayer. Everyone said “Amen” in the proper place. I guess everyone was in the back pew.

  4. It is time too take power into our own hands. How long are we going to sit back when we do not receive the nourishment that we need from a real and substantial communion with the Lord and one another?
    From what I can see so much of this is about power and control. Is it any wonder people cannot see the beauty of the Gospel and the love of God as reflected in the present form of church. Cardinal Suenans said , on his deathbed, that the church is 200 years behind the times. The church’s teachings on conscience are also very clear as is the Vatican 2 document on religious freedom.
    I believe (my informed conscience tells me) any group of catholics has the authority to create liturgies with a eucharist at the centre and with silence and prayer shared around the time. Believing in God should be empowering. The time to keep listening to those “above” is over. These are different times and our needs are very different. Each one of us is a reflection of the living God. The control of the sacraments is a form of abuse and is against the building up of the body of Christ.
    These issues that the official church is caught up in, and will be for the next 20 years, are just so far away from the point of Christ’s amazing love for each one of us.
    I propose setting up small groups of perhaps 12 with a meditative eucharist meeting once or twice a week, with maybe a larger group meeting once a month for a shared meal. Each person within the 12, if he or she so wished, could say the prayer of the Last Supper; one could also have a short personal sharing after the Gospel…
    How long will we sit back doing nothing while living in a church that is to all extents and purposes dead?

  5. Joe O'Leary says:

    John, why do you call for such a potentially destructive and schismatic action? Why not encourage people to gather for prayer and bible study, which the church in Ireland needs far more urgently than more masses? Such a movement of prayer and lectio divina could even ultimately renew the Sunday worshippping community.

  6. Jackie Minnock says:

    Reading with interest these contributions. At this time I am taking part in a free online seminar from Hosford University with Phyliss Zangano/Gary Macy/Dr. Ditewig on the restoration of the ordained diaconate for women – spoken of at Vatican II where there was actually more emphasis on the restoration of the ordained diaconate for me. The book these people have written is Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future.
    In a time when Mary McAleese raises the question of where are women in Church ministry – others ask what do we do when the priest numbers are dwindling and only some parishes have male deacons – perhaps the answer lies in the restoration of the ordained female diaconate. Women serve in many of the areas that deacons serve but are denied ordination/the charsm of ordination. It is clear that the Church believes they cannot ordain women to priesthood but there are no canon laws and there is much historical evidence to support the cause and some of our Eastern Orthodox Christians have ordained women deacons – for those Orthodox Churches that do not they have no issue with it – so they claim.
    This call for ordained women deacons is not a call to fast track to priesthood for women – it is a call for ordination of women deacons to serve the Church in equal measure with the male ordained deaconate. The Church’s denial of same is akin to saying that women do not image Christ which is most definitely untrue and totally un-Christ-like.

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