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The Church never treats women as fully independent adults

The 20th-century Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote: “The only task worthy of our efforts is to construct the future.” My concern today is how to construct a new future for women around the world through the global outreach of the church.

The 6th-century philosopher Boethius reminds us that every age that is dying is simply a new age coming to life. A second insight that gets my attention comes from Woody Allen 15 centuries later: “I’m not afraid of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Both messages are clear: First, continuity can go too far. Second, to fail to face the moment we’re in can fail the future that’s coming with or without us and whether we like it or not.

Point: This is a crossover moment in history. This is the moment when history discovered women.

In fact, intelligent men as well as intelligent women realize now that feminism is not about femaleness. It’s not about female chauvinism either, or feminismo machismo. And it’s definitely not about women wanting to act like men.

Feminism is about allowing every member of the human race to become a fully functioning human adult, to make choices at every level of society, to participate in the decision-making that affects their lives, to be financially independent, to be safe on the streets, secure in their homes, to have a voice in the courts and constitutional bodies of the world — to enjoy, in other words, full and equal civil rights.

It is about bringing to public visibility and public agency the agendas, the insights, and the wisdom of the other half of the human race. It is about taking their ideas and plans seriously. No! Correction: It is about taking the theology of creation seriously. It is, in other words, about this century’s “emancipation proclamation” of women. And since it is 2,000 years after Jesus himself modeled it, it can hardly be argued that we’re rushing things.

Pope Francis, clearly sensitive to the issue, has himself brought up the notion of launching a study of women, the very thought of which coming out of Rome is at least as earth-shaking as seriously expecting Rome to do something serious about it.

Three issues in particular will measure the authenticity — the morality — of the church’s response to the women’s issue. The issues of maternity, human agency and poverty are key to the way we’ll be seen on this issue for years to come.

First, the question of the role of women in church and society is not one of the 39 areas of concern listed in the questionnaire the Vatican sent to the world’s bishops in October seeking wide Catholic response to questions about family life. So how really important are the roles and rights of woman-as-woman seen in shaping even the family? Really.

Second, the pope’s recent statement on women to a meeting of the Women’s Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity in Rome concentrated almost entirely on women’s maternity, which occupies — at best — about 20 years of a woman’s life. Most modern women, demographic data indicates, live at least another 35 to 40 years after the youngest child leaves home. And after that? What is her role then? Is maternity her only value, her perpetual definition? What does she do now with her personal talents, her insights, her gifts that, they tell us, are given for the sake of the world?

And how does the world make up for the loss of such experience, intelligence and wisdom of the other half of the human race if women are not expected, not welcomed to its shaping?

But without the input of women, humanity sees with only one eye, hears with one ear and thinks with only one half of the human mind. And — read the newspapers — it shows.

Or, more, why is a woman defined by maternity whether she is a mother or not when a man is rarely, if ever, defined by his paternity rather than by his job, his genius, his leadership, his heroism?

Pope Francis says in his now-famous interview with the Jesuit magazine Civilta Catholica, which was shared worldwide in September, “We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the church.”

Right. But the question there is who will do this study? The same clerical, patriarchal types who have been doing it for the last 2,000 years when church fathers first said that women “have the malice of both dragons and asps,” among other things. Or when Thomas Aquinas called women “misbegotten males.” Not the gold standard of the human race, apparently. And medieval theologians declared that women were by nature subservient, secondary in the order of creation, more emotional than rational.

And today, here and now, a Vatican document can say, “Forms of feminism hostile to the church are among matters of deep concern” but never even mention male chauvinism or the very structures of patriarchy itself as any kind of concern at all.

And yet, the church never treats women as fully independent adults, let alone as fully baptized disciples of Jesus. And this despite centuries of deaconesses, a chorus of women saints and hundreds of years of women religious administrators who built the larger part of the social service systems of the church.

Most important of all, on what anthropology and theology and science from what century will they ground their ideas about women this time? What feminist writers, feminist researchers, feminist philosophers, what scientists, theologians and canonists, both women and men, will shape this theology in this era?

Will it simply be another round of “men do this” and “women do that,” a dual anthropology that sees women as caregivers alone and men as world builders exclusively, an anthropology that denies our common humanity, our joint human nature basically and entirely? Despite the work of our own Dorothy Days and Raissa Maritains, our Mother Joneses and Rosemary Haughtons as national leaders and bona fide theologians?

And if so, what can possibly be done to save the world such division has made?

The fact is that religion — all religions — has been used to justify the oppression, the servitude, the invisibility of women for century after century. Indeed, religion after Jesus has a historic lot to repent where women are concerned, Catholicism and Christianity among them.

As a result of such poor study in the past — “religious,” as it may have called itself, sincere as it possibly was — everywhere on the planet women are still, today, at this hour, as the United Nations Development Fund for Women reports, two-thirds of the illiterate of the world. Women are still two-thirds of the hungry of the world. Women are yet two-thirds of the poorest of the poor everywhere in the world. Even here; even now.

That can’t be an accident. That is a policy. Someone somewhere has decided that women need less, deserve less, and are worthy of less than men. And all in the name of God.

By the time those apologists get done, God is the only sexist left in the room.

Pope Francis has won the heart of the world by being humble, simple and pastoral — the warm and caring face of the church, a man like Jesus who is a man of the poor. But clearly, no one can say they are for the poor as Jesus was and do nothing, nothing, nothing for the equality of women. To address classism does not begin to resolve the problems that come with sexism.

Yet when the membership of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious commit themselves again — as they have so often in the past — to do for women what must be done for the sake of the Gospel, and the good of the church, it’s called “radical feminism” and they are investigated for heresy.

The full humanity of women, human anthropology, and our efforts to eradicate poverty are indeed among the issues that will measure both this papacy and this church as it moves again from an age that is dying to a new age that is coming to life. Otherwise, when death comes, we may all be there to see it.

In 1998, Pope John Paul II instructed the bishops of Michigan and Ohio in their ad limina visits to Rome: “The genius of women must be evermore a vital strength of the church of the next millennium — just as it was in the first communities of Christ’s disciples.” Which, from where I stand, leads directly to the question women find continually more wearying: If not now — 15 years later — when?

 Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister is a frequent NCR contributor

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  1. ‘Is maternity her only value, her perpetual definition?’ In response to a comment I made some months ago the person responding said he hoped that my children were the measure of my happiness. I wasn’t sure how to explain that I am distinct from my children, from my husband. There is a great sadness in the apartheid that is the exclusion of women in the Church, the sadness is that women know that they are the equal of men, women know their own value. But by having to spell it out, by constantly having to announce their importance, women feel diminished, dispirited, and humiliated. It is not a new theology of women that is needed but an new theology of mutuality.

  2. Sister Joan asks necessary questions – but most males in the church also need emancipation – from the pharaonic regime of a clericalism petrified of discussing any of the issues that plague the church’s internal relationships, and intent on retaining control at all costs. If Francis is to be the Moses leading all of us out of that captivity, I haven’t heard yet of a single Irish bishop who is willing to join him.

  3. Shaun the Sheep says:

    This ‘woman obsession’ is loooong past its sell by date. Only today, the BBC report that women in N. Ireland now earn more, on average, than the men! For goodness sake, let’s get over this nonsense about women! Women are women and men are men. Equal does not mean same. Women have a glorious God-given role as mothers and holy sisters. It is only by casting off these beautiful roles that women find themselves truly lost and then we get the sad sight of poor Sister Joan going on and on, not to mention all the activism against Christian morals. I think the thing has moved on. How about looking at the disenfranchised and despairing, mostly young, men, unemployed and forgotten. I think the most forgotten demographic in the Church is the young man. We need to quit this fixation with the mistaken idea that women are not ‘treated right’. Women are everywhere in positions of power, and as my brother would say, they make the most tyranical bosses oftentimes! All that pent up anger!! Women’s lib came at a great cost – all the abortions, all the unemployed men, all the political correctness. You lot know I am right so why continue to peddle this agenda? Please publish this comment because this is a discussion that needs to be had, and I for one am man-enough to have it with anyone who wants to engage me on this matter.

  4. Re 3. Women’s lib came at a great cost – all the unemployed men! Are you suggesting that I should give up my right to work to allow a man to do my job just because I am a woman. Am I also responsible for any man being out of work, just because I am a woman? If you think that there are too many young men out of work, why don’t you give one of them your job?

  5. Bob Hayes says:

    Neither the United States nor the current Irish Republic have a Centre-Left (let alone properly Left) political culture. So we appear to have to put up with certain frustrated social democrats attempting to use the Church as a vehicle for political ambitions. If Joan Chittister – or the ACP leadership – attempted to peddle their views in the political arena they would not secure any publicity. That they attempt to co-opt the Church does them no credit….

    By the way, I support a social-democratic politics, but believe it should be projected with honesty.

  6. Bob Hayes says:

    From the Pope’s latest interview with Andrea Tornielli of ‘La Stampa’:
    [Tornielli] May I ask you if the Church will have women cardinals in the future?

    “I don’t know where this idea sprang from. Women in the Church must be valued not “clericalised”. Whoever thinks of women as cardinals suffers a bit from clericalism.”
    It looks as though Joan Chittister will have plenty more to fill her frequent contributions to the NCR.

  7. Shaun the Sheep says:

    CJ @4 – I am an unemployed young man, professionally qualified but no job! Are you telling me that all the young and not so young women in the workforce aren’t taking the place of young men? These women keep jobs, get pregnant, go off on generous maternity leave, and swan back in 9 months later to their job. If a young guy is lucky, he might catch the crumbs that fall from the Mistress’ table by filling in for her maternity leave. The big elephant in the room is that feminism and the equality agenda has shafted men. Is anyone willing to recognise this problem and speak out, knowing what will happen if they raise their head above the parapet?

  8. Shaun, I am exactly telling you that women are not taking the place of men in the workforce. If you are a young man then you would have no first hand knowledge of the days when female civil servants had to give up their jobs when they got married, not when they became mothers but when they got married. Now I have no first hand knowledge of this either but my Mum did. It sounds to me that you would like things to return to this, all for the boys, workplace or perhaps you are advocating for an age of pre womens’ vote. Either way, we now live in a more equal world, one where you are just as easily taking my place in the workforce as I am taking yours. But if I am out of work would it be sensible for me to blame the entire male workforce for taking my place? In your philosophy maybe but in mine it would be a complete waste of time.

    You mentioned in your earlier post that young men are the most forgotten demographic in the church. I do not agree with you on this but I do think that the church is being terribly unfair to young men. It teaches about equality in the sight of God, it preaches equality through the words and deeds of Jesus and then it practices the only remaining completely unequal institution left in modern society. It leaves people, particularly young men, with the impression that it is right and fair to exclude half of its faithful to roles of submission with no chance of equality and then it expects its young male faithful to go out into the world believing they have a God given right to anything they want without women getting in their way. This is so unfair, so terribly unfair to young men, because the world no longer works on these Middle Ages, pre enlightenment rules. The church practices a theology where women are always below men and society no longer accepts this teaching and so you are left terribly bruised and blaming the only thing that is different between your church and society namely the place of women. And Shaun who can blame you for this, certainly not I.

    The reality is that society will not be lurched backwards to a time when half the population had no say, no vote, no rights to anything and certainly not a job. But this unequal, biased, totally in mans’ favour world is what you are looking for. It existed once, it exits still within the Catholic Church so why can’t women just shut up and put up, get on with being mothers or virgins and leave us men to get on with running things, making all the rules and telling women what they should and should not be doing with their bodies, their lives and their place in society. Yes the church is being so utterly unfair to you because women found their voice and just as I could not and would not expect men to live in a subservient world to me, I will not live in a world of submission just because I am a woman.

    However just because you do not have a God given right to any womans’ job, it does not mean that you do not have just as much right to a job as anyone else. You have a unique set of gifts Shaun that make you, you. No one else in this world has what you have, no one has the same ability, creativity, sense of purpose and God given talents that enable you to be you. That is what the world needs to see. There is a Shaun the Sheep gap in the world that needs you to fill it. Find your place in a world of equals Shaun because looking for a world that exists only in the history pages and in the Catholic Church will leave you despairing and hopeless. And in all seriousness the church should think about the message it is giving young men, really really not fair.

    Namaste Shaun

  9. Shaun the sheep says:

    Cj, there are certain employers which now actively favour women over men in employment. They use equal opportunities and diversity legislation to do this. I’d happily name them but you know yourself the way the internet is going I don’t want to be sued. One of these days I’m going to put in an application as a lesbian woman to see if I get offered an interview, all else being equal! Anyway I just read this article by a feminist on why it is apparently a man’s world.

    Actually this stupid smart phone isn’t playing ball. Google this:

    ‘It’s a man’s world and always will be. Time.’

  10. As a man, I think, though debatable, 😉 I’ve never ever, even to as recently as the passing of my younger brother, felt I had been, am treated as a fully independent person in the Church.

    Of course I realise, understand and wholly support the women’s perspective and position on this.

    Just not sure what to do about that.

    I’ve found some deeper level of peace and contentment with it all these days. If I did not have that I’d leave and find somewhere else I could find that. Not suggesting women should feel they might or have to leave to have what is righfully theirs. Just how I feel personally about it. I’d just hit the road Jack and dunna come back no mo, no mo, no mo, no mo. But then the Church is run by hardly what you’d call ‘mature men’ in some instances – so it’s par for the course I guess that they need us at their level.

  11. Jane Coll says:

    I came across this conversation by accident but it occurred to me that some of you might be interested in reading my book that has just been published. It has an imprimatur from my bishop, so is free of errors on faith or morals. In it, I suggest that women could be ordained as deacons, but not as priests. I come to this conclusion after examining all (or almost all!) the evidence from Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. The book is called “Handmaids of the Lord: Women Deacons in the Catholic Church” and is published by Gracewing.

  12. Shaun the Sheep says:

    I am consoled by the fact that the Church, at least at the level of ordained priesthood, will never cave to the secular ‘diversity/equality’ agenda. It’s not Christian and never will be. Of course, women do work at all levels in the Church elsewise. The other thing that I’ve never seen acknowledged by the proponents of womens ordination: the rejection of these ‘priestesses’. I’ve heard this from many people: my mum, my uncle, etc… They don’t want and will NOT accept women priests. I know I wouldn’t. We don’t have the stomach for it: not now, not ever. The thing is clear anyway: there can be no women priests in the Catholic Church. The Doctrine is clear and to attempt to row back from 2000 years of Sacred Tradition would mean that the Church would have been wrong for 2000 years and would be without any credibility. It would be a laughing stock and all the other Doctrine and Dogma would crumble. I really don’t think the liberals have thought this through at all. Anyway, these are my musings for this evening.

  13. Shaun the sheep says:

    Jane the deaconesses were used in the early Church to assist with adult lady baptism. This was to preserve modesty. There is no need for this today, hence we don’t need deaconesses. Also they were not ordained rather they were picked to do this duty of assisting at baptisms. One needn’t be ordained to baptise. Since these deaconesses in the early Church could not preach at Mass or read the Gospel, I don’t know what you suggest these people could do in a parish that an ordinary parish lady couldn’t do. Whether you like to admit it or not deaconesses never had a role in the sanctuary at Mass and would in any case rightly be seen as a step on the direction of women priests. So the only reason left is to satisfy the modern equality agenda. Francis said recently that ladies mustn’t be clericalised which is exactly what you purpose in garbing them up!

  14. #11, #13
    A very thorough and up-to-date scholarly study of early female ordination is ‘The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West‘ by Gary Macy (OUP, 2008). Macy’s copious documentation (translating sources from the original Latin) establishes that there still exist copies of ordination services for female deacons dating from before the twelfth century, and that (for example) Abbesses ordained as deacons sometimes confessed their sister nuns.
    However, Macy also establishes that a very significant feature of the modern understanding of ordination – as a rite signifying the capacity of a recipient to exercise his / her office anywhere (given that authority by the local bishop) did not exist prior to the twelfth century. Before then ordination signified appointment to a role confined to the service of community residing in the location where it was performed. It was essentially the conferring of an office by a particular Christian community, to be exercised only in relation to that same community.
    Macy argues that it was partly the boost in prestige given to the males who were ordained in this second millennium understanding of a universal office that led them to think of ordination, even to the office of deacon, as something from which women should be excluded – but it needs to be understood that this second millennium understanding of ordination is not the earliest ‘tradition’ of the church, if we understand ‘tradition’ as necessarily something that existed without modification from the earliest times.
    As to whether women were ever ordained to a Eucharistic ministry, Macy believes the evidence is inconclusive. However, his sources show that it was in any case by no means a settled matter up to the twelfth century that only an ordained priest could confect the Eucharist. For example, Peter Abelard in the 1100s wrote that he knew of two other French theologians in high standing who argued that it was the words of consecration themselves – not who said them – that effected the change in the bread and wine – so that even if said by a woman (these three theologians argued) these words would effect the same change. If that understanding existed as late as that, it follows that ordained female deacons may indeed sometimes have presided at Eucharistic services during the first Christian millennium.
    Macy’s book is very carefully written and argued. It is not, of course, necessarily the last word on the subject – but anyone seeking to refute its basic argument will need to undertake intensive study of a multitude of primary manuscript sources, written in Medieval Latin.

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