This Sunday is International Women's Day, and our bishops, apparently having a bit of cash to spare (I have a few suggestions on how it might be better spent in future, see below), have prepared a parish kit to help us celebrate...
Now actually, in principle I don't mind the idea of recognising the contribution of Catholic women, given that it is often hidden and perhaps under-appreciated. But my concern is that as ever, the subject will get hijacked onto what I consider to be the red herring of women priests and official church roles.
The suffering of women...
Personally I get quite incensed at the suggestion that:
"Like Abraham and Jesus, women, too, have suffered and do suffer in the Church. Their place in the Church has not yet been sufficiently recognised, so a deep injustice is still being perpetrated against them." (Sermon notes by Bishop Michael Malone)
Oh dear! Well yes, I do suffer in the Church at times.
I personally suffer when my local mass is a dispirited, ad lib affair, starting from the 'Hello everybody' at the beginning. I suffer when the priest sits down while totally unnecessary extraordinary ministers (who permit abuses like self-intinction) take care of the ablutions. When confession is barely available, restricted to a few minutes before mass, or half an hour on Saturday. And I have quite a long list of similar gripes which genuinely cause me pain. But none of those things are particular to women!
It has been pointed out to me though, that actually many women do particularly suffer in the Church. They suffer from ignorance when their shepherds are afraid to preach the truth about contraception, IVF and abortion. And as a consequence they suffer physically, emotionally and spiritually when they engage in those actions. Women suffer when priests and bishops refuse to support their pro-life stances, whether in the public sphere or in the private.
Still, I very much doubt that these are the kind of things the bishop is actually getting at. Certainly if they are, there isn't a hint of it I can find in the parish kit. So I guess what the bishop is really hinting at is the Church's teaching that women cannot be priests.
Talk about beating a dead horse.
So this is a plea to priests. If you were thinking of making your sermon tomorrow about the 'active participation of women in the Church' or women priests, please think again!
I don't want to hear it. From either side.
Instead think about focusing on some of the other important issues facing women as they struggle to live their faith - 'be Church' to adopt the going terminology - in a hostile culture.
There are lots of important messages that could be given in relation to International Women's Day. The trouble is the helpful sermon notes in the bishop's parish pack don't seem to me to actually mention any of them!
The problem in my view is that we have all become deeply infected by clericalism. When we think of 'the Church' and being a Catholic, we think about going to mass or confession, saying prayers, participating in Church committees and so forth.
But we really shouldn't. Those things are important of course. But our religion is supposed to affect every moment of our lives, influence everything we do. We are contributing to the Church when we teach our children to behave well, and to know their faith; when we help out someone in need of company or encouragement; when we do our work with integrity and enthusiasm; when we make a stand in the public square.
And it is these things that laypeople (whether male or female) should be focusing on, not about wanting to be a lector, extraordinary minister of the eucharist, altar server or worrying unduly about 'participatory decision-making structures' in the Church.
The trouble is that clericalism infects priests as well. The 'look at me' liturgies that predominate in many parishes contrasted with the 'just call me Bob' mentality of many liberal priests that tries to pretend that a priest is just like anyone else serves to exacerbate the problem. But so too does the obsession with the topic of women priests on the part of some traddies (including priests).
Yes the idea that women should be allowed to be priests is a heresy and it's an annoying and damaging one. That's why those who participate in mock ordinations get excommunicated. But the reality is that they are a relatively small group who are just like any other group of protestants claiming to be catholic, and there are a lot of other heresies that on a day today basis I think have much more impact on the fabric of our society and Church. Having an abortion or procuring one for example also merits automatic excommunication for instance, yet few people are aware of this.
And either way, the reality is that we all know (and hopefully amonst traddies at least, accept!) what the Church's teaching on women priests is, so let's please just move on.
Because there are other issues that we should be focusing on, and the importance of motherhood is one of them!
In the family
We live, after all, in a secular culture which treats children as a consumer good rather than a gift from God for the future of our society. That often derides large families as ecologically irresponsible - when in fact, apart from anything else it is the antidote to the large scale immigration that will otherwise fundamentally undermine the christian culture of our country. That encourages parents to blame teachers for the failure of their children to know their faith, instead of looking to their own responsibilities. That blames everyone but ourselves for the vocations crisis.
So Sunday should be a chance for priests to laud the role of faithful mothers who follow the Church's moral teachings, pass on their faith to their children, and encourage their children to consider a vocation as a priest or religious.
In the wider world
And there are some other messages the day could make us think about. There was a rather awful piece in the Sydney Morning Herald recently puzzling over the fact that historically nuns have been very successful in training their pupils to succeed in the professions.
The author concluded however that what the nuns were really teaching (along with clearly outdated virtues like humility, a commitment to service and the pursuit of excellence) was to "..go out and change the world and let the men parade around and take the credit like we do. At least you will know things will get done."
Her conclusion of course was that 'just doesn't cut it any more'. Of course not. Because our society worships power and money, and doesn't care about making a difference or doing God's will!
The proper Christian attitude is surely that it is the treasures we are stacking up in the next life, rather than recognition now that counts. It is the love with which a task is done that counts, not its obvious effects.
Women in the (visible) Church
That is not to say that obvious effects shouldn't be valued too of course.
One of things that always puzzles me is this stuff about women's contributions to the parish and diocese not being adequately recognised and visible. Because actually there are lots of women doing things vital to the ongoing life of most parishes and communities that seem pretty visible to me at least. Like arranging the flowers, running and participating in choirs, organizing social events and charitable activities, and much more.
Is the bishop suggesting these aren't important?
What we need is...
But I guess what we are really missing is women wearing an identifiable uniform of the Church.
What we are missing is nuns.
We don't have them any more. There certainly weren't any (identifiable) pictures of nuns in the parish kit. Because generally speaking, if there are any nuns around these days, they are the badly dressed greyheads with a little cross on their lapel. Not exactly a uniform to be proud of, or for young women to identify with and aspire to!
And despite the cutesy story in the SMH about the nun being the one pushing a teatrolley behind a gaggle of priests, Australian nuns have historically been far from being 'just' the tea lady (given the way most meeting go, the tea lady nun is probably the only one who made a useful contribution). I commend for example for your consideration our likely first saint, Blessed Mary McKillop!
Nuns have traditionally played a key role in providing the social support and infrastructure - and example - that encouraged other women to be faithful catholics. One study has actually found that the more nuns there are, the bigger families tend to be as a result - because nuns make larger families more economically viable through the social suppport services they provide.
A suggestion for the bishops
So here is my suggestion to the bishops. Close down the Office for the Participation of Women. And put the money into fostering and supporting vocations instead. Perhaps a fund to help young women discerners travel to visit orthodox monasteries overseas, or pay off debts before entering. Or even to help new, orthodox and habited communities get going in Australia to replace those who are dying out...
Or fund a campaign to get priests to 'say the black, do the red', actually offer the sacraments, and preach what is in the Catechism!
Hmmm, maybe I am being affected by a bit of Lent-induced crankiness!