Thursday, 8 March 2012

Injustice in the Church? The calling and charism of women

Today is International Women's Day and while some will dismiss this as an excuse for feminist propaganda, I do actually think there is a good cause to set aside a day for the celebration of respect, appreciation and love towards women, as well as to celebrate women's economic, political, social and spiritual achievements.

So it's disappointing therefore to read over at Cath Blog a piece from the newly appointed Director for the Office for the Participation of Women (OPW) and Executive Secretary to the Bishops' Commission for Church Ministry (BCCM), Ms Donella Johnston, that actually attacks the position of women in the Church rather than celebrates or defends it.

Injustice in the Church: just look away...

Ms Johnston's piece is basically a whinge about how frustrating it is to be a woman in the Church today where injustice towards women is rife.  Her offered solution is a Monty Pythonesque injunction to always look on the bright side, and focus instead on the positive things about the Church.  And of course to work to find more ways in which women can 'participate' in the Church.

On the positive side, her article concludes with the message that the first step is to get women to actually go to mass, and suggests some practical steps to encourage that.  Good.

But Church attendance will never truly improve, in my view, as long as women continue to accept and even promote the notion that it is an injustice that they cannot be ordained as priests.  Looking the other way, or worse, working to actively subvert the Church's teaching on this subject is surely a recipe for lukewarmness or protestantism, it is not a genuine path to improving their participation in the life of the Church.

Beyond secularist notions of justice

If we really want women to participate in the Church, and the Church to renew itself, we have to leave behind the tired old paradigm of secularist notions of equality that attempt to deny the reality of gender. 

The objective reality is that not all inequality is unjust, not all discrimination is bad. 

Men cannot bear children, is that unjust?  Does it constitute unfair discrimination on the part of our creator?!  The same principles apply to the priesthood.  Men and women were created to be complementary to each other, not to be exactly the same in every way.


But above all in this debate, we need to move beyond implicitly clericalist notions of participation in the Church that define participation in terms of ministerial functions.

Participation in the Church is in the end, participation in God: he himself is our inheritance, to use the words of Psalm 118 that I've featured in another post today, not some particular role or function in the here and now.  And that's why St Thomas' hierarchy actually places contemplative religious (including women) above priests and the laity in his ordering of the 'states of perfection'.  It's why the Church recognises and celebrates the charisms and contributions to the life of the Church of so many great women as saints.

Once upon a time the Government's Office of the Status of Women in  Canberra used to be derided as the 'Office for Women of Status', because of its preoccupation with getting women onto company boards and other positions of power, rather than engaging on issues that actually impacted on the vast majority of women.  There is something of a flavour of the same kind of thinking in the opening intercessory prayer suggested for today:

"Priest: We are called to be people who listen to God’s Word and respond. Let us turn to God in prayer now, so that our prayers can help make a difference to our world.

We pray for men and women who hold positions of leadership and power within the Church, that their work will help empower all those influenced by their ministry, to know their full dignity and value. (Pause to enable the faithful to pray this prayer in their hearts.) Gracious God, hear our prayer.

Devaluing women

The biggest problem with the 'injustice' paradigm, in my view, is that it devalues the very real importance of women's contribution to the future of our society. 

It is one of the sad side-effects of the focus on the transformation of this world in the here and now through social justice, that the far more important contribution of women to the future of our society in the form of bearing and educating the next generation is forgotten or outright rejected through the practice of contraception and abortion.

And that the value of the prayers and work of the spiritual mothers of many, of women religious, is so often seen as irrelevant to the Church today, or viewed as entirely interchangeable with the efforts of the laity rather than having a higher objective value by virtue of their vows and consecration.

There are indeed issues in the Church!

So there are indeed issues in relation to the role of women in the Church that need to be remedied urgently.

But they have nothing to do with becoming priests or addressing other such perceived injustices.

Here is my alternative list.

The collapse of religious life, and abandonment of the habit by most of those who remain, has reduced the visibility and number of women in positions of authority within the Church; it has removed a strong role model for girls; and it has taken away a visible, prophetic example to us all of the state of holiness to which we are all called to work out in our particular state of life. We need to recover genuine religious life.

Today too many priests think that because their role is to govern, they don't have to listen to the people or interact and support them in a genuine way. We need to rebuild the networks of women that provided the backbone of a genuine parish life.  Once upon a time our priests were supported - and helped to stay connected with reality - by a strong network of women.  There were convents in every parish, whose sisters engaged with both priests and people, providing a support network for women in the community and a line of communication back to the hierarchy.  There were housekeepers who were often the real managers of a parish.  There were guilds and confraternities to support women at home and at work.  That infrastructure was systematically destroyed in the 1960s and 70s, and we need to rebuild something that plays the same role that is suited to our times.

Worse, in what remains of the Catholic infrastructure, we've succumbed to the 'professionalization' of everything, so that only those deemed properly qualified can actually carry out the Churches charity and evangelization functions; the role of the rest of us is just to fund it!  Indeed, even in the area of the New Media, the media professionals are busily learning how to move into the field pioneered by the amateurs, a move no doubt intended to squeeze out those troublesome amateur bloggers like me!

And the result of all of these changes is that instead of a model of attentive listening combined with a genuine commitment to teaching the faith on the part of the hierarchy, too many bishops seem intent on imposing their own agendas, rather than the Churches, on their people. 

The purpose of the Church is our sanctification.

So on this International Women's Day, let's think about what needs to be done to help women know and follow Church teaching, particularly in the moral sphere.  Let's think about how we can enrich the spiritual lives of women through appropriate support structures and teaching.  Let's think about ways we can cut out the bureaucracy, and act for and recognise the good being done in practical ways, in the political, cultural, economic social and above all family spheres.

**PS And for further reading, I've just across a rather good post over at The Drum on the problems of women and religion from a Jewish perspective (at least our men don't thank God daily for not being a woman as an official part of the liturgy!), the sorry state of the feminist movement, and the genuine injustices that women face in many countries that we should be thinking about...


A Canberra Observer said...

Yes, I saw that piece of twaddle.

Secular feminism has eroded so much inside the church.

Martin S. said...

Exactly. Great post, thanks Kate. You have an oasis here.