21 November 2013, The Tablet

Women in the Church: how far can we go?

by Fr Peter Day, guest contributor

“We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the Church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised for various areas of the church.” (Pope Francis, August 2013)

Have you noticed how often women are the central figures in Jesus’ life? His encounters with them are instructive, especially given the aggressive and bullying patriarchy that pervaded: there’s the outcast Samaritan woman he met on his own at the well; the same sinful woman with whom he confided a rarely shared personal truth: I am the Messiah; a truth he entrusted "a woman" to pass on to the community. There’s Mary, who risked public humiliation by anointing his feet with her tears and her hair. There’s the woman caught in the act of committing adultery whom he defended with his life – the same women about to be discarded as surplus to the needs of men. There’s the crippled woman Jesus dared to heal on the Sabbath; the woman he called a “daughter of Abraham” (Luke 13); a title that, until that moment, was always gender-specific and reserved for circumcised men only as “son of Abraham”. And there’s Mary Magdalene, who was the first to encounter him after his Resurrection; the same woman who he entrusted with preaching the Good News of this wondrous event to the 12 apostles.

We clergy – popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons – are nurtured in our mothers’ wombs and beyond. Our mothers teach us, feed us, instruct us, clothe us, discipline us, guide us, inspire us, serve us, love us; and while this teaching and leadership role is, for the most part, honoured and embraced in mainstream society where women have a place in nation building, in corporate governance, in shaping culture; this is not the case within the Church. In terms of leadership, in terms of being embraced as equals to help shape the Catholic Church, women are confronted with a number of closed doors.

What our Lord’s encounters with women – which were socially unacceptable by the standards of their day – show us is that the main leadership the Church needs is one of courageous love; a love that gives birth to humility and equality. That is one door that can never be closed.

Indeed, as aspiring Christ-followers, are we not compelled to challenge the ongoing patriarchal constraints being imposed upon women today? And, like him, must we not also refuse to allow custom, or habit, or closed minds, or the way we have understood things in the past, to hinder us from giving women a voice; or, at the very least, having a mature and respectful debate about the issue?

There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can neither be slave or freeman, there can be neither male nor female – for you are all one in Christ. (Galatians 3:28-29)

Have you noticed how women are marginalised in our Catholic Church?

Fr Peter Day is a priest based in the Australian Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn

What do you think?


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User comments (6)

Comment by: John-Paul
Posted: 28/11/2013 15:58:54

Sorry, the vocabulary of "marginalisation" sounds resent-laden and feminist. So yes, I fell into the cockpit of the ordination debate. Both in my current parish life and in my upbringing, women play and have played a major role. It is only right that a "theology of women" should focus on the nature of this input into Christian life, into the feminine charism which is right now an important pillar of the Church, and make this available to the entire body of the Church. When this theology is formulated (and it will be a Catholic theology!), people will wonder why we have so few female heads of dicasteries, diocesan speakers and yes, Cardinals. Feminist theology is tendentious and fractious in a way a Theology of Women would not be. And in this reform, we will be an example even for the business world, whose progress in the matter is similarly lame.

Comment by: gerry oates
Posted: 27/11/2013 11:31:32

It was women who mostly hosted the embryonic christian communities and who sometimes assisted St.Paul in his tours of the outposts of the followers of The Way. By taking a snapshot of the Last Supper you find the disciples all in focus at a celebratory meal but who,pray,obtained the venue and prepared the food ? Slaves?

Comment by: Peter Day
Posted: 24/11/2013 23:47:17

Some clarification re. John-Paul's comment: at no point in my piece did I mention the ordination of women. I'm not being cute or evasive here; rather, I'm conscious that the word "ordination" is so controversial/divisive - and prohibited - that it tends to shut down any useful, respectful, discourse about the role of women. Thus, we need to find other ways, outside of ordination, in which the genius of women is allowed to genuinely shape the church. Indeed, in my original piece (it was too long for this Blog) I wrote the following: "In the meantime, we have a responsibility to open other doors, to look at new ways in which the genius and richness of women is given its due and honoured place in our church. Such ways might include creating places for women within dioceses – e.g. as Trustees, as Consultors, as Chancellors; or, at an international level, as heads of Dicasteries." Regards, Peter Day

Comment by: Jim McCrea
Posted: 22/11/2013 21:59:36

The current treatment of women by the Catholic Church smacks more than a bit of George Orwell’s Animal House in which he states: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." Women constitute the overwhelming source of Catholic Church energy and workers, but continue to be restricted from equality with men in fulfillment of their Christian lives. Women have gained access to influence but they have not achieved access to authority, which remains vested in the ordained classes. This is leading to the phenomenon called “defecting in place:” Catholics stay Catholic, but do not behave or believe the way the hierarchy or Church teachings would like. A word to the wise should be sufficient.

Comment by: Denis
Posted: 22/11/2013 11:36:17

Involvement in the Church doesn't necessarily entail being ordained either as priest or any other religious. As Elena Curti has pointed out, there are a considerable number of very able women who already hold senior positions within the Catholic Church and who have a very real influence on how the Church behaves. As Catholics we focus intensely on the role of Mary, for some non Catholics perhaps too intently. That emphasis is entirely positive in promoting a very strong (in every sense) female presence. It's not about fluffy bunnys and nice dresses (nothing wrong with them of course), but total dedication, unflinching love and the ability to endure what may seem unendurable. All characteristics which embodied by Mary, I saw in my mother and grandmothers.

Comment by: John-Paul
Posted: 22/11/2013 09:49:23

No, I haven't noticed how women are marginalised in our church. I have my life from my mother and I have my faith from my mother and from the sisters of my convent school. I have my understanding of the faith from the priests and religious (on earth and in heaven) who have formed me. I see this balance reflected in the gospels and I see it reflected in our parish life. We have a crisis of male clergy which will not be solved by making it female.

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