“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