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. Prologue
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Tuesday's women

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Unraveling the dilemma,
Catholic and female

By Anna Marie Murphy

"I've decided to make God the center of my life," the young woman told the 20 or so women seated around her holding coffee cups and listening attentively. She spoke quietly, firmly, and, in the early morning stillness on campus, her words filled the room, a lounge in one of BC's administrative buildings. "I'm a Catholic, so that is my way. But the more I learn about the Catholic Church the less I like it. Men won't help me. They say, 'Not in your lifetime, dear. Just do the best you can.'" Her listeners nodded, some winced. "I'm kind of trapped. Women do all kinds of things in the Church—pastoral ministry, choir—but have no real voice." Again the nods. "Men aren't coming to the priesthood anymore, and it's men who have the power," she said, and her face grew taut. "This institution that I feel the need to be attached to is falling apart, and it doesn't really want me."

This was the first meeting of the academic year for the BC group informally dubbed "The Church Women Want," after a book by that name published in 2002 by Elizabeth Johnson. The book is a collection of essays by prominent Catholic women (including BC theologian Colleen Griffith). A semester after the launch of BC's Church in the 21st Century initiative in the fall of 2002, the group began meeting weekly to develop programs for the initiative and, as one regular put it, to "make sure women's voices are heard." It revived a practice born in the 1980s, and resurrected episodically, of BC faculty women meeting in the early hours of the day to discuss gender-related issues; out of such gatherings came the Women's Studies Program in 1983. Now between 10 and 20 women meet on Tuesday mornings at eight; they break up just before nine, as some sweep up their bags and head out for the first class of the day. The women today range in age from seemingly late teens to mid-seventies, and they include undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty in a variety of disciplines, as well as staff and senior administrators. Several are nuns.

At the first meeting last fall, each woman in the room articulated the issue or issues she would like to see on the table for discussion. Over the following months, the group considered many of them: not only female ordination, but the historical traditions and distortions of history surrounding women's roles in the Church; the concept of Sophia—"woman wisdom"—from the Old Testament, and feminine images of God. "What is our relationship to authority?" And "why do we silence ourselves?" "What keeps women Catholic?" And "what do we tell our kids?" Invariably the talk was personal, scholarly, witty, honest, and kind—a sharing of what worked to keep one in the faith and of what made it hard to stay ("This is what sustains me," an older woman said once to the group). "It doesn't have to do with blind loyalty," said a younger faculty member, "there's something peaceful in the Church, something beautiful." And then she related her unfulfilled search for a service where women are on the altar and the priest seems enlightened about the laity: "So if you see me in your parish, I'm just visiting. I used to stay, now I get up and walk out," she said, if she doesn't like what she hears. Another morning an undergraduate said, "My faith is not tainted by the scandals that are going on. But I worry about passing the Church's traditions on to my children regarding women."

Sometimes women described attending unconventional liturgies, where, say, a complicit priest would give a one-sentence introduction then pass the privilege of delivering the homily to a woman. "The Church is not God," said one faculty member, "it's a very flawed but struggling effort to mediate God. Still," she went on, "while the Catholic Church isn't the best thing for the human race, it is the best for me."

As part of BC's Church in the 21st Century initiative, a conference will be held on April 16–17, "Envisioning the Church Women Want." Organized by the women who meet on Tuesdays, it will explore "the past and future of women in the Catholic Church." Speakers and panelists will include the theologians Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham University and Ada María Isasi-Díaz of Drew University; Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester, New York; Thomas Groome of BC's Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry; and Miriam Therese Winter of the Hartford Seminary.

 

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