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Women's place


Two conflicting views guide the Church's position on women, and have from the very beginning. And therein lies hope.

Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert

Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert

By Elizabeth A. Johnson

When the African-American poet Audre Lorde switched from wearing eyeglasses to contact lenses, she wrote:

Once I lived behind thick walls
of glass
and my eyes belonged
to a different ethic
timidly rubbing the edges
of whatever turned them on.
Seeing usually
was a matter of what was . . .
behind my brain.
Now my eyes have become
a part of me exposed
quick and risky and open
to all the same dangers.
I see much
better now
and my eyes hurt.

Today, as Catholic women increasingly view the Church through the lens of gender, many—and I include myself among them—think we see more clearly where its problems lie, and the hints also of solutions, and our eyes do hurt.


But what gives women even the right to envision the Church?

Christianity took shape in a culture where elite men held power over other men, and over women and children and slaves. As the Church grew and became more established, its leaders adopted that same structure, called patriarchy (rule of the father) or kyriarchy (rule of the lord). The Church remained patriarchal through the centuries, as society did, and gave religious authorization to that organizing pattern—men in charge.

I am not male-bashing here. Within that system, some men have been humanly mature, spiritually advanced; they have been very nice to women and even loved them. But the system, a pattern of relationship, predetermines the roles men and women play. The Church reflects this inequality, in its sacred texts, its religious symbols (most importantly, God), its rituals, governance, and laws. And as a result, for most of the Church's history, women have been silent and invisible in the public square.

When the book I edited, The Church Women Want: Catholic Women in Dialogue, was published two years ago, one critic told me it should have been called "the Church Jesus wants." Some people argued that men should have been consulted too. But the main criticism came from men and some women who felt that women have no right to envision the Church—that we should practice the godly virtues of loyalty and obedience to what the men in charge decide is right and true.

There is ultimately only one source of authority for the Church, namely the Spirit of God, giver of life and source of all love. It is the Spirit who enables the community of disciples, the Church, to carry forward the word and presence of Christ into the world. It is the Spirit who makes this living community "the only real reliquary of Jesus in the world today," as the Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx put it.

In her 2001 Madeleva lecture, delivered at St. Mary's College in South Bend, Indiana, and published as Speaking with Authority, Mary Catherine Hilkert, OP, developed an engaging argument for the religious authority of women's voices today.

First and foremost, she said, in the sacrament of baptism the Spirit of God profoundly consecrates every woman. Body and soul, a woman is blessed and made holy by this participation in God's own life. Like all baptized persons, each woman shares in the dying and rising of Christ, becomes in effect another Christ, called to share in his work of prophet, priest, and leader. And indeed, Vatican II taught that it is not only ordained priests or vowed religious, but the whole Church that is called to Christ's mission. We are in an age of great rediscovery of the importance of baptism for empowering the laity, which includes women, in the Church.

Second, said Hilkert, through their actual experience of living the Christian life day by day, women gain insight into the ways of God. Across their whole lifetime, as they age, women as well as men are capable of growing in wisdom and grace. They can spot what is right and what is wrong, what is essential and what is expendable, thanks to their prayer and lived Christian experience.

Third, through their suffering, women also gain knowledge of the power of sin, and of what needs to be done to heal and redeem life, for themselves and others who weep. We know by being pressed down precisely what humanity requires in order to flourish. The suffering of oppression, which must be resisted at every turn, does grant sufferers a right to speak.

The authority of baptism, of Christian life experience, and of compassionate suffering—that is what gives women of faith the right to envision the Church we want. And the growing strength of our voices about matters of God in our day is a gift to the Church and the world.

A HUGE ambiguity about women runs through the Christian heritage. On the one hand, there are sacred texts and laws that keep women in a subordinate role. These sources are appealed to today by people who wish to maintain the status quo. On the other hand, there are points of light in scripture, in tradition, and in official teaching that challenge this arrangement. I call these texts and practices and teachings, which are also entrenched in our tradition, the prophetic strand. They emphasize the solidarity of God with the poor and with other people of little worldly influence, women among them. They are the supports for liberation theology and feminist, womanist, and mujerista theologies. Far from assigning dominance of one group over another, the prophetic pattern supposes a Christian community of mutual regard, a discipleship of equals.

In other words, two visions—the patriarchal and the prophetic—are present in our heritage. Sic et Non, yes and no, to cite the title of a famous medieval book by the theologian Abelard. This, I think, is a source of hope. It makes clear that what we have been living with under patriarchy is not all there is to Christianity. Something more is possible.

Consider scripture. We all know the creation story that opens the Bible. On the sixth day, "God created humankind in his own image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. And God blessed them" (Gen 1:26-28a). How simply this text makes a major claim: Women and men together, and equally as human beings, are created in the image and likeness of God. The New Testament inherited this teaching and gave it a Christian twist. And so an early baptismal hymn has the Christians in Galatia singing: "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no more Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, but you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:27-28).

And yet also in the New Testament, there is the voice of Paul, freighted with culture and custom and a terrible ambivalence. Weighing in on whether women should wear veils or not, he writes, "A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and reflection of God. But the woman is not so, but is the reflection of man. . . . That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head" (1 Cor 11:3, 7, 10). Later New Testament writers, at one time identified as Paul, insisted that the equality in Christ due to baptism is only spiritual and should not affect the social order. "Wives be subject to your husbands" (Eph 5:22) and "slaves be obedient to your masters" (Eph 6:5), we read in the household codes. The letter to Timothy roots woman's role in the original fall: "Let woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was created first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children" (1 Tim 2:11-15). There you have it: Woman was created second and sinned first, and Christ's redemption doesn't seem to make a hill of beans of difference.

How are we to sort this out? We can quote texts back and forth, patriarchal ones versus prophetic ones—but how to discern the essence of the good news? The Second Vatican Council provided us with the criterion, in its Decree on Revelation. Describing how the findings of science and critical history seem at times to flat-out contradict statements in the Bible, the decree holds that what we need to believe in scripture is "that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of our salvation." In other words, salvation is the norm. Outdated "biblical" science need not be considered the inspired word of God. Neither must legend. And neither must cultural traditions that today's democratic senses find repugnant. The Church has already made this judgment with regard to biblical teaching on slavery and the right conduct of slave and master. The evil of sexism must be treated to the same judgment.

In fact, the words and actions of Jesus in the gospels give the lie to the idea that the Church was founded as a patriarchal society. Biblical scholars today point out that Jesus called both women and men to be disciples; that women left their homes and responded to Jesus' call; that he received from women not only financial support (they bankrolled his ministry: see Lk 8:1-3), but also encouragement and instruction in his mission (see Mk 7:24-30); that when Jesus was arrested, the men deserted but it was the women who stayed, faithful witnesses at the cross and at the tomb; and that the risen Christ chose them to be the first recipients of the good news of the resurrection, giving them the apostolic mandate to "go and tell" the others, which they did, even in the face of ridicule. Reading the gospels with the gender question in mind, British writer Dorothy Sayers observed, "There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything 'funny' about woman's nature. But we might easily deduce . . . it from his Church to this day."

After Jesus' death and resurrection, we know from biblical evidence as well as archaeological inscriptions, women functioned in the early Church as apostles, prophets, teachers, healers, preachers, missionaries, deacons, and leaders of house churches. More generally, scholars today point to Jesus' inclusive table fellowship, his loving words of forgiveness, his criticism of oppression, and his mandate that leaders be servants (exemplified when he washed the feet of his disciples)—as grounds for Christ's community to bring an end to a system where some simply dominate others. Sic et Non? Interpreted with a prophetic vision, scripture nourishes hope.

THE SAME ambiguity about women that we find in scripture perdures throughout Christian tradition—for if Christianity contained from the beginning a commitment to woman's dignity and capacity for eternal life, a terrible bias plagued even the smartest and most influential of male theologians. In the third century, Tertullian taught that women are the second Eve: Just as Eve "softened up with her cajoling words he whom the devil himself could not attack," so too all women are "the devil's gateway." In the fifth century, Augustine allowed that women's souls were capable of being the image of God equally with that of men; but a woman as female, that is, in her sexual body, is not in the image of God, and can be considered such only when taken together with man who is her head. Eight hundred years later, Thomas Aquinas defined woman as a "defective male," misbegotten when the male seed at conception is not up to full strength. And in the 16th century, Martin Luther wrote to the effect that women must live under the power of their husbands: "This punishment, too, springs from original sin. . . . The rule remains with the husband, and the wife is compelled to obey him by God's command. He rules the home and the state, wages wars, defends his possessions, tills the soil, builds, plants, etc. The woman, on the other hand, is like a nail driven into the wall. She sits at home . . . look[ing] after the affairs of the household, as one who has been deprived of administering those affairs . . . that concern the state. . . . In this way is Eve punished."

(continued below)

So moved

Photos by Justin Knight

Photos by Justin Knight

More than 600 people converged on BC's Newton Campus on April 16–17 for a conference entitled "Envisioning the Church Women Want." They heard prepared talks by theologians, including Elizabeth Johnson, Miriam Therese Winter of the Hartford Seminary, and Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz of Drew University, and joined in workshops whose topics ranged from the tension inherent in being Catholic and feminist to the U.S. bishops' failed attempt at a "Women's Pastoral" 12 years ago (Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester, New York, was a panelist); from new forms of Catholic leadership now being modeled by women to "Is the Church Women Want the Church Men Want, Too?"

When it was all over, the attendees, who were mostly women, had the opportunity each to leave a written response. A sampler:

I hope for equality and open hearts.

We are the Church; we have the ability and the power to move mountains.

Just when labor becomes most painful and we think we can't go on, the baby is birthed into light and new life.

Jesus is in the boat with us. We can't sink!

With the Holy Spirit we can build a new Church.

I hope I live long enough to see women given their God and given place in the Catholic Church.

A broken heart can lead the spirit to breathe new life.

I hope women will stop asking for permission.

We must find, care for, and nourish each other. Perhaps for a long, long time.

That my daughters, granddaughters will worship in a Church that recognizes and values all its people.

I hope we are really at a moment when this envisioning can be enacted . . . but I am afraid.

I need to take some risks. . . . I am not alone.

I hope I can remain Catholic. I have more hope now than when I walked in.

Hope is in every woman whose path crosses mine if I just pay attention. And with God's blessing, men will also share the load and burden along the way.

I have one life to live and I will not let the last part of my life die out—I will speak my truth.

I hope that I can be transformed to truly live the message of Christ.

I am a baptized, committed member of the Church, I have a place in the Church, I am called by God to bring justice and love to the world and to the Church.

I must stay with the Church to effect change.

Pages of notes, a hopeful heart, memories of the hundreds who gather to keep on through shared strength.

I can't say I have much hope.


(continued from above)

Over time, women as a class internalized the images they were fed, and instinctively thought of themselves as less than worthy. But not all did. We have always had feisty women who refused that definition.

In early and medieval times, some women rejected patriarchal marriage and formed monastic communities where they could pursue their relationship to God and one another undeterred. Some were mystics who envisioned God as being beyond gender and used both male and female images to point to this unutterable mystery. In Julian of Norwich's famous visions in the 14th century, she affirmed that "God all Wisdom is our kindly Mother; yes, as truly God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother."

Catherine of Siena in the 14th century remained outside convent walls, becoming involved as a lay woman in Church reform by sheer dint of her call from God. At one point she wrote to Gregory XI rebuking his choice of pastors and cardinals, saying that they were "stinking weeds, full of impurity and avarice, and bloated with pride," that the Church deserved pastors who would be true servants of Jesus Christ with care for the poor—and Catherine is a doctor of the Church.

Of course, in addition to singular women, there have always been the anonymous millions of women who built up the Christian tradition through their quest for God, their prayer, their service, and their love, staking out small areas of independence within it and instructing their daughters. And so, the ambiguity perdures.

THERE HAS been a rapid shift in official Church teaching, in our own time. Vatican II sounded the drumbeat loud and clear, in general statements filled with implications (the whole Church is called to holiness; Christ is present in the whole assembly gathered in prayer), and in explicit teachings such as this ringing affirmation in The Church in the Modern World, the pastoral constitution proclaimed by Paul VI at the council's conclusion: "With respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language, or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God's intent." In other words, sexism is a sin. Perhaps nowhere has this been more strongly articulated than in the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II. Rather than repeat the old canards, he vigorously maintains the equality of women and men in creation and redemption. In his 1988 encyclical On the Dignity of Women, for example, he writes, "Both man and woman are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God's image." And again, "The human being . . . is a person, man and woman equally so, since both were created in the image and likeness of the personal God." This affirmation can now be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In theory, at least, the ambiguity surrounding women is clearing. Not so in practice.

The magisterium has yet to posit equality in the social structures of Church life, the most striking example being ordination to the priesthood. In 1976, acknowledging that the traditional reasoning against women's ordination, namely, women's inferiority as human beings, is now inadequate, the Vatican in the document Inter Insigniores brought forth three new reasons why women are barred from the sacrament. First is the example of Jesus, who ordained only 12 men; second is the unbroken tradition of the Church, which never ordained women; and third is the iconic argument, which holds that the priest has to look like the male Jesus in order for the sacrament of the Eucharist to have its natural symbolic value. Subsequently, these reasons have been buttressed in the writings of Pope John Paul II by a dualistic view that sees masculine nature fitted with rationality and the ability to lead in the public realm, and feminine nature oriented to love and toward nurturing the vulnerable in the private realm. These reasons have been so consistently unconvincing that 20 years after Inter Insigniores, the Vatican issued another statement saying that women cannot be ordained, period, that this is authoritative teaching, and that the discussion is ended. It is a testament to the depth of patriarchal resistance to women's equality that officials of the Church are less willing to sit down and discuss women's ordination in an open, collegial, and rational manner than they are to sit down with other Christian churches to discuss contentious issues about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the divinity of Christ, or even the inner life of the Trinitarian God—all of which have been subjects of ecumenical dialogue.

The tension between patriarchal and prophetic ideas about women is untenable over the long haul. Even under the stern watch of patriarchal resistance, new sociological facts have taken shape.

Today, for instance, more than 80 percent of the ministry within U.S. Catholic parishes is carried out by women. Women provide the bulk of catechists, teachers, directors of religious education, charitable service workers, and volunteers of all kinds. Women serve in liturgical roles as lectors, Eucharistic ministers, and cantors. They function as parish administrators where priests are unavailable and lead communion services that include preaching as part of the liturgy of the word. They also serve as diocesan chancellors and as judges in marriage tribunals. Along with lay men, they increasingly head up the three great areas of Catholic contribution to American society: hospitals, schools and colleges, and social service agencies. In addition, there has been a blossoming of women's scholarship. Women are active now in fields of biblical research, Church history, systematic theology, ethics, and spirituality, teaching in seminaries and bringing women's wisdom to bear on the whole range of Christian doctrines, symbols, ethics, and rituals.

With their growing participation in the life of the Church today, many of these women have come to feel an enormous spiritual strain, due to exclusions that persist. Two areas in particular stand out. One is decision-making: Doctrinal teachings, laws, and ethical mandates are still handed down from a council of men without the participation of women, even when decisions affect women most intimately, in their bodies. The other area of tension is the sacramental life: The exclusion of women from Eucharistic leadership eats at the heart of their liturgical experience. As the theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether put it, women come to the Eucharist hungry for the word of God and the bread of life, and they leave still hungry, even starving. Why? Because they never hear women's experience interpret the word of God in preaching, and they never see one like themselves enact the sacred ritual. The Eucharistic rite works like all sacraments do: It effects by signifying. When women are excluded from presiding, it effects their subordination. The Eucharistic liturgy remains a symbol of the Church's reluctance to include women fully in the mysteries of salvation.

INTO THIS fraught situation, where the immovable object of patriarchy encounters the irresistible force of women's desire for full participation in the Church, into this situation, like a bomb, has dropped the sex abuse scandal. We have experienced the dreadful revelations of moral corruption among a small percentage of Catholic priests, and the failure of a greater percentage of bishops to protect the innocent from harm. This has been accompanied by a lack of accountability for use of the financial resources of the Church, large amounts being secretly paid to bury the knowledge of what happened.

We now have what one writer has called "a perfect storm": Lay people are scandalized and outraged; good priests are demoralized; many bishops are profoundly compromised; and an increasingly reactionary Vatican bureaucracy is clueless about the seriousness of what is happening. The responses of competent laity in Voice of the Faithful and other forums and movements for reform are met in many institutional quarters with fear and disdain, though they are in fact green shoots of hope. It has never been clearer that the Church needs a transformed structure, fully transparent and accountable to its members. And, as Theresa Kane, RSM, said in her groundbreaking address to Pope John Paul II during his visit to Washington, D.C., in 1979, genuine transformation will not come about without the "full participation of women in the ministries of the Church." The time has never been more ripe for new envisioning.

In his 2003 book on the Church entitled A People Adrift, Peter Steinfels, religion writer for the New York Times, makes an astute observation. The Catholic Church in the United States, he writes, is currently going through two major transitions. The first is generational, from the older folks who grew up in a strong cultural Catholicism with devotions and feasts and observances, so that Catholicism was bred in one's bones, to the younger generations born and brought up after Vatican II, when the old form of Catholicism dissolved under the light of reform, so that younger people now hold their Catholic identity more loosely, or even in a more confused way. The second transition involves Church leadership, with leadership in every aspect of Church life except liturgy passing from clergy to laity—that is, to people who may well be married, with children and other commitments. These are seismic shifts, happening beyond anyone's control, and how we Catholics negotiate them will determine the future of the Church in this country.

To say that these are perilous times is an understatement. But thanks to women claiming the authority of their baptism, and thanks to the men who stand with them, and thanks to the persistence of the prophetic, liberating strand within our tradition, there is reason for hope. The feminist writer Marge Piercy wrote a poem whose imagery I have always loved:

. . . We must shine
with hope, stained glass windows that shape
light into icons, glow like lanterns
borne before a procession. Who can bear hope
back into the world but us . . .

The Church is the community of redeemed sinners called to serve the coming of the kingdom of God into this world. Again and again, it has failed and become a collaborator in domination, within and without. But the power of the Spirit, Holy Wisdom herself at work in the community, empowers the Church to rise ever again. I believe we are living in such an ascendant season. What is new about this moment is that, for the first time in Christian history, masses of women in the Church are silent and invisible no longer. We are coming in from the cold, envisioning the Church in a way beneficial to all. This, I am convinced, is the work of the Spirit of God. And She will not be quenched.

Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ, is the Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University and the author of The Church Women Want: Catholic Women in Dialogue (2002) and Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (2003). Her essay is adapted from a talk she delivered at Boston College on April 17, 2004, part of the conference entitled "Envisioning the Church Women Want."


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