Our Little Church
The views presented in the following papers are those of the Issues Group and are not necessarily representative of the people of St. Aloysius Parish nor the Roman Catholic Church.
Catholic Issues: The Church Today
Women in the Church
Down through the millennia in society, and in the Catholic Church which is a microcosm of society, there have been some outstanding women leaders. They have, however, been the exception rather than the rule. Historically men have taken charge of church organizations, as they have the public sphere in society at large. Clearly today there are forces in motion that are affirming the fundamental equality of women.. How should the Church accept and affirm the equality of women, who along with men are created in the image of God?
This paper intends to provide a brief glimpse into each of the following:
1) Historical setting of patriarchal (male dominated) and androcentric (male centered) orientation.
2) Revolutionary impact of Jesus' attitude toward women.
3) Attitude of the very early Christian communities pertaining to the role of women as they interpreted Christ's teaching
4) Insight into why the church drifted away from egalitarian acceptance of women to marginalizing them as it developed into an institutional religion.
5) Role of women in the church today and their effort to reclaim their rightful place.
6) Issue of women's ordination.
The first question we might ask is why on earth is there even a women's issue at all? What is the matter with women? What is this disease of femaleness that relegates women to an inferior status, that devalues women, that makes them unfit to take part equally in the political, social and economic spheres?
Male domination has been with us for thousands of years, but it is only in the 20th century that it has been given a name - patriarchy. The very early totally agrarian cultures were cohesive units and there was strong sense of egalitarianism between men and women, but when work became separated from the home, male domination started to develop. Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle essentially believed that men and women have different natures. Men were associated with the rational, noble, self-control, things of the spirit, whereas women were irrational, uncontrollable, sexual, animal and potentially dangerous. Aristotle said " the male is by nature superior and the female inferior and the one rules and the other is ruled; this principle of necessity extends to all mankind." And he further wrote " Femaleness is a deformity that affects half the human race." Women were misbegotten males - a mistake relegated to be the helper, an adjunct, servant, assistant. They were less intelligent - less responsible for developing their minds. She is female by virtue of a lack of qualities. Even in mathematical principle the Greek view of women as inferior and of little value is expressed. A Pythagorean statement of mathematical clarity states: "The good principle creates order, light, the man. The evil principle creates chaos, darkness, and the woman." These philosophical theories became the basis for excluding women from political power, social and economic life, because of their innate diminished rational faculties or intellectual disabilities. A women's life became relegated to the home - to secondary roles.
Women fared no better in ancient Jewish culture than in their pagan counterparts. They were strictly excluded from any public life. Rabbinical law was very clear that no Jewish man would ever speak to a woman in public - not to his daughter, sister, mother or wife. Women were strictly excluded from the temple sanctuary and were forbidden to study the Torah. No good Jew ever thought of discussing theology with a woman telling her only what he felt she should know. A Jewish scholar contemporary with Jesus said "Better that the Torah be burned than placed in the mouth of a woman." Women were saddled with purity laws which rendered them ritually unclean during much of their lives. During her period a wife could not cook the family meal, shop at the market, touch her husband or love her children. In Jewish culture, no woman had any legal rights. A man could put a woman out on the street for anything he felt like from cooking an unsatisfactory meal to bearing a female child. He only had to repeat three times, " I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you." The rabbis taught that " when a boy child comes into the world, peace comes. When a girl child comes into the world, nothing comes." In both the Greco-Roman world and the Jewish world, the most important thing about a woman was her uterus. She was essentially a reproductive machine for the purpose of procreation.
Just as Plato thanked the gods for being free and a male, a Jewish male thanked God daily reciting: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord, for not having created me as a woman."
Texts such as the above most definitely tell women that they are not just different from men, but are inferior, destined to live under men's influence, to be men's ornaments and companions, to be lesser beings, to be invisible. Females are to have no autonomy or authority at all. The world was defined through the eyes of men; women and the role of women in society were defined by men. It was into this unequal world of Jewish and Greek traditions that the new movement started by Jesus was born.
Jesus rejected the dominant traditions of the Jewish and Greek worlds. He attacked religious leaders and institutions and the law as the defining element of religion. He rejected the relations of hierarchy and domination as models for leadership and authority calling for a vision of leadership as one of service. Jesus taught that people were more important than the Sabbath and reconciliation more important than worship (religion). Compassion was the essence of discipleship as opposed to liturgical or religious obligations. He established the sovereignty of God in the equality of all believers -- all believers.
Thanks to Vatican II and its new emphasis on the study of the Gospels and other scripture as the basis for truth, lay men and women have flocked to study scripture and theology. The liberating power of the scriptures has revealed new and refreshing insights into our relationship with Jesus, relationship between men and women, and about who we are as human beings. As a result of such study, we have a different understanding of Jesus' attitude toward women. Jesus was a good and practicing Jew deeply imbedded in Judaism going to the Temple, keeping the feasts, preaching in the Synagogues, and so on. His attitude toward women, then, should have coincided with that expressed a few paragraphs above. On the contrary, Jesus dramatically departs from Jewish tradition as illustrated over and over again in the Gospel stories whenever women are mentioned. Jesus related to women differently than most men. For Jesus, women had a value of their own. He allowed a woman to be a different kind of woman -to play a different kind of role. Much can be written about this, but for the sake of brevity a short analysis of the story of the woman at the well and some comments about Mary Magdelene will dramatically illustrate his revolutionary position.
Consider the Samaritan woman. Samaritans were outcasts as far as the orthodox Jew was concerned. Furthermore, Samaritan women, considered by Jewish law as "menstruants from their cradle", were the greatest outcasts of all. Jesus was well aware of this position, but simply did not share the animosity toward either Samaritans or women. On the contrary, he asked the Samaritan woman for a drink (which according to Jewish law would make him unclean), carried on a conversation with her much to the chagrin of his disciples, and taught her some deep theological concepts about God, the nature of salvation, and the nature of himself: "I am the Messiah who is talking to you." Remember, this was the woman who had no husband, but who had had 5 husbands. She was an unvalued, unwanted woman to whom Jesus taught divine subjects in public and to whom Jesus gave an extraordinary task. Jesus chose this most unlikely of individuals to give testimony to him. In other words, she became a messianic messenger and according to the scripture, " they all believed."
The message seems clear. Jesus did not share the traditional attitude toward women. He treated the Samaritan woman as a person of value to him rather than just a female and a piece of property. He called her, the outcast, to collaborate with him giving her the living water. This Samaritan woman was called by God to do God's work. The message of the scripture is clear that God calls whoever and whenever God wills. The spark of the divine, the image of God, is within everyone and we are all summoned, women as well as men, to respect and respond to this image.
Mary Magdelene is one of the strongest women in Christian scripture. For any woman to be identified by name in a male document is uncommon. Mary is identified 14 times. From the time of Pope Gregory the Great in the Roman Church (the Eastern Church did not denigrate Mary) she has been associated with the repentant whore. As a result of this misidentification and distortion, her special strength and calling have been suppressed and lost to both men and women over the centuries.
According to Luke Ch. 8, v. 1-3, Mary Magdelene was cured by Jesus of demons (she probably had epilepsy or some such ailment) and was one of those women who helped support the ministry of Jesus out of their own means. She risked the scorn of society to minister to Christ because of her faith in him. According to the Gospel of Philip, "There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary his mother and her sister and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion." She stayed with Jesus throughout his ministry as a supporter, friend and companion, and followed him to the cross. When the apostles disassociated themselves from him on the cross, Mary stayed, along with his mother, some other women, and one other apostle, John. Mary was the first witness to the resurrection and was called by Jesus to proclaim the resurrection: "Go tell Peter and the others that I have risen." As in the case of the Samaritan woman, Jesus called Mary to an entirely new role for a woman. He taught her, and she was part of his public life. Jesus valued her as a unique person in whom the life and power of God flowed with the same intensity as it did in Peter, James or John.
Thus far we have reviewed the attitudes toward women in both the Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures. In striking contrast to contemporary thought, it is clear that Jesus was revolutionary and counter culture accepting women in his ministry. To be faithful to the example of Christ - to the meaning of his existence, the Church must recognize the full equality of women with men if it is to be perceived and function, as the whole people of God.
Now let's take a look at the roles of women in the very early Christian church. Christ's liberation of women from their conventional roles within Jewish society prevailed for at least several generations following his death. Paul wrote in Gal. 3:27-28 " There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus." This sweeping away of all ethnic, social and sexual differences distinguished the Christians from their Hellenistic and Jewish contemporaries. Women were drawn to the Christian movement probably in part because they were, at least for a time, valued and esteemed. They were offered a position of status and purpose otherwise denied them in a patriarchal society. Pagan writers scoffed at Christianity saying it was a religion of women, capable of appealing to the simple and lowly and those without understanding, such as women, slaves and children. At any rate, women from all positions in life were attracted to Christianity.
Christ's followers such as Salome, Joanna and Mary Magdalene had been treated as disciples equally with the men. Mary was to be the first apostle in the true sense of the word. Throughout Paul's epistles and the book of Acts one sees women from various strata, i.e. the Gentile Lydia, seller of purple, the Greeks Thessalonika and Boroea, the middle-class Mary, mother of John Mark. Women of financial means supported missionaries much the same as Mary and the other women disciples supported Christ's group. Some women also became leaders and missionaries themselves, such as Phoebe and Junia.
Women played a very crucial role in the establishment of the early Church, an importance that has been seemingly deliberately or conveniently ignored over the past centuries and is only recently being rediscovered. The general assumption has been that the roles of women as disciples were ancillary or subsidiary to that of men. Contributing to this opinion has been mistranslating certain words that color their meaning and role. Consider Phoebe, deaconess of the church of Cenchraea. Paul referred to her by three titles, sister, diakonos, and prostasis (Rom 16:1). Diakonos, when applied to Paul or another male leader, was translated as missionary or servant. When referring to Phoebe it has been translated as deaconess, imposing upon her a somewhat less important role. The title prostatis, signifies a bishop, deacon or elder. Thus Phoebe's function as a missionary and possibly bishop of her church has far greater significance than translations have led us to believe.
The high regard for Junia (whose name has sometimes appeared as the male equivalent to suppress that this leader was in fact a woman) in the early church is expressed by St. John Chrysostom who wrote the following about Junia and her husband:
" There is something great about being an apostle. But to be preeminent
among the apostles - think what marvelous praise that is. They were pre-
eminent by virtue of their work and their honest tasks. How great the wisdom
of this woman must have been for her to have been found worthy of the
As the role of Phoebe was downplayed, the role of Mary Magdelene as apostle was also minimized. Apostle in Greek meant "one who had witnessed and had been sent to preach the Word." The Church has played down her role or ignored it altogether, although it was the supposed fact of being the first witness to the resurrection that allowed Peter to claim his succession to Christ and to justify male apostolic succession in the Church. Mary was recognized by Hippolytus of Rome, a third century orthodox Christian writer, as the "apostle to the apostles." Allegedly because she did not spread the message to the world in general, that being left to the male disciples, Mary's position was ignored. Unearthing of the Dead Sea Scrolls has produced several manuscripts portraying Mary in a much different light. Modern scholarship reveals her as having a very dominant position in the early Christian community, a following , and even a gospel attributed to her, the Gospel of Mary. In the orthodox Roman church she has been accorded an honorific title of "Apostle to the Apostles," but in other non canonical writings, she is depicted as the leader of the group of apostles, and as the apostle who excels all the rest. Gregory of Antioch, in an imaginative speech about the resurrection had Christ say to Mary: "Be the first apostle to the apostles. So that Peter ... learns that I can choose even women as apostles." By the way, in the Orthodox Church, Mary Magdelene is seen as the witness to the resurrection and is given the titles "Myrrhbearer" and "Equal to the Apostles." Her identity has not been collapsed into that of the sinner as happened in the Roman Church. For more information on Mary read Mary Magdalen, Myth and Metaphor by Susan Haskins, 1993.
Aside from these distinguished women just mentioned, other women founded and maintained house churches which functioned as centers of the growing Christian communities. The Kingdom of God was considered to have broken into history and the old social order was transformed. For the first 200 years, the early church was essentially a house-church as opposed to a public temple-like structure, thus enabling women to play a major and influential role in spreading the new movement without testing, to any significant degree, the culturally accepted roles for women. While the Twelve and the Seven, offices specific to the Jerusalem Church, were all male, there is no New Testament evidence that women were excluded from any office in the first century church.. Biblical evidence and other writings from the period show that various ministries, i.e.: deacon, elder, overseer, were shared by women and men equally, with women exercising roles that later became associated with priestly ministry, baptizing, teaching, praying over the sick, and so on.
In the second century ordained and paid ecclesiastical offices arise and there is a significant reduction of female ministers. At the same time the power and authority that many of the women patrons had shifted to an administrative hierarchy. However, there remain ordained women deaconesses. An early Syrian church document, the Didascalia, states that a bishop should appoint female deacons for ministry to women, particularly in the areas of catechesis, anointing, distribution of the Eucharist, and pastoral care. Women's areas of service were equal to that of male deacons. Their influence was limited to women in the same way the service of male deacons was limited to men. This same document details an ecclesiastical hierarchy in which the Christian bishop sits in the place of God, male deacons in the place of Christ and deaconesses in the place of the Holy Spirit. At the end of the fourth century deaconesses were ministering in major centers such as Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, Caesarea and in regions of Cappadocia and Phrygia. Although in theory their responsibilities were limited to those outlined in the Didascalia, in fact, some must have been performing priestly functions because a fourth century Greek author, Epiphanius, remarked in a set of rules about church offices that women should not perform priestly functions.
The female diaconate continued to grow in the Eastern church. For example, in the Church in Constantinople in 535 AD there were 60 priests, 100 male deacons, 40 female deacons, and various other offices. Apparently ordination of deaconesses continued in the Eastern churches up through the 18th century, and even today the Armenian Church apparently has women deacons.
As the Western Church began to forbid ordination of deaconesses, there developed the "Order of Widows," somewhat a class of senior women within the church. They were sometimes linked with bishops, presbyters and deacons as ecclesiastical dignitaries and at other times as part of the clergy. This was transformed with the development of monasticism into religious orders.
A major turning point in the Church's history was when it was blessed (or cursed) with the Edict of Constantine in 313 AD The Roman government ceased waging war against the Church and Christianity became the official religion of the State. Although granted new privileges, some very serious implications developed some of which remain with us today. The church had been more or less an informal, loose knit organization. Now growth in church membership would require some organizational change which resulted in the church mirroring the existing structure of the imperial political realm. Christianity went public, large churches were built, diocesan bishops became like city magistrates and a whole layer of offices developed and brought with it the expected problems associated with stepping stones for promotion. The line between clergy and laity developed, bishops were no longer elected, women were forbidden to go to the altar, and eventually lay men as well were excluded. Civil authorities exploited the relationship with the church for political purposes. The church as a way of life was gone and the institution solidified.
As the Church became increasingly influenced by outside forces, patriarchal domination swept women aside. Women were criticized for their public role, a man's domain. Ostensibly to protect the virtue of women, their role became subordinated, less public. Their contributions were trivialized. Biblical scribers, theologians and church historians emphasized male roles and omitted references to the active discipleship of women in the life of Christ and in the development of the church. Women became subjugated in the church as a reflection of the attitude and peer pressure of Greco-Roman society.
In order to gain converts from the upper classes of society, male clerics agitated for the removal of women from public leadership roles. The Didascalia, a 3rd century manual on church organization, although still acknowledging women's positions, stated that the public ministries of women in the order of widows was an obstacle to the program of centralization. Their pastoral ministries and efforts in converting non-Christians were public acts. Their efforts would be better spent in developing virtues of chastity, silence and obedience through prayer. Evangelizing, teaching and baptizing were the exclusive right of the bishop.
Christian communities welcomed members of the municipal government into their churches. These public leaders brought further organization to church structure. Church government became modeled after city councils. The clerics began to separate from the laity. The ordained became the ruling class in the church. Leadership shifted from ministry to governance. A bishop's court was established. Women's public role in church diminished even more and, before long, virtually disappeared.
Tertullian, a 2nd century theologian, represented a new class of church leader. He stated that women had no right to teach or to baptize. He advocated a stronger distinction between catechumen and baptized, between clergy and laity, between church visitors and believers. He sought the adoption of institutional and social structures similar to those of Roman government and society. Tertullian borrowed the language of Roman life in order to interpret the basic features of Christianity, its beliefs and its structure. He viewed the church as a political body. These views reflected Greco-Roman society and were eagerly endorsed by male clerics who anxiously set up additional rules and regulations to govern the conduct of male and female church members.
In the 5th century, Greco-Roman attitudes regarding sexuality were further refined by Augustine who blamed the personal problems of his youth on lust, (Not through any fault of his own, of course. Women were responsible for his failings). He taught that man had a higher and lower nature. Man's higher nature consisted of intellect and reason, attributes of the soul. Man's lower nature consisted of passion, an attribute of the sexual self. Since the nature of men and women was controlled by their bodies, the only way a person could overcome their lower nature was to deny their sexuality. These concepts led to further refinement of the institutional church's teaching concerning sin, original sin, marriage, celibacy, and the role of women.
From the 4th century Synod of Elvira to the 12th century papal decrees, celibacy was advocated in the belief that sexuality should be repressed. During the Inquisition sexuality was demonized leading to fantasies of medieval witches and the further lowering of women's status and esteem. The importance of the diaconate was lessened and lost prestige with the increased institutionalization of the Church, The office of deaconess was completely eliminated in the Roman church.
Most of the early Christian movement is shrouded in mystery. Yet there remains enough evidence to illustrate that women were active leaders in the early Christian church and played a principal role for a few generations. This is not to say that even in the very beginning there were not debates over women's role in ministry. This is expressed in the antagonism between Peter and Mary Magdalene that is found in some non-canonical gospels as well as in other early writings, i.e.: Pistis Sophis. In a discussion with Jesus, Mary asked the majority of questions and gave interpretations. Peter was distressed and angered saying "My Lord, we shall not be able to endure this woman, for she takes our opportunity and she has not let any of us speak, but talks all the time herself." Mary complained that she hardly dares to interpret the revelations received [from Jesus] because Peter who "hates the female race" intimidates her so much. Although the essence of the Gospels is equality, one only need read passages in some New Testament letters that illustrate contradictory tendencies toward women. They are instructed to be submissive, silent, keep their heads covered, not to teach or have authority over men, .... Bear in mind, these people were living and writing and teaching in a specific culture and time.
For all intents and purposes, by the end of the fourth century women were nearly eliminated from active participation in the church. The example of Jesus, whose life-style lived and breathed the opposite of patriarchal domination, whose life exemplified inclusiveness, who liberated all people, women and men alike, succumbed to the dominant Greco-Roman philosophical tradition. Out of this tradition, which sets one half of the human race up at the expense of the other half, and perpetuates dualisms such as male/female/, saint/sinner, spirit/body, good/bad, superior/inferior ... sprang classical theology. This theology continued through the medieval period and up to the modern era. The new theme the Holy Spirit poured out as it descended upon the apostles and those gathered around in the upper room on Pentecost that everyone, regardless of social class or background, is called upon to actively participate in God's design and to become fully human, was thwarted. A woman was to remain excluded, invisible, silent, chaste, obedient, suppressed - to take her proper role in the home, as is her nature. Consider the following exerpts from some of our church leaders:
Woman! You are the Devil's doorway. You have led astray one who the Devil would not dare attack directly. It is your fault that the Son of God had to die; you should always go in mourning and rags (Tertullian).
Amongst all the savage beasts none is found so harmful as woman (John Chrysostom).
Woman is an occasional and incomplete being, a misbegotten male. It is unchangeable that woman is destined to live under man's influence and has no authority from her Lord. (Thomas Aquinas)
The image of God is found in man, not the woman, for man is the beginning and end of woman. (Thomas Aquinas).
Woman is a sick she-ass ... a hideous tapeworm ... the advance post of hell (John Damascene).
Woman is slow to understand. Her unstable naive mind renders her by way of natural weakness, to the necessity of a strong hand in her husband. Woman's use is two-fold - animal sex and motherhood. (Pope Gregory the Great)
When I deprecate female suffrage I am pleading for the dignity of woman. I am contending for her honor, I am striving to perpetuate those peerless prerogatives inherent in her sex, those charms and graces which exalt womanhood and make her the ornament and coveted companion of man. Woman is queen indeed, but her empire is the domestic kingdom (Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore).
The husband ... will always want his spouse to have a beautiful appearance and a beautiful figure, to move graciously and to dress elegantly; he will also be proud if she has read Shakespeare and Tolstoy, but he is also practical and likes to eat well so he will be doubly happy if he discovers that in addition to a beautiful spouse he has acquired a priceless queen of the kitchen and queen of the sparkling floors and of a house made beautiful by delicate hands and of children brought up as living flowers. (John Paul I, while still a cardinal).
The comments above speak for themselves.
As stated earlier in the paper, the patriarchal system has been with us for thousands of years and is the major social, economic, and political construction of which we are all a part. That's just the way it is and there is no point in whining and lamenting the fact nor taking the role of a victim. Indeed, a great deal of good has developed. At the same time it presents a limited and distorted image of the reality of the world, of life, of relationships between men and women. Right now the world is standing on one leg, seeing with one eye, and thinking with one half of the human mind - the masculine. It is not anti-male to criticize patriarchy, it is simply anti-patriarchy. It is a system based on domination and inequality in which man is considered the center of the universe and has dominion over the earth and everything that is in it.
According to Bernard Haring in A Theology of Protest, " A male-centered society can neither truly appreciate, nor fully realize, human respect and freedom. ... Where excessive patriarchalism is a well-established and unquestionably accepted family pattern, the whole human person will reflect the same basic structure.... The paternalist expects gratitude and submission since he supplies the needs of the people. He is convinced that he knows better and more than those under his control. He promises security and defends the status quo for security's sake. The whole system, of course, is based on the conviction that the paternalistic mode of domination is good, but it soon degenerates into a brutal exploitation marked by no evident concern for those exploited ."
Violence toward women was, and in much of the world still is, considered as normative. For example, Saint Thomas Aquinas said that it was the responsibility of the male to beat his wife as long as it did not result in death. Because of distorted attitudes toward sexuality and devaluation of women, over a period of four centuries during the middle ages, in excess of one million women were burned in Europe as witches - and under church guidance. Men, too, suffer as a result of the patriarchal system either by being perpetrators of control, power, violence, etc. with all the psychological and sociological problems that result, or by being victims of it as well.
If we sit back and look at human history over the millennia, we can see that it reveals a continual spiritual unfolding bringing us to ever deeper understanding of life and God. Always nudging us, crying out to his/her people to work together toward the new age, God is struggling to bring forth justice.
For a long time I have held my peace,
I have kept still and restrained myself
now I will cry out like a woman in labor
I will gasp and pant. (Is 42:14)
A new awareness of the place of women in the world and in the Church began to emerge with the birth of the contemporary phenomena of the women's liberation movement which really began in earnest in the early '60s. Women began to study scripture and analyze with critical and discerning eyes bringing into question the prevailing patriarchal structures and visions of the divine. God is the father. God is masculine. Man was created in God's image. The view of the male is normative. Woman was created only as the helpmate of man. Man has defined woman and her use. Jesus was male, therefore, only males exclusively may lead the church. Woman was responsible for bringing sin into the world and, therefore, responsible for all human suffering. And on and on and on.
Let us briefly look at the story of Eve to get an idea of how the relationships of men and women to God, and to each other, are changed when looking through a woman's eyes. Traditionally Eve was viewed as the enemy of the human race. She is the cause of human suffering. It is because of Eve that woman suffers the pains of childbirth. The shame of Eve is bred in every woman and because of Eve, "original sin" came into the world.
The first creation story in Chapter 1 of Genesis has God saying we shall make humanity in our own image.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
God created both male and female in his image, and together they were blessed by him and were to share in his creation. And God saw all that he had made and it was very good.
In the story of Adam and Eve, both Adam and Eve are created out of the "earth person" (Adama). Adam then says: "This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh." In other words someone just like me - the very same material, identical. Eve is not other, lesser or inferior.
The story of the temptation historically has been interpreted as Eve succumbing to temptation and single-handedly causing the downfall of humanity. Joan Chittister, an outspoken Benedictine nun, quips that anthropology shows there were two bites taken out of the apple, so either both Adam and Eve were weak or both were rebellious. In fact, the myth simply says we became human, and along with our humanity came burdens to bear.
What these creation stories are telling us is that both men and women are in the image of God and both men and women are good. Eve as well as Adam is the sign of the nature of God. The nature of God is female as well as male. God has both a woman's and a man's spirit, a woman's and a man's understanding, a woman's and a man's sense of values, and a woman's and a man's principles.
So what does this tell us about the patriarchal system and moreover, the Church when it insists upon absolute celibate male exclusivity? The feminine dimension of God is hidden, derided, excluded even from the churches that call themselves the house of God. When the voice and views of women are not heard, God is only partial, insight is only partial and truth is only partial. We are half-brained, half-souled and half-hearted. We are not the Church that went where Jesus went.
When Pope John XXIII issued Pacem in Terris in 1963, the impact of the feminist movement was already evident. He wrote: "women are becoming ever more conscious of their human dignity" and are demanding rights "befitting a human person both in domestic and in public life."
Pope Paul VI observed the struggle for equality and stated in the 1971 Synod of Bishops: " Women should have their own share of responsibility and participation in the community life of society and the church," However, in 1972 he wrote an apostolic letter in which he excluded women from the lay ministries of lector and acolyte.
Vatican II recalled us to the tradition of " one holy, catholic and apostolic church" and defined Church beyond the institution as "the People of God." It unleashed the study of scripture, changed church attendance into participation, called Christians to accept all that is holy in other religions, made being a lay person a participant rather than a passive observer. Among innumerable other things, it challenged us to recognize the full equality of women.. Since Vatican II, the participation of women in the church has surged. According to the paper issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in November of 1994 titled Committee on Women in Society and in the Church - Strengthening the Bonds of Peace, (A Pastoral Reflection on Women in the Church and Society), "85% of non-ordained ministerial positions in parishes are now held by women." But the work of Vatican II remains unfinished and is increasingly resisted. Authority is still based on clericalism and called the will of God. Rome is reverting back to centralization of authority, and along with this reactionary trend to pull in the reigns of Vatican II come increased tension, divisiveness, and distrust of Rome's authority. Jesus had authority because he served people, listened to them, and they trusted him. Authority implies an acceptance and can exist only when people have trust in and believe in this authority.
Scriptures are still being ignored in favor of some customs called tradition that suit those in power who profit. The Church cannot be true to the tradition of one holy, catholic and apostolic body as long as it teaches that being male, specifically a celibate male cleric, makes some of us more spirit called than the rest of us, that some of us by virtue of gender are more chosen than the rest of us. This leaves out most men and all women.
Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was very good in terms of its emphasis on economics and education. But it was very disappointing in terms of the issue of gender equality. It still talks about women as being complementary to men which means the male is the norm. In other words, it sounds very much like the old "separate but equal" phrase we are all familiar with in race relations. This promotes inequality. In order for the Church to truly represent God and do the mission of God's work, women must hold leadership roles equal to males.
The paper on women referred to earlier issued by the American bishops was to reaffirm the teaching of the Holy Father in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that priestly ordination is restricted to men only and accept it as definitive. It also reiterated the "necessary and irreplaceable" role of women in the Church. It lists a variety of the types of leadership positions women hold in the society at large as well as within the Catholic Church, i.e. heads of governments, judges, doctors, executives, presidents at Catholic colleges and universities, chief executives at Catholic hospitals, theologians, on marriage tribunals, liturgical ministries, pastoral ministry, administration, religious education and so on,.... The paper encouraged women to study scripture, theology and canon law so that both they and the church may benefit. It further stated that "An important issue for women is how to have a voice in the governance of the Church to which they belong and which they serve with love and generosity.... and that this can be achieved "through consultation and through cooperation in the exercise of authority." The bishops reaffirmed " the fundamental equality of women and men who, created in the image of God, are called to participate in the same divine beatitude and therefore enjoy an equal dignity. ... Discrimination against women contradicts the will of Christ. We are painfully aware that sexism ... is still present in some members of the Church." The bishops acknowledged that " the face of the Church revels the pain which many women experience. At times this pain results from the flawed behavior of human beings --clergy and lay-- when we attempt to dominate each other. Women also experience pain because of persistent sexism ...A Church which is deepening its consciousness of itself, which is trying to project the image of Christ to the world, will understand the need for ongoing, prayerful reflection in this area."
Now let us move on to the question of the ordination of women. On November 18th, 1995, in an effort to put to rest once and for all the doubts and reservations surrounding the ordination of women that arose since the publication of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis issued by Pope John Paul II in May 1994," the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, quietly issued a statement declaring that "the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women." This is to be " held definitively," and "is to be understood as belonging to the deposit of the faith." This teaching is "founded on the written word of God and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the tradition of the church. It has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium." The document was approved by Pope John Paul II and signed by Cardinals Ratzinger and Bertone.
It is worthy to comment here that this document was sent only to presidents of bishops conferences around the world and not to individual bishops, as is usually done with important documents. Apparently no advance warning was given that such a document was to be issued. Incredibly, it was faxed shortly after the conclusion of the annual 4 day conference of the American bishops. The document caught the American bishops off guard and one bishop stated anonymously that many were shocked and deeply troubled by it. ( National Catholic Reporter, "Special Report," December 8, 1995)
Now that the doctrine of "infallibility" has been used "collegially" by the 25 heads of the Roman Curia plus the pope (against the advice of the world's bishops), and ordination of women is totally out of the question, we are to " reverently receive this teaching as definitive" according to Bishop Anthony M. Pilla of Cleveland. "It is not a teaching that diminishes the dignity of woman ... To say that women and men have different roles in the Church and society at large is not to say they are unequal." He further asked Catholics "prayerfully to allow the Holy Spirit to fill you with the wisdom and understanding that will enable you to accept it."
So women, who are at least one half of the population of the world, cannot now nor ever be priests. Although the Church feels women's pain, our ways are not Gods ways, so there you have it. To even discuss the matter anymore is technically a heresy and the teaching "should be accepted with docility" according to William May, professor of Moral Theology at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C..
Where does this leave the majority of American Catholics who feel that women should be ordained? You have all seen figures quoted in Time or Newsweek and so forth about the percentages of American Catholics who favor ordination of women. According to an article in America written by Thomas P. Sweetser, SJ, " a majority of the leadership, both staffs and lay leaders, favor ordaining women. Almost half the parishioners agreed; the women, those under 55 and the more educated favored it to a greater extent than other groups. A majority of the most active and the least active favored women priests, while the rank and file parishioners, that is, the Mass-goers, were not quite so open to this change" There has been a steady rise of support for women in the priesthood.
Rather than put the question of women's ordination to rest, the Vatican has created more divisiveness, disillusionment, and tension within the church. The statement also raises questions regarding the credibility of its decision and brings to the surface once again the unpalatable issue of infallibility. Further, it strikes a major blow to ecumenism.
In the first place, the statement says that the teaching is founded on the written word of God. This is very questionable. According to the Vatican's own Pontifical Biblical Commission convened by Pope Paul VI in 1976, there is nothing in scripture that prohibits ordaining women. Further committees that have put forth positive arguments in favor of ordination of women are: Canon Law Society of America, Catholic Theological Society of America, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the International Biblical Commission and innumerable scholars and theologians. It is a human tradition, a custom, that is neither demanded nor supported by scripture.
Christ himself did not ordain anyone. The priesthood did not develop into any sort of structure similar to what we have today until the fourth century. Christ did choose twelve apostles, all male, as new leaders of the twelve tribes of the new Israel, but this classification of "Twelve" did not continue in the early Christian communities. He also called women to discipleship, some of whom were called apostles.
Secondly, the statement from the Vatican further claimed that not ordaining women is a tradition that has been constantly preserved and applied in the tradition of the church. This is also subject to serious question since modern scholarship in conjunction with further archaeological findings confirms that there were priestesses in the early traditions, i.e.: Dr. Giorgion Otranto, Director of the Institute for Classical and Christian Studies at the University of Bari in Italy discovered evidence of women presiding over Eucharistic services in ancient catacomb frescos. Through papal letters he revealed that women participated in the priesthood for the first one thousand years of the church's history. For example, ninth century Italian bishop Atto of Vercelli confirmed the use of the word "presbytera" to refer to women priests.
Historically speaking, the underlying reason for not ordaining women has been anti-female prejudice. Statements from Church Fathers and theologians mentioned earlier in the paper are not isolated. Women could not assume the priesthood because being in a state of subjugation, they could not exercise the functions of leadership required in being a priest. Since Vatican II and the impact of the feminist movement, the Vatican has rephrased its opposition to women's ordination. It now says the symbolism in the sacramental role of the priest necessitates that only males be ordained. The priest is acting in persona Christi. When the priest consecrates the bread and wine, he takes the part of Christ himself. Since Christ was a male, a priest must be male. This is also tied into the Church's language of Christ being the Church's bridegroom.
The fact that Jesus was male is without question. The fact that he appointed male apostles is without question. In view of the culture of the day there was little else he could do; it simply would not have been an option available to him to appoint female apostles. As it was, Jesus' challenge of the attitude toward women in his time was cause for consternation. Jesus was culture bound to a degree; he lived as a human in a given time and place. But the spirit of Jesus continues to reside within us bringing us to a growing and maturing understanding of life. His life is still finding new expression in our lives today and continuing to transform us.
Emphasizing Christ's maleness to marginalize women is simply another way of saying that women are in fact subordinate, that women cannot really share in the fullness of life with Christ. At the last supper, Christ did not chose men to represent him, it was bread and wine. If it is argued that Christ shared this last meal with the Twelve, and therefore women cannot be priests because Christ and The Twelve were male, then the analogy must be carried to its logical conclusion. Women did not share in the meal, therefore, they should not receive Eucharist. Nor, for that matter, should Irish males be ordained, nor Mexican males. Only Jewish males were present at the last supper. According to Bernard Haring, "Hence, it might be appropriate, according to our own limited human thinking, that Christ became a man to break the fetters of sexism by his absolute humility and liberty for others. Surely, anyone who wants to overemphasize Christ's maleness in order to establish prerogatives of males ("priests") over females has not understood Jesus as the liberator of all people, men and women, and has not understood the way he liberated us."
In order to become flesh, the Christ had to take one form out of biological necessity and as it turns out that form was male. The church has placed primary emphasis on the fact that Jesus was male rather than emphasizing his humanity. Does it not make more sense that if a priest is another Christ mediating for humanity and in giving of God's grace, a priesthood involving both males and females is a better symbol of humanity? The question is not that Jesus was a male, but that more men are not like Jesus. Patriarchy did not determine his self-identity. His suffering represents solidarity with all humanity, men and women alike, and signifies , grace, and liberation for everyone equally. We must remember that as Christians we are called to a life in Christ. That means all of us. It is not limited to whether one is Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.
Fundamentally, the decision that the non-ordination of women is based upon the written word of God is fundamentally a political decision to maintain the status quo - a system of exclusively celibate, male, patriarchal control. What the decision basically depends upon is not scripture, " but the church's teaching authority which has always understood the Bible correctly and interpreted it infallibly on decisive issues." (Charles Kung, "Theologians Now Face Either-Or-Situation, National Catholic Reporter, Dec. 8, 1995.
To claim the non-ordination of women as "infallible" brings to mind even more troublesome issues. Joan Chittister raised some interesting questions. Who is the pope anyway, John Paul II or Joseph Ratzinger? "Why is it that when bishops all over the world ask that this issue be discussed, they are simply ignored? ... Have we come to the point where the bishops of the church are even more ignored than the women of the church? There are further questions that one may ask as a result of this decision? "What about the nature of baptism? It is, in this statement, obviously assumed to be different for women than it is for men for the simple reason that it has different effects for each. Baptized males qualify to be channels of grace; baptized females do not. How do they know that? Where is that "written." And what about the theology of creation, for now at least assumed to be "in the image of God" for both male and female? How is it that a woman can image God but not Jesus? ( NCR, Dec. 8, 1995)As the "people of God" are becoming more impatient, the Church is becoming more imperial. This image of infallibility that surrounds the pope and now the teaching magisterium seems to do little more than undermine the Church's authority. To say the Holy Spirit inspires only a handful of aging, celibate clerics in Vatican City is a bit far-fetched. The Holy Spirit cannot be contained in a box on a Vatican shelf just waiting around to give divine inspiration to a small group of men.
We all know there is a critical shortage of priests. Forty three percent of all parishes world wide have no priest at all according to Vatican documents. The result is that women have stepped into ministerial roles in running these parishes. In 1988, 1,068 of the world's parishes were entrusted to nuns and 1,614 to lay people (in 1978, 464 were led by nuns and 458 to lay leaders, both men and women). The shortage continues to grow with more and more of the world's parishes under the leadership of overworked, aging, tired priests. The Vatican's intransigence only exacerbates the problem. For us as Catholics, there is a very real possibility of losing our sacramentality because no one will be available to administer properly the sacraments. We find it difficult to comprehend how our leadership can continue along a pathway that will eventually deny its people the sacraments.
The impact of Rome's intransigence toward women is telling. Read this quote from one woman who worked most of her adult life as a laywoman in the church. She relates her suffering vis a-vis the latest infallible statement and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis::
... "A year and a half ago, when Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was published, I stopped going to Mass. I was in such internal pain that I could do nothing but weep. But that was OK, I told myself. When there is confusion, it is healthy to take a break to try to sort through it." ...
"Well, now it is a year and a half later and I'm no closer to resolving my issues with the church. And that frightens me. I have prayed, struggled and cried myself to sleep many times. This is the church of my parents and grandparents; the church my father chose as a young adult. ... It is a church of which I want to be a part. But I don't know how to do that anymore. And the pain that is in my heart, soul and mind is truly the worst I've ever known. How do I consider myself a part of the Roman Catholic church without losing who I am and what I know to be true and just?"
We have personally spoken with women who stated they would have to reevaluate their position in the Church as a result of the November statement, and that it might be time to jump ship. Is this what Rome wants?
Although there is a shortage of people called to celibacy, there really is no shortage of people called to priestly ministry if we include the pool of married men and women who feel gifted. Contrary to the Vatican seems to believe, the Holy Spirit is not gender oriented when calling people to the priestly ministry. We find that about half of the students in Harvard and Yale divinity school are women and about one half of the women are Roman Catholics, a talent that is being largely lost to the Catholic Church. (NCR, 2/16/96) Women teach worship classes in seminaries (the "How to Say the Mass Classes"), and women are virtually running many parishes in the states performing the traditional role of the priest in nearly all aspects. Many qualified women feel compelled to follow their call to the priesthood, but find no place within the Roman Church. However, numerous Catholic women have been ordained in various Protestant denominations, most notably the Episcopal church.
Tim Unsworth wrote a column in the February 16 issue of NCR about Rev. Mary Grace Williams, pastor of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in a Chicago suburb. Mary had received a master's in religious education and was working as director of religious education in a Catholic parish. In the articles, Mary said "I felt chafed under the restrictions Catholicism placed on me as a woman. I felt called to be a priest, and I felt trapped when I realized I couldn' t be one." In 1988, Mary received her master's in divinity and was ordained in 1989 as an Episcopal priest. After reviewing 200 applicants, parishioners of St. Johns selected Mary for the job and she was appointed as rector. Some parishioners were upset at first, but later became her supporters. According to the article, Mary feels no anger toward the Roman Catholic church, but is only saddened. Women such as Mary are a gain for their new community, but a tragic loss for the Catholic community.
In a letter to the editor, Fr. Edward O. Waldron, a priest at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Dorchester, Mass., wrote: " We have been enriched by women priests. A few of us have been offended. The value of the former far outweighs the unhappiness of the latter. I can only say to my RC friends. " Go for it." NCR, 3/15/96. Rev. Rob McCann, in a letter to the editor stated that as of the 1993 figures there were almost 1800 female priests in the Episcopal church in the U.S., 339 of which were rectors and vicars of missions plus four consecrated as bishop. All this has taken place in 19 years since women were allowed to be ordained. National Catholic Reporter, April 5, 1996.
The Church will need to make a decision if it is to properly celebrate the Sacraments. Catholics have a right to the Eucharist, the sacraments, and other services that only ordained ministers can provide. There are irreversible social trends gaining momentum that are in the process of dismantling mandatory celibacy, the most notable of which is the feminist movement and the demand for gender equality. The strength of these trends are accentuated by the shortage of priests. There is a renewal going on that is of the force of the Holy Spirit, and it will not be stopped, despite Rome's stubbornness and last ditch efforts to cling to antiquated customs. Perhaps change is closer than we think.
It is apparent that the question of the ordination of women is of major concern to Rome. The attempt to claim "non-ordination" as infallible teaching demonstrates Rome's resistance and bid to put the issue aside. We understand there are problems that would have to be overcome associated with ordination of women , primarily because it would be a change, and no change is accepted without struggle. Yet struggle, if seen in the long term, is the usual process of change when led by the Holy Spirit. Any reformation of the church has been preceded by great struggles to cling to power. It is in the struggle that the spirit touches our Christian community. So let us celebrate and continue to see this as a positive struggle, for it is led by the Holy Spirit.
In sum, you have been given a glimpse into the nature of patriarchy and its philosophical roots in Western civilization stemming back to Greco-Roman and Jewish traditions. You have also seen how Jesus' radical attitude toward acceptance of women and valuing them as human beings was very counter-culture for his time (It still is today throughout much of the world). With the development of the institutional church and clericalism, the role women played in the very early generations of the Christian movement was displaced, first by male clerical control, then a thousand years later by celibate, clerical control. Women virtually remained invisible, with some few exceptions, until the rise of women's consciousness some 150 years ago. Vatican II felt the impact of the "feminist" movement and stressed the equality of women. This, plus the surge of scripture scholarship resulting from Vatican II's emphasis on the gospel, has resulted in new Christologies emphasizing Christ's humanity (not his maleness), his compassion, and his call to social justice and equality for all. An obvious outgrowth of the call for equality is the call for women to ordination since they too share in the dignity of Christ. Women likewise are in the image of God.
All of this, plus many trends that we do not have time to analyze in this paper, call for an end to the exclusively celibate male power structure in the Roman Catholic Church. Although there are many types of feminism, the fundamental essence of Christian feminist spirituality, as we see it, is based on a non-dualistic philosophy. The heart of this philosophy is sharing, compassion, equality (not sameness), inclusiveness, and relationships, and stresses the interdependence and relationality of all creation. What is demanded is the dismantling of a patriarchal structure where all power and control is in the hands of a few dominant males. This would be transformed into a system of mutual respect, not reverse discrimination with women dominating men. No one group would rule another. (Bear in mind that feminist philosophy is not limited to women; there are male feminists as well.) The male power structure represents only one half of the ideas God had for management of the human race. Woman, the undeveloped resource, is the other half. The Holy Spirit will shake up the world, including the Catholic hierarchy, until she/he gets what she/he wants.
As Denise Carmody states in her book Responses to 101 Questions About Feminism, opening all positions in the church to women enabling them to take part in the mainstream of church affairs would not be a panacea, an end all to all problems. Women are no less imperfect than men. They are neither smarter nor more stupid; neither holier nor more sinful. However, half the population of the church would be freed from the burden of second class citizenship. The Church would gain access to an incredible pool of talent - that which women now cannot offer. And the Church would no longer be burdened with the great fallacy that men are necessarily more competent in matters of faith than women nor better mediators between humanity and God.
Women deserve no more, and no less, than the dignity and respect commanded by men. This is simply common sense and fundamental Christian wisdom. Anything less is not acceptable.
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We have done our best to credit our sources. Please forgive us if we have overlooked any.