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Women in the Catholic Church: are they being ignored?

‘Is the Vatican dragging its feet over the matter of Catholic women’s equal role in the Church?’ Says Frank Gelli

When the next Council of the Catholic Church will take place the Pope will have his wife with him. And the Pope presiding over the next council after may well have her husband with her!’ An old joke we used to laugh at when I was a theological student back in the 80s. Decades later, the joke remains just that. The Pope is still male. And unmarried. Yet, the debate concerning the role of women in the Catholic Church has not gone away.

When I told a Roman Catholic priest friend, Father Marius, that Italian feminist journalist and academic Lucetta Scaraffia contends that the Church neglects the contribution of women, he exploded: ‘That is absurd! Nuns are, and always have been, some of the most active, powerful and influential figures in parish life and other ministries.’

That is true but it partly misses the point. Any priest will vouch that nuns are often authority-laden figures in parish life. Further, religious women do teach in church schools and seminaries, minister to the sick in hospitals, work as chaplains, and conduct retreats and so on. However, the reality is that not all women have a vocation to be nuns. They are and will remain a small minority. Dr Scaraffia’s criticism was directed chiefly at the limited role of lay women in the intellectual life of Catholicism and in matters of leadership. For example, early in Pope Francis’ papacy it was mooted that he might have appointed a female cardinal but nothing has come out of it. Nor is any Vatican major department headed by a woman. Despite women having an increasing presence inside Vatican City as art historians, journalists, office heads and archivists, the top ranks of the Church remain resolutely and uniformly occupied by men.

The almost revolutionary idea of allowing women to preach the sermon (Catholics call it ‘homily’) during Mass was advanced in an article by Catherine Aubin, printed in a women’s supplement of L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican publication. She invoked the names of famous and great saints like St Genevieve, St Joan of Arc and St Catherine of Siena. In support, the author also mentioned the opinion of the progressive monk and theologian, Enzo Bianchi. He claimed that there is no Gospel prohibition against having women preachers and therefore asked: ‘Why not?’

Actually, there is a passage in the New Testament, in St Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, that seems to contradict Bianchi’s assertion: ‘I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men’ (2:12). Nonetheless, observe that this is the Apostle speaking, not Christ himself. Thus Bianchi has a prima facie point. Still, in a subsequent recantation published in the same organ, Bianchi apologised for his suggestion. His intention was to stimulate discussion but he accepted that the actual canonical discipline of the Catholic Church is crystal-clear: the homily during the celebration of the Mass is strictly reserved for either the priest or the deacon. Women can be neither. Therefore no woman can preach. End of the story – for the time being.

Pope Francis has recently dedicated his prayer intention for the month of May to women. That means that women are the purpose or aim of his regular devotions for the whole of that month. Of course, May is already the appointed time for invocations to the Virgin Mary – in Christianity the ideal, all-holy model woman. So the Pope has rightly emphasised women’s key role in family life, as well their many sufferings when they are enslaved or raped and abused across the world. That will not be quite enough to pacify Catholic feminists, I suspect. Particularly, the reference to woman’s traditional role in family life is unlikely to please them.

Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin has said to journalists that there is no reason one day a woman could not have his job. He means that the political job of a Secretary of State is not identical with that of an ordained priest. His function is essentially that of a statesman, not a prelate, and so even a lay person, male or female, could do it. All that is technically true but the Vatican State is not really like other States or political entities. It is a theocratic organisation, headed by a Pontiff and run largely by clergy. Maybe a female Vatican ‘Prime Minister’ is conceivable but, ahem, it would still be a bit of an anomaly, at best only a token gesture.

The biggest stumbling block to women’s career advancement in the Catholic Church is that they cannot be priests. There is no indication that the Pope is willing to contemplate a change there. Such a move would contradict two thousand years of unbroken tradition, cause a rupture with the Eastern Orthodox Churches and probably precipitate a worldwide schism. In comparison with which the secession of traditionalist Archbishop Lefevre after Vatican II would be like a Vicarage tea party.

In the Gospels Christ does not ignore women. He addresses himself to both genders without distinction. His message is as much given to women as to men. Devout women followed him and ministered to his wants. At last, when the disciples had fled, women stood by him at the foot of the Cross. After the Resurrection, not men but women were the first to receive the privilege of seeing the risen Lord.

On the other hand, the twelve Apostles Christ chose were men and so were the Seventy who were sent forth to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God. It shows that there were functions and responsibilities which at first the Lord assigned to men and not to women. In terms of spiritual privilege, there is equality between genders but as regards religious vocation and public duties it can be argued that Christ laid down diversity, not sameness.

Another argument against women’s ordination is that female priests were a rare custom found only amongst heretical sects. St Epiphanius of Salamis (315-403 AD) indeed wrote a treatise against eighty heresies or false teachings known to him. One he calls the Collyridians. They offered idolatrous sacrifices to the Virgin Mary and appointed priestesses. Such deviant practices were enough for the Saint to declare the Collyridians as heretical.

Some Christian churches have already embraced female ordination. Mostly they are Protestant or post-Reformation bodies, like the Church of England and its US counterpart, the Episcopal Church. One key argument put forward in favour of women priests has been that the Church needs to reflect the society to which it ministers. As women are now largely equal in full employment opportunities with men, how can a church that does not open its priesthood to women be taken seriously by society? However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Episcopalians ordained women 40 years ago but that church has not flourished thereafter. Instead, it has lost half of its membership. Similarly the Church of England’s decline has continued apace since 1993, when the General Synod passed legislation permitting women’s ordination. For the first time Sunday attendances have fallen to an all-time low, 760.000. There may be additional causes for the crisis but the least you can say is that having women priests has not dramatically helped.

At the end of the day, the feminist claims to full equality in the Church cannot be definitely rebutted with either rational or pragmatic arguments. Feminism is, I think, an irresistible expression of the spirit of the age, the dominant ethos of Western culture. A witty remark by Dean Inge comes to mind, however: ‘He who marries the spirit of the age will soon find himself a widower’.

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