I, like virtually every Catholic female I know, have some pretty strong feelings about being a woman in the church. For me, some are good. Very good. I am grateful to have worked for visionary and forward-thinking priests in all my 27 years of formal employment in the church; men who value, listen, and actively support women called to ministry and empower us to do the work we feel called by God to do as unencumbered as the organization and structure of church leadership will allow at this time .
I am grateful for my Vatican II-loving Dad who taught my sister and I (with gusto!) that we, even as women, are baptized “priest, prophet and king” and that through our baptism each of us share in the priesthood of Jesus. I am deeply thankful for all our church’s dedicated and fearless scholars who speak truth to power with unflinching courage, brilliance, and grace. And I am grateful for YOU, the community of CTR. Not all Catholic churches embrace their female leaders like you do. This is no small thing! Sincere gratitude to each of you for your kind acceptance and encouragement. Let’s hope it continues as I move on to this next paragraph.
…insert nail-biting and a couple Hail Marys here…
Though I am grateful for the Catholic Community who has formed and nurtured me all my 52 years, I am also lovingly critical of it, which I believe is not only my right as a contributing family member, but also my responsibility. My rose-colored glasses began to fall off when I was a college student teaching 2nd grade “catechism” (as it was called back in the day) and I asked the children “How many sacraments are there?” and one little girl answered, “There are 6 for girls and 7 for boys.” I was momentarily speechless and then with great sorrow I told her she was quite right. Formative. For both of us.
I would wager to guess that every Catholic woman you see in church has been asked at one time or another “How/why do you remain a Catholic when sexism and inequality are so clearly present within our institution?” Even my own daughters have asked me that question, and here is how I answer…
First, doctrinally (though admittedly not always in concrete practice) like it or lump it, I AM a Catholic. It’s not like I can simply decide to stop believing what I believe. Even with all our bumps and bruises (and truly, when has the Catholic church NOT been a hot mess?), I love (LOVE) our Catholic dream for humanity, our rag-tag family and the communion of witnesses and saints that we hail from. We are such a stalwart, hopeful, visionary bunch – and we keep showing up! I love that! Scandals, pandemic, wars, embarassing displays of ignorance and power from our leaders, no matter…we stubborn, faith-filled, Catholics who are nothing short of hell-bent on transformation keep showing up at the table to be fed – and Christ does not disappoint. Again, I can only speak for myself, but the beauty of the vast majority of our tradition still steadfastly shines for me and “The People of God” (aka “The Church”) are MY people in all the ways that matter. For me, there will always be something genuinely gorgeous – profoundly “of God” in our Catholic theology, tradition, prayers and community.
That being said, we still have a long way to travel and I do my best to journey with hope and joy. On my better days I manage, but Lord have mercy, I think we all can agree that there have been some very dark stretches in the short little bit of the road that we have shared together, no? Do I wish we Catholics were more effective at being the Sacrament of God’s Grace to the world by taking seriously the things that Jesus took seriously, namely: inclusion, non-violence, unconditional loving-kindness and compassionate acceptance? (ala Greg Boyle, SJ) Absolutely! With everything I am. Truly, the Catholicism promoted by some of my closest friends and family, found in our popular culture and politics, and even being preached in many of our very own parishes here in the Archdiocese of Detroit is not one I always recognize! The Jesus Christ I have come to know, love and serve is often not found in the places we would most expect to find him.
Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ offered a brilliant reflection at Boston College on the situation of women today that is worth every minute of the time spent. In it she says:
“Our present moment is shaped by two powerful forces…the movement for women’s equality with men and the resistance to that movement from entrenched patriarchal interests…UN statistics paint a sobering picture of the worldwide condition of women against which the women’s movement of the 20th century needs to be seen. Women form one half of the world’s population (1/2), however they do three-fourths (3/4) of the world’s work, receive one tenth (1/10) of the world’s income, own one one hundredth (1/100) of the world’s land. Think of it, 99% of the planet is owned by men. Women form two thirds (2/3) of illiterate adults and together with their dependent children form 3/4’s of the world’s starving people. To make a bleak picture worse, women are raped, battered, prostituted, sold into sexual slavery, and murdered by men to a degree that is not mutual. Violence against women is rampant on a global scale including domestic violence. Yet, women bear the dignity of the human person and should enjoy all the rights and responsibilities that go with that dignity…but in no country in the world is that yet the case. So, the movement for women’s equality is at root – to put this in ethical terms – is a movement for social justice on a global scale.” (Here is the link to the full hour-long talk: https://youtu.be/-wPmyVJzWf8).
Here are some quotations from our very own Church Teaching about women in the church:
“…every kind of social or cultural discrimination in basic personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion, must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design. It is deeply to be deplored that these basic personal rights are not yet being respected everywhere.” Everywhere. (Guadium et Spes, no. 29 – The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, one of the four main constitutions resulting from the Second Vatican Council – no small authority.)
“We can say with certainty that discrimination against women contradicts the will of Christ. We are painfully aware that sexism, defined as “unjust discrimination based on sex,” is still present in some members of the Church. We reject sexism and pledge renewed efforts to guard against it in church teaching and practice.” (Strengthening the Bonds of Peace, U.S. Bishops, 1994)
“The Church’s ministry fostering human rights in the world requires continued scrutiny and purification of her own life, her laws, institutions, and policies…In the Church, as in other institutions and groups, purification is needed in internal practices and procedures.” (1994 Synod of Bishops)
It would appear that our Catholic doctrine would whole-heartedly agree with the sentiments of President Jimmy Carter in stating “The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable. The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives…it is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us. It is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these outdated attitudes and practices.”
And yet, even at our most local level of church leadership, the Presbyteral Council, the main consultative body that assists Archbishop Vigneron in his pastoral care and governance of the Archdiocese of Detroit, out of 34 seats, not one is offered to a woman. Not one lay person or woman’s voice is heard.
Could I take my toys and go home? Sure. But who would that serve? I intimately know the dysfunction, beauty, language and polity of our Catholic family – and I hope and pray that this knowledge and experience somehow “tools me up” to bring about postitive change in a way that criticism from outside our Catholic fold simply could never do. The best and most effective changes comes from within, right? So, I guess I find wisdom in the sayings “grow where you are planted” and “you can’t go back and change the beginning but you can start from where you are and change the ending.” (C.S. Lewis)
In our life together, are we plagued by sexism, clericalism, and all kinds of other “isms” and evils? Yes, without question. But Catholics are hardly unique in our contribution and participation in what is “less than” what God hopes and wills for us. Other religious traditions are not without their own wounds and blind spots. And OH how I would miss our songs and our Catholic “smells and bells” as they say. It is how I have prayed since I was a child and for the most part our distinct way of “being family” has been effective in drawing me and mine nearer to God.
So, I guess in the end, how we continue to relate to our Catholic family is a very personal, intimate decision…we all are different parts of the body with different roles to play. I judge no one for leaving and I hope I’m not judged by others for staying. But, let us agree on this, as Sr. Joan Chittister says, “If you’re going to leave the church, please don’t leave quietly, and if you’re going to stay in the church, for the love of God, please don’t stay quietly!”
Another extra little gem from Sr. Joan Chittister regarding women in the church that I think sums it up nicely.
“A little girl camel said to her mother camel, “Mother, why do we have these webs between our toes?” And the mother camel said, “Darling, camels have these webs between their toes so we can walk in the sand without sinking.” She said “Oh!” then asked, “Mother, why do we have these very long eyelashes?” And the mother camel said, “Darling, camels have very long eyelashes to protect their eyes from sandstorms in deserts.” She said, “Oh!” then asked, “Mother, why do camels have these humps on our backs?” The mother camel said, “Well, darling, camels have humps on their backs so they can cross the desert without needing extra water.” The kid said, “Hmmmm. I have a problem. If we have webbed toes so we can walk in the desert, and we have eyelashes so we can see in the desert, and we have humps on our backs so we can have enough water in the desert, would you tell me what in God’s name we are doing in the San Diego Zoo?!?
Oh, and just today – Women helping to choose Bishops? Whaaaa? Click here for the tea. May Pope Francis live forever.
Good one Lisa. I have been asking questions for years but hang around because the Eucharist is nondiscriminatory.
Beautifully and thoughtfully written. I to am a cradle Catholic and while I disagree with some of their antiquated ways, I love the tradition and the feeling of knowing that I can go to any church and be able to feel at home. As with all organizations, it is not perfect but it is ruled by a perfect God. And that’s where we place our faith truly.