Catholic Women in the Midst of It All
By Mary E. Hunt
Originally published in Christian Feminism Today.
Catholic feminists face challenging times. The institutional Roman Catholic Church is imploding before our eyes as clergy sexual abuse and its cover-up unfold in increasingly messy detail. Many of us find it hard to engage in worship in any institutional setting; still more people are questioning the very basics of a faith tradition that has distinguished itself by its homohatred, transphobia, and misogyny all the while being led by clergymen whose personal lives make us look like Girl Scouts at summer camp.
I offer an outline of the major contours so as to deepen our common bonds as ecumenical/interreligious friends and colleagues and to suggest how we all can be helpful without being accused of anti-Catholicism. My starting point is as a white, theologically educated feminist in the United States. I travel and read widely so as to have some sense of the broader picture, though I leave it to women in other settings to articulate their own realities.
The major issue at hand for Catholics is simply whether women are full, equal members of the Catholic community or not. The short, honest answer is that we are not. Ordination, which confers sacramental/ministerial responsibilities and the right to jurisdiction or decision making is reserved to male (in Latin, vir) persons. Until and unless women as well as men are eligible for ordination, this asymmetrical power model renders Catholicism impotent in its claims to Gospel values. It also leaves more than a billion people in the spiritual lurch as more inclusive and, happily, more welcoming egalitarian faith options are emerging.
On a practical level, this disparity results in Catholic women engaging in many forms of church service but without decision-making power. Even the most mundane local issues—for example, what groups can use a parish hall, how money donated to the community will be spent, who will preside at the sacraments, and so forth—are totally out of women’s hands. For instance, it is common for women to prepare children for first communion and then stand idly by while a male priest leads the celebration.
In Catholicism, sexism is raised to an ontological level. Priests are seen as categorically different; read that as: better than lay people. Even the best educated, most skilled woman minister has no ecclesial standing next to the most minimally prepared man. I hasten to point out that those of us who oppose this model of priesthood have no interest in replicating it so that a few women can be ontologically better than the rest of humankind. But it is important to recognize that this theological teaching is at the heart of the Catholic experience. It is not outdated, outmoded, old fashioned; rather, it is today’s reality, fifty years of feminist theology later.
Widespread abuse by priests of nuns and other lay women is just coming into public conversation. Indian women, for example, have reported rapes by priests for many decades, but are only now seeing some of the perpetrators charged. Continued erosion of sexual and reproductive justice persists, especially when it comes to abortion. This is particularly galling given institutional encouragement for duplicity around sexuality. A majority of priests are now assumed to be gay but in the closet, yet they dare to pronounce what women should do with our bodies. This is a recipe for women to exit their parishes, taking their children with them. Since the majority of most Catholic congregations are women, the handwriting is on the wall.
While women’s priestly ordination is off the table, Pope Francis was cornered three years ago into considering the matter of the diaconate for women. He had the temerity to joke, “when you want something to remain unresolved, set up a commission.” So he did, and the group was composed of people who saw the issue quite differently.
There appears to be consensus among those scholars that there were women deacons in the early church who tended to the women and children. They handled the baptism by immersion of nude women; they examined beaten women for bruises so that marriages could be dissolved (no word on what happened to the abusers). In short, women deacons were engaged in service, which is what today’s women want, too.
The glitch is that, along the long historical road, the male way of being a deacon was split in two: one way being an early stage of ordination after which one would transition to being a priest and the other way being a permanent status in the church, the so-called transitional and permanent diaconates, respectively.
Progressives feared the commission would urge a second-class diaconate, namely, deaconesses, in which women would not be eligible for future ordination to the priesthood. Nor would they engage in the common diaconal tasks of preaching, presiding at weddings, and more. Instead, they would be commissioned to handle what amounts to “women’s work,” freeing up priests and male deacons for more substantive matters.
In a press conference at 35,000 feet, on a plane returning from Bulgaria, on May 7, 2019, Pope Francis explained that the commission could not come to a common conclusion, so there would be no women deacons. Apart from the absurdity of expecting or inferring that any such commission would come to unanimity on such a sticky question, the pope could not resist saying that pagan groups had women priests, and, well, we are not pagans, ahem . . .
Not even according the question the dignity of a proper document or press statement, this latest papal salvo reflects centuries of mistreatment of women and ecclesial stupidity when it comes to rejecting women’s good faith offers of service. Even I, who counsel against the diaconate for women as an obvious trap to further women’s subordination in the Roman Catholic Church, sympathize with women who feel called to this work and have had cold, unholy water tossed in their faces one more time.
Pope Francis has his strengths when it comes to economic and environmental issues. But he has a decided deficit when it comes to anything remotely having to do with women. I am not interested in the psychological and spiritual aspects that people rehearse to excuse him. It is not about him. It is about equality in the 21st century, which has a qualitatively different character than equality in the 19th century. Ignoring contemporary anthropology is like being a climate denier. It is just plain foolish, and by now it is culpable ignorance.
Meanwhile, lots of Catholic women have made their own ways out of no way. Some have left the institution and now worship and/or minister in other traditions, Christian and not. Buddhism has seen an influx of Catholics, as have the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalists. Other women have gotten ordained in groups like Roman Catholic WomenPriests, the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, and other groups that model themselves on some aspects of Catholicism and reject others but at least ordain women. Still other Catholic-by-tradition women are without any religious affiliation or practice and seem to be doing just fine.
The real impact of the church’s implosion is on those I think of as “people on the edge of the pews.” They are folks who go to Mass for Christmas and Easter, perhaps a few other Sundays when time allows, but who expect that their family baptisms, weddings, and funerals will be held in Catholic spaces in Catholic ways. They do not belong to small house churches or intentional eucharistic communities; they are not up on the latest internal wrangling, nor are they interested. But they are deeply scandalized by the growing reputation of the Roman Catholic Church as a haven for sexual perpetrators and those who cover up criminal activity. They want no part of it anymore.
If they thought twice about any of it, they might connect some dots. For instance, as lay people, women and men have no agency when it comes to decision-making, no synod to attend to vote their views, no annual meeting to decide on a parish budget, no search committee to find a new bishop. Most of them are so busy working to feed their families that such concerns are far down on their list of priorities. I understand that, but the consequences are grossly unfair. Those of us who study these matters are obliged to raise them over and over, despite how tiresome it is to repeat the obvious, because good people are being treated shabbily. Not on my watch!
I can imagine that many ecumenical colleagues wonder why any Catholic women bother any more. How many ways do we have to be told no before we decide to move on to more fruitful fields? I have two reasons for even raising these issues. First, injustice is injustice, and it is made all the more egregious by having to do, in this case, with issues that are deeply formative, spiritually rooted, and that affect people in profound ways. Put bluntly, I will not allow another generation of girls to be fed the lies previous generations received. We know better, and we will implement better theology.
Second, and perhaps most telling, the damage wrought by dualistic, hierarchical thinking is incalculable. The roots of climate change, for example, are deep in the top down, over-against, we-they, male-female ways of thinking that encourage human exceptionalism—we’re in charge—and discourage cosmic community. I repeat, not on my watch.
So how can ecumenical colleagues engage in this work without being accused of anti-Catholicism? Start by thinking and speaking and acting as if “Catholic” were a many-splendored thing. The easiest trap to fall into is that the institutional Roman Catholic Church is what it means to be Catholic and the rest of us are also-rans. That is untrue. So, instead of inviting a bishop you know will not come to your interreligious event, invite a Catholic lay person.
Then it is a quick step from labeling certain theological positions as Catholic, such as opposition to abortion. Rather, begin to think of it as one Catholic view, albeit of the institutional church, among many other Catholic views. You might be surprised how Catholic you really are, or, better, how Protestant, interreligious, or even a-religious many Catholics are! That is what it means to live in a pluralistic religious setting.