I should begin by acknowledging that although I was raised in the Anglican church, the majority of my understanding of Catholicism is probably inherently learned through reading The Thorn Birds. As intelligent and insightful a writer as Colleen McCollough was, it’s not exactly an unbiased view on religion. I also realise that faith is very personal, so this is by no means a criticism of people’s faiths, but rather a critique on a holistic approach in Catholicism. I don’t see a powerful movement for change in the Catholic church when it comes to women, so perhaps most people don’t see any concern or willingness to change, but I’d like to challenge this.
Many faiths have supreme figureheads; Anglicans have the Archbishop of Canterbury, Buddhists have a Ganden Tripa, but the Catholic faith seems to have a more historic and monarchist approach to their leadership, so it’s often a faith that comes under fire for it’s rather discriminatory methods of hierarchy and succession*. In my Ascent of Woman post I talk about how women in ancient times were worshiped in religion, but were second class as people. Catholicism seems no different in its approach. The men, emasculated through Priesthood, are seated in the thrones of ecclesiastical power and married to an effeminate and inanimate object: the Church. The women are seen as sacred icons. I mean, even Mother Mary is heralded as an image of a virgin, and she is the highest female figure in the Catholic church! Fortunately there is separation between church and everyday practice, as Catholic women have rights in every sector (depending on the law of the land) to have authority and responsibility, but this is because of secular law – not God’s law. Legally, the church is exempt from workplace discrimination laws, but this creates a lot of ambiguity and biased decision making.
*Popes succeed one another in a similar method to secular Royalty, except that there is a level of democracy in the process. What many people don’t realise though is that the requirements for being Pope are that you are baptised Catholic and are male. However, history suggests that Popes are rarely non-Cardinals or non-European, which begs the question: is the selection made through prayer and by God, or is it a popularity contest?
In many ways, I like Pope Francis. Maybe it’s because he’s the first non-European Pope, or maybe it’s because of his humble rejection of the luxury and self-importance his role offers, but I find him a modern leader who is open to dialogue and actively bringing the Catholic faith into the 21st century. However, he has been pretty adamant that women should not be clergy in the Church, which almost makes meaningless his whole modern revival. So when the Pope made a commission to study the historical role of female deacons in the Catholic Church, my ears perked up. He said the Vatican should study the question of ordaining women as Deacons, challenging the Vatican to be more inclusive. Wanting to learn a little more about this commission, I contacted a local Priest to enlighten me about it. He was really knowledgeable in his faith, and tried his best to answer my questions (although I think he was fairly unprepared and perplexed by my boldness in contacting him) but frankly, from what I understood, Deaconship is not even that … important. Like Nuns and Monks, Deacons are simply another form of service. They are not ‘Persona Christi’, as the Priest told me. Many are even retired folk who are married and with children. So for me, this was a massive disappointment, making this commission seem like a waste of time.
So I asked him, why can’t a woman be Pope, or ‘Persona Christi’?
All the Priest could answer was that men could only be ‘Persona Christi’ because the Apostles were male, and from what I gather, Catholic faith views Persona Christi as – well, a literal connection to the Apostles, and therefore they must be men. Regardless of acknowledging that Mary Magdalene was the ‘apostle to the Apostles’, I asked him if he ever saw women becoming Persona Christi or Pope one day. He told me he did not. I’m not sure if this was his own traditionalist opinion, a lack of faith in his church, or his firmness that this is God’s Will.
Perhaps it is God’s will that women aren’t to be leaders within the church. Perhaps I’m simply mistrustful of men because history has shown them as consistently unkind to, and abusive of their power over women. Perhaps I’m mistrustful of religion because the Bible is a collection of writings by men, picked out by men, without any obvious recognition of women’s role beyond their biological purpose or gentle nature. But for some reason, the more I investigate, the more unreasonable and illogical this gender discrimination becomes, and the more annoyed I get.
When discussing the obsolete nature of the Catholic tradition with one of my Catholic friends, she said to me that because God is never changing, the church shouldn’t change with the whims of society. In one way this is fair – but in other ways, I disagree because a) the bible is contradictory in nature (no matter how many people defend this) and therefore ‘God’s word’ (which is about love) needs to be interpreted as the primary rule- and b) the bible was written in a time where women were fundamentally second-class to men by law and seen (if seen at all) as objects of sexuality in three different ways: virginity, motherhood and promiscuity. I personally believe the bible (the Qu’ran, the Torah, them all) have been modified from God’s word to suit the corruption and arrogance of man. Take 1 Timothy 2:12 for example: “I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man: she is to keep silent.” and Genesis 3:16 “To the woman He said: I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth, in pain you will bring forth children, yet your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you“. Something tells me that either God really saw man and women as unequal, or a man wrote this to explain and justify man’s law.
Now, it’s important to note that the Anglican Church too has its form of hierarchy, but women are allowed to apply for higher positions if they so choose or feel called to. But in Catholicism, women can only be Nuns, various service women with no important title, or potentially Deacons. It’s not exactly the honour of the red Cardinal robes. I can understand where these old-fashioned ideas and traditions stem from considering what I’ve previously addressed. But does this mean that to the Catholic church, women are less Holy or less able to be vessels for God? Further pursuing answers, I talked to a teacher who heads the Religious Studies department at a local school, and made a point of asking her how women were viewed and valued within the church.
What she had to share was truly full of grace and wisdom. She told me that men and women are all called to be servants, and how they serve is equally valued regardless of hierarchy. There are opportunities for women to play a role on council committees, in the parish as readers or Eucharistic ministers in some instances, and even now as altar girls. Women can teach religious studies and work as a pastoral associate in spiritual or other duties, just like male counterparts. I told her then, that my issue, in many ways, is not what women can do for the church, it’s what the church can do for women. In her humility, she acknowledged the influence of society on the church and that many are still holding onto patriarchal tradition. She believed that the church should reflect society and try to keep up. But she also informed me that the commission looking into Deaconesses is a question of finding out how women’s voice can better be heard within the church. She also informed me that no rule exists against women being Cardinals – that this isn’t exclusively for men, Priests and Bishops. So really, there is technically opportunity for women to be heard through the role of voting for the Pope. (Although until I see a female Cardinal, I’m not convinced).
I was genuinely absorbed and I enjoyed listening to what she had to say. There was a modesty in her belief of how women are viewed – recognising the flaws of her own faith but teaching me that service to God doesn’t need an honorary title. From what I now understand, the mindset is an issue of tradition, but there is space to fix this and people willing to fight for change.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
While I still feel like the Catholic Faith carries a dated mindset, in some measure this has been recognised by the people of the faith. Perhaps gradually – and in the distant future – there will be change towards ordained women… at least in order for our Catholic men to be able to prepare and sustain the shock. If Pope Francis really is the excellent and exemplary leader he appears to be; one who cares more about the well-being of his people than keeping up the traditions of his faith, he really does have the power to break down barriers for women. Because in all honesty, oppression of women for outdated traditions continues to provoke images of third world patriarchy and witch burning of medieval times. And frankly, the Catholic Church can only benefit from the advancement of women in its ranks.
Ironically, although the Priest wasn’t clearly supportive for change (or rather, didn’t see it as specifically important to him), he finished our chat by handing me an article written by Ann Gilroy for an independent Catholic magazine called Tui Moto. The article was a response to Pope Francis’ Commission on Women Deacons. I expected a wishy-washy, grovelling sort of article that praised the commission but enforced no action. So I was thoroughly surprised to find it a fiercely feminist critique on the all-male hierarchical system of the church. It’s refreshing to know that being devout and feminist are not entirely exclusive. A copy of this article can be read here.
But the uncanny thing happened immediately following my interview with the Priest. Popping into a supermarket on my way back home, I heard the feminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me” by Grace played on the intercom. If I could take this as a sign from God that my convictions have his blessing, well then I suppose God is a feminist too.
Further food for thought:
What would a religion created by women look like?