The Role of Women in the Church:Pastoral Vision by Joan Chittister, O.S.B. From ‘Women, Ministry and the Church’

The Role of Women in the Church:Pastoral Vision

Joan Chittister, O.S.B.

From Women, Ministry and the Church , Paulist Press 1983, pp.1-9; reprinted on with the necessary permissions.

If you’re a woman, there is very little in the Catholic world that is new for women. Except talk, of course. There is a great deal of new talk. For instance, everyone is talking about women being “different but equal” and everyone is surely sincere. Most women and probably all men in the Church accept woman as different. It is simply difficult to find much proof of equality. Government is male. Business is male. The Church is certainly male. Those areas accepted as female – service positions and volunteer projects – are underpaid and undervalued. There is indeed a lot of talk, but unfortunately very little is actually done.

Why? The question is a nagging one but the explanations are even more troubling. The fact of the matter is that false biology and patriarchy – societies controlled by men with men’s needs in mind – have joined to substantiate the secondary position of women. These circumstances, developed in detail in various historical studies, merit review for two reasons. In the first place it is the reality of the past and present out of which agendas must arise if they are to be more than an academic exercise or a venting of private anxieties. In the second place, the fact that these awarenesses have been common currency but unattended to for so long is itself part of the data.

The argument is not that earlier cultures consciously militated against women. On the contrary. Their lack of scientific information at least explains, if it does not completely validate, their social structures and mores.

The more serious problem is the fact that our generation, despite scientific findings to the contrary, continues to operate as if woman by nature is inferior to man. As numerous scholars have attested, the primitive notion was that men were life-givers and women simply nourishing receptacles of the male seed in much the same manner that the farm land around them received the farmer’s seed and brought forth a harvest. This notion has been theologized by every patriarchal religion since.

Medieval Roman Catholic Scholastics wove elaborate arguments to explain that man, by virtue of this life-giving potential, was spirit, reason and power “in the image of God” but that woman was carnal, emotional and passive. “Woman is secondary both in purpose (sex) and in material (body),” Thomas Aquinas said. “This has a negative effect on her moral discernment.” Quite literally, then, man would have to be her head.

In the face of the nineteenth-century industrial revolution which completely separated the places of home and work, and Martin Luther’s earlier insistence on the sanctity and nobility of marriage, Protestantism romanticized family life. Home and women became places apart from and not to be violated by the brutal male world. The final blow to the integration of women in society had finally been struck – and all in the name of religion and things spiritual. As a result, servanthood, subjugation and separation became not only an acceptable part of woman’s state but necessary to her virtue.

The fact of the matter is that churches have sanctified the situation created by primitive misunderstanding, so it is the Church that must redeem it.

In the first place, an honest appraisal of Jesus’ attitudes toward women, despite the rabbinical tradition of which he was a part, is clear proof of his own liberating presence, of his feminism.

Despite explicit Jewish laws to the contrary, Jesus treated women as full equals. He taught them, though the Jews denied women the right to study or discuss the Torah. He spoke to them in public though no Jewish man would even address his wife or mother or sister outside the home. He raised a woman to life again though women were seen as essentially unimportant creatures. He refused to stone the woman taken in adultery and so treated her as property as the law described. By healing the hemorrhaging woman who touched him, he rejected the taboo of primitive times which held that blood, the seat of life and nourisher of the male seed, could not be spilled, as women did in menstruation, without incurring ritual uncleanness and expulsion from the sanctuary. He rejected the notion that women’s place is only in the home when he afforded Mary the male right to discourse with the rabbis. He insisted on the same rights and responsibilities – monogamy and perpetuity – for both marriage partners despite the fact that in Judaism the man was permitted to put the wife away. He used, in the parable of the woman and the lost coin, a feminine image of God. And the apostles, aware of the revolutionary impact of these incidents, remarked on every one of them.

The point is that there is no Christian justification for the oppression of women. And now there is no biological, technological or psychological defense either. The explanation for the oppression of women, then, is that in the patriarchal society men own, control, shape and administer all facets of life, culture and society in such a way that the assumptions, beliefs and authorities of the group favor the males of the society. Men assume, for instance, that men should earn more than women, that men should receive more education, that men should lead, and that men are more creative or productive because it is men who have made the rules, written the texts, done the research, and conquered the territory to begin with. And after enough of that, everyone else begins to assume it, too.

In such a society the idea of man the planter of the life seed in passive soil, the important creator of life, and woman its spiller and defiler, is never far from the surface of the collective unconscious.

On those arguments the purification laws of the Jews and the churching ceremony of the Catholic Church were all based. Woman, unclean and unintelligent property, was denied education, confined to a territory, overruled by her masters, reduced to menial labor and denied liturgical exercise and participation in the community.

For centuries women have struggled against this denial of their full humanity with limited though significant success. Enough women have risen in every area whose abilities, character and creativity have been proof of the possibilities of the entire sex. But ít is finally in this century that proof, possibility and potential have come together to challenge theologies that are at least un-Christian and more likely immoral. The discovery of biology, that women provide as many chromosomes to the embryo as males do, completely demolishes the supposition that man, more than woman, is lifegiver. The findings of psychology that women are as intellectually able, as emotionally balanced and as independence-oriented as men confront the notion that women are incapable of leadership, self-control and social perspective. The ideas become simply unfounded prejudice.

It is, then, out of the life of Jesus and the findings of modern science and the errors of past theological postures that this pastoral agenda on women arises. To be positive and just in its efforts to allow women the fullness of their humanity, the Church must, I believe, promote the following agenda:

1. The Church Must Develop a New Theology of Family Life. Parenthood and family security must be seen as the full responsibility of both partners. Mutuality that leads to the development of both persons – their talents, their interests, their joint needs – must be the basis of the marriage. Technology, family planning, child care methods and now even new modes of conception and fertilization demand that woman be defined beyond sex. She is no longer married to a house or confined by it. Marriage preparation courses that fail to take this very scientific liberation of women into account are preparation for nothing more than failure.

2. The Church Must Come to Grips With Its Own Concept of Vocation. It is the traditional teaching of the Church that there are three “states of life” – the married state, the religious state and the single state. If, indeed, all three are sanctifying, then all three should be available to both men and women. But women, faced with discrimination in hiring practices, wage scales, credit, and contract difficulties, are only barely able to support themselves or to function independently. If the Church is serious about promoting the dignity and equality of women, as well as the potentially sanctifying unmarried state, then it will have to promote civil legislation that makes this possible, speaking out in its behalf and calling for it. The Church, after all, supported the union movement and labor laws. Now another whole segment of the working population is struggling for survival.

The difference is that this time the sexism of religious tradition itself is basic to the problem. Unless the Church attends to this issue, the conclusion must be that the assumption persists that women are to be dependent on men for their dignity and value.

3. The Church Must Recognise Its Membership. The language of the Church is almost exclusively male. The prayers of the Church only seldom acknowledge that women, too, are part of the congregation. The hymns sing of “brotherhood” and “fraternity” even when only women are in the Church. And, worse, the request to be included is trivialized as unimportant. “There are so many bigger things to be concerned about. Why waste time on this?” the argument goes. But history has a chilling answer. If women are the property of men, then of course there’s no need to consider them distinctly. Who talks to John Smith and his raincoat? And if, as in the religious practices of the primitive tribes, only the males as direct descendants of the clan can dialogue with the ancestral gods, then clearly Christianity is only a male covenant. Jesus, however, led us to believe more. Paul confirmed it. And now growing numbers of women have come to claim their birthrights. Sexist language must go.

4. The Church Must Authenticate the Ministries of Women. For centuries the Church recognized the value and place of minor orders. Eventually, however, these ministries to the Christian community became consumed by the ordained priesthood. The re-emphasis on the lay vocation and the call to participation and community commitment by Vatican II of the entire Church as the people of God demands that the various gifts be identified and commissioned. Catechesis, social service, pastoral ministry, prayer and liturgy are all charisms of the faithful. And most of those ministries have been fulfilled over the centuries almost entirely by women. It is time to define and bless again all the services of Christian community so that both Church and priesthood can have full meaning.

5. Women Must Be Given Roles in Decision-making in the Church. Patriarchy and rampant clericalism have denied the Church its full measure of insight and ability. It is not possible to talk about ordination without also talking about power because the Church is run only by the ordained. The validity of the argument is attested to by the fact that as women have begun to seek ordination they have been criticized for seeking power, an interesting accusation when you realize that men who seek priesthood are not credited with the same motives.

There is reason to believe, however, that the two factors – ordination and Church governance – ought actually to be separate issues. It is to just such division of roles that the Church must respond by giving women decision-making roles in the Church. Full membership in regard to parish boards, chancery offices, diocesan commissions, episcopal consultantships and sacred congregations is necessary if both women and men are to take seriously the Church’s new admission of the equality of women.

6. The Church Must Publish an Encyclical on Equality. In order to lay to rest the theology of indirect redemption that has plagued the misunderstood humanity of women, it is time for the Church to speak plainly, boldly and clearly its acceptance of woman as a full human being. In a very special way, the woman’s issue is the most radical of the justice issues. If the case can be made that one kind of human, the woman, is genetically inferior and disposed by nature to a state of subjugation, then domination is clearly part of the creative scheme. If women are less than men, so different as to be incompetent, so unreasonable as to be incapable, then it is a very short step to the justified napalming of Orientals, the lynching of blacks and the extermination of Indians because, it can be argued, the Creator God built inferiority right into the human race. An encyclical would give a fresh start to a Church ready for a new Epiphany and serve to soften or at least to balance the insults of earlier churchmen such as:

Woman! you are the Devil’s doorway. You have led astray one whom 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)

Among all 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)

Woman is a sick she-ass . . . a hideous tapeworm . . . the advance post of hell …. (John Damascene)

Woman is slow in understanding and her unstable and naive mind renders her by way of natural weakness to the necessity of a strong hand in her husband. Her “use” is twofold: animal sex and motherhood. (Gregory)

So spoke the great men of the Church in the past over and over again. It is time for a Pope to speak otherwise.

7. The Church Must Open the Diaconate to Women. Deaconesses were a firm part of the tradition through the early centuries of the Church. The very fact that women are denied the privilege but men are not, now that the practice has been revived, is indicative of a basic and primitive and non-Christian attitude toward women. Unlike the question of priestly ordination, where sincere concern for tradition is at least a plausible question, the role of deaconess is well established and simply denied. In view of the rising consciousness of women and their manifest and continuing commitment to the ministry of Jesus, no pastoral agenda is complete without this question.

8. The Church Must Revise Seminary Training Programs. A negative attitude toward women has long colored the training of seminarians. Men who are supposed to counsel, confess and guide the spiritual development of women have historically been taught to fear them as the seducers and harassers of men, to expect mothering and submission, and to act paternal toward but not equal to women beyond them both in age and experience. That relationship is less tolerable every day.

Then, too, if the Church is serious in its commitment to involve women in the decision-making machinery of the Church it must also be willing to prepare them to accept it. That means that local seminaries should be offering courses in Canon Law, liturgy, Church administration and theology to women as well as to men who are interested in the pastoral service of the Church. It is certainly true that several large centers have already begun such programs. On the local level, though, little or nothing is being done to prepare clerics to work with women or women to work in the Church. Women are needed in these schools and on those faculties.

9. Finally, the Church Must Attend to Its Educational Images. What women are educated for or to has a great deal to do with their own self-images and the evangelical service they give. Passive virtues and private roles are not the stuff of equality. To define women by their sexual function is to seriously limit their full development in and for the kingdom. It is also to limit the development of men whose self-images, responsibilities and lives are skewed to the degree that women and their gifts are suppressed. The model and goals of women and men that the Church holds up as ideal will greatly affect the face of the Church in the future.

For a woman’s agenda is not a woman’s issue; it is a human issue. It is normally imperative, therefore, that women be all that they can be so that men are not less than they must be. In one of the Hasidic tales is embedded perhaps the crux of the question. The tale recounts:

A certain zaddik died and soon after appeared in a dream to Rabbi Pinhas, who had been his friend. Rabbi Pinhas asked him: “What is the attitude toward the sins of youth?” “They are not taken seriously,” said the dead man, “not if a man has atoned. But false piety – that is punished with great severity.”

Sincere but false pieties have been the basis for women’s inferior status throughout history; it is the kind of piety, baseless to content and evil in effect, that the Church must now confront if it is to grow to the fullness of Christ. And this demands that the Church educate to equality, raise women’s expectations of themselves, and be a model for human justice. We cannot continue to separate roles and responsibilities on the basis of sex. We cannot define womanhood by motherhood unless we are also willing to define manhood by fatherhood. We cannot counsel people into bondage. Like the Canaanite woman, we come, agenda in hand, begging crumbs from the table of the master, not for ourselves but because our daughter has a demon. That faith made her whole. Any other piety will be severely punished.

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