BA Law & MA Philology; prev. lecturer in Zaire, Tunisia , Paris , Brussels & Toronto . Author of Les femmes dans loeuvre romanesque de Simone de Beauvoir.
Francoise has helped us with so many translations from English into French.
As a keen sailer I have been at the helm of many a boat across a stormy sea but I have never felt so much aboard a sinking ship as now in the Catholic Church.
Understand me well. I love that Church! I came back to it after having wandered away from it for forty years. But it means I knew what I was doing when I did come back. I returned after careful consideration and not on impulse.
I had left the Church in anger before the second Vatican Council, a Church in which sadistic parish priests would ask the innocent girl I was then how many times a week I had masturbated or if I had kissed a boy on the mouth. Now I find myself in a welcoming structure, much more open than before, without vindictiveness, in which even sins are no longer dramatized to the extent of eternal damnation! Mass is celebrated in French, priests smile at you, are dressed like anyone else or almost, and nuns are in tune with the modern world. Back to real life!
I felt like a prodigal child coming back home and, with emotion, I wandered through all the rooms, thanking my loving God and Father who, in his infinite mercy, had welcomed me again to his Table.
Alas, I was in for a disappointment!
Of course, it was not the God of Love who disappointed me, but the successors of the sanhedrin, the temple merchants and the pharisees.
For, believe me, they are still with us!
As I just said I felt like the prodigal child back in the fold but let us not forget that, in the eyes of the male institution, the prodigal child of Jesus parable was a son and so worth having the fatted calf killed for and worth being restored to all the privileges of a rich brat, heir to patriachal power.
I do not think a girl would have merited the same treatment in their view. She should have been stoned for her sins, her little body left a victim to jackals and vultures. She would have been called a prostitute or a sinner. The powers that be would have put the fear of God on other girls by holding her up as an example to keep them quiet and subservient, so that they would serve men according to the established order. Later, in the history of the Church, these same champions of order discussed among themselves whether girls are animals or human beings, children of God or not? They forbade girls to touch priestly implements and most of all, hosts. And as to grown-up women, they stopped them from teaching or preaching in church . . . They taught them to display humility and submisssion as «ornaments of their sex ». Some they burnt at the stake, the ones who dared to revolt, calling them witches. Some they imprisoned in lunatic asylums or in the depths of convents, where they were grinded down under the mortification of the flesh in order to please God and to repent for being a woman.
This frightful paternalistic attitude towards women has not totally changed.
Yes, there have been shifts in the meaning of words, attenuations, understatements, declarations of good intention, Mulieris Dignitatem, but a woman is nevertheless still disqualified from dealing with the sacred. She may be a consumer of it, but she has only access to it through middlemen. The sacred is controlled by men who create their own hierarchy, who fix the rules, who organize its ceremonies and bestow its honours, who coopt themselves; it is they who plan and publish its documents, who meet in ecclesial or ecumenical synods, it is they who count on the fear they never cease to instil in the hearts of women in order to make them guardians of what they hold forth as tradition.
After all, do we not have good reason to ask ourselves, reading Cardinal Ratzinger and theologians like him: is it God who created these traditions or is it human beings, men who deified human traditions, losing sight of God stumbling as they were in their golden chasubles and their phylacteries?
In the western world today, we see churches populated with old women, babouchkas mumbling timorous prayers, we see right-wing groups singing the praises of the Pope whom they canonise alive. We see Opus Dei, the shadowy, silent, secret army, promoting confession to their Spanish priests, spiritual heirs of the judges at the Grand Inquisitions tribunals.
Do I exaggerate ? Do I caricature ? Perhaps. But I would not have dreamed to buy a cat in a bag so I visited all these groups in person, the one after the other. I watched them operate in the Lords name, I listened to homilies, I tried to open discussions with the priests in spite of their being tongue-tied by their mandatory oath of obedience. I would then try to challenge their critical mind, their free examination of the truth but mostly, I regret to say, I received pitiful, conventional answers on womens roles and on feminine nature, lectures on a womans duty to be humble, on the Virgin Mary as a role model, all of it a cacophonous theological juke box.
Fortunately I also met basic communities, Housetops team that runs www.womenpriests.org and a few church leaders of character and conviction. Their solid and true faith sustained me and has given me hope that a change is still possible within the institution itself or, for the time being, in emergency communities parallel to the institution, in a recreation of the Church of the catacombs.
All hope is not lost! But we have to be firm, to be assertive, dare to speak up, dare to say what we honestly believe. There is yet a long way to go within an institution where, by tradition, leaders have always wanted to dull the critical mind and have tended to acknowledge only opinions that duly bear the seal of the Nihil Obstat of a hierarchical bureaucracy.
I think it is high time for us to wake up and make an evaluation of the state of our home, our Church, open the windows to let fresh air in and get the feather dusters out to wipe the shelves with their grimy old volumes.
It is time for us women to prove ourselves good housekeepers. After all, is this not the role traditionally allotted to us? To minister means to serve the Church in step with the faithful, to be near them, to respond to their aspirations and do justice to all their charisms.
It is a fact that a fair number of women have heard the Call of the Lord and want to serve at the altar. They possess all the charisms needed to fulfil that call and nothing in theology prevents them from fulfilling it. Such women should be helped to realize that call, they are allowed to be convinced of their own value, they should not have to exhaust themselves begging for permissions that will not come at the present time.
This is a time for women to roll up their sleeves, to join in the work of convincing other women of the true dignity of each human being, of each girl-child of God, of each baptized person! Women must be convinced of the benefits the Church will gain from having men and women ordained to the priesthood, real men and women, celibate and married, according to their own choice, and not constrained into a castrating celibacy that moves them away from the people they have to accompany and guide.
Will you join us?
It is true that our task is gigantic and the stakes enormous, but this should not scare us: we, women, have gone through worse. In the course of the centuries, we have already met difficulties that we have overcome one after the other. We are on the march and moving forwards. Little by little, the world is beginning to realize the downside of the patriarchal system and the calamities it has caused: tyrannies, wars, dominations of all kind, particularily sexual, savage capitalism, slavery of human beings, ruin of the planet in mammons name.
For all these reasons I support the Catherine of Siena network, its aims and projects, and I appeal to you to offer your support as well - in any way you can!
And, please, do not forget the future. Give our work security by leaving us a legacy.
It is high time for us women to resume our role as healers: healing the Church and healing humankind, giving back to people that part of themselves that has been suppressed for too long a time and achieving Gods project in its integrity: Man and woman He created them!
Françoise Bourguignon January 2005
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