Catholic Women and the Modern Era by Mary F. Daly from 'We Won't Keep Silence Any Longer'

Catholic Women and the Modern Era

Mary F. Daly, S.T.L., Fribourg (Switzerland)

published in Wir schweigen nicht länger! (We Won't Keep Silence Any Longer!), Interfeminas-Verlag, 1964, pp.108-110

There are many books being written by Catholic authors about women, and scarcely any about men. This is certainly significant. In “a man’s world,” in an androcentric society, it is woman who appears as a special problem, as a “mystery.” In these writings concerning women, there often appears to be an oscillation betwen two extremes. That is, “woman” either appears as an eternal minor, an instrument for reproduction without human rights, or else she emerges as a glorified creature, placed upon a pedestal. Yet the two extremes meet, for whether women are placed upon a pedestal is irrelevent idols or openly (and more honestly) treated as inferior creatures, the result is nearly the same: they are deprived of full participation as adults in civic, professional, and ecclesiastical life. What women today need, and more and more explicitly want, is neither inferior status and dependence, nor false and irrelevant glorification, but equality as adult human beings.

Certainly, social attitudes, laws, and customs concerning women have undergone a tremendous evolution, which far from having terminated, is continuing with increasing momentum. It is not astonishing, therefore, that Catholic women are becoming more and more sensitive to anachronistic attitudes which have persisted in the Church. It is surprising that one finds increasing signs of impatience and disillusionment, especially among those from the more advanced countries.

Attitudes within the Church should not, of course, be seen as isolated from historical context. There is often a strong correspondence between these and the attitudes predominating in the cultural milieu in which the Church finds itself in any age. Thus, the ferociously misogynistic statements made by some of the Fathers, v.g. Tertullian, were not shocking to their contemporaries. Even though Christianity taught the essential dignity of women, the full implications of this doctrine were not to be seen all at once. Even if women were admittedly “equal before God,” the fact of their ignorance and incapability, which arose from lack of education and opportunity for self-development, obscured the implications of that equality. It is not surprising, therefore, that the “misbegotten male” theory, proposed by St. Thomas to explain women’s origin, was accepted as quite reasonable by his contemporaries and by commentators for centuries afterward. Even today some Thomists, while admitting that their master’s biology is out-dated, seem to remain blind to the fact that his philosophical and theological conclusions concerning women are to a large extent grounded upon these false suppositions. Today, however, the anti-feminist tradition within the Church is having a hard time finding firm legs to stand upon. The support which formerly was to be found in false biological and philosophical theories and in anti-feminist legislation has gradually melted away. It is evident that woman’s “natural” timidity and “natural” inaptitude for leadership and for things of the mind can no longer pass for natural —at least, not without arousing a good deal of suspicion. These supposedly innate characteristics, which were in fact the result of the underprivileged status of women, are losing their claim to the designation “typically feminine”, for such a claim is in blatant opposition to the facts of modern life—such as women senators, ski champions, and scientists.

“The emergence of women” is a reality which has received some official recognition in the Catholic Church. Pope John, especially, recognized the place of women in active political life and unequivocally proclaimed their equality in marriage. It remains to be seen what practical consequences this may have. Despite such hopeful indications, the fact is that the Church is conservative as a human society, and that it has been slow in giving full recognition to the emancipation of women. The fact is that no Catholic women were present at the first and second sessions of the Council. Moreover, the exclusion of women from Holy Orders constitutes a major difference in the treatment of the sexes. A layman may be a member of the laity by choice; a woman has no choice.

There is no doubt that there continues to be a strong habit of resistence within the Church to any practical attempt to improve the status of women. This attitude was revealed, for example, in a recent declaration by Bishop Walter Kampe, Auxiliary of Limburg, in which he stated that the current practice of many Protestant Churches, which ordain women for the ministry, constitutes a serious obstacle to Christian unity. One wonders at the reasoning brought forth by Bishop Kampe. He claimed that it is “extremely surprising” that the Protestant theologians, who consider the Bible as the only source of the Faith, have not noticed that Christ chose only men as His disciples. Surely this kind of criticism of the Protestant decision to ordain women cannot be taken seriously. The Protestant theologians to whom the Bishop refers are well aware that Christ chose only men as disciples, but they are also aware that such a choice should be seen in its historical context, that is, taking into consideration the position of Hebrew women at the time. Evidently, the status of women has changed immeasurably since those times. It seems elementary, that if one would give arguments from history, one should attempt to see historical facts in context. Moreover, the Bishop’s accusation that the Protestants are placing an obstacle to unity by ordaining women seems to be completely beside the point. If the Protestant churchmen in question are convinced that it would be an injustice to withhold the ministry any longer from women, then it would seem that they are bound in conscience to act as they have acted.

It should not be forgotten that in the early centuries of the Christian era women were ordained in the various Churches by the laying on of hands, which imparted ordination to the Diaconate. Moreover, according to St. Thomas there is only one sacrament of orders, graduated up to the Episcopacy. It appears, therefore, that the ordination of women is not without precedent in the Church. When one considers that even in times in which the subjection of women was an accepted social fact, women were admitted to the diaconate, it seems more than ironic that in our own time, in which women hold all kinds of public offices and do all kinds of jobs, even this secondary ecclesiastical office is withheld from them.

It seems inevitable that the question of the ordination of women in the Catholic Church will be raised. One can only hope that it will be given fair consideration and that those prone to use specious Scriptural arguments will think seriously of all that is involved. It is to be ardently hoped that those who take upon themselves the task of re-examining the position of women in the Church, will manifest those qualities which are desperately needed for such an undertaking: a sense of historical perspective, and an attitude which is free from arrogance and prejudice. Objective recognition of the fact of social evolution and of the logical conclusions to be drawn from this may be very difficult for some. It is not always easy to accept social change, and to act in accordance with changing situations, especially if one feels that his prerogatives are being threatened, and that he may be called upon to share responsibility and its concomitant honors. Perhaps, therefore, humble self-knowledge is the most essential characteristic to be hoped for in those who will take upon themselves this task of re-examination.

The forces of contradiction are evidently increasing. Catholic women are urged more and more to take an active part in public life, “to speak” in the government of the State; yet they are condemned to an anachronistic role of passivity and silence in the Church. A certain ambivalence now characterizes the attitude toward women in the Catholic Church, in which outdated laws and theories meet modern realities in head-on collision. This cannot continue without increasing harm to women as persons and to the Church as a society.

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