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Message to the Roman Catholic clergy


If you can remember vividly for 70 years any incident, I suppose you can assume that it was important in your life. It was that long ago, when I was 9 years old, that my problems with the Catholic clergy -- and through them with the church -- began.

In a religion class taught by our pastor, we were told that boys could be truly virtuous, really good; but girls, because they were never completely sincere, always less than honest, could never attain such virtue. Those are not the exact words of the priest, but they are his exact meaning. I can still see his face revealing the repugnance he felt.

Because I have three brothers, I knew that what he was saying was not universally true, certainly not in my family, but the pain he caused was real.

That pain grew as I grew -- taunted by boys because girls could not be acolytes and later by men because women could not be priests and were, therefore, inferior beings.

When I became a college student and learned what some "fathers of the church" thought of women and what the great Thomas Aquinas, to whose philosophy we were being introduced, believed about us, I knew where our pastor had learned about the human female. And I was appalled!

I had believed our pastor was a crabbed old man, for in my high school days I attended a girls school where the chaplain was a young priest who never alluded to our moral inferiority. But now I also learned that the church had never repudiated the horror with which some of its great thinkers viewed women. And that horror was reflected in several of the Jesuit teachers who refused to allow us to speak in class, even to ask a question, who relegated us to the back of the classroom where they could ignore us. My anger grew.

When I married and learned that wives really were to be subject to their husbands as was the church to Christ, I was again appalled. Christ had founded the church (so we were taught), but my prospective husband whom I loved dearly (and still do after 50 years) had done nothing but propose to make me his wife, and wasn't I making him my husband? So why shouldn't he also be subject to me?

My mother's counsel helped me through this crisis. Her response to the sometimes idiotic statements of the clergy had always been, "Consider the source!" She persuaded me now to do likewise and ignore what was intolerable. Unfortunately for my peace of mind, I could not calmly pray the rosary as she did through sermons and biblical exhortations. I listened to the language more and more critically and was more and more appalled.

As women gained new dignity and more education and made some advances in the secular world, the Catholic church still exhorted them to be obedient and submissive in all things. As recently as Dec. 29, 1996, that exhortation was read in our church. When my husband, bless him, voiced his objection to such demeaning language being addressed to women, the priest (who was ordained less than a year ago) said he really had never thought about the matter.

Some days later, on Jan. 1, I said to our new deacon (who is to be ordained a priest next June) that I considered it strange that we could have a liturgy praising a woman, Mary, and in it an epistle in which only "sons" were saved; his response was that "everyone knows that sons means both men and women." To my question, "If everyone knows that, why don't the words say it?" his response was, "The church has done just fine for 1,900 years!"

The training of priests has obviously been improved -- the horror of women has been replaced by disdain for them.

I would like to suggest to you, priests and bishops, that you use your imaginations to picture a church with gender roles reversed. You remain a male in the church where women have the power and authority. You are denied one of the sacraments. You are excluded by the language from most of the readings you hear when you attend Mass. Moral issues are defined by women. You hear perspectives on moral issues and spirituality only from women. You are reminded several times each year that if you are married, you must be subject to your wife. If you are a religious brother (because, of course, you cannot be a priest) your life is controlled by a hierarchy of women. It's impossible for you to imagine such a situation, is it not? But we women live it and it is not our "nature" to do so -- much as you might like to believe that.

We are told that we, like men, are created in the image of God, but in the Catholic church only male pronouns are permitted to refer to the deity. So who is the God in whose image we are created? We can't be priests because our bodies are female -- so we can't be enough like Christ to be anointed -- yet we are created in the image of God, and Christ is God.

How can the bishops of this country and of the world tolerate such a contradiction in order to uphold a tradition so obviously unjust?

Why have I remained a member of the church? Because I believe the Eucharist is the Body of Christ; because Christ did not ever demean women; he treated them with respect and generosity; he did not exclude them from being disciples. He had been born human, to a woman; and the most momentous of all events, his resurrection, he announced first to a woman.

Many women, millions all over the world, feel as I do. As one dear friend put the matter: "Don't leave the church. Stay and fight for justice. Refuse to let a group of arrogant men exclude us from the Body of Christ."

If what I have written has displayed my frustration, anger and pain, I make no apology. It was meant to do so!

Rosemary Jantzen Doherty, of Cedar, Mich., taught English writing and literature for 40 years. Her letter adds: “Because I have listened to homilies for at least 2,000 hours of my lifetime, I thought it only appropriate that I ask the clergy to listen to me for about five minutes.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 9, 1997