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Norms speak louder than words on status of women


“It is my hope, dear sisters, that you will reflect carefully on what it means to speak of the ‘genius of women,’ not only in order to be able to see in this phrase a specific part of God’s plan ... but also in order to let this genius be more fully expressed in the life of society as well as in the life of the church.” -- Pope John Paul II

The “genius of women!” It is a powerful, inspiring phrase the pope returned to several times in his “Letter to Women” written just before the 1995 Beijing Conference.

But what the church often does conveys more clearly and painfully what the church really means.

Consider the Vatican’s former norms, which allowed a widowed deacon to remarry and continue in his ministry only if three conditions were simultaneously fulfilled: his work as deacon was much needed by the local church; no scandal was involved; and he had young children in need of motherly care. The rule spoke volumes about the “genius of women,” not to mention the sacrament of marriage.

Not only was the diaconate reserved for men only, but a widowed deacon, no matter how valuable to the church, was obliged to embrace celibacy if he wished to continue his ministry -- unless, that is, a woman had to be acquired to take care of the kids.

Now, the Vatican has announced, the norm has been modified -- slightly (NCR, Aug. 29).

Under the new regulations, any one of the following conditions by itself might merit a dispensation for remarriage: that the deacon is much needed in the local church; that he has young children requiring care; or that he has elderly parents or parents-in-law in need of care.

There’s a bit of progress here to be sure, but the function of women remains even clearer than before.

They are caregivers -- for the very young and the very old. No mention of how the sacrament of marriage might aid the deacon in his work within the church, not even a consideration of how the new wife might contribute to the ministry.

She is a caregiving functionary. It is her genius. This is not to deny that caregiving is a valuable ministry. But caregiving, it appears, is the basic charism women have to contribute within the structure of the diaconate.

Talk about the “genius of women” and the equally lofty, oft repeated “complementarity” of the sexes rings hollow in the face of church norms, even modified ones.

National Catholic Reporter, September 12, 1997