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Pentecost papacy would listen to women

As the John Paul II papacy winds down, there is a pause in the life of the church. Catholics and others share anticipation of the ferment, energy and change that invariably accompany a new leader’s arrival. But nothing happens in a vacuum. Tomorrow’s papacy is being forged by the people and events amid which we now live -- the next pope is out there this moment, becoming pope.

NCR, beginning this week, presents 11 experts on various aspects of church to look at present circumstances as indicators of future possibilities, and to dream some new dreams for the papacy. Compiled and edited by Vaticanologist Gary MacEoin, these weekly essays begin with that of Sr. Joan Chittister. Other contributors include Fr. Bernard Häring, Paul Collins, Giancarlo Zizola, Ana Maria Ezcurra, Francis X. Murphy and Harvey Cox. An expanded version of these collected essays will be published as a book, The Papacy and the People of God, by Orbis Books early next year.


“We used to think that revolutions are the cause of change. Actually, it is the other way around,” Eric Hoffer wrote in The Temper of Our Time. “Change prepares the ground for revolution.” If this is true, then little or nothing that characterizes this world at the end of the 20th century can possibly shape it in the next century. Change is everywhere and revolution is sure to follow.

This is a step-over moment in human history. It is changing the way we think, the way we see ourselves, the way we relate to others and the way we deal with institutions. Change is not coming; change is here. No institution need consider itself spared in the process -- not the state, not the economy and certainly not the church, whose theology is daily challenged by changing concepts of creation, of life and of human nature itself.

Religion, however, far too often clings to forms that sacralize the system rather than to the values within it that could make change a holy and empowering experience for everyone. Christianity most of all, perhaps, finds itself in a particularly grave situation in the face of changing expectations, understandings and insights.

It would be an inconsistent God indeed who created women and men out of an identical substance, yet supposedly gave one gender control of the other; a God who is all Spirit yet exclusively male; a God who makes both man and woman in the divine image yet defines one as less human than the other; a God who calls us all to knowledge of salvation but gives men alone the right to designate exactly what that means, implies, requires.

Here is a theological problem of mammoth proportions. And in a world where women, too, get PhDs in theology and philosophy, in science and history, past answers do not persuade. The woman question is not going to go away no matter how clearly the church says it must. There is another voice to be heard now, rich in experience, full of questions and very different in its values, goals and perceptions.

Women are intent on bringing their own piece of wisdom not only to the development of the race but to the reinterpretation of a faith that once taught racism, anti-Semitism and slavery with as much confidence as it does sexism today. The question, of course, is how a church can apply one set of principles to the public arena and fail to apply the same set to itself. It calls the rest of the world to justice, human rights, political participation and equality for all, yet closes its synods to women, denies its seminaries to women and reserves its sacristies -- muzzling one-half of its members in God’s name -- for men alone.

How can “tradition” possibly be an answer in a church where tradition in every other category is simply the interpretation of the time? The status of women has changed, at least in the minds of women themselves if not completely yet in the structures of society. The church shall not be spared the revolution that comes from that kind of axiomatic change in self-perception.

Whether the church can possibly last without women is an important but debatable question. Male clubs and sanctuaries have time-honored histories and may survive as male bonding experiences or elite fraternities. Whether the church can possibly live, whole and entire, authentic and true, without women, is not debatable at all. The very suggestion flies in the face of the Jesus story itself.

Theological theses: The Genesis 1 story with its emphasis on man as the crown of creation and creation as a kind of cornucopia filled with the rest of nature for the sake of human satisfaction became the paradigm of Judeo-Christian thought. Its theme was human transcendence; its thesis was domination. Forgotten, unfortunately, was the correspondingly determinative message that God saw all creation as equally “good,” and that the Sabbath -- reflection, contemplation, harmony -- not man, was the crown of creation. Gone, too, were the sobering insights of Genesis 2 whose theme was not domination but companionship, not human autonomy but the interdependence of creation and the frailty of human existence without it.

Humanity, and the church as well, built its institutions on Genesis 1. Hierarchy was a given. All things were in man’s service. Males were made in God’s image. Women were made from man. Women were “natural” by virtue of a physiology designed for the natural process of birthing. Men, who could not actually give birth, whose bodies were not suited for anything inherently creative, must obviously be suited for the things of the soul. Women, in the hierarchy of creation, instead of gaining because they have both creative body and rational soul, are defined by their bodies and robbed of the quality of their souls.

Philosophical theses: Jean Jacques Rousseau said a woman could be educated -- but not for herself, and not even for the good of society, but only for the advancement of her husband.

John Stewart Mill said a woman could be educated, yes, but only in order to preserve society by being fit to maintain the social standards set by men.

Claude Levi-Strauss, in 1969, said a woman could be educated in order to maintain the domestic system on which men depend to control the public one.

And Pope John Paul II, philosopher, said again in the 1990s that women had “a special nature” for “a special purpose.” To maintain the home, apparently, but not the theology of the church.

The world-view that follows from those premises is clear: Some of us were made to be more fully. Some of us are in charge of the human race, and we know who we are. It is a recipe for conflict, struggle, sexism, racism, suppression, oppression and revolution. And we are in it. And it is everywhere.

Structural implications: The result of a thought process based on domination is clear. The dualism that defines women as “natural” rather than spiritual and nature as inferior in the face of the all-spiritual God makes a clear distinction between the social roles of women and men. Women are born for childbearing; “mothering” is a lifetime task; and serving the needs of men, like the rest of nature, is women’s primary function. Men, men said, exist to dominate the realm of ideas, to determine the operations of life, and to enjoy the fruits of nature. For them, fathering is an event.

Echoes of these ideas ring in every debate of its kind to this day. Institutions are shaped by them. The church encourages them. The Jesus whose ministry was supported by women, spread by women, announced by women and shared by women finds little to recognize in the designs of nature here.

We can’t have it both ways. Either women are different and must, therefore, be heard from out of their own experience, as subjects, not objects, as moral agents, not as moral minors. Or women have the same human, moral and intellectual acumen as men and, therefore, hearing from them is to be taken for granted. As it is, women’s gifts are, for the most part, being lost to society as a whole, and in particular to the church where their spirituality has long been the backbone of the faith but ignored at every level.

The problem for women in a church in the midst of change is that they live with a papacy that belongs to the last century theoretically, governs in the present canonically and provides for the future out of a now defunct understanding of people. Both science and philosophy have now denied the kind of hierarchical, dualistic definitions of life that in the past sustained domination. Life, they tell us, is a web, not a ladder.

What we need now is theological leadership that will do the same. We need a papacy that can see the oppression of women by the church itself and is willing to model the inclusion of women at the highest levels of Vatican planning. The notion that God does not want for the church what God apparently wants everywhere else in humankind -- from Little League to parliament -- strikes a specious chord on the human ear.

For 2,000 years, church thinking has been almost exclusively male. Little or nothing of women’s experience, interpretation and insights has been incorporated into official church documents. The Catholic church operates as if women are not in it. The effect on women has been negative, of course, but the effect on the church has been worse. Under no condition can it claim to have seen the Lord with two eyes.

If women are reasonable creatures, however, they are theology-thinking human beings. That theologizing must be fostered, recognized, heard. When early theologians -- Clement, Origen, Augustine, Anselm, John Climacus and a multitude of others -- engaged in heated exchange over issues basic to the faith, the process met with respect. Now, women must be included in that same theological debate with that same sincerity or the church’s work is only half finished.

To design church doctrines on salvation, sexuality, marriage, family and sin -- all of which affect the lives of women equally but differently from the lives of men -- without formative input from women themselves conveys positions that are incomplete as well as arrogant. When the Canaanite woman challenged the justice and theology of Jesus toward outsiders, it was a process of conversion that took place, both his and hers.

Scripture study that excludes women at the highest levels of discourse is study that hears, sees and feels only one-half of the message. Tomes have been written, for instance, on the stoning of Stephen or the identity of the unnamed young man in the Garden of Gethsemane, but hardly a word on the saving of Moses by two women. It is time to see the women in scripture as much the messengers of God, the leaders of the people, the saviors of the faith, as the men were.

The church needs women as spiritual directors. The papacy of the next millennium must take special care to include the spiritual insights of women in the direction of the church. Feminist spirituality is as essential for men as it is for women because it develops an entirely new world-view, contradicting values spawned by patriarchy and institutionalized in the church. To be in a church where official Vatican directives deny a seminarian the right to have a mature woman as a spiritual guide is a very clear signal that the men of the church have nothing whatsoever to learn about the faith from the women of the church. It is a clear message -- and a false one. The question that follows it for women is, then, Why stay?

The Roman Catholic church, universal in definition, human in scope, has no right to be either a male or a clerical preserve. The “church” is not male. It simply looks that way. In order to develop a real Christian community -- one that thinks and acts and witnesses together -- synods, congregations, chanceries, parishes and cardinalates (in at least two instances in history the office of cardinal has been granted to lay men) must also be opened to women.

To deny the church as a whole the right to discuss the issue of either women deaconesses, women priests or a married clergy speaks of the flimsiness of the theological positions that underlie the canonical definitions. To risk the loss of the sacraments in a sacramental church by preferring maleness to priesthood is a breach of faith. To confuse the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith, to turn the Mass into a mime rather than a sacrament, and to deny half the human race the right also to “remember him” when they gather, makes for profound theological concerns.

Women’s ordination is far more than a woman’s question. Protestant Christianity, prophet to the Roman Catholic church for centuries by its preservation of scripture study, may now be required to preserve the Eucharist as well unless something is done to free the Eucharist from its male confines.

If women are to find themselves in the church, they must be able to find themselves in the Godhead as well. God-language that requires the all-spiritual God to be “father” and denies the womb and breasts of God, of which Isaiah speaks, also smacks of the heretical. A church willing to call God a hundred names -- rock, key, door, root, hen and tree -- but never, ever “mother” needs a thorough examination of conscience. It is time for the church to become whole.

It is time for the papacy to remind us that women are not an underprivileged minority but God’s oppressed majority. It is time for the papacy to lead us out of such a tangled theological morass back to the Jesus of lepers and outcasts and women, of beseeching women and proclaiming women and ministering women, of women with reckless faith and fearless presence and interminable fidelity.

We need a Pentecost papacy in the next millennium that can hear the many voices of women, each speaking in her own tongue -- and understand them.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, who lives in Erie, Pa., is executive director of Benetvision, a resource center for contemporary spirituality. An international lecturer, she has a PhD from Penn State and is a fellow of St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, England. Her latest book is Heart of Flesh, a Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men (Eerdmans).

National Catholic Reporter, October 10, 1997