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Women want change

Arthur Jones, NCR’s editor-at-large, is the author of a new book, New Catholics for a New Century: The U.S. Church Today and Where It’s Headed, published by Thomas More. The following are excerpts from his chapter on “American Catholic Women.”

Half of all new Catholics will be women. If trends continue, 60 to 70 percent of all new Catholics engaged in church activities will be women; and 70 to 80 percent of all the theologians, M.Div.’s and the like. Their expectations are high for a role in the church -- and those expectations meet barriers.

In what follows -- voices obviously dealing with tensions and differences of opinion -- a parallel understanding is required. It is that when presenting tension in the church one must keep in mind that those involved in the differences are involved because they love the church. They are in, of and drawn to the Catholic church because it is their means and way, alone and in community, of meeting God -- suffering Jesus and Risen Christ.

Some quotations -- though gently uttered -- may seem politicized. If they are regarded instead as an interplay between personal consciences and beliefs, they are the very stuff of church in the world, and the church in the church. Even those who appear to have left significant portions of current Catholic teaching behind ought to be considered to have been impelled into that position by what they found in their faith, in their Catholicism. A Catholic church that, after 400 years of misunderstanding, now freely admits it understands Martin Luther ought to be much more irenic in how it handles its own.

What we’re seeing now was missing from earlier Catholic history, possibly because of how that history was written. There are always some Catholics who are outside of or ahead of their historical moment. At one time we called some of them prophets. St. Francis of Assisi is first choice for an early example. But today’s married priests are another. Similarly, whatever the sum total of the event’s merits, the African-American priest George Stallings, who left with part of his congregation to form his own Imani Temple, was a preaching-teaching moment to the church itself -- if it chose to listen. Thus, with many of the women’s voices.

We will never experience the fully realized church. God seems to have intended it that way. Our job is simply to work for a fully realized church, on earth, as it is in heaven, not necessarily to succeed at it.

Seen that way, seen from 2040, the American church of 2,000 might appear to have rounded the first few curving yards in the process of turning an inevitable corner.

To the optimist the signs are threefold: First, despite the stings and harrowings of a church that still insists that “man” includes “woman” but doesn’t include women deacons and priests, American Catholic women, whose connection to church goes beyond participating in the sacraments, have discovered in themselves and their groupings a patient, personal ease. This ease enables them to maintain association with and devotion to Catholicism without relinquishing the right to expect change and to work for it.

Second, many of these groupings of women (as markedly so among lay women as women religious) truly try to exemplify the practice of the inclusive welcoming community. It is as if they draw on a “special patience” in a church that shades its welcome and inclusivity to meet its man-made regulations.

Third, because Catholic women of a certain stride have already arrived at the place where patience and practice are not adversaries, and they live their own understandings of celebration -- praise and prayer -- they indicate just some of the ways new Catholics will respond to or relate to the church. There is a forerunner to this. Though the future was not laid out after Vatican II, the U.S. laity was encouraged and propelled forward by women -- the women religious (in concert with some bishops, priests and brothers).

And finally, the very tempo of church history is on the women’s side now, in this American Epoch in the Catholic church. In the next epoch, the one that is beginning to overlap with the American Epoch, history will be on the side of the people of color in the church.

Here, as we look back from four decades ahead, we will see not only how far women have come since the days when Angelo Roncalli was Pope John XXIII, but indeed from the time when he was a busy papal diplomat, circa World War I.

The year before John’s Vatican Council opened, there was a category of an Ursuline academy’s summer reading list called “Personality and Conduct of Women.” Madelaine Blais wrote in The Washington Post 37 years later that the titles included The Rosary and the Soul of Woman, Planning Your Happy Marriage, and Girls, You’re Important, all written, I cringe to report, by men.

It is becoming almost impossible now that the 20th century has closed to capture how severe, how ludicrous the Catholic strictures -- and social strictures -- were that existed on women only a half-century earlier. (And not just on matters of contraceptive aids in spacing their families.) Now when one has to turn to the men of radical Islam in the 1990s, the Taliban in Afghanistan, to make the point, Catholics 40 years from now could reasonably wonder whether what follows is simply caricature.

Talibans want the women, “their women,” covered from head to foot and confined to the house, family and domestic duties. Yet that has an old Catholic ring to it. In the 1950s, John Charles McQuaid, archbishop of Dublin, campaigned to have the female mannequins in department store windows dressed so that they revealed only their ankles and wrists -- if that. Admittedly, Dublin wasn’t Detroit or Duluth, but the attitude of some of the Irish-American hierarchy and clergy toward women was not necessarily far removed from that of the Irish clergy it sprang from.

These were the years when Western Catholic women committed anything from a social gaffe to a venial sin if they entered church without wearing a hat. These, too, were the years -- as Irish-born Catholic journalist Gary McEoin recalls in his biography -- when, once an Irish woman married, if she was employed she was required by the church to quit her job and stay home lest her work interfere with the begetting and raising of children.

The most obvious “Taliban” Catholic case was the nun. Catholic women religious wore clothing as restricting and as all-covering as Kabul’s women in the 1990s. The nuns’ habit was not as comfortable as the loose-fitting Arab-inspired Islamic female garb. In the tropics, nuns often still had to wear serge (woolen habits) even if white was allowed. Working somewhere between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, the missionary nuns in their starched white headgear might find their hairpins rusting from the humidity and their hair falling out as a result. Nuns lost not only their hair and their names, many orders required sisters to take male names, to become Sr. Mary Kevin or Sr. Mary Vincent. Women’s names weren’t good enough.

The equality battle continues in the U.S. society, as in the church, but the right to battle in society is not contested. And in the society and the church there have been gains. Nowadays, when the U.S. Catholic bishops’ committees issue statements affecting women, it is not on wearing hats in church, but on the sexual safety of the girl child in the home, or a condemnation of physical abuse of the woman in the home, or the girl in the international sex trade. Even Pope John Paul II, though adamant that women cannot be ordained, is a stalwart defender of women burdened by macho denigration, or subjected to physical and sexual abuse, or denied legal and political rights. He has fiercely opposed the use of artificial contraception, but personally supported and taught natural family planning. He approves of women eucharistic ministers but not in his presence; allows girl altar servers but elsewhere.

Seen from a developing world perspective, this pope has generally stood tall on women’s rights and social justice. In the First World -- where pressing church issues include shared authority, the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried, a welcome for the homosexual, the need for an enlightened understanding of sexuality -- many still feel the church (and the pope) removed from reality.

How far have the bishops and pope moved? Compare the U.S. bishops in 1919 to John Paul in 1995.

This was a statement from the U.S. bishops in 1919 just as American women were receiving the right to vote:

“In society, as in the home, the influence of woman is potent. She rules with the power of gentleness and, where men are chivalrous, her will is the social law. The present tendency in all civilized countries is to give woman a larger share in pursuits and occupations that formerly were reserved to men.

“So far as she may purify and elevate our political life,” the bishops continued, “her use of the franchise will prove an advantage; and this will be greater if it involves no loss of the qualities in which woman excels. To reach the hearts of men and take away their bitterness, that they may henceforth live in fellowship with one another -- this is woman’s vocation in respect of public affairs, and the service which she is by nature best fitted to render.”

Contrast that to the tone and wording of Pope John Paul II’s address to women before the 1995 Beijing U.N. Conference on Women. Inviting women to become teachers of peace, John Paul said, “this invitation, directed particularly to women, is based on a realization that to them God ‘entrusts the human being in a special way.’ This is not, however, to be understood in an exclusive sense, but rather according to the logic of the complementary roles present in the common vocation to love, which calls men and women to seek peace with one accord. ... Nevertheless, many women, especially as a result of social and cultural conditioning, do not become fully aware of their dignity. Others are victims of a materialistic and hedonistic outlook, which views them as mere objects of pleasure. ... Another serious problem is found in places where the intolerable still exists of discriminating, from the earliest years, between boys and girls.”

(Agreed there is trouble for some with the pope’s use of the word complementary in that complementarity is understandably interpreted as meaning second-class and subordinate. Mary Daly calls complementarity, “half of John Wayne pasted onto Farah Fawcett Major.”)

The problem for women the pope’s remarks reveal, suggests theologian Mary Hunt, “is in the way in which the power is distributed, such that bishops write about women not with women.” Pope John Paul II has been adamant on not discussing women’s ordination. On the broader issues, as writer Jane Redmont notes, John Paul “wrote a letter to women before Beijing and talked about ‘the special genius of women.’ He’s trying. He’s apologized to women.” But she adds, pointedly, “I think Beijing showed that the United States is certainly not the only place in the world where there’s a feminist movement. It showed that there’s a women’s movement worldwide, including in the Third World. And anybody who says it’s just a white women’s thing is full of hooey.”

A big friction with Rome, said Redmont, is that women scholars have developed “some good analyses of what’s wrong with the situation of women and men in the church and outside. And Rome doesn’t like that. They regard analysis as Vatican territory.”

Papal biographer Tad Szulc, in Pope John Paul II, noted, “Curiously, this highly intelligent pontiff never grasped the reasons for Catholic women’s unhappiness with the church.” During the 1979 papal visit to the United States, Sr. Teresa Kane, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), urged the pope to include “half of humankind” in “all the ministries of the church.”

Papal biographer Jonathan Kwitny, in his book, Man of the Century, said the pope replied that Mary was the model for women, and she was never ordained. The pope returned to Rome “seething” at Kane’s insubordination, alleged Kwitny, and brought the mothers general of all the women’s orders into the Vatican and told them to send a “chastening message” to the U.S. women’s group, presumably the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. If so, LCWR never received it. …

Increasingly since Vatican II, the American Catholic bishops, and later Pope John Paul II, have accepted that in society (and church) women have been (and are) discriminated against, and that in the home they have all too frequently been abused. The 1996 study Laity, American and Catholic (Sheed & Ward) states, “Women’s subordinate position as laypersons in the church is shared by the men, but there is one important difference: Men were not born with the doors to the clerical state closed to them, as are women. This means than men have the opportunity, through ordination, women do not.”

In the American church of 50 years ago, there were laywomen like Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement, and Patty Crowley of the Christian Family Movement, and the women of the Grail Movement, all pushing, “with the power of gentleness” (or in Day’s case, nonviolence) toward something different for Catholics, women included. …

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2000