Catholic 101: Women and the Church

I’ve heard it countless of times from people outside the Church, in this version or another: unless women can be priests, the Church is mysogynist and women are oppressed.
This topic is pretty timely, not only International Women’s Day was this past Wednesday, it’s also the case that the Church of England had an issue with the internal split over female ordination at the same time. This week also coincided with the launch of The Catholic Woman, a beautiful initiative I am not directly involved with.
I’m not even someone opposed to female ordination, although Belinda Brown makes a very good case against it on The Conservative Woman. If there was any reason to doubt our understanding of ministry in the early church and how that affects the priesthood today, or if we had any new insight like the heavens opened wide and God told us to make women priests (or even just deacons) I would be more than happy with that and, if still single by then, I’d be one of the first to head for the seminary asking if I can join. I have a deep love of the liturgy and would love the chance to be one of the people putting into practice the vision for beauty and honour in the Novus Ordo. However, I’m fairly sure there is no correction to be made. It’s just a point to illustrate how the debate around women’s role in ministry has been held with secular standards rather than the Church’s standards.

I talked last week about the concept of imago dei, so I’ll leave that behind. It is an important point to remember, though, as it shows why most women, including me, would be offended by the suggestion the Church is oppressive to them because we can’t be priests. The idea is not only a betrayal of the concept (clear to us) of the priesthood as service (remember Jesus, the Son of God, washing the feet of His disciples before the Last Supper? That), but also makes it part of a hierarchy of power and judges women according to the perceived lack of it, when it’s entirely alien to the Church. Our equality is found in God, and we are all one in God no matter our earthly (cf Galatians 3:28).
I assume this will be confusing to a lot of you, since clearly we have a distinction between genders. Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope, one of the documents resulting from the infamous Vatican II -or the Second Vatican Council if you want to be formal) says that “man (as in human not male human) is the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake” and “man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself”. Now, that’s where the difference in gender comes into play. We are valuable to God and so to the Church with no distinction, but our gifts are different.

Pope Saint John Paul II, the Pope of my very early youth, wrote the encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem (The Dignity of Woman – it sounds so much nicer in Latin if you ask me…) and made literally every woman I know who has read it cry. He looks at the vocations of women by looking, of course, to the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM for short). This is something that the secular view really cannot grasp. Everyone paints her as a meek woman when in fact she is the strongest person who ever walked the earth. I talked about it here and Ginny Kubitz, who wrote a book on the subject, talked about it in her Blessed is She workshop too.  Anyway, while the rest of the world seems to think that valuing motherhood is reducing a woman to a walking child-bearing womb, it seems fairly obvious to me that if God (who could have been coming to earth in any way that pleased Him) came through being born of a woman, then motherhood is valuable (I think Spock would agree this is logical), and valuing motherhood doesn’t mean that women are only good for making babies. Even just motherhood in the most obvious sense of having a tiny human in your tummy (and pushing it out in great pain and ending up with huge boobs you may use to feed the tiny human and your husband is likely to enjoy them too, while you hate them because they are heavy and also hurt) is way more than just making a tiny human, so motherhood in its wider meaning as the female vocation according to the Church is even broader.

It is true that there are many caring men and many women who can’t find a drop of niceness in them to save their lives (and I happen to be related to one of them), however fatherhood is about caring too, so it doesn’t really make the distinction invalid. Men and women are meant to be complementary. We enrich each other, but we also need some common ground in which we understand each other. Caring is imago dei, not femininity per se, and anyway masculinity and femininity are both spiritual characteristics that reflect something of God’s being, and none of them is better to have than the other. They aren’t for our own gain anyway. Issues of gender and the Church’s understanding of intersex people (which includes people that the world at large would call transgender, but that’s a topic for another time) are too broad to discuss now.
Pope Saint John Paul II wrote that “The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way.” It doesn’t have to be a baby. It can be your friend coming into your room very drunk at Easter, vomiting in your bathroom within 5 seconds and then collapsing on your floor. It can be your friend, heartbroken, crying her body weight out in tears. It can be a stranger. It can be your employees at work. It can be the person you’ve performed an open heart surgery on. It can be just pouring your all into your art. There is no limit to what a woman can do with this gift of hers.

What us, as Christian women, are called to do is putting Christ first in all that we do, or another way to put it is do what we do because of Christ. That’s why I find the arguments put forward for female priests to be fallacious, they are all about us women and valuing us according to the ways of the world rather than revolving around a Christ-centric view of our vocations. Anyway, a quick read for anyone interested in exploring the topic further, but not inclined to tackle the encyclical itself is the Catholic Truth Society’s booklet “The Special Gift of Women” by Dr Maria Fedoryka (look, a woman with a PhD!), which has provided the basis for this blog post. Also, any questions, or comments, fire away!

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