A feminine church needs women

Beth Doherty 14 August 2018

The Catholic church is replete with metaphor. One of the most enduring is that of the church as female, the Bride of Christ.

En route from Brazil in 2013, Pope Francis said that ‘in the Church, women are more important than men, because the Church is a woman … And the Madonna is more important than popes, bishops and priests.’

It was another learned octogenarian Jesuit that gave me the image of a trampled flower to describe how women are treated within the church. I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of being a flower, but I could see how one might find a positive connotation. Perhaps the trampled, broken flower elicits a stronger perfume – beauty from ashes?

The church has been called a vineyard, a farm, a body made up of many parts. It can be a place of welcome, a sanctuary, a refuge, a home. To others, it’s archaic, exclusive, locked up.

Some use the image of the stained-glass ceiling, arguing that while women have broken through the proverbial glass ceiling, the stained-glass ceiling is less penetrable.

Here we are led to another metaphor. In Japan, there is a type of pottery called kintsukuroi: mending broken pottery using resin, laced with gold. This analogy communicates that broken pieces can be put back together, and made more beautiful.

Church needs full participation of women

The Church does need mending, with the active, full participation of women. Yet two examples from the past decade speak volumes of what needs reassembling, and what cannot be repeated.

In 2011, the Vatican announced a three-year investigation into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the US, owing to so-called radical feminist elements among their ranks. The investigation was closed under Francis, but only added to frustration among these women, many who are singularly dedicated to the mission of the church across healthcare, social work and education.

That same year, Caritas Internationalis’ Secretary General Lesley-Anne Knight was declined a ‘nihil obstat’ (nothing obstructs) from the Vatican. This rendered her unable to reapply to the position at the helm of the federation. It was never explicitly addressed why she was no longer considered an appropriate person for the role, with only some shrouded language about Catholic identity, and some cloak-and-dagger politics among Vatican congregations.

Some consider women leadership a threat

Where women lead, or play a part, some in the church consider it a threat, even if it is trivial. I recently found a cartoon on social media. It was called ‘The Feast of the Mansplaining of the Resurrection’. The cartoon displayed three women at the empty tomb. The disciples stand by, much further away, and St Peter proclaims to the women, ‘Thanks, ladies. We’ll take it from here.’

According to UN statistics, women continue to do two-thirds of the world’s work (paid and unpaid). In some countries, women cannot drive or own property. Globally, women are paid less than men, earning on average only 60 to 75 per cent of men’s wages. Yet, paradoxically, women have some more work to do.

If we are to really be a feminine church (which obviously is not going to be helpful as our only defining metaphor), wouldn’t it then make sense to have a more ‘incisive’ contribution and reverence for women across the institution?

Even Pope Francis, whose primary formation has been in a ‘machista’ culture has expressed his sadness that women in the Church are ascribed duties out of servidumbre (Spanish for servitude).

While women are rightly reverenced in beautiful documents such as Mulieris Dignitatem, and Pope Francis has called for a deeper theology of women, there is still a veiled sense that ‘if we give them too much power, they’ll simply push to be ordained.’

Marginalisation of women reinforced

We need to recognise that the marginalisation of women throughout the world, is in part, reinforced by attitudes that the institutional church is not all that good at counteracting in its practice. So, this work of rebuilding the Church to include all people of good will needs to take place and consider the gifts that both women and men bring to the body of Christ. Together, let’s mend that broken stained glass and make it into a beautiful vessel, one that perhaps elicits the smell of that trampled flower that contains such perfume that might be used to anoint some feet … Maybe hopefully even some feet that smell like sheep?