Another attempt to mute the voices of Catholic women

Apr 13, 2021

My text for today is taken from the Book of Genesis, as translated by John Milton: “Hee for God only. Shee for God in him.”Paradise Lost, 1667.

Eve was something of an afterthought. She was not a necessary part of the original creation story until Adam requested her. God complied and uses Adam’s flesh to form her. Throughout the story, Eve faces misogyny from Satan, from Raphael, from Adam and even from God. Was Eve fully human at all?

Throughout the history of western thought the work of philosophers can be distilled to two questions asked by all of them, in one form or another: What does it mean to be a human being? And, What is the best way for us to live together?

Sad to report, Catholic teaching, even to this day, repeatedly comes up with the wrong answer to the first question, even in the face of verifiable facts. First, slightly more than half of the human population is female. Second, we are all born naturally equal. Third, the second Vatican Council pronounced the equality of all Christians through baptism. Yet, in the face of these facts, the Church sets about espousing a theory that renders the sexes unequal. They do this by insisting on a theoretical position that confuses sex and gender.

This obfuscation of observable facts is accomplished by laying gender theory on the sexed reality of our bodies, producing the socially constructed categories of masculine and feminine. This gender theory they call complementarity. The constant repetition of this theory results in a dual anthropology that deforms both sexes.

The theory of complementarity scoops up all human attributes and virtues and allocates half to one sex and half to the other. To explain further, the concept of complementarity asserts that while men are essentially like ‘this’ (rational, assertive, decisive, independent) women are like ‘that’ (emotional, passive, intuitive, dependent). The result is two contrasting types of human. By the very act of splitting human potential we make it impossible to conceive of what it might mean for any one person to be fully human.

This splitting of human attributes results in a patriarchal worldview because one sex is not only different from the other, one is better than the other. When we look at the attributes attributed to each sex we know who gets the more valued set. If we want proof we only need to observe that ‘he’ would be rushing home to make the world of childcare and housework his own while ‘she’ would be left to govern and make all the rules.

The immediate result of this patriarchal philosophy is that women and men are actually constructed in opposition to each other – the more womanly she is and the more manly he is the further apart they are pushed, one from the other. Within this schema mutual respect is theoretically impossible. Note well, it is this theory, and not feminism, which insists on no more than the natural equality with which we are all born, that is the foundation of the Battle of the Sexes.

In the end, the theory of complementarity forces us into a sort of craziness where, for example, men, not being essentially caring beings, can only mimic the behaviour of women who are deemed to be essentially caring, having been endowed with a Special Nature that contains that virtue.

Getting the question of human identity wrong means, inevitably, that the answer to the second question on how we should best live together will also be compromised. Put in its most pared-down form, he belongs in the public sphere and she in the private. However, while human nature is deformed for both sexes in this schema, the male human within the church is redeemed by other arguments that are based on no more than further assertions about his superiority. For example, only males are fit matter to be ordained presidents of the Eucharist.

As the Irishwoman, if I was attempting to ensure equality and justice for women in the Catholic Church, I wouldn’t be starting from here.

A recent proof of this is to be found in the Australian Catholic Bishops initiative of a Consultation for Women. This was supposed to look like the hierarchy reaching out to women. In fact, it proved to be just one more sleight of hand, like the now disbanded Catholic Professional Standards Ltd and the quietly ignored governance report, The Light from the Southern Cross. The hierarchy was pushed to agree to both of these initiatives as a result of the disgrace laid bare by the recent Royal Commission investigating the sexual abuse of children. However, in short order, the “lack of funds” was the reason produced for quickly backgrounding them. It was also “lack of funds” that closed down the Council for Australian Catholic Women in 2020.It is scandalous that such important initiatives for the benefit of women and children can be stifled by the patently false claims of lack of funds when the same institution runs eight seminaries at a huge cost for 235 male ordinands (Aust. Catholic Directory, 2020-2021) at the expense of millions of Catholic women.

This so-called Consultation was not only condescending, but it also had an identity crisis: it got its own name wrong. This Consultation ‘for’ women was something we were to be given. A Consultation ‘with’ women would have been a better starting place. This half-hearted gift was offered to a maximum of 300 women; approximately 170 showed up. They were invited to a seriously structured conversation where they were allowed to ‘discuss’ for a period of fewer than two hours, resulting in only a few groups being given time to report back. Furthermore, what they were to discuss was not of their own choosing; rather they were ‘gifted’ with two questions. First, What is working in women’s ministry in your community, and what strengths are driving this? Second: How can these strengths be built upon and grow the mission of the Church? In essence, we were to be kept in the same box and allowed to continue to run about in circles within it.

What was not stated, but was undeniably implicit in the first question was: What is working in the carefully curtailed and subordinate ministries that some men have already decided are suitable and sufficient for all women? If the bishops had actually listened to what women had told them in the 17,547 submissions to the Plenary Council they would have known what women wanted to discuss: inclusiveness, ordination to the permanent diaconate or to the priesthood, the blessing of their own gay unions or those of their gay children, the welcoming of the divorced and re-married back to the sacraments, the training of male and female priests and the selection of male and female bishops. Just for starters.

Each of these topics, and more, are all contained in that one word ‘inclusiveness’ which was listed as the most important topic for discussion at the Plenary Council. You might even say it is the lay word for synodality. We all want to walk together in the community as we serve and are served in the church.

But when women began to talk during this Zoom meeting about inclusiveness, for example about the need to appoint a woman as co-chair to the Plenary Council they were muted! And they were muted by a woman – a woman serving as an executive secretary to the bishops. Her assimilation into a fundamentally flawed institution is obvious because she has no power to correct this system.

We don’t like to talk about power and control in our church but this ‘consultation’ was the embodiment of control. We talk about the hierarchy and that’s fine; you need hierarchies for good order and governance. But when all the top positions are staffed by males that is patriarchy, and patriarchy is something other. That is a system where men have the power to insist on the ongoing control and domination of women, right down to what they can talk about and for how long. And they justify this by saying it’s God’s will.

Of course, we all know that the bishops’ response to the women’s list is ‘Sorry, ladies, those topics are beyond our competence to discuss’. That response entirely misses the point that all these topics are well within our competence to discuss and we have been asked to do so. Justice requires that we discuss these questions officially with our brothers at the upcoming Plenary Council. And then send the results of our discussions to Rome so there can be no mistake about what the Holy Spirit is requiring of Australian Catholic women, supported by Australian men, all of whom have been moved by the same Spirit.

What thoughts were behind this Consultation and the one to follow in September, right before the opening session of the Plenary Council? The timing is curious to say the least. Is it a sop to women? Are they publicity stunts or a strategic attempt to ensure that women’s priority issues are off the official agenda?

It is the men in power, who enable this system of injustice to continue, who must start the conversation about sexual equality and then sustain it. In order to lead they may have to break ranks with other bishops and priests, acknowledging that they have walked through a door that is closed in the faces of women. Women will no longer accept a church that insists on the words of Satan: ‘Hee for God only, shee for God in him’.Women require not to be ribs, but rather true partners in proclaiming and making real the gospel.

Eventually, God turns to Eve and asks her, what happened? And Eve uses her voice for the first time to defend herself. We women can take a lesson from Eve: No matter the power we are facing, we must use our voices. Unless, of course, they are muted.

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