DONELLA JOHNSTON. Why women should run the Catholic Church.

Dec 4, 2017

You know an idea is starting to become mainstream when you read about it in the Australian Women’s Weekly.

“Why women should run the Catholic Church” is an article that appeared in the September edition of the Weekly. Penned by journalist Susan Chenery, the article begins “Men have formed the power elite since the Church’s foundation. Yet the furore over child sexual abuse and the Church’s handling of the issue is giving rise to a radical thought – the Catholic Church should be run by women.”

In his book, Trapped in a Closed World: Catholic Culture and Sexual Abuse, Kevin Peoples identifies misogyny as one of at least six factors that contribute to the current culture of the Catholic Church. This is a culture that has produced a horrific litany of sexual crimes against children\, prompting a Royal Commission. It’s telling that despite the fact that we have been reading about these crimes since at least the early 1990’s it took our first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard to finally act. We should acknowledge that it was a series of allegations that emerged from the Catholic Church that triggered this response.

Along with the culture of misogyny, Kevin Peoples identifies other cultural causes for the Catholic Church’s child sexual abuse scandal. These are clericalism, authoritarianism and triumphalism, discipline and obedience and celibacy (See p. 2 Introduction).

Our Church doesn’t need to be like this. We don’t need to have an exclusively male leadership. Like Kevin, many have now pointed out that the lack of women in positions of leadership was a contributing factor to the culture that led to these crimes.

The Women’s Weekly article stated: “Many people believe that the scale of abuse would have been much, much less if women held positions of power in the Church. Women are far less likely to be drawn into a secretive society and far more likely to break ranks where the welfare of children is concerned”.  Others too have pointed this out such as Council Assisting the Commission Gail Furness SC and Francis Sullivan, CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council.

A report[1] commissioned by the Australian Catholic bishops almost 20 years ago noted that women comprised almost 74% of persons undertaking undergraduate theological courses and almost 64% in postgraduate courses in Catholic institutions. Most of these women undertook studied at their own expense and in their own time.  The report noted some of the ways in which women’s participation could be increased included a re-examination of the portrayal of men and women in moral theology, encouraging theologically qualified women to become professors in the seminary and that training for the priesthood should involve personal development and counselling, women’s issues and women’s theology (p. 448).

In his chapter on misogyny Kevin notes the absence of women in his seminary experience. They certainly weren’t teaching him theology. He knew they were there behind the scenes, the nuns who washed, cleaned and cooked for them.  Kevin paints a picture of how misogyny has been embedded in the theologies, dogma, doctrine, practices and philosophies of those in power in the Church.

The book is also a public account of the shared horror that we all feel as Catholic Christians trying to grapple with the unravelling of our Church in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis. Each of us, have had to review everything we knew or thought we knew about our Church. How could this have possibly happened in a faith whose central tenet is love? It has been a shock to our personal faith lives. It has also been a shock to our collective sense of who we are as Catholics. We have all had to try to explain ourselves to others. Why on earth would we want to be part of an institution whose leaders allow such abominations to occur unchecked in so many cases?

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Kevin’s enthusiastic involvement in Catholic social justice movements in the 60’s influenced his decision to train as a priest. Social justice is one of the things Catholics do well. It is inherent to our understanding of the Gospel call to treat others as we’d like to be treated.

And this brings us back to women. Pope Francis has noted that there needs to be a new and deeper theology of woman (July 2013).[2] Many Catholic feminist theologians would argue that we already have that theology. It’s just that the men who run the show have not yet chosen to accept it. Theologians like Elizabeth Johnson argue that we could start by reviewing our images of God. An underlying theme in “Trapped in a closed world” is the old image of God as a patriarchal, all-knowing, disciplinarian father figure. Sound familiar? Maybe a little too familiar. Starting with challenging the old male image of God may well be a good starting place for reviewing and rewriting some of our out-of-date theologies around women and their role in the family, society and the Church.

Donella Johnston is a former Director of the National Office for the Participation of Women of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

This is an edited version of Donella Johnston’s speech at the Canberra launch of Trapped in a Closed World: Catholic Culture and Sexual Abuse, by Kevin Peoples

[1] Woman and Man One in Christ Jesus: Report on the Participation of Women in the Catholic Church in Australia (April 1999) Harper Collins

[2] US Catholic Jan 2015

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