SUSAN RYAN. Book launch. ‘Jesus the forgotten feminist’ by Chris Geraghty.

The Catholic Church here and globally faces a crisis of loss of support arising especially from its deeds and omissions in relation to appalling sexual abuse of children.

Our secular societies are experiencing a massive epidemic of allegations and charges of sexual harassment and violation of women in their workplaces, be they on film and television sets, in the training of medical specialists, on university campuses, in major corporations, within churches, just about anywhere where men dominate women’s employment prospects.

The Catholic Church’s failure to protect children, and our first world societies’ failure to protect women, are connected in ways that makes Geraghty’s book highly relevant.  

 This is a summary of the speech Susan Ryan made on May 5, 2018, at the launch of Chris Geraghty’s book ‘Jesus the forgotten feminist’.

The Catholic Church here, and globally faces a crisis of loss of support arising especially from its deeds and omissions in relation to appalling sexual abuse of children.

Our secular societies are experiencing a massive epidemic of allegations and charges of sexual harassment and violation of women in their workplaces, be they on film and television sets, in the training of medical specialists, on university campuses, in major corporations, within churches, just about anywhere where men dominate women’s employment prospects.

The Catholic Church’s failure to protect children, and our first world societies’ failure to protect women, are connected in ways that makes Geraghty’s book highly relevant.

The author establishes two key positions: first, that Jesus Christ was a feminist.

Secondly, that Jesus’ feminism has been forgotten.

As far as his first position goes, that Jesus was a feminist, he is persuasive.

I parted company with the institutional church many decades ago. One of the major reasons for me, though not the only one, was that the church in which I was raised regards women as inferior to men, treats them as second class, and excludes them from all important decision making.

The disregard and unequal treatment of Catholic nuns is a continuing reminder of the Church’s dismissive attitude to women. The treatment of nuns is not only unjust, but also self-defeating and irrational. At a time here in Australia, when there are far too few priests to service parishes, even on a part time basis, the church has within it capable, dedicated nuns, women whose vocation, like that of priests, is to serve the Church and its people, women who can and have run major church institutions with acknowledged success. These women are judged unsuitable to run parishes.

This rejection comes from the most significant manifestation of the Church’s fundamental adherence to sex discrimination: the exclusion of women from the priesthood. Not only have women been excluded for over 2 thousand years, but the very idea of female ordination cannot be discussed. The papal prohibition of this discussion is in place, right now in 2018.

Does this insistence on the exclusion of women from ordination matter beyond the institution of the Catholic Church? It does.

Over the millennia, these discriminatory policies and actions by the powerful Catholic church have informed and upheld gender discrimination in broader secular cultures around the world. And those secular cultures, including here in Australia, continue to this day, despite some reforms, to harbour sexism and misogyny, without any serious challenge from the Church.

Even these days with the benign and humane leadership of Pope Frances, the Church excludes women from power. A recent telling episode was the refusal of the Vatican to host a conference mounted by the organisation Voices of Faith, an event the Vatican usually supports, because the key note speaker was Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland, noted theologian, distinguished lawyer, practicing catholic, but critic of the Church’s relegation of women to powerlessness. The conference was held, but outside the walls of the Vatican.

So that is where women are now, outside the walls, as they have always been, except, according to Geraghty’s engaging account, in Galilee for those few remarkable years when Jesus Christ was on earth. Jesus was the exception then, and tragically for humanity, as far as the Church is concerned, remains so.

Geraghty gives a scholarly but accessible account of the known facts and reliable reports of the life of Christ, and what happened as the institutional church developed after the Crucifixion. His main sources are the four gospels and Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians

He establishes that Jesus welcomed women as followers, discussed serious matters with them, and recognised and assisted women whom society had discarded. He points out that there is no record of Christ excluding women, treating them harshly, or being repelled by them as dangerous seductive creatures. He never condemned women.

In his recorded dealings with his own mother, with Mary and Martha, with Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman by the well, the woman taken in adultery, and other women even further outside the norms of respectability, he was kind, compassionate and inclusive.

Such dealings were truly radical. When placed in the context of his times, Jesus was a feminist. In the Greco Roman traditions up till then, and the practices of Judaism, women were granted no intrinsic dignity or independence. They were expected to live in submission to their husbands or fathers and remain within their homes. They had no public role and no role in religious rituals. They were regarded as unclean when menstruating and after childbirth, and as a source of terrible temptation to men. They were rarely afforded the opportunity to learn to read. In contrast, Jesus’ approach was radical, and feminist.

Geraghty describes the new Kingdom that Jesus offered his followers. In this Kingdom there was to be no distinction of class or race, or between male and female, and every person would be equally valued. This vision is dramatically different from what preceded Jesus, and quickly abandoned in what followed.

Chris writes elsewhere of how the growing institution of the Church soon discarded Jesus’ vision, and how Paul led this charge.

Paul wrote his letters some decades before the earliest Gospel would appear. In these letters he never mentioned Jesus’ mother by name, or referred to one of Jesus’ colourful stories, or any of his wonders. He never mentioned even in passing any of his friendships, with men or women. Women were certainly involved in some limited way in the life of the early churches…but their involvement was substantially different to and levels below what it had been in the life and ministry of Jesus.

Women were offered the dregs of ministry and no involvement in governance. They were given a status well below that of the men – with no authority, no freedom to organize themselves or to act with any independence.

In the secular world much has changed for women. We have currently a female chief justice of the high court, we have had a female prime minister, a female governor general, and many heads of government departments and even some heads of corporations are women. Just on 50% of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party is now female.

That is the secular world. In Catholic Church things are still as Paul of Tarsus proposed that they be.

According to Geraghty, it could have been very different. He writes out of a deep conviction and personal faith about what he sees as the vision of the new kingdom where women would have an equal place, and there would be no distinctions based on race, wealth, or class.

The prevailing mood is a deep sense of loss of what might have been.

Is this loss permanent? Some loyal Catholics still believe that reform is possible, that a new kingdom such as Geraghty attributes to Christ can somehow be built out of the ruins of failure and wrongdoing.

Parts of the new kingdom have been realised, by Catholic priests, nuns, brothers, and lay people amongst others, who have dedicated their lives to educating and assisting the poor, the sick and disabled, supporting refugees, asylum seekers and the victims of race discrimination. People who do this work are the main reason the Church still exists in any positive way, and the reason not all its followers have lost faith.

But for Geraghty’s understanding of Christ’s new kingdom to be realised fully, huge reform is necessary: reform of clericalism, hierarchies, of authoritarian decision making. The Church must stop putting its wealth and power ahead of the needs of the vulnerable. All members of the church should be empowered to make decisions. We would need to see a complete rejection of those wrong and cruel teachings about women and men and their sexual natures, teachings that have no foundation in the new testament.

My conclusion is that reform within the Catholic Church should start by the wholesale adoption of the feminist vision and practices of Jesus. Then the other necessary reforms might become possible.

Susan Ryan AO was the architect of the Hawke’ government’s Sex Discrimination Act 1984. She has been an active campaigner for an Australian Human Rights Act and was Australia’s first Age Discrimination Commissioner 2011-2016

Books can be purchased via Garratt Publications’ website at  https://garrattpublishing.com.au/product/9781925073478/

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3 Responses to SUSAN RYAN. Book launch. ‘Jesus the forgotten feminist’ by Chris Geraghty.

  1. R. N. England says:

    Take away clericalism’s glass ceiling and you’ve still got clericalism.

  2. Trish Martin says:

    The Catholic Church has lost all credibility now that its shadow side has been revealed via the Royal Commission, and thanks to Chris Geraghty and others who care enough to write books and articles on the false face of Catholicism. This could be the pivotal point for change, which can only come from the ground up. Susan I like your proposal that nuns should be running our parishes, for their vocational gift is equal to any male priest. And women could be appointed to the College of Cardinals since ordination is not required for membership. But the biggest error of all is the fact that the Church does not represent the teachings and life of Christ who held up the child as the icon and prime example for adults to enter into his kingdom. Childhood is sacred to Jesus and the church hierarchy has trashed it with disdain for the safety of children and false teaching that original sin is a barrier to a child being in full communion with God.

  3. Mary Tehan says:

    Thank you Susan for an article written with clear conviction. As someone who helped create a community-based organisation founded in a private home and lounge room … then eventually forged alongside professionals … and as someone who bore witness to this same organisation ultimately being re-launched by, and assimilated and incorporated into, an over-arching government-funded Catholic identity, I don’t have any hope for reform of the nature you describe, in my life-time. The Institutional Church reminds me of China with their long view of conquest and power, and the long shadows they project in that wake. 2000 years is just that … a long view. The challenge comes when those who work under the radar come in contact with its trip-wire (unknown until tripped over) and then may God help you. I have a problem with language such as “Kingdom” and “Reign of God” … all monarchical in structure and intent (naturally since the Vatican is a monarchy), so not only does Jesus’ vision and practices need overhauling … it’s also the language used so that everyone can be seen to be “made in the image of God” – not just some people. Until then … beware the trip-wires; for they are brutal, soul-destroying, crushing, relentless and unforgiving. To call the Church our Mother is the ultimate contradiction and irony! Bless all the wonderful people in it who understand this and still offer its essential messages.

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