Sexism, the notion that some persons are superior to others based on their sex, is still manifested in the Church’s beliefs, attitudes and practices toward women.
International Women’s Day 2021 comes in the midst of a pandemic that has had particularly devastating consequences for women.
Quarantine and isolation have resulted in an increased risk of infection. They have also contributed to physical, emotional and sexual abuse for women and their children, especially for women of color and those living in poverty, crowded housing conditions, and the homeless.
Women have emerged as the hidden and underpaid heroines of pandemic as they provide most of the care for the sickest and vulnerable in hospitals, hospices, retirement and long- term care facilities at great risk. Many have lost their jobs because of family caregiver responsibilities.
COVID-19 has unmasked longstanding harm to women.
In his 2016 apostolic exhortation, Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis identified such ills as domestic violence and various forms of enslavement, the genital mutilation of women practiced in some cultures, and the lack of equal access to dignified and justly paid work and roles of decision-making.
The Church cannot credibly condemn violence and oppression against women until it mirrors Jesus’ relationships and addresses institutionalized misogyny and the sexism present in its own structures and belief systems.
Pandemic experience demands conversion and reform that many in the glacially moving Church have resisted.
Jesus and Women
The Gospel’s portrayal of Jesus and his countercultural interactions with women as friends and disciples are remarkable because Judaism was a patriarchal culture.
Women were neither seen nor heard outside the home and could not enter the Inner Courtyard of the Temple. Jesus learned much from his courageous and faith-filled mother Mary.
He scandalizes the apostles by having a spiritual conversation with the Samaritan women who accepts that he is the Christ and immediately proclaims this to others.
He reaches out to women on the periphery, such as the untouchable woman with the hemorrhage. Jesus learns from the disruptive Syrophoenician mother whose daughter was possessed by an evil spirit that his ministry is not just for the children of Israel.
In a society where leaders “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear”(Mt 23, 4), especially on women, Jesus shows mercy to the woman taken in adultery as he calls her to repentance.
Mother Mary and the women who supported him throughout his ministry are at the foot of the Cross.
Women are the first witnesses of the Resurrection, yet the apostles do not believe them.
Women and the Church
Jesus’ interactions with women, and the role of women in the early Church, are in sharp contrast to the patriarchal, hierarchical and imperial Church we have known since the 4th century.
An anthropology based on pre-Christian pagan philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle, considered women inferior and subservient to men. It has dominated Church teaching.
Pope John XXIII, in his 1963 encyclical Pacem in terris, noted women’s claims in domestic and public life to the rights and duties that benefit a human person.
Vatican Council II went ever further and stated that “with respect for the rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent” (Lumen gentium, 29).
Sexism, the notion that some persons are superior to others based on their sex, is manifested in the Church’s beliefs, attitudes and practices toward women.
There is need for atonement. The credibility of the Church requires it. Reform and renewal need the wisdom and experience of women.
Pope John Paul II stated in his 1988 apostolic exhortation, Mulieris dignitatem, that “both man and woman are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God’s image” (no. 6).
But he maintained that the relationship between women and men is complementarity, not equality. In John Paul’s spousal understanding, women are receptive and pre-ordained to the roles of nurturing and care at home.
This belief has marginalized and muffled their voices in the Church, especially in the care and protection of the oppressed and vulnerable.
Clerics, embedded in the powerful culture of hierarchy, clericalism and privilege, have difficulty recognizing the contradiction.
This is not about “uppity” white women of privilege demanding power. American and European women are now joined by others including, “womanist” African-American and “mujerista” Hispanic and Asian women who are calling for baptismal equality and inclusion.
Sadly, many women have lost hope that the Church can address these issues.
Women’s Contributions to Healing and Conversion
Women know that we need to talk about our pain, suffering and disagreements. Breaking down silence and denial is essential for healing.
Catholic social teaching supports women’s need for attention to socio-economic policies that addresses poverty, safe housing and childcare.
Catholic feminist theology, rooted in women’s experience of marginalization, advocates for all the vulnerable. Scholars explore ways to counter systemic and cultural forces that create vulnerability and deny exclusion, exploitation and abuse.
We need prayerful reflection on our theologies of God and language and images of God as exclusively male. And we need to explore the wondrous mystery of mutual, equal love in the Trinity.
Pope Francis has revised canon law to allow lay persons, male and female, to be permanently instituted into the ministries of lector and acolyte.
This is formal approval of what has already been widely practiced. But it is a crucial step in enabling the full and active participation of the whole people of God begun at Vatican II. It is a major step in dismantling clericalism.
Women, who wash the feet of young and old, need to help restore Jesus’ servant leadership and use of power for others, never over them.
Catholic feminist ethics recognizes that the relational wisdom of women, and its attention to the harm done by abuse, is lost in a confession-focused, sin-centered, act-oriented morality.
Both women and men are calling for a renewed theology of sexuality that goes beyond abortion and birth control. It must be based on love, mutuality and justice and incorporate new insights on sexuality and gender.
This is essential for the catechesis of young women and men, who need to reject the trivialization of sexuality and toxic notions of masculinity that dispose to violence and abuse.
Pope Francis has appointed a number of women to senior Vatican positions. Most notable is his recent appointment of Xaviere Sister Nathalie Becquart as an undersecretary of general secretariat of the Synod of Bishops with voting rights.
The 2022 assembly of Synod of Bishops in Rome is titled “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.” The credibility of this assembly requires that lay women and men contribute to the lineamenta (working document) and be invited to join with the bishops as voting members.
Women know that the pains of labor bring forth the miracle of new life.
The healing and re-birth of the Church needs the experience and witness of women of faith more than ever.
Nuala Kenny is a Sister of Charity in Halifax, Nova Scotia and a pediatrician. An officer of the Order of Canada since 1999, she has published several books, including Healing the Church (Novalis, 2012) and Rediscovering the Art of Dying(2017). She is co-author of Still Unhealed: Treating the Pathology in the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis (Novalis and Twenty- Third Publications, 2019).
Originally published in laCroix International.