Did you see Maureen Dowd’s column on Sunday She wrote about having had tea with a group of intelligent and sophisticated Muslim women. Walking away from the conversation she found herself wondering “how could such spirited women, smart and successful on every other level, acquiesce in their own subordination?” She came to this stunning conclusion. “As a Catholic woman, I was doing the same thing.” “I remained part of an autocratic society that repressed women and ignored their progress in the secular world.”
Women who have changed the church and world
There are so many ways in which I could respond to such a startling statement. I did a double take because anyone familiar with Maureen Dowd’s writing should be really surprised that she described herself as subordinating herself to the church. There are not many of the Church’s fundamental teachings that she has not held in contempt. If she has subordinated herself to anything, it would be a false feminism that celebrates abortion, artificial birth control and no-fault divorce which ultimately contribute to the objectification of women.
It made me wonder if Catherine of Siena who, when faced with the reality of a scandal within the church in her day, would call her letter-writing and meetings with the Pope to call him to task acquiescing to her own subordination? I wonder if Teresa of Avila who petitioned priests and bishops to work with her in deepening the formation and prayer life of her sisters acquiescing to her own subordination. I wonder if the American religious sisters who are being celebrated in an exhibit at the Smithsonian that looks at the 300 years of outstanding contributions of religious sisters to church and society would describe themselves as acquiescing to their own subordination?
Celebrating the Feminine Genius
In 1987 Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to women in which he rightly acknowledged that the Church has not always recognized celebrated and taken advantage of the gifts of women to church and society but unlike so many secular institutions, it had some history of which it can be quite proud. For centuries the church was the only place that many women were educated, could live an independent life and make enormous contributions to society. The music that Hildegard of Bingen wrote for her sisters is still sung today. The herbal remedies she and her sisters developed in their care for the sick at the convent infirmary are still used today. From the time of Saint Scholastica in the 5th century, women’s religious orders were founded, developed and administered by women long before secular society offered any leadership roles for women. From those communities of religious sisters grew many outstanding Catholic women’s college’s grade schools, secondary schools, hospitals and social service agencies.
In 1995 as preparations were being made for the United Nation’s Fourth Conference on Women, a group petitioned that the Vatican not be allowed to send participants because of its pattern of oppression and sexism. The petition failed to gain ground when a group of leaders (from organizations other than the Catholic Church) pointed out that the largest single provider of education and healthcare to girls and women in developing countries is the Roman Catholic Church.
Ignoring the New Narrative
In 2008 during the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Washington I and a number of other women were asked to be available to speak to the media on the role of women in the Church. Before the Mass at National’s Park when many of the media outlets were doing live programming the spokespersons were to be available to be called upon if requested. I saw a radio journalist who I have heard do a number of stories on sexism in the church, on the refusal of the church to ordain women, etc., etc., and so in my mind I thought this will be a great opportunity for her to take advantage of hearing the voice of women. When she was presented with the choice of two women with PhD’s in positions of leadership, she responded, “I think I will wait for a priest.” So, presented with the opportunity to highlight the role of women in the church, she opted not to change the narrative that works so well for the media– that of the church as the last bastion of sexism, an “old boys club” – – well, the church and Augusta National Golf Club, but you get the idea.
Sophisticated, Smart and Faithful
I think Maureen’s real issue is that she doesn’t know what to make of smart sophisticated women of faith! I think it scares her and people like her to see women for whom faith and love of the church is the starting point for how they look at the rest of their lives. Most of the positive stories that have been done on women and the church by the mainstream media speak of women’s success in spite of the church and its leadership. While that is sometimes one way that God’s grace works (for men as well as women) it has certainly not been the norm.
Part of the Solution
The smart, educated, spirited women with whom I did doctoral studies at the Pontifical Universities in Rome and with whom I work at Archdiocese of Washington and in our parishes would say it is because of the church that we are who we are. We have found in the church and her sacramental life a place to become the women God calls us to be. We have found in the church a place where our gifts are welcomed and nurtured. We have found in the church a seat at the table where some of the most critical decisions affecting our parishes and parishioners are made. We have found in the church an organization that when faced with the evil of sin, has at its disposal the only tools that can ever bring real healing; God’s healing grace and reconciliation. We have found in the church not just a few outstanding women on whom to model our lives, but rather outstanding women in every age whose lives and legacy still have something to teach us.