The Feminine Genius

I have written before on this phrase chosen by Pope John Paul II, to speak of the gift of women to the world and to the church. Over the next week we will celebrate the feasts of a number of women who were followers of Jesus and who set the standard for women of faith.  On July 22, we honor Mary Magdalene, called the “Apostle to the Apostles,” because it was she who first announced the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. On July 23, we reflect on Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373),  Co-Patron of Europe. Bridget was a lay woman, a wife and mother of eight, whom after her husband’s death embraced the ascetical life and a life of good works. She founded a community of sisters whose mission is the promotion of Christianity through hospitality and good works. Indeed, the sisters offer excellent hospitality in Rome and in many other cities around the world to this day! 

 July 26, we lift up the sacrament of marriage and the witness of Ann and Joachim who in their love for one another and for their daughter Mary, who became the mother of God, give witness to family life as a school of love. Then on July 29, it is the feast of Martha, sister of Mary and Lazarus, who loved the Lord as a friend and came to believe in him as her Lord and Savior. Martha believed in and proclaimed Jesus’power to raise her brother from the dead.

Under Fire

 These feasts could not come at a better time. Once again in the secular press, the role of women in the church is under fire. Watch here. The issue is a revision that Pope Benedict XVI has made to a document titled Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela.  Arguably, it is easy to wonder at how women’s ordination and child sexual abuse are connected or what would bring them together in a single document. One can also see the temptation of the press to jump right on it because it makes a great headline.  It instantly gets the– live chat, send link, add to F,acebook, add your comment– applications working.

Particularly Roman

The link between the two issues is not relational but rather in the nature of the document. The document is an omnibus document that includes both grave crimes against the sacraments, which now includes the attempt to ordain women along with such things as desecration of the Eucharist and grave crimes against morals, which now includes involvement with child pornography as well as sexual abuse of a minor.  With regard to the revisions to crimes related to the use of pornography and sexual abuse of minors, it ought to be noted that the Church continues to take steps to expand its commitment to protect minors and to deal effectively with abusers by allowing the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to move more quickly in helping the Church deal with the abuse of minors by its clerics.

Women and Ordination

It ought to make sense to people that because of the nature of the sacraments that any offense against them would be a serious one. What this document is saying is feigning the conferral of the Sacrament of Holy Orders is a grave violation like breaking the seal of confession. If ordination is attempted, it will result in excommunication. Why the clarification now? Some might wonder if there an increasing number of cases of the attempt to ordain women?   Fortunately, not. Present cases involve a very small number of people. Clearly stating the serious nature of the abuse reminds people of the harm that can be done to the structure of the Church itself.

The Catholic church is unequivocal in its teaching about the ordination of women as it is unequivocal in its teaching about the feminine genius and the gift of women to the church and to the world. I was very happy to see that Archbishop Wuerl, in his Press Conference on July 15 at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops specifically stated that “women have responded with extraordinary generosity to Christian service.” He references not only the essential role women have played historically in the life of the church (as we celebrate this week) but that today, “women serve in leadership positions at all levels in the Church. Women hold nearly half of the diocesan administrative and professional positions and about one-quarter of the top diocesan positions, such as chancellor, school superintendent or chief financial officer. About 80 percent of lay parish ministers are women.” These are not the kind of facts that support accusations of sexism or misogyny.  It is these facts that support the thought with which Archbishop Wuerl end his statement. “The Church’s gratitude to women cannot be stated strongly enough. Womenoffer unique insight, creative abilities and unstinting generosityat the very heart of the Catholic Church. Their activity and determinative participation explains much of what makes the Catholic Church the powerful force for goodness and holiness that it is.”

13 Replies to “The Feminine Genius”

  1. Yup, we can’t all be the head or the heart. Some of us are called to be the hands or the kidneys. I have often thought that when women try to be like men, they diminish their God-given gifts. I am afraid that women’s liberation has done more damage than good for women. What indeed, have we liberated ourselves from?

    For me, the easiest way to understand male-only ordination is that a priest is “in persona Christ” and so only men can be priests. The Church is the bride, and Christ the bridegroom. God, the Father. Mary, Holy Mother of God. It is hard to be like Mary, doing all the little things that go unnoticed and unappreciated, but it’s just as much God’s work as is leading the flock.

    1. I agree that the bridal imagery does help peopel understand the chruch’s teaching. I also like Mary’s title of First adn Perfect Disicple, that raises the bar for everyone.

  2. Thank you for this article Susan. I will certainly pass this along.
    God bless.

  3. Thank you for this post! I am proud to note that Dr. Timoney was one of my teachers during diaconal formation. I am grateful to several women including Dr. Timoney for their passing on theological knowledge to a group of future deacons. And I am especially grateful for a passing grade. Keep on teaching Dr. Timoney!

  4. I was struck by Archbishop Wuerl’s claim that “women serve in leadership positions at all levels in the Church.” This is simply not true unless such positions as pope, cardinal, bishop, and pastor are not “leadership positions” or there are women serving on the same “level” as these positions. I applaud the Church’s recent efforts, particularly under Pope Benedict, to include more women in leadership positions in the Vatican. But the fact remains that women are still excluded from the most powerful and visible positions of leadership within the Church.

    Just as the United States had to wake up to the fact that separate was inherently unequal in regards to racial segregation and schooling, so the Church needs to wake up to the fact that its claims about womens equal dignity will ring hollow so long as women are systematically excluded from the the most important positions of authority in the Church. You can say women are equal all you want, but you don’t really mean it if you reserve all final decisions in key areas to males.

    1. Vincent, I think the starting point is that the church exists to evangelize and through that to call people to holiness and so the equality begins and ends in the call to holiness. In terms of offices that require ordination, it is true that women will not hold those positions but the “exclusion” is one of vocation not one of equality. I think the point that Archbishop Wuerl is making is that like any leader, CEO, etc… the decisions are greatly influenced by the people who surround the ultimate decision maker and in the case of the Church, women are there “at the table” in increasing numbers.

      In conversation with my women friends, we often talk about the glass ceiling and it remains true that though women may have acess in the secular world to all positions of power, it does not mean that sexism and inequlaity do still not exist and just becasue the positions in theory are open, in all sectors of society we are still struggling with genuine equality. Thanks for writing.

      1. Susan, thanks for your reply. A few points in response:

        – Being “at the table” with those in positions of leadership is not the the same as being in a position of leadership; neither is it being on the same “level” as them. I’m sure that before women’s suffrage men, especially conscientious ones, were influenced in how they voted by the significant women in their lives. Still, there was an inherent inequality between them because the men could vote and the women could not. Advice is different than authority.

        – You suggest (in line with the magisterium) that women simply are not called (i.e. do not have the vocation) to ordained ministry. Faith, reason, and experience all compel me to reject this claim:

        Faith- [1] Male authority over women was a result of the fall (cf. Gen 3:16). As those redeemed by Christ and called to live perfectly (Mt 5:48) the life of God’s Kingdom, our very calling as Christians compels us to live out the full equality of men and women (Gal 3:28) that was part of God’s original plan of creation (Gen 1:27, 2:23). [2] The New Testament testifies that women were counted as apostles (e.g. Junia, Romans 16:7), deacons (Phoebe, Romans 16:1) and played important roles in the ministerial life of the Church. Clearly there’s a strong scriptural foundation for ordained women’s ministry (as even the respected traditionalist Anglican scripture scholar N.T. Wright has stated). Sure, Jesus didn’t chose any women to be among the twelve… but neither did he choose any gentiles, and we’ve ordained plenty of them. [3] When Peter saw that God had bestowed the Holy Spirit on Cornelius, he concluded that he had no authority to deny him baptism even though the baptism of gentiles was unprecedented up until that point (cf. Acts 10:44-48). When we see women whom the Holy Spirit has given the gifts to preach, hear confessions, write apostolic letters and the myriad other tasks of ordained ministry, who are we to withhold ordination? To do otherwise is to sin against the Holy Spirit.

        Reason- Name the gifts that are intrinsic to men that women do not possess thus rendering them ineligible for positions of authority within the Church. Can’t do it? That’s because there aren’t any. Every answer I have ever heard to that challenge has been based on simplistic gender stereotypes and was easily refuted by the existence of women who actually possess those traits. The only thing that women do not possess is male anatomy. Now, some people think the right anatomy is important for priests for symbolic reasons (see Vijaya’s comment above). Are we so unimaginative that we cannot maintain that symbolic bridal imagery if we were to have a woman leading the congregation? Even if some people are that unimaginative, is one metaphor (i.e. the nuptial union between Christ and the Church) so important that it necessitates forever barring women from positions of ordained ministry within the Church?

        Experience- Given the number of women I have met who have discerned a calling to ordained ministry, I cannot accept that God does not call them. One of the most thoughtful preachers I have ever heard is the female pastor of a Presbyterian church near my house. But in the Catholic Church, women may not preach, at least not without special permission from the bishop which is rarely granted. Women have the gifts for ordained ministry, we simply aren’t allowing them to exercise those gifts. I’ve known several women who have faced the wrenching decision of leaving the Catholic Church that they love or turning away from the vocation God has given them. We should not be putting women in that position. If the primary mission of the Church is, as you say, evangelization, we should realize that barring women from ordination hurts that mission. It does so both because we are deprived of the evangelical gifts of women in key leadership positions and because the patriarchal structure of the Church has driven a fair number of women (and men) away from the Church.

  5. I’m sure a big factor in “80% of lay ministers being women” is because, as in social work, most family men cannot afford to work for those salaries.

    After years (not as many as yours) of working for or volunteering with various parishes or archdiocesan agencies, all I can say is that my experience of Church is not the same as yours, no matter what theoretical theology says.

    There may be a line between feigning ordination of women and accepting ordination of women, but it’s a very fine one. Any attempt to overthrow the sacraments is understandably an “offense,” but it still sounds millimeters away from equating ordaining women — officially — with pedophilia.

  6. Today at the 8:00 a.m. Mass in my parish, there were about 50 people present and 46 of them were women, including the lector (who also led Morning Prayer), the communion ministers, and the altar server. The priest struggled to give a clear portrait of Mary Magdalene (which is not difficult to do if one simply looks to scripture) but somehow he couldn’t keep from conflating her with the woman sinner who washed the feet of Jesus. He even alluded to some bizarre tradition that held that the reason Jesus had to expel seven demons from her was that the devil had mistakenly thought she was Mary the mother of the Messiah and so the demons were looking for her son (I’m not kidding – he really said that!). I thought about this amazing woman and about the current situation of women – particularly women in ministry – in the Church. And this is the homily I would have given:

    Today in the gospel we hear a story of fidelity and love. What we know of Mary Magdalene from sacred scripture is that she was a faithful follower of Jesus, dedicated and brave enough to stand at the foot of the cross and to visit the tomb. On that morning she did not expect to find anything but the dead body of the Lord she loved, the cold, ungrateful stone, and the intimidating force of guards. Instead she encountered the risen Christ. When she heard her name spoken, she recognized the speaker to be the one who knew her better and loved her more than anyone else ever could. And when he commissioned her not to hang onto him but to go and tell the others that he had risen, she didn’t worry that they wouldn’t believe her because she was a woman – she just carried the good news to them anyway.

    Today women in ministry in the Church head off to work prepared to face the cold, ungrateful stone and the intimidation of the guardians of the tomb. On a good day those with the chromosomes deemed essential for exercising church governance might express a bit of gratitude for “women’s gifts.” On too many days women encounter the hostile rejection of their wisdom and experience (e.g., the bishops’ fury at the women religious who supported the healthcare reform law). And always the faithful are admonished that they may not discuss, let alone support, the possibility that women might be called to ordained ministry.

    And yet women still work their hearts out in the Church – as teachers, healthcare workers, counselors, administrators, bookkeepers, canon lawyers, secretaries, receptionists, fund-raisers, directors of worship and music, social justice advocates, liturgical ministers, and on and on. And – thanks be to God – like Mary Magdalene they encounter the risen Lord in the living Body of Christ they serve. And they share the good news of that encounter, just as Mary Magdalene shared it. If “apostolic succession” sprang from the Apostle to the Apostles rather than only from those guys who were too scared to show up at the cross or the tomb, the Church would look very different.

  7. This is ridiculous.

    I hear over and over “women are great, the Church isn’t misogynistic, Holy Mother Church values true femininity” but nobody will tell me how to be a woman. Nobody writes poems like “If” for women. Nobody writes Catholic blog posts about motherhood crises, but they write about fatherhood crises. You want me to be a good brother/husband/father? I know how, because people tell me all the time. But I’m a woman. You want me to be a good sister/wife/mother? I have no clue how to do that. People will explain why women can’t be priests, and this is great; I accept it. I accept anything Holy Mother Church says. But nobody ever explains what women *can* do.

    1. Thanks to everyone is is joining the conversation in very thoughtful ways. A few more general comments, Sharon raises a good point about the difficutly of lay men giving themselves to full-time ministry in the church because if salary scales. This is somethign with which the church continues to struggle and is a real problem (obviously for men and women who want to serve the church in a full-time capacity). A great topic for another blog!

      I am quite sorry that the priest preaching on the feast did not speak about Mary in a more cohesive and compelling way, while there is much confusion about “The Marys” as one Scripture professor puts is, there has been very good material written about sorting out the Marys and presenting a better picture.

      Sexism and clericalism are very real problems and issues in our church. I know that I and many women of my generation owe a great deal of gratitude to the women who worked hard, in some cases suffered greatly, to open doors within ministry and to help the church face the issues. I also know that that many, many women do not share what has been for me a very postive experience. I believe a part of my job is to make sure that we continue to raise up women’s gifts and women’s leadership and to name and deal with prejudice, sexism and clericalism when we see it.

      That said, let’s not limit preaching, teaching, healing, reconciling, as charisms that come only through ordination. While preaching within the context of liturgy is an important and powerful ministry. There are other avenues for preaching and teaching. The best professors and teachers of theoogy are part professor and part preacher. Women have made huge contributions because all of the gifts they share with men by way of living and sharing the faith have because they do preach, teach, heal and reconcile. Equality cannot be reduced to sameness. If you live in the area, our Young Adult Ministry is taking up this topic at Conversations, on September 16 at St. Michael’s in Silver Spring. See the Young Adult Ministry Facebook Page.

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