Smart, Sophisticated, Faithful and Definitely not Oppressed!

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.

10 Replies to “Smart, Sophisticated, Faithful and Definitely not Oppressed!”

  1. Wow….just wow. I couldn’t believe Ms. Dowd’s comments. Well, I could, I just didn’t want to. I mean, as supposed Catholic it’s hard to believe that she came to that conclusion about us Catholic people. I really don’t think that Catholic women are repressed in any way, nor subordinate. Most Catholic women I have met ARE smart, sophisticated, giving, faithful, friendly, and total sweethearts. As a Catholic woman in a very controversial world, the healthcare world, church for me is what keeps me grounded. It’s where I take time for myself, and help others with the knowledge I have gained from the medical field. I know a lot of priests, and talk to a lot of priests because we see similar stuff. We all deal with death, life, happiness, sadness, families…you get the idea. I’m definitely not subordinate, nor repressed. I’m nowhere near perfect, but I’m happy in my faith. I screw up at times, but I’m human, we all do. Just because I screw up doesn’t make me a bad or insubordinate Catholic.

    When I compare my life a few years ago (when I wasn’t that strong in my faith) to now, I am much happier now. A few years ago, when I wasn’t so faithful, I realized how empty that life was. My life is much happier now that I have faith, and people to share that faith with. I’m happier because I now know awesome Catholic women that I didn’t know before and wish I had known before. People who diss us Catholics, well, I feel sorry for them because they don’t know what they are missing, and I also pray for them because a life without faith, and a life full of those kinds of conclusions must be a pretty empty one. Even if you leave the Church for a while, I always say, once a Catholic, always a Catholic… you come back eventually when you realize that life is just so much better with faith and great people to share it with. And true, sometimes you need to be a church nomad to find a church where you fit, but never give up. Like I said, I ain’t perfect…and it took me a few years of being a church nomad and searching, but now I have seen a ton of really cool parishes, met a ton of really cool people and priests, and my faith is much stronger. I’ve still got issues, but hey, don’t we all?

  2. On Msgr Pope’s most recent thread about sex abuse, someone suggested that the Church needs to be more media-savvy (sp?), to do a better job with PR.

    I think the same comment applies equally to this topic.

    The Christmas season before last, the ADW launched its “Catholics Come Home” campaign. At my parish, there were made available invitations we could give to inactive Catholics. Out of curiosity, I posted a query on an any-topic-under-the-sun bulletin board for professionals in my field: If someone invitied you back, would you go? I got a resounding “no.”

    A theme that consistently came up was that some respondents felt that women were second-class citizens. They resented that while their brothers were altar servers, they were excluded. (I believe that it wasn’t until 1990 that bishops were given discretion about whether to allow girls to serve in that role. And it was just a year or two ago that girls became eligible to be altar servers in the Archdiocese of Arlington (Alexandria?). That exclusion was in sharp contrast to the you-can-be-anything-you-want message we were getting in just about every other context.) They likened the exclusion from the priesthood to the exclusion from combat roles in the military – without making (or risking) the same sacrifice one isn’t going to get the same respect.

    There is a saying: Perception is Reality. Admittedly my survey was but a tiny sample and thoroughly unscientific, but I think it’s safe to conclude that a lot more needs to be said about how women serve and impact the Church today.

    1. Cynthia, you make a very important point about the connection between the two blogs. I think your unscientific survey was a very creative approach and proves your point well. We do need to get better at getting the message out. I hope it begins with more women speaking up about how proud they are to be Catholic.

  3. This is a very good article. Thanks so much for the response to Ms. Dowd’s article which can only be characterized (imo) as out of touch with reality…the church’s reality and her personal reality.

    That being said, I think that the Church is never going to be represented fairly in the mainstream media. The foundational values are just too different. Jesus’ message of death to self is never going to fly in a culture committed to the pursuit of instant personal gratification. It just seems a given that there will be continued misunderstanding because until there is true conversion and personal transformation, the wisdom just isn’t present to make sense of the Church’s message.

    Liz Odom

  4. You may find of interest the article below, published in Sunday’s Washington Post.

    Lack of Vatican communications strategy on scandal baffles pope’s U.S. defenders

    By Michelle Boorstein
    Sunday, April 11, 2010

    The Vatican spokesman doesn’t regularly discuss the clergy sex-abuse scandal with the pope. Its communications council’s next meeting is in February (on the agenda: “the Internet”). For American defenders of Pope Benedict XVI, it has been frustrating to watch an apparent lack of a communications strategy for dealing with the scandal.
    “My best answer would be a primal scream,” Russell Shaw, who was the U.S. bishops’ spokesman in the 1970s and ’80s, said when asked about the Vatican’s recent dealings with the public. “It reflects a totally inadequate understanding and mind-set as to the whole subject of communications.”
    Facing a torrent of cases in Europe and a new effort by survivors’ advocates to highlight unresolved cases around the world, members of the pope’s inner circle have said things that have only drawn more criticism, like the priest who on Good Friday compared criticism of the Church’s handling of the abuse crisis to violent anti-Semitism.
    Most American organizations facing such a barrage of negative news would long ago have pulled together a crisis management team and made top officials available for interviews to explain their point of view. But the Vatican said such an approach is too commercial for the Church to adopt. “We are not a multinational enterprise, this is clear,” the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said in a telephone interview. “The normal situation of the Church and the Vatican is to help the people to understand the teachings of the Church and the documents of the pope and not to sell particular products.”
    On Friday, however, Lombardi released a statement that appeared to be trying to change the conversation. It said the Church wanted to emphasize its cooperation with civil justice systems and a desire for “reconstituting a climate of justice and full faith in the institution of the Church.” Benedict, he said, “is ready for new meetings” with victims of clergy sexual abuse.

    Untapped experience
    Some American defenders of the pope’s actions say they are mystified about why the Vatican has not reached out more publicly to U.S. Catholics, who were tempered by a decade of experience in helping the Church hierarchy respond when the subject erupted publicly in Boston in 2002.
    Lombardi said the Vatican is consulting privately with some American leaders. Some obvious candidates, including Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the archbishop emeritus of Washington, and Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory, credited with making the Vatican understand the severity of the U.S. scandal, declined to speak for this article. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops, said they would not publicize any assistance they might offer.
    “Any conversations between us and the Vatican I wouldn’t mention,” she said, hastening to add, “and that’s not to say that there have been any conversations.”
    Walsh, who worked with the bishops’ press office during the U.S. scandal, said the Vatican didn’t see the need to speak out extensively during the scandal, as “it was seen as an American problem.”
    There appears to be a more organized effort, particularly in the United States, to defend the pope. American bishops across the country, including Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, took to the pulpit and op-ed pages over the Easter weekend. “What happens when a pope is persecuted?” was the title of a news release by the Atlanta-based Catholic public relations firm Maximus. “Martyred Popes” was the name of a blog post by American Catholic writer Robert Moynihan.
    But still, there is sense that U.S. expertise is going largely untapped by the Vatican.
    “Over the years, there has been frustration [that] we’re not consulted,” said Matthew Bunson, editor of the Catholic Almanac.
    American supporters of the pope say he should pay more attention to his — and the Church’s — image.
    Structural impediments
    In addition to modernizing its approach to public communications, one suggestion made by many is that the Church should apply worldwide the tougher rules against child abuse that its U.S. bishops put in place in 2002.
    They say the Vatican can appear tone deaf, even on the most sensitive subjects, and have theories why. One is structural, with a system that harbors a military respect for rank and fiefdom and is a massive, centuries-old theocracy that still requires some official documents to be in Latin.
    Experts say there is no unifying figure or office to pull together a team during a crisis. Public communications are dealt with by multiple institutions: Lombardi, a Jesuit priest, runs the Vatican’s media and press office. The secretary of state’s office is also a key player, and the Pontifical Council for Social Communications has dozens of advisers around the world to help it spread the faith, including a Bombay filmmaker, a TV executive from Indonesia and a radio correspondent from Africa.
    The council isn’t charged with getting involved in news. But to some, it’s emblematic that during an epic crisis, this panel of communications experts doesn’t meet again until next year. Lombardi recently made a point of saying that he speaks for the Vatican, not the pope.
    “The mind-set is that no one speaks for the pope,” Shaw said. “If the pope wants to speak, he’ll speak for himself.”
    Barry McLoughlin, who holds crisis management seminars for U.S. bishops and helped them craft the tougher 2002 rules, said he’s “in agony” watching the Church fail to get its footing. He said people around the pope may be too intimidated to deliver bad news to his face.
    “Whether it’s a golfing superstar or an international automaker, the communications advisers have to have direct access to the decision maker,” McLoughlin said. “That’s just a rule.”
    To those less supportive of Church leaders, there seems another reason why they don’t communicate more: They don’t want to. The pope and those in the Vatican, these people say, wish to remain in another world, focusing more on traditions and customs, even if that means in some cases keeping sex-abuse allegations private or letting the Church’s internal justice system grind away slowly as victims suffer.
    But that’s not how pope defenders might frame it. “One thing that makes [Vatican critics] bonkers is this idea that everyone’s spiritual welfare might be handled better internally,” Bunson said. “But the civil system doesn’t have to worry about eternal life.”
    Even as Lombardi framed the problem as coming from an outside world that doesn’t understand the Church, he said, “We have a long way to go.”

  5. I’m an engineer, and a woman. I converted as an engineering student in 2006 – the very definition of ‘smart, sophisticated and successful’. I do not consider myself subordinate in my faith, nor do I play a lesser role than men in the church.

    What I find is that the church is very cautious – we like to stand back, watch, observe, gather information and have numerous discussions (with people and the Holy Spirit!) before instituting any changes. For being careful, we’re labeled conservative and outdated, as well as irrelevant and oppressive. In the case of women – well, everybody just jumps on the bandwagon, don’t they?

    Well, I see nothing wrong with women’s role as it is. We’re subject to society – subject to authority, not subordinate. The difference? We’re far from being slaves – we need need guidance from above – such as the Pope – who is infallible as the Holy Spirit is in him. That is what we are – subject to God Himself!

    We seem to have no problem being subject to the government, the laws of the country. We follow community leaders as we believe their motivations to be for the betterment of the community. Is there any difference?

    The church does what she deems best. Empowerment. Not the ‘FREEDOM!!!’ stuff, true empowerment.

    Empowerment to girls like me – missionary school instilled the best moral and intellectual foundation – for free. The nuns – far from the picture of oppression the media likes to paint of them – ever cheerful and caring, fun, and intelligent, with interesting characters all of their own! (We disco’ed with our 90-yr-old Franciscan headmistress once!)

    Empowerment to break the cycle of poverty (I knew a girl at school who lived under a a tarp under a bridge – she’s now a successful accountant) and fend for ourselves.

    Empowerment to be free of slavery – found in many parts of the world today – human traffickers in my own country, I’ve seen their victims in countless shelters – and the Church is the only one who helps so many – whether they be prostitutes, drug addicts, the poor, the truly destitute.

    That is true empowerment – true freedom – not the false freedom from responsibility and truth the world like to dangle before us.

    Just look at Mother Teresa. Did she do the work of the Devil? Did she rally against her superiors when obstructed in her quest to serve the poor? No. She prayed, just as Jesus did – Thy Will, not mine, be done. Who else did that? Cared for the sick and dying, utterly destitute? Re known the world over as the true embodiment of mercy. And she was a woman. Alone, in a foreign land and seemingly opposed at every turn to do God’s Will.

    Need I say any more?

  6. Susan,
    Another smart, sophicated, and faithful post, thank you! Your statement that “it is because of the Church we are who we are” is my lived experience as well. It is the Church’s teachings and the grace of the sacramental life, expressed through the witness of clergy, religious and lay faithful that I continue to discover what it means to be fully alive —fully human.


  7. Hello. I am a young, female, African Catholic. I just think a lot of the issues people have with women being oppressed in the church is this need to feel equated with men folk. If you get to the bottom of the reason for the clamour for women priests, it will be the ‘what-a-man-can-do-a-woman-can-do-better! I have come to firmly believe that the media will never be unbiased when reporting religion especially Catholicism…and in the Western world too. I have found out who I truly am because of my faith. I am the daughter of the Most High God, nothing will ever take that away! I have never felt oppressed by the Church. I have always believed there are different roles for everyone to play within the Church. I wonder why Joseph did not complain about being pushed to the background in Jesus’ s life, was he not oppressed by Mary? He gave up his plans and had to return to Bethlehem just because of the woman – Mary, so she could give birth; While Jesus carried his cross, why did the woman – Mary not let him near enough to follow his own son? At the foot of the cross, how dare the Bible exclude him, there was no mention of him! I think Joseph understood the truth of different roles even back then.

  8. Hennie, I agree that the diversity of roles that has lawys been a part of the church’s understanding is a part of how we come to know “who we truly are” I think that roles have become so confused that both women and men have lost sight of what it really means to be a woman or a man. Thanks for posting.

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