Posted Tuesday, August 31, 2004
at 8:45 a.m. CDT
Women confront patriarchy at bishops' meeting
One bishop argued that patriarchy has been maligned in recent years
By THOMAS C. FOX
About half way through the weeklong Asian bishops' meeting it became clear that the notion of patriarchy, bitter to some, sweet to others, was going to be a divisive issue.
In a general assembly, a bishop from India offered the suggestion that the idea of patriarchy ought to be discussed in the final document. He argued that patriarchy is not necessarily a bad concept and that the idea has been maligned in recent years. Too much so. He offered to the group a far more positive interpretation of the notion, saying the patriarchy he had in mind was, in fact, a father-servant variety.
While most of the auditorium at the Korean seminary where the eighth plenary of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences was being held was filled with men, there was also a modest representation of women in the ranks, perhaps 15 to 20 percent.
As the bishop sat down, several women immediately raised their hands asking to be recognized. The first, from the Philippines, explained that in the modern context patriarchy, as a concept, speaks of discrimination against women and of injustice. The next, from India, said she agreed and added that she had been working with the church for many years and had yet to encounter a servant-patriarch.
Still another woman, a Malaysian, got up and reminded the bishops that patriarchy continues to harm many women in family relationships. She said fairness and cooperation between men and woman is what women want and it is not found in patriarchal relationships.
In later gatherings, a number of bishops continued to reflect on patriarchy, arguing that it is part of Asian history and that it has a positive connotation in scripture, specifically between Jesus and his father.
Patriarchal societies, those in which the male plays the dominant and determining role, have been around for millennia, ever since animals began to be harnessed and agrarian labor practices separated and highlighted the tasks between men and women. These societies have been prevalent in Asia. As in the West, the movement in Asian societies has begun to move away from systems of strict patriarchy. Asian religions remain patriarchal in structure, though some in the ranks have become more sensitive to the discrimination and injustices implicit in the concept of patriarchy itself. This ambivalence is expressed in the final plenary document.
"With regard to the roles of women and men in the Asian family and in the wider society," the bishops wrote, "patriarchy remains sadly the determining factor. … (It) has become a pejorative term. But in early Christianity the word 'pater' was used in the light of Jesus' Abba experience, his filial relationship of love with God …There is a need of retrieving for our times the Gospel significance of 'pater' as shown in the generous and forgiving love of the father in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son, or the dominion of love that the prayer to 'our Father' expresses, or the servant-headship that Jesus himself exemplified for his disciples at the washing of the feet."
The bishops go on: "The world view of patriarchy lies deep in the cultural and religious subconscious of Asia and dominates politics, economics, human relationships, child rearing views and practices, stereotypes about men and women, community roles, etc. In some countries patriarchy reveals its evil features in sex selection procedures during pregnancy."
"Thus in the face of a prevailing culture of patriarchy it is necessary to emphasize and promote the rights of women in Asia. On the other hand, we might perhaps perceive that there is today less emphasis on the family as 'a community of love and life' and perhaps an overemphasis in some instances on certain individual rights at the expense of the community. In every case virtue would urge a right balance between the poles in tension."
[Fox is publisher
of the National Catholic Reporter and author of Pentecost in Asia, a book
about the Asian churches. His e-mail address is
What the women think
As with other plenary assemblies, women were involved in discussions. Since the topic of this plenary was the family, episcopal delegations were encouraged to bring with them to the gathering lay men and women to solicit their views. I spoke with a number of the women delegates asking them their impressions of the conference and bishops' views on women.
Wendy Louis, Consultant of the FABC Office of the Laity, from Singapore: I am personally very happy they are talking about family. The theological reflections have been good but not especially new. … I'm a little anxious that family ministry will now be superimposed on other pastoral initiatives. The proper integration of basic ecclesial communities and family has not yet been adequately articulated. …Interfaith marriages represent more than 50 percent of marriages in Singapore. … Many bishops are trying to understand women's issues, but they themselves don't say how they feel. The women do most of the talking. Awareness of women's issues is very much better than 15 or 20 years ago. Bishops remain a little ambivalent. They are concerned about them, but they don't want to push the issues and become too controversial. Wished there had been more input from the universities. There has been much done on the human person and the whole theology of sexuality."
Sr. Catherine Bernard, President of the Service & Research Foundation of Asia on Family and Culture, from India: It has been a wonderful ecclesial gathering. There has been a lot of work that has gone in the preparations. However, the entire process was done in isolation and it was somewhat inward looking. … Patriarchy depends on how one interprets it. In some places in Asia it is accepted. In other cases, women have become self-assertive. In any country you have some women who are aware and sensitive to gender issues. Many other women don't want to do anything about it. They feel threatened by women who press the issue. They don't want to do anything that will alienate the men. … In the church it has been a constant battle to stay on track. When I discuss this issue (of patriarchy) I already feel upset. Patriarchy is strong in the Catholic church, more in religious circles than in the society in general.
Caroline Soon Soh Ling, from Malaysia: Sometimes we allow the men to think they are the head of the household, but actually we are the ones who are controlling the finances. On the other hand, most of the counsel chairpersons are men in the local churches. … I am all for being pro women. I don't want women who become anti-men. All we are looking for is balance."
Alice Wong, Supervisor of Caritas Family Service, from Hong Kong: We here at the conference are too concerned with how the world is affecting us, but not enough how we can affect the world by sharing more of what we have, as church, the positive signs of the church. … The bishops are very friendly. We get to know each other. When we meet here it is easier to be familiar than it is in Hong Kong. There is a closeness here. … As for equality of the sexes, we share roles more in Hong Kong. It is more equal in Hong Kong.
Clara Rosa Ajisukmo, Atma Jaya University, Indonesia: I am a psychologist. I feel they have not adequately addressed some of the more controversial questions such as sexuality, homosexuality, HIV/AIDS. HIV cases are increasing in Indonesia and Thailand. The Catholic church has to make a position about condom use. What is the Catholic church going to do about this? Some of the bishops asked about homosexuality. They asked some questions about this.
Theresa Wong Mon Yee, Philippines: There is much more work to do on women's issues. I have no interest in women's ordination issues. Women popes are not as important as having true parternship between men and women. Men dominate the altar and women feel left out. It remains quite painful. I keep quiet. Truth is there should be balance. Women's ordination? I'm not against it. Women want fairness, not power.
Balbina Lee Mi-young, from Korea: I'm still amazed that I was invited. It is hard for the bishops to know the real situation. There are so many divorced families in our churches. The bishops want to hold to the Holy Family model of family. They need to be more accommodating.