|Church in Transition|
Posted April 15, 2005 at 11:00 a.m. CDT
There are no women
Earlier this week I had a conversation with a senior member of a religious order who remarked that by virtue of his position and familiarity with the Vatican, he could conceivably approach a number of cardinals and present his thoughts on issues in the church. But, he noted with regret, “No woman could do that.”
One gets the sense here that such awareness is neither part of normal discourse nor encouraged. This, in terms of church, is really a man’s town. The point is hammered home relentlessly during an interregnum. Papers, television, informal chat, requests for interviews, chatter among journalists, lectures, panels – all focus on 115 men. An endless stream of words, printed and spoken, as well as images are about these men.
There are no women.
So I admit to a feeling of more than mild relief when I caught a lecture Thursday by theologian Adriana Valerio, president of the European Society of Women in Theological Research and Professor of History of Christianity at the University of Naples.
The relief came with a sense that this small group in a room about a 10 minute walk from the Vatican at least acknowledges that a fair portion of the 50 percent of the church that is women (and the much larger percentage of women who, in most places, are the actual day-to-day face of the church) have some unsettled and unsettling business to bring to the table. Of course, they aren’t allowed near the table. That’s why they had to rent a room at the other end of the Via Conciliazione, the wide avenue that leads to the Vatican.
The event was, for me, a welcome dose of reality in a city where, in some quarters, the air now is thick with hagiography, the late pope’s true greatness slowly sinking beneath a breathless, almost tawdry wish that somehow John Paul II continue to reign from the grave. One can only wonder if the near worshipful tones (John Paul the Great! Santo Subito!) can withstand the test of time. Of course, much is at stake for some who have invested heavily in the past 26 years and for whom all questions are settled. Should the papacy go to someone tolerant of questions and discussion, more than lunch invitations to the papal palace are in the balance.
The status quo meanwhile, built on layers of assumptions, is especially dependent on the fact that women have no right to access – thus, practically speaking, they have no access – to any significant level of church governance or decision-making.
There are no women.
Christianity, said Valerio, has fed on the “humble faith of women, on their spirit of sacrifice; it has been supported by the deep experiences that women gained of God as Trinity.” Because of a lack of interest and inadequate research, that history is being lost, she said.
“The new pope has the duty of encouraging the research and the preservation of female
memory and tradition, so that it may become patrimony of the whole church. We have to place side by side Fathers and Mothers of the church, male and female theologians, mystics and so on. The memory of women has to be given back to Christians, so that we can revive the history of thelogy, of spirituality, of the institutions.
No one I know expects any quick changes in the status of women or in such matters as ordination of married men or any of the other “hot button” issues. What many are hoping for, however, is precisely the kind of encouragement – to continue to do research, to preserve history, to update the church’s anthropological perspective on human nature, to deepen (and not be intimidated by) the dialogue with a variety of other disciplines – that Valerio and others advocate.
As noted author and NCR columnist Joan Chittister said in a talk in the same series the day after Valerio, “It should be recognized that women are half the church. The question is, ‘Where are they?’”
“Why do we have thousands of priestless parishes, thousands fewer seminarians and, at the same time, thousands of unemployed lay missioners – most of them women – unless it is more preferable to close parishes than to allow women to maintain the very lifeblood of a communal church?” she asked.
To some, I know, the “women’s issue” in the church is simply an irritant against which the strength of tradition and the theology that it has spawned will forever prevail. At the same time, it is difficult to see the advances in the understanding of women’s role in the world in virtually every other circumstance and conclude that there is something godly and holy forever about having women excluded from church leadership. History seems to be marching, as it did with Galileo on another topic far less apparent to the average eye, toward quite different conclusions.
“The women’s issue, like the question of blacks before it, puts to the test all the other major issues, insights and understandings in the church,” said Chittister. The authenticity of the church in the future, she said, will depend on its response to women.
In the meantime, the cardinals will slip into a conclave, and the world will await the results of the deliberations of 115 men. And there are no women.
© 2005 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, 115
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