Theologian: younger ladies finding 'their way in the Church'
By Michael Swan
The Catholic Register
(Caption: While women will not join the College of Cardinals anytime soon, Michael Swan writes that Pope Francis's off-the-cuff remarks hint at a greater inclusion of women in Church affairs. Photo credit: Paul Haring / CNS.)
TORONTO – At the Catholic Women’s League there’s plenty of excitement about what Pope Francis has been saying about women.
“I’m very happy to be living at this time,” said national league president Betty Ann Brown Davidson. “I love the idea that they’re opening the doors of invitation just so we can be at the table. I’m not sure that things will necessarily have a new theology, but I think there will be more equity.”
When Pope Francis began speaking about women during his July 28 press conference on the plane returning from World Youth Day in Brazil, some dismissed it as the Pope merely sending signals.
“He speaks off the cuff a lot,” said Catholic studies professor Douglas Farrow of Montreal’s McGill University. “Its importance will depend on how serious he is about initiating the conversations of a serious sort and at an appropriate level.”
On the plane the Pope said, “The role of women in the Church is not simply that of maternity, being mothers, but much greater: it is precisely to be the icon of the Virgin, of Our Lady; what helps make the Church grow. But think about it, Our Lady is more important than the Apostles! She is more important!”
Just a moment of papal exuberance?
In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, released by the Vatican Nov. 26, again he raises the contributions of women to the Church.
“I readily acknowledge that many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families and groups and offering new contributions to theological reflection. But we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.”
It seems that when Pope Francis told reporters, “I believe that we have not yet come up with a profound theology of womanhood in the Church,” it was something much more than smoke signals. For this Pope, the Church isn’t the Church without women fully present at every level.
It doesn’t seem that the Catholic Women’s League is actually waiting for any invitation to take a leadership role. When Brown Davidson heard the Vatican had called for bishops to consult as widely as possible in advance of next year’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family she immediately started phoning her friends in the League.
“Let’s get this document and let’s give input to our bishops through the CCCB, whether they want it or not,” she told her colleagues.
"We live the reality of the family… It’s much more appropriate that we be part of those discussions, not just the bishops. But if the only way at the present time is to send the bishops with our word it will be up to them whether to listen or not — but I think if they ignore us it will be at their peril.”
Even for a Jewish, atheist, psychoanalyst who studies religion, this is an exciting Pope. But Naomi Goldenberg of the University of Ottawa said if the Pope wants a deeper theology of womanhood, all he has to do is start reading.
“For the last four decades the Catholic Church has produced fabulous women Catholic theologians,” she said.
But it’s not just women’s roles and their theological justification that excites women.
“What I like about this Pope is his emphasis on social justice,” Goldenberg said.
It may be that the Church’s problem with women has more to do with profound changes in society than theology, said Goldenberg.
“Maybe the reason educated women are leaving the Church is that they’re getting opportunities for connection elsewhere,” she said. “They’re getting more of a sense of community in their places of work.”
Not all women have walked away — taking their children and future generations with them — said Ursuline Sister Teresita Kambeitz, who directs Newman Theological College’s Master of Religious Education program in Saskatoon.
“You and I both know lots of really intelligent, educated Catholic women who have left the Church,” Kambeitz said. “A lot of them are good friends of mine and it breaks my heart. I just feel the Church needs us and we can make more change on the inside than by walking away.”
A younger generation of Catholic women isn’t much influenced by old arguments about power, priesthood and patriarchy, said Regis College theologian Sr. Gill Goulding. Rather than walking away, younger women are finding their own way in the Church.
“They do have a sense that they have grown up and been formed and educated in terms of equality. They don’t have a sense of themselves as being second class,” said Goulding.
As a theologian, Goulding has contributed at the highest levels, most recently as a theological consultor at last year’s Synod on the New Evangelization. It’s a role that helps the Church with a wide, searching process of discernment.
If people understand the Church’s real process of making decisions, rather than imagining bishops and priests as minor potentates, they may see Pope Francis’ call for a more incisive role for women in a different light.
“There’s a myth around that women aren’t involved in decision making,” Goulding said. “I won’t say it wouldn’t be good to see more involved, but women are in leadership and decision-making positions, quietly but effectively.”
A 2002 study by the U.S. Leadership Conference of Religious Women found significant numbers of women holding down jobs as chancellors of dioceses, marriage tribunal judges, diocesan finance officers and directors of Catholic charities in the United States. These may not be roles with high visibility, but they do control budgets and personnel.
If the issue is meaningful roles, then women are making progress. If the issue is centre stage, then we’re having a different kind of debate, said Goulding.
Goulding has grave doubts about an idea that used to be whispered in theological circles but has suddenly been getting an airing in popular media from the New York Times to the BBC. A change to Church-made law concerning the composition of the College of Cardinals could result in women voting for the next pope.
“What would be the point?” asks Goulding. “Again, to have another visible symbol? Do women want to be clericalized? Is that the way forward? It’s another roundabout way, it seems to me, to try to look at the ordination issue.”
Farrow is skeptical of Pope Francis’ call for a deeper theology of women.
“I’m not sure what a theology of women would be, any more than what a theology of men would be,” he said. “A theology of marriage I understand. A theological anthropology that deals with man as male and female, I understand.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Kambeitz isn’t anxiously awaiting another papal exhortation or encyclical about women following from Pope John Paul II’s 1988 Mulieris Dignitatem, but she does want a wide-ranging discussion.
Rather than authoritative statements, Kambeitz hopes for a theological dialogue.
“We can go back to Genesis and take a look at what it means for both men and women to be made in the image and likeness of God,” she said. “Do we really believe that? Do we really believe that women can be as valid an image of God as men can be? I think fundamentally we don’t.”
Our disbelief colours our reading of the Gospel.
“If you read Luke, chapter eight, how women travelled with (Jesus), women paid the bills,” said Kambeitz. “And when it comes to the cross who was there? It was the women. At the Resurrection, He gave the message, the most important message in the history of humanity, He gave to women. We need a theology of women and we’ve got lots to go by.”
At the CWL, Brown Davidson simply believes we need women, full stop. The league is teaming up with the Sisters of Service to create a new foundation to encourage women in leadership in politics, business, government administration, education and the Church.
The Catholic Women’s League Leadership Foundation will launch later this year. It will take in 12 women per year for a two-year program of instruction and encouragement.
“It comes from our mission to reach out to other people, our mission of service,” said Brown Davidson.