Like many other Catholics around the world, I have been following the news of the papal conclave with great interest. But I continue to have mixed feelings about the news coverage and about the images of the Church that have become normal in news coverage of this important ecclesial event. Commentators keep emphasizing that this is what it means to be church. But when I see images like this one, what strikes me most of all is that this image of church is so male.
Whatever happened to “male and female he created them” (Gn 1:27) or “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28)?
Why is it so painful for me, as a Catholic woman, to watch the conclave? I blame feminist theologians. Like Pamela Dickey Young, whose book I just re-read with my students. Young believes that it is possible to be both Christian and feminist. While she is not Catholic, her book articulates what many Catholic feminists have come to see for themselves: Christianity is home, and yet it is broken. With regard to ecclesiology, Young explains a feminist Christian view of the church:
No church is credible that limits women, calls them inferior, and keeps them as a group from assuming certain roles by speaking of women’s role as “different but equal.” Nonseparatist feminists recognize that “different but equal” has been a pretext to ban them from certain roles; it is invoked only to keep men in roles that are valued more highly than the roles that are said to be suitable for women. Thus, “different” has come to mean “unequal” to women when they as an entire group are excluded from a role.
Is hierarchical organization in and of itself incredible to the Christian feminist? I would suggest that one needs to define hierarchy before one can answer that question. If hierarchy means that those who have particular gifts and skills exercise these gifts and skills and not others in the service of the church, then, provided this is not used as license to create two or more classes of Christians, it is not inherently inimical to credibility. The problem arises when hierarchy is exclusionary; when it is permanent; when there is no crossover from one “status” to another; and when hierarchy is invoked not just in the area of an individual’s expertise but generally to raise an individual’s status. Gifts and skills for leadership can be recognized and utilized without excluding the gifts and skills of others. -Pamela Dickey Young, Feminist Theology/Christian Theology: In Search of Method (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 1990), 106-107.
When I read the works of scholars like Pamela Dickey Young, I am challenged to think about my identity as both Catholic and feminist, and to explore the ways that these two parts of my identity are sometimes in tension with one another. Because what she says makes sense to me at some basic common sense level. When I hear news reports of the nuns who are cooking and cleaning for the cardinals during their stay at the Vatican, I think to myself, “That’s unfair! Why are (female) nuns cleaning toilets and doing the dishes while (male) cardinals are voting for the next pope?” While I am not opposed to a ministry of hospitality, and I do think that cooking and cleaning are important tasks, what troubles me is that the dominant images of church that have come out of my television viewing lately tell me that my church is patriarchal. Young and other feminist theologians would challenge us to ask, does this reflect God’s divine will, or is this a reflection of sinful human structures that can and should change? I have a feeling that if Young read and reflected on Part III: The Church is Hierarchical of the 1964 Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium), she would find it problematic. Paragraph 18 of that document explains:
In order to ensure that the people of God would have pastors and would enjoy continual growth, Christ the Lord set up in his church a variety of offices whose aim is the good of the whole body. Ministers, invested with a sacred power, are at the service of their brothers and sisters, so that all who belong to the people of God and therefore enjoy true christian dignity may attain to salvation through their free, combined and well-ordered efforts in pursuit of a common goal.
This holy synod, following in the steps of the first Vatican Council, with it teaches and declares that Jesus Christ, the eternal pastor, established the holy church by sending the apostles as he himself had been sent by the Father (see John 20:21). He willed that their successors, the bishops, should be the shepherds in his church until the end of the world. In order that the episcopate itself, however, might be one and undivided he placed blessed Peter over the other apostles, and in him he set up a lasting and visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and of communion. This teaching on the institution, the permanence, the nature and the force of the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and his infallible teaching office, the sacred synod proposes anew to be firmly believed by all the faithful.
Now, this same document also talks about the Church as a sacrament (1) and as the People of God (9-17), all of whom must respond to the universal call to holiness (39). But a feminist reading of the defense of hierarchy in Lumen Gentium might ask, how does this construction of reality empower some members of the church and disempower others? Richard Rohr and Joseph Martos, in Why Be Catholic?, explain that the Church as an institution has been a positive influence for millions of people. But there is also a negative aspect to institutionalization:
Institutions take on a life of their own. They are self-perpetuating and difficult to change. They set up structures that are stronger than the individuals who function within them. Yet their very strength is also their weakness. Their bright side also has a dark side.
The institutional structures of Roman Catholicism…are hierarchical and authoritarian. They are organizational pyramids. Orders come from the top and filter through a series of levels, until they reach the bottom. Society is divided into the leaders and the led, the teachers and the taught. Church society is divided into the shepherds and the sheep, the clergy and the laity.
The strength of this institutional structure is its ability to establish and maintain communities and organizations. When people respect authority, they are willing to subordinate their individual desires for the good of the whole. –Richard Rohr with Joseph Martos, Why Be Catholic? Understanding Our Experience and Tradition (Cincinnati, Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1989, 47).
An image that has given me consolation and hope lately is the image of the church as a pilgrim people. Again, I’ll quote Lumen Gentium, this time from paragraph 48:
Already the final age of the world is with us (1 Cor 10:11) and the renewal of the world is irrevocably under way; it is even now anticipated in a certain real way, for the church on earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is true though imperfect. However, until the arrival of the new heavens and the new earth in which justice dwells (2 Pet 3:13) the pilgrim church, in its sacraments and institutions, which belong to this present age, carries the mark of this world which will pass, and it takes its place among the creatures which groan and until now suffer the pains of childbirth and await the revelation of the children of God (Rom 8:19-22).
Here the bishops recognize the church as holy but imperfect, as journeying towards justice even if that justice is not fully experienced today. The institutions of the church–including the hierarchies that exclude women from participating in the papal conclave–are part of this world which will pass. And how do the bishops talk about the pain we feel today? Childbirth. Ironic, in a way, that they selected an experience so central to female bodily experience. As someone who has delivered two babies, one of them ten pounds!, I know a little something about the “pains of childbirth.” In a way, I have come to see that it is totally normal that my reaction to some of the news coverage of this patriarchal pomp-and-circumstance is to groan as if in labor.
When theologian Lawrence S. Cunningham reflects on this passage from Lumen Gentium in The Catholic Faith: An Introduction, he writes:
However much we may be nourished by thinking of the Church in the great theological and biblical metaphors we have enunciated, it remains a fact that the reality of the Church is the reality of this really existing historical reality which we call the Church. We cannot reduce the Church to some idealized platonic idea free from the grittiness of historical reality. This parish, that diocese, or yonder papacy is the Church. The Church in via is no better or worse that those who make it up. We can look around a particular community at worship and see the heroically virtuous (that family in the next pew that lovingly cares for an afflicted child) as well as the nominal pew warmer who is there to keep up appearances or to insure the “Catholic trade” for his shop or business. That congregation is the Church in microcosm.
From the above observations we can understand that in the Church there will always be imperfection, sin, scandal, and shocking indifference. That is not a situation that one glories in; it is, however, a fact which needs to be stated. People are often scandalized by the unworthiness of Church members (and rightly so). The credibility of the Church, and its efficacy, have often been harmed by such behavior. At times it has been of such a magnitude as to take on a deeply symbolic meaning for large numbers of people outside the Church. Catholics need face up to the fact, and, in facing it, do reparation for it. But if we think again of our organic metaphors we can say–and this is not a pious evasion nor an exaggeration–that the manifest weaknesses of the Church and its members can be viewed as a kind of anti-sacrament which reflects our imperfection and our groping toward the “not yet” of the future.
The blemishes of the Church, some very deep indeed, remind us with stunning force of our need for grace, our need for mutual concern, support, and compassion, and our need for trust in the goodness of God. The weakness of the Church is, paradoxically, a guarantee of the continuing relevance of faith and trust (67-68).
Which brings me back to Pamela Dickey Young. When people ask her why she stays in the church, she responds:
My commitment to Christianity is not a commitment to take it or leave it but a commitment to a Christianity revised and reformed to take many contemporary questions, especially feminist questions, into account. It is because I think it possible to be a feminist and a Christian that I stay within the Christian church (116-117).
Young’s conclusion rings true for me. But don’t worry if you hear me groan this week. I’m feelings the pains of childbirth. My church is in labor.
As members of this pilgrim church, we journey together, knowing that building community is messy, and that institutions are imperfect. People are imperfect. Popes are imperfect. There, I said it! But this realization does not shake my faith to its core. In fact, in the paradoxical way that Cunningham describes, I see that in my realizations that the church is imperfect, I am called to admit with humility my own faults and failings, and to seek assistance, both human and divine, in my struggle to be a faithful feminist Catholic. Reading feminist theology has sometimes been deeply unsettling for me. But when I think about it, I don’t really blame those courageous women for challenging my faith. Instead, I am grateful for the ways they’ve pointed out the blemishes of the church’s institutional structure even as they’ve invited me into deeper appreciation of the communion of saints, living and dead, this pilgrim people with whom I journey.