It’s Not as Bad as You Think: Women in Catholicism

imageIt’s Not as Bad as You Think: Women in Catholicism

The discovery of blogs and blogging has opened up a whole new world for women working and writing in the religious domain. This is due to its openness and speed, the fact that it provides a platform for ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, and the ease with which it facilitates the mutual interpenetration of religious feminism with mainstream, political feminism. It also encourages a dynamic combination of lively narrative non-fiction writing and scholarly research, as various women transform their daily and religious experiences into feminist theology.

It is the latter aspect of online feminist blogging that, as a theologian, I have found most necessary and fulfilling. Reading and writing blogs provides a much needed outlet for the intensity of the experiences of women who are new to the religious domain. Within Christianity this category includes ordained ministers and female theologians. In my own Roman Catholic denomination, the opening of the seminaries to women post Vatican II has allowed female theological input for the first time in two thousand years. We are also beginning to understand the inner workings of this patriarchal organisation; I have no doubt that Pope John XXIII knew exactly what the impact on the Church would be of allowing lay people and lay women in particular into the seminaries. This has brought about a radically new situation as regards relationships between the clerical dimension of the Church, and the laity; the encounter between the male clergy and women within an academic context has, and will continue to have, ever more radical implications. The Irish situation is, in my opinion, a sort of microcosm of Catholicism as a whole since Vatican 11. This is because Catholic Ireland has had no tradition of theology as a university subject, meaning that when it became available to the laity, it necessitated the opening of the seminaries; this proved to be the catalyst for what I can only describe as a new type of encounter between clergy and laity, as well as between male celibates and women of all ages and types. As someone who spent several years studying theology in St. Patrick’s Seminary in Maynooth, I can vouch for the impact on the institutional Church of its encounter in this new context with lay Catholics and particularly with lay women Catholics. From a laywoman’s perspective, it was interesting to observe the mutual adjustments that had to be made; it was also reassuring to see the high calibre of the dedicated and idealistic young men who were training for the priesthood. While some of the older priests found our presence a bit uncomfortable, the overall result was greater mutual understanding and a relaxing of the boundaries between the clerical and lay groupings in the Church, one of the main aims of Vatican II. And even though there seems to be no question at the moment of women being admitted to the Catholic priesthood, the growing impact of female and feminist theologians should not be underestimated; I also believe that the entry of women into seminaries and Catholic universities where they are meeting and interacting with seminarians has made the eventual relaxing of the celibacy rule inevitable, though I know from experience that there are many in the clerical realm who have the gift of celibacy and would prefer not to marry. If the rule is relaxed, however – and again I think Pope John XXIII had this in mind when he opened the seminaries – it will provide another gateway for women to be assimilated into the institutional Church and exert influence within it. I have no doubt that the bestowal of religious authority on women in some major Protestant denominations is partly due to the fact that male priests and ministers were allowed to marry, hence making their institutions more comfortable with female input and gifts.

As regards women in the academic sphere, the theology of pioneering feminist theologians is all the more effective and authentic because it has been informed by the difficulties associated with being a woman in such a dense patriarchal space.  Experience has always been a popular theological category, and women’s experiences in religious universities and departments not only affects their theological and political opinions, but also constitute a powerful catalyst for both theological speculation and activism in the feminist cause.

The cumulative effect of women’s experiences in religion has now given rise in fact to what amounts to a tidal wave of feminist scholarship and activism in the religious domain. Blogging in particular has the power to break through all boundaries and I have every hope that it will soon burst through the ecclesiastical dam behind which institutional gatekeepers – both ecclesiastical and scholarly – who fear change are keeping their fingers grimly plugged into the ever-widening channels through which the healing water is ready to gush. After two thousand years of male dominated Christianity, I am convinced that feminist theology and scholarly feminist blogs have the alchemic power to transform women’s experiences in the religious and secular domains into theological and ecclesiastical gold. Theology is being formulated by women now at a very fast pace, and online blogs allow it to be communicated almost instantly. It is giving us the means to make up the ground that we have lost over the past two millennia.

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The X Factor Pope

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When I read in the New York Times that Rolling Stone magazine had premiered a pop/rock track from an album to be released shortly by the Pope, I assumed it was a joke. Having checked it out, however, I discovered it to be true (see here). It seems that our Western celebrity culture has engulfed everything, even the Vatican: Simon Cowell has a lot to answer for.

I find it a little disappointing that the Pope should seek to bask in the reflected, superficial glow of showbiz. It would be far more meaningful and popular in the best way if he were to make real, doctrinal changes in relation to, for example, the requirement for priestly celibacy and the need for female religious authority within Catholicism. At the upcoming Synod on the family, he will be presented with the opportunity to relax stringent Church moral norms regarding contraception, homosexuality and divorce. Will he be prepared to make the hard choices, or is a nod to celebrity culture as far as he is prepared to go in keeping up with the zeitgeist? Francis talks the talk, but will he walk the walk?

Of course there is always the chance that the Pope’s pop debut is a shrewd and calculated effort to get public opinion behind him before attempting doctrinal change. If this is the case, then the Pope will have transcended anodyne pop culture: is this the precursor of meaningful change? Now that would  be real rock’n roll!

The Surrogacy Red Herring: Referendum on Marriage Equality

She Needs Her Mother For Life, Not Just For Nine Months

Why is the the ‘No’ side in the marriage equality referendum obscuring the real issue at stake by covering the city lampposts with misty-eyed photos of beautiful babies and toddlers who, it is implied, may be cruelly snatched from their adoring mothers and fathers by gay couples if the referendum is passed? Considering that the ‘no’ campaign is being spearheaded by the Iona Institute – a Roman Catholic organisation -this is either a deliberate fudging of the real issue at stake, or the campaigners are genuinely ignorant of what they are campaigning against. According to the Catholic Church, third party assisted human reproduction (AHR), which requires either donor sperm, donor egg, a donor uterus as in surrogacy or a combination, is against its natural law teaching. A child must be the result of a physical act of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman; to create a child in laboratory conditions is to turn that child into a product. Moreover, to deliberately create a child who will be brought up apart from one or both of its biological parents is to infringe the rights of the child. This teaching applies to both heterosexual and homosexual individuals whether married or not, so the no campaign’s  gay-straight polarisation on the surrogacy issue is not alone an inaccurate representation of Church teaching, but is irrelevant to the marriage equality issue, since marriage does not grant an automatic entitlement to avail of third party AHR. The AHR issue is a separate one; if it’s ok for heterosexual couples to avail of it, however, then it has to be ok for homosexual couples since the core ethical issue relates to the creation of a child who will be brought up apart from one or both of his/her parents. In jurisdictions such as France, Spain, Italy and Germany, where AHR is legally regulated, third party involvement is forbidden, since children must be brought up by their biological parents. 

Were the ‘no’ campaign  to be judged by the major thrust of its arguments, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a campaign against third party AHR for gay couples rather than marriage equality; if this is the case, then they must be ignorant of Church teaching, since it applies to heterosexuals also. If, on the other hand, the Iona institute is deliberately fear-mongering, then it is  being deceitful by confusing the issue. In which case they cannot identify themselves as followers of Jesus Christ, who described himself as the way, the truth, and the life.