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.

Non-Religious Women in the Church: In my last post I mentioned that, as a feminist theologian, I often find myself between a rock and a hard place. The same could be said of all or most women who spend a significant amount of time within an environment where male power and authority are even more pervasive than in the secular world.

However, female theologians from the secular sphere face their own particular challenges, and these challenges are both new and unique in the context of Church history and indeed history in general. We are a type of hybrid who must, at least some of the time, come across as upstarts in an environment that has managed to do without us for two thousand years. We are not bound by the strict vows and rules  of obedience by which those in the religious life must abide; yet we feel free to comment upon,  and criticise  (negatively as well as positively) the theological doctrines and speculations of some of the greatest minds that Western civilisation has produced. To return to our hybrid status, if we sometimes come across as impertinent to our colleagues in the religious life we are influenced by them and by the theology and philosophy we have studied. This can cause changes in our behaviour and outlook on life that spouses, children, relatives and friends can find disconcerting.

I am often surprised by the media focus on the question of women priests, as though this is the only role that women can play within the Church. Most Irish theologians are now women, and far more female than male students are studying theology. The opening of the seminaries to lay (or secular, a term I prefer) Catholics on foot of Vatican 2 was revolutionary, especially in relation to female participation in the life of the institutional Church. It has been a quiet revolution so far, probably out of respect for our colleagues who devote their whole lives to God and the Church. It is a revolution nonetheless; despite criticism that Vatican 2 has not borne the fruit that was expected of it, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Who can say how things will look in a few generations as a result of the pioneering work of this one?

See Joys and Hopes, Grief and Anxieties: Catholic Women Since Vatican II by Susan Ross in New Theology Review (available online).

Non-Religious Women in the Church: In my last post I mentioned that, as a feminist theologian, I often find myself between a rock and a hard place. The same could be said of all or most women who spend a significant amount of time within an environment where male power and authority are even more pervasive than in the secular world.

However, female theologians from the secular sphere face their own particular challenges, and these challenges are both new and unique in the context of Church history and indeed history in general. We are a type of hybrid who must, at least some of the time, come across as upstarts in an environment that has managed to do without us for two thousand years. We are not bound by the strict vows and rules  of obedience by which those in the religious life must abide; yet we feel free to comment upon,  and criticise  (negatively as well as positively) the theological doctrines and speculations of some of the greatest minds that Western civilisation has produced. To return to our hybrid status, if we sometimes come across as impertinent to our colleagues in the religious life we are influenced by them and by the theology and philosophy we have studied. This can cause changes in our behaviour and outlook on life that spouses, children, relatives and friends can find disconcerting.

I am often surprised by the media focus on the question of women priests, as though this is the only role that women can play within the Church. Most Irish theologians are now women, and far more female than male students are studying theology. The opening of the seminaries to lay (or secular, a term I prefer) Catholics on foot of Vatican 2 was revolutionary, especially in relation to female participation in the life of the institutional Church. It has been a quiet revolution so far, probably out of respect for our colleagues who devote their whole lives to God and the Church. It is a revolution nonetheless; despite criticism that Vatican 2 has not borne the fruit that was expected of it, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Who can say how things will look in a few generations as a result of the pioneering work of this one?

See Joys and Hopes, Grief and Anxieties: Catholic Women Since Vatican II by Susan Ross in New Theology Review (available online).