The Push For Gender Equality In Catholic Church Leadership Is As Varied As It Is Important

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There have been an increased amount of discussions on the role of women in the Catholic Church lately. Should women be allowed to serve in the Priesthood alongside men? Should they be allowed to take up the role of Deacon? As we are reading a number of different articles among our team, because we believe equality in religion is part of our definition of feminism, it’s clear there are those who are strongly in favor of it and those who aren’t.

Pope Francis has been quite progressive in a few of his opinions, but when it comes to women in equal positions of leadership, he has said the “door is closed”. In an op-ed for Time Magazine, Glenn Northern, a former alter boy, says the role of women has largely been relegated to the background in important matters of the church.

It was fine for them to be in the chorus at the back but they could not be deacons, nor could they be priests. Powerful lessons about compassion, social justice, and equality in the eyes of God couldn’t hide the proof that, in the eyes of the church, women and girls were relegated to a supporting role,” he describes about his own observations of the different gender roles growing up.

He also emphasizes the need for continued discussion and questions from those who believe there needs to be a progression on this issue. Pope Francis himself said he plans to “constitute an official commission to study the question” of women in leadership, but there are already plenty of voices being heard around the world on this issue.

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Sister Carmen Sammut, president of the International Union of Superiors General, told the media in May that she believes Catholic sisters globally would be better equipped to carry out their work if they were afforded the opportunity to become Deacons.

“We are already doing so many things that resemble what a deacon would do, although it would help us to do a bit more service if we were ordained deacons,” she said.

She also said there is a distinct lack of diversity in general in the Catholic leadership which she wants to see changed.

“Sometimes decisions are made here in Rome and it’s not only that they’re only men — no women — but also the other cultures are not very much included. It’s not just a question of feminism, it’s a question of our being baptized, that gives us the duty and the right to be part of the decision-making processes,” she said.

Many of those in favor of gender equality do stress that they are not, in fact, foregoing the teachings of the Bible, as there were female leaders and Deacons in the New Testament in many of the letters and books the Apostle Paul wrote.

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Closer to home in the US, Dawn Eden Goldstein, who recently became the first woman ever to earn her doctorate in sacred theology alongside an all-male, all-seminarian class at Mundelein seminary in Illinois, doesn’t actually believe women should be priests or deacons, but does want to see more women associated with leadership in the Catholic church for different reasons.

She thinks women should be involved in the seminary formation process because it might held in a particular area that has been a very sore point for the church globally.

“I think that just for a person’s human formation, just to be well-rounded as a human being, you need to have contact with both sexes, and I would certainly think that for a seminarian to live celibacy fruitfully, he’ll learn that better if he is in an atmosphere where he can have a healthy celibate relationship with women,” she said.

With less of a testosterone-dominated academic environment, she thinks an increased presence of women at this level can change what happens in a corporate church setting.

“Having a woman present on faculty makes the atmosphere healthier for the seminarians because it leads them to be less macho and more gracious with one another. Apparently seminarians can become competitive in that uniquely male way that men can outdo or best one another, so I’ve been told that a woman’s presence helps to mitigate that,” she said.

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Her reasoning for not wanting to see women in leadership positions is the power factor. While some may think more women in these roles would help deal with the abuse crisis that has plagued Catholicism for many years, Dawn doesn’t necessarily think that is the case.

“That’s not to say there isn’t more that the Church could do, but if the question is simply whether having more women in leadership leads to more just and humane policies, I’m not sure,” she said.

It can be a somewhat difficult reasoning to swallow, given that she has earned the highest pontifical degree one can receive from the Catholic Church. From these two viewpoints alone we can see that not every Catholic woman, specifically those involved in the church in a more formal way, thinks the same, and has taken many different factors into consideration.

Perhaps this is also evident of the changing face of religious leadership in general, not just in the Catholic church. Reflecting the changing culture, it’s no surprise we are seeing the growth of groups such as the National Coalition of American Nuns who are vocal about their pro choice stance. That shouldn’t come as a shock, because studies show up to 82% of American Catholics are in favor of the use of birth control, something the church has been famous for shunning throughout its history.

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There is a movement advocated by feminist Catholic women who are determined to forge paths for equal positions of leadership. VICE’s Broadly channel recently showcased the work of Italian photographer Giulia Bianchi, who has been documenting a number of women campaigning for spiritual equality.

A lapsed Catholic herself who became disillusioned by the church, she became inspired in a new way by the diverse group of women pushing for change.

“I met about 70 women priests in four years, and now I’m traveling through Europe to document who they are and what they do. Today, the Roman Catholic women priests movement counts over 215 ordained women priests and ten bishops, and the number is growing worldwide,” she told Broadly.

What she found fascinating was the women’s involvement in social activist organizations such as One Billion Rising, a global advocacy campaign to end gender violence, fighting poverty, and advocating for LGBT issues. Social activism has always been a cornerstone of the Catholic church so to see this in a way that is inclusive to groups not always typically defended by the church is rather inspiring.

“Women priests are driven by the most radical teachings of the Gospel. The historical Jesus didn’t exclude anybody from his life; they don’t exclude anybody from the Eucharistic table. They have an understanding of God (not only the Father) as pure love. They incorporate liberal feminist lessons within Catholicism, therefore preaching total inclusivity, total equality for minoritiesm,” she explained.

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Giulia says her mission with this project was to address the sexism of society and religion by showing them a different perspective on the value of women within the church knowing that this is a struggle for women across many religions. She also seeks to create some social disturbance with her imagery and story-telling, in a way that challenges stereotypical mindsets around the role of women in the church as well as sexuality.

“The Vatican considers female ordination a serious crime; they issued an order to say that anyone who participates in the ordination of a woman to the priesthood automatically excommunicates themselves. In 2010 the Vatican put the crime of female ordination in the same category as pedophilic crime by priests. However, thousands of Catholic priests accused of abusing children have not been excommunicated,” she points out.

After talking to many of the women, she sees that more of their presence in church leadership could actually change the abhorrent issue that has stained the reputation of Catholicism.

“The women priests movement believes that celibacy must be optional for every human being. It can’t be forced upon somebody without too often creating psychological and social problems; we have seen this play out already in the Church. Many women in the movement are former nuns, and some have indeed chosen celibacy, but it is a free choice. Talking with these women about sexuality definitely broke many stereotypes I had in my mind,” she said.

It’s clear the discussion around gender roles in church leadership are becoming less binary, and perhaps the continued presence of women pushing for change will have an effect at the highest level. It’s not about dismantling closely held beliefs or spirituality, it is about allowing gender equality to not be seen as somehow the antithesis of a valued faith journey in the greater corporate church, as well as in individual lives.

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6 Comments

  1. Is the Pope Catholic….? A not so rhetorical question these days…. why? https://sites.google.com/site/newvactin2/

  2. Patriarchal gender theory reduces the human person to a sexual object. I am very concerned about the conflation of patriarchal gender ideology and revealed truth in our sacramental theology:

    Meditations on Man and Woman, Humanity and Nature
    http://pelicanweb.org/CCC.TOB.html

    These meditations are based on my understanding of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Across the entire sex/gender spectrum, the essence of human personhood is to be a body-soul. Families are already evolving from sole male (father) headship to joint male-female (father-mother) headship. To continue the process narrated in Acts 15, when the Church transitioned out of the patriarchal Jewish culture, now the Church must let go of the simplistic sex/gender binary.

    This process of prayerful discernment must continue. None of the sacraments should exclude any human person due to gender identity. All church ministries, ordained and unordained, must be gift-based, not gender-based. The body is a sacrament of the entire person but is not the entire personal subject. When a priest consecrates the bread and wine, he or she is acting in the person of Christ as a divine personal subject, not just as a human being with a male body.

    Radical patriarchy is an obstacle to grace and the biggest impediment to evolve toward an integral human ecology.

    In Christ,

    Luis

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