Fr. Francesco Pesce and Monica Romano
You have followed in recent weeks news on the topic of the role of women in the Church. A topic not much treated to tell the truth ( at least in Italy ), with a few “exploit” at times a bit childish, picked up by some newspapers but that then fall on deaf ears. Speaking to the International Union of Superiors General gathering these days in Rome, in responding to a question from a female religious, Pope Francis said he was willing to form a commission to study the issue of women deacons. A topic of a conference held precisely in the days before in Munster, Germany, sponsored by the KFD and other lay organizations. Even at the last Synod of Bishops on the Family, Mon. Paul Andre Durocher – Bishop of Gatineau, former President of the Canadian Bishops’ Conference – had requested access for women to the diaconate which, according to tradition, is not directed to “sacerdotium sed ad ministerium“. In the 90s Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini had hinted at the possibility of the female diaconate and it emerged that there was still need to further study the nature and practice of women deacons in the early Church. In an article by Civiltá Cattolica of 1999, the main aspects of the debate were analyzed , focusing on the distinction between a female diaconate intended as a service (“diakonia” in fact ) and the diaconate as a first step to the sacred orders, such as that for men, from which women are excluded in the Catholic Church. A few weeks ago, some controversy arose about the words of Enzo Bianchi, prior of the Bose Community , who claimed that women could offer the homily.
But what do women , especially Catholic ones, think of those things that affect them? Of their role, their contribution in the Church? We seem to observe that women engaged in the forefront of the Church life do not talk much about this issue, while their actions speak louder than words. And, their contribution in the parishes, in educational institutions, in charitable work, in hospitals and welfare centers and missionary activities is simply extraordinary. Women already have a role in the Church: help the priests in the management of many parish activities, they are at the forefront in the missions, they guide entire religious orders including international ones, teach the Bible and Theology … It should be these women to provide their points of view on their role in the Church. Avoiding standpoints that are weak and covered in a backward feminist approach, which hardly represent them and are unhelpful in launching a global re-valuation of the role of the woman in the Church that – we must accept – is absolutely necessary, for the benefit of the whole People of God, Pope and bishops included.
Let’s analyse each steps. The Bible sets off saying man and woman are created together in harmony with equal dignity. Regrettably, misleading interpretations about sin, which are not entirely overcome, contribute to giving the women a subservient role to that of man, with few places in society.
In the Gospels Jesus performs a real and true revolution: he defends an adulterous woman from death by lapidation; he stops to talk to a Samaritan woman – Samaritans were deemed as “heretics” -; has amongst his dear friends following him several women…not to mention the role of Mary, the Mother of God, and that the Resurrected appears first to two women, who become the first announcers of Easter. But it was the Apostle Paul who, despite his equalitarianism vision of the world – “There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female — for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3,28) – to operate resizing: “I want however you to know that head of each man is Christ, and head of the woman is the man, the head of Christ is God. The man should not cover his head because he is the image and glory of God, the woman instead is the glory of man. Indeed man does not proceed from woman, but woman from man; neither man was created for the woman, but the woman for man”. However he recognises “however, in God, neither the woman is without man, neither the man is without a woman; just as the woman comes from man, likewise man is born from woman; everything comes from God”. Certainly the rigid farisaic upbringing and contacts with pagan populations who – no doubt – in Paul’s eyes were displaying very libertine habits, heavily influenced the position on the woman, affecting her role in the Church. An interesting article of the biblical scholar Marinella Perroni reinterprets the alleged misogyny of Paul and explains how the Apostle of the Gentiles appreciated and took advantaged of the women for his apostolate ( http://www.stpauls.it/vita/0901vp/0901vp85.htm).
In the millenary continuing history of the Church, until now, many are the examples of women who have been able to impose themselves through holiness, the witness, and the courage of their lives. Often with origins, vocations and very different paths. We think of Matilda of Canossa, a noble woman’s, who helped the Pope at the time of the investiture controversy; Monica, mystic mother of Augustine; Hildegard of Bingen, a benedictine sister and prolific writer; Clare of Assisi, so close to St. Francis; Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena, the first women proclaimed Doctor of the Church by Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1970; and many others, up to the modern and contemporary times, like Teresa of Lisieux, Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Gianna Beretta Beretta and Mother Teresa of Calcutta – the latter will be canonized by Pope Francis in September.
The recent popes have shown to understand the importance of the role of women in the Church and have taken significant steps in the journey towards full ecclesial development of the “feminine genius”. But in this, as on other issues, the Church takes its time. The problem now lies in a part of the Church institution that has fossilized into a rigid and conservative apparatus, often experienced as a place of power, which does not precisely address the problem of how to best engage women for the good of the Church. Or even worse, suffering from misogyny, as indeed also a part of our society.
But it is also true that many situations may appear to us different from the way they are because we do not look ahead and do not analyze the issue with greater breath and complexity of views.
In many churches of Europe where the decrease in vocations and more generally the crisis of faith are more serious, women still play even more roles of responsibility. For example, helping the priests – who administer various parishes across the territory precisely for lack of priests – to open and administer the churches, lead the prayer, even distribute the Eucharist. This also takes place in countries outside Europe, for slighly different reasons – big numbers and immense, often poorly connected areas. Altar girls, hardly seen in Italy and especially in Rome until not too long ago especially when the Pope would celebrate Mass in a parish, had already been normal practice for some time in other countries, especially in the North of Europe. There are many women, even secular, engaged in several departments of the local church and assisting the numerous religious orders through associations of the faithful in several parts of the world …
Of course, some questions are legitimate. Why is it that Superiors of great religious orders cannot participate in the conclave and elect the Pope, or at least be part of the meetings before the conclave is held? Would not it be possible for qualified women to be part of the committee that advises the Pope on the reform of the Curia, without having to become appointed cardinals? Such proposal, of women being appointed cardinals, Pope Francis does not seem to have taken into account as he noticed a sort of clericalism: commenting he said that “women must be valued, not clericalized”.
Our response to these issues and questions is to look beyond, returning to the Church of Pentecost and of the Council. The Church of the beginnings described in the Acts of the Apostles tells us that we must be guided by the Holy Spirit. The presence of the Spirit is life for each of us.
Part of the Church thinks of itself in narrow terms, of categories, of past, without being enlightened by the Spirit who gives life. The present and the future await creative responses, which put man and woman, different and complementary images of God, to the service of the Church and the world. If we talk according to the Spirit, our word must be both masculine and feminine. We require a Church where the sensitivity and the intelligence of the woman is also at its full service even in processes involving consultation, decision and governance. But we must not fall into clericalism, the careerism, or – as the Pope recently still warned- in feminism in the Church. It is essential instead to implement the indications of the Second Vatican Council and deal with this issue within that of the need for a wider participation of the laity in the Church’s life. Starting with the problem of theological and biblical formation which, at least in Italy, is still mainly addressed to priests and religious in terms of curricula and organization, which does not always facilitate the participation of the laity. And riconsidering the areas of services provided by priests and religious in the Church. Should they guide all ecclesial congregations? Could more space be given to lay professors in pontifical universities? Would it be inappropriate, for example, to entrust some offices to lay people, allowing more lay people to teach, and leave to priests (in light of the crisis of vocations) the ministry with the people and the administration of the sacraments? It is true also that those in charge of dicasteries and offices of the Church are helped by laity, including experts as consultants, and many consultants are lay people, including women. The number of women who teach religious subjects is also increasing, even biblical and theological subject matters, as well as those in charge of departments and faculties in pontifical universities, and probably are not an exception in many countries of Europe, perhaps even out of Europe.
Let’s us not fall into temptation of viewing the Church as a monolithic institution, often with Western criteria, detached from a specific cultural or historical context. What matters is the full participation of women and the laity in the Church, rather than equal roles for man and women in the Church. Being well aware that Christian anthropologic vision of man and woman by God does not use our common sociological, psychological, historical parameters …
Perhaps what we should work on is a greater participation of the church community from “the bottom”. To enable the Church and the Pope to benefit from the contribution of the laity, some of them having a solid theological preparation and actively engaged in different realities of the Church, often at the forefront at various levels of the pastoral life. But this applies not only to the laity (and women), it also applies to priests and religious. This is why we believe one should look beyond, with a much broader perspective, rather than thinking in terms that are likely to present the issue as trendy, ill suited to the exercise of the ministries in the Church. “They were all together in one place” (At 2,1). A few days ago, the Church celebrated Pentecost. In the Upper Room, the meeting place of the washing of tha feet and the institution of the Eucharist they were all together. Certainly the fear united them, yet they were all together. In the get-together at Pentecost the Spirit bursts and makes all things new. The Church must always start from this togetherness allowing to be guided by the Spirit, because this is the only way to allow the presence of the Risen Christ. Let’ us not betray the Risen One and let not drop the breath of the Spirit. Fruits rather than good intentions will bear witness to what we all – men and women, laity, clergy and religious – have done for the Church.