ETHICS AND FEMINISM: ATTITUDES TOWARDS WOMEN IN THE CHURCH
To understand the contemporary position of women in the Church, it is necessary to be aware of the misogynistic attitudes that have prevailed in
the past. The Fathers of the Church were certainly less than enlightened in their views about women.
The second century theologian Tertullian saw materialism as a basic sickness in the world. He had a dualistic view of life: light was opposed to
dark, good to evil and spirit was opposed to matter. One's sexuality was the most basic expression of matter, and was seen as being in opposition to spirit and reason. Woman is the personification of corporeal sensuality and therefore, according to Tertullian and many other similar minded theologians, was basically evil.
You are the one who opened the door to the devil... you are the first who deserted the divine law... who first plucked the fruit of the
forbidden tree... who persuaded him whom the devil was not strong enough to attach. All too easily you destroyed the image of God, man. Because of your dessert, that
is, death, even the Son of God had to die (Dance, 5).
John Chrysostom presented women as "at least filthy" and Cyril of Alexandria reckoned women to be dull-witted. How else can we explain
the fact that Mary Magdalene did not recognize the risen Christ? (Swidler, 343 - 344).
The picture of woman, obtained from the Old Testament, can be summarized
in the first instance as being a legal non-person; where she does become visible, it is as a dependent and usually in an inferior role in a male-centered and male-dominated society. The laws, generally, do not address her and most of them do not even acknowledge her existence. Only in her role as mother is she accorded status and honour. Nevertheless she is always subject to the authority of some male, (father, husband, or brother), except when widowed or divorced (Ruether, 57).
It is interesting to note that every orthodox Jew began his day upon
rising with a prayer of thanksgiving: "Blessed art thou, Lord, for thou has not made me a woman." Jesus was born into a culture in which women's testimony would not be acceptable in a court of law. Women did not belong to the liturgical community and to this very day the male orthodox Jew does not pray in the company of women. Jesus challenged this custom by showing respect for women and being open with them with a familiarity that was a scandal even to his own disciples (John 4:27). After being "touched" by the women with the issue of blood, Jesus presents her as a model of faith and religious practice (Mark 12:42-43). He broke cultural and religious taboos by touching the dead daughter of Jairus - "Taltha Dumi: My little one stand up". By this action he became ritually unclean. More importantly, by this Jesus also signalled his denial of such a concept of "uncleanness" (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43). He allows his feet to be washed and his head anointed by a public sinner. He has this women minister to him and show him the appropriate customary acts of courtesy overlooked by his male host (John 12:1-8).
According to Jewish law, a woman was not to engage in intellectual
pursuits, yet Jesus encourages Mary to "sit at his feet" and "listen to his teaching" - to join the circle of disciples (Luke 10:34-42). He sends a woman, who normally would be considered to be an unreliable witness to announce to the disciples his resurrection (Luke 10:34-42). In the gospels the fidelity of women is presented in stark contrast to the infidelity and fickleness of his male followers. The women are shown to us as holding a position of leadership by their response to faith in Jesus.
Our tradition seems to suggest that women were major participants in the
life of the early Church (Acts 1:14-15). Ministries which flowed from the gifts of the Spirit were open to them; they were leaders in the Church (Rom 16:1-2, 6, 12), they taught (Acts 18:26), they prophesied (1 Cor 11:5), and performed the functions of being deacons (Rom 16:1). However, the attitude shown by Jesus was short lived and by the time the Gospels were finally written down, much of the community liberal spirit and attitude had already disappeared with women being assigned to the role as outlined in Jewish law (1 Tim 2:11-15).
Paul, in a letter to Timothy (1:11:8-15), demonstrated this conservative
attitude of the early Church to women. Firstly he exhorts the men "to pray, men who are dedicated to God and can lift up their hands in prayer . . " The women, on the other hand, are told how to dress and behave: "I also want the women to be modest and sensible about their clothes and to dress properly". According to Paul, "women should learn in silence and all humility. I do not allow them to teach or have authority over men: they must keep quiet".
The history of women in the Church has been paradoxical, in that Church rules often have been structured to keep women subservient while
throughout history various women have risen to show remarkable leadership. In the 4th
century St Augustine of Hippo emphasized the mortification of the flesh in order to escape a sinful world and discover God. His strong desire for ascetic values to triumph over sexual temptations led to the clear understanding that sex was evil. If sin was ever-present in human sexuality then it was obvious that 'woman' was the temptress of evil thoughts and the root cause of men's sinfulness (Spong 1983). In the 13th century Thomas Aquinas saw women as misbegotten and deformed males. Due to this perverse biology, it was also believed that even in conception women were essentially passive. Males were created for the nobler works of the spirit and the intellectual life. Women were created with respect to their sexuality. It therefore presupposed that women should be subject to men, for women were seen to be less noble, less spiritual and weaker than men (Summa Theologica, I, 921).
The place that women have played in the Church has been determined not
only by males theologising about them, but also by the historical development of ministry. Ministries first arose out of the need of the community, but from the first century these shifted away from the needs of the local Church. Ordination was a call to leadership in the community and with it, the sacrificial aspect of the priesthood began to be stressed - the power to change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. The priest became an "alter Christus" and a growing division between priest and laity as distinct and different classes developed. By the time of Gregory the Great (604 AD), the laity were mere "children of the Church" and the clergy were "shepherds, preachers, teachers, rulers, and prelates". Even in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, women were equated with minors and systematically excluded from holding any office in the church (Collins, 79). Yet perhaps there is a wind of possible change apparent in the post-Vatican II Church. The new revised Code of Canon Law acknowledges a need to recognize the equality between men and women:
Flowing from their rebirth in Christ, there is a genuine equality and action amongst all of Christ's faithful. Because of this equality
they all contribute, each according to his or her own condition or office to the building up of the body of Christ (No. 208).
Yet, we still see a basic friction within a Church which foists male
priest - counsellors on women after training priests to distrust women as dangerous occasions of sin (Ohanneson, 38). Presently, John Paul II "utterly opposes those who say that it is sociology and formation rather than nature itself that determines a woman's destiny" (Collins, 172). In spite of the centuries that the Church has spent keeping women in subservient roles - there have been strong women who have dominated the field in many areas of Church history.
First and foremost, we have Mary, the mother of Jesus. Other women of strength in the Church include St Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena and
Jane Frances de Chantal. Yet a similar pattern continues to show through. These women were generally honoured by the Church for being virgins and widows, and through
them the Church reinforced its message. Just as women in the past have attained greatness in spite of a male-dominated Church, so women today continue to proclaim the glory of the Risen Christ by their ministries of teaching, healing, parenting, and caring of the poor, sick, handicapped and homeless. Yet we are informed that the Church faces a positive challenge as it confronts the question of the role of women. As younger women grow up experiencing equality with men, they will be increasingly alienated by a Church which continues to deny their rights and aspirations (Collins, 239 - 240).
Throughout the centuries the Church has downgraded the role of women in order to upgrade the authority of men. Jesus had ministered so that all
life - "life in all its fullness" (Jn. 10:10). He valued women as equals regardless of the social mores of his day. He commends Mary for "sitting at the feet of the Lord and listening to his teaching" (Luke 10:30). He allowed women to be his followers (Mark 15:40-41) and to preach to men about what he had said (John 4:1-42). He had set a precedent which the Church later failed to emulate for nearly 2000 years. He showed compassion and forgiving understanding in his meeting with the adulteress (John 8:3-11), and a prostitute (Luke 7:36-50). Jesus received the touch of a prostitute as a sign of repentance, love and commitment. It was at a woman's request that Jesus performed his first miracle (John 2:1-12) while women stayed and wept with Him at the foot of the cross (John 19:25-27). Again it was women who bore witness to the resurrection and women who shared in the experiences of the Ascension (Acts 1:14).
Bearing the teachings and examples of Christ in mind, and being aware of
the traditional stance taken by the Church throughout its history, important questions must be asked: Have women in the Christian Church been offered the opportunities to live life in all its fullness? Have men in authority in the Church, whether through design or through lack of understanding, continued to maintain their authority through the subordination of women? These and similar questions are challenging more and more people since the second Vatican Council. It appears that the Church, if it continues with its insistence on excluding women from positions of ecclesial authority and administration within the Church, may be challenged to be maintaining an unequal and unjust social order, which is not in step with gospel values.
The area of greatest exclusion for women in the Church has been in the
direct ministries of the Eucharist. We must remember that in the early Church, presiding at the Eucharist was simply the liturgical dimension of the many-sided ministerial pattern of presidency in the Christian community. Groome (1981-82) claims that women were not excluded from this leadership. The entire community was involved in the celebration of the Eucharist and the most qualified person was chosen to be the leader. Certainly by 1208, Pope Innocent III insisted on male priestly ordination and it followed that the power became centered in the priestly leader rather than in the community. Groome (1981-82) outlines three criteria for leadership in liturgy in which the presider should be:
Chosen by a community.
Have qualifications and ability to serve.
Be prepared for the position.
He says that none of these criteria excludes either women or married
priests. The issue of women's ordination is a vital one in Roman Catholicism and while it is not yet being adequately addressed by those in ecclesial authority, the Pontifical Biblical Commission "found no support or biblical evidence for the exclusion of women from priesthood" (Groome, 1981-82:6/3). Furthermore the Catholic Biblical Association's Task Force on the Role of Women in Early Christianity points towards the admission of women to priestly ministry certainly to the level of the diaconate.
What are the arguments that are given against the ordination of women?
Firstly, it is claimed that Jesus called only men to be his apostles. This may be true, but it is equally true that Jesus only chose Jews to be his disciples. Should, therefore, we only ordain Jews to the priesthood?
Tradition must never be used to decree that because something was never in our past it cannot be in our future. Given the sexism of
Western society and culture we might well expect that women would be excluded from priesthood (Groome, 1981-82:6/4).
A further argument claims that priesthood must be able to represent Jesus physically as well as spiritually. Many contemporary theologians claim
denies Jesus' holistic wholeness and humanness. There is no real reason outside of cultural tradition for women to be denied a role in the ministry of the Eucharist. Already many women are fulfilling the role of preaching and proclaiming the gospel message in our Schools, Colleges and Universities. An extension of this to include ordination will no doubt come about when sufficient consciousness is raised within the Church.
The Vatican Declaration on the Ordination of Women stated:
When Christ's role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally
there would not be this natural resemblance which must exist between Christ and his ministers, if the role of Christ were not taken by a man, in such a case it would be difficult to see in the ministry the image of Christ, for Christ Himself was and remains a man.
This declaration has clearly lost sight of the crucial theological
question, that is whether the minister's resemblance to Christ resembles one's sexuality, or one's humanity (Call, 8-10). Obviously when this declaration was made no reference was made to Galatians Ch.3, nor to the fact that the minister's resemblance to Christ resides in one's humanity and not in one's sexual gender as the basic requirement for being a minister of the Church.
Many committed Christian women feel that in many cases the present day
Church only give token recognition of equality. The re-emphasis on the lay vocation and the call to participation in community-commitment by Vatican II by the whole Church as the people of God, demands that the various gifts be identified and commissioned: catechesis, social service, pastoral ministry, prayer and liturgy are all charisms of the faithful. Full membership by men and women in regard to priestly offices and functions are necessary.
A one-sided spiritual leadership by males without female leadership is
unwise, yet this is still very evident in the Church today. The National Council of Catholic Bishops Conference in 1977, took the following direction, which may be seen as a positive step forward in recognizing and acknowledging the powerful contribution continuously made by women in the contemporary Church :
It is essential for the life and service of the Church that priests encourage women in responding to the call to assume more influential
responsible positions of leadership and service in the Church and in society. Priests have a serious responsibility to help ensure the decision making process at Parish, Diocesan and National levels incorporating the voices of woman (Call, 46).
A directive such as this, can only be taken seriously if ordained men and unordained women are able to transcend the cultural barriers that
polarize their individual visions of ministry and the barriers of sexism and clericalism.
The Church teaches the meaning of human existences, anchors the dignity of human nature against all tides of opinion, proclaims the
dignity of conscience and freedom of choice, advises all to be baptized, to use their talents for God's service, and the world and protects human rights (Doohan, 108).
Given our modern understandings of justice and equality, the Church in
maintaining a significant distinction between hierarchy and laity and the excluding women from priesthood, radically affirms women's inferior position among the people of God.
The Church, which speaks of justice, charity, honesty and accountability, needs a conversion on the issue of the role that women should take
within the Church. The kind of conversion that was required by St Peter at Joppa when he had a vision which flatly and crudely contradicted some of his most deeply held
convictions. Peter had to accept the possibility that the Spirit could work just as well among uncircumcised heathens as among the chosen people. It demanded the laying aside of a whole structure of corporate self-respect, a radical confession of blindness and ignorance, a renunciation of pride and the ability to control (Haughton, 5). Only when the Church can come to this admission can it echo the voice of the New Testament, "where we find both community and office represented as equal authorities, both the subject to highest authority, namely Jesus Christ the Lord of the Church acting in time through the Spirit" (Kung, 177).
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