Church 200 years out of date on women’s rights

The ‘empire of misogyny’ referred to by Mary McAleese will not be reformed by the Pope, who thinks the genders have different, divinely ordained roles, says TP O’Mahony 

HOURS after the death of Cardinal Carlo Martini, in August 2012, the Italian newspaper, Corrierre della Sera, published his last interview. He warned that the “Catholic Church was 200 years behind the times”.

The man who had served as Archbishop of Milan — Europe’s largest diocese — from 1980 to 2002, urged the Church to recognise its errors and to embark on a radical path, beginning with the Pope.

He had recorded the interview 47 years after the end of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which had, as its main aim, the modernising of the Church (aggiornamento, or “updating”, was one of the central themes of the council).

Cardinal Martini, who was 85 when he died, was recognising that in the post-conciliar period, sustained attempts had been made to thwart, contain, or water-down the spirit of reform unleashed by Vatican II.

In progressive circles, he had long been a favourite to succeed Pope John Paul II, but, instead of progress, he had witnessed a policy of restoration under the Polish Pope and his German successor, Pope Benedict.

“Our culture has grown old, our churches are big and empty, our religious rites and the vestments we wear are pompous,” said Martini, who, like the present Pope, was a member of the Jesuit order.

In Rome, last week, where she was the keynote speaker at the Why Women Matter conference, organised by the Voices of Faith, our former president, Mary McAleese, was tapping into that frustration and disaffection.

Her provocative description of the Catholic Church as an “empire of misogyny” would have angered Vatican officials, but when it comes to the Church’s treatment of women, Mrs McAleese would almost certainly echo Cardinal Martini’s claim that it is 200 years behind the times.

Pope Francis kneels in confession during a penitential liturgy in St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Friday.

The story is told that when Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens, of Brussels, arrived in St Peter’s Basilica for the opening of Vatican II (in which he would play a key role), on October 11, 1962, he looked around at the 2,800-strong, all-male assembly, and then turned to a nearby bishop and said: “Where is the other half of humanity?”

There have been 21 Great Councils (sometimes called ecumenical, meaning “worldwide”) in the history of the Church, starting with the Council of Nicaea, in 325AD. The scenes that Cardinal Suenens witnessed at the 21st Great Council (Vatican II) were a mirror-image of what had gone before.

These great gatherings resolved divisive controversies, adjudicated on claims between rival claimants to the papal throne, and decided far-reaching doctrinal questions — all in the absence of women.

Women’s voices and opinions were simply not heard. Ever. Down the centuries, they have been invisible and voiceless, so far as the Church’s decision-making assemblies were concerned.

The exclusion of women from the ordained priesthood is emblematic. And it was for this reason that Mrs McAleese highlighted it, when she spoke in Rome, last week.

To dismiss the explanations for the exclusion of women as “codology dressed up as theology” might have been somewhat infelicitous, but there are no theological or doctrinal reasons for excluding women from ordination as priests.

This exclusion is based on tradition alone — and a very narrowly construed tradition, at that.

The model is the 12 Apostles — all men. Christ only chose men to serve as his apostles, therefore the Church is bound by this precedent. Pope after Pope has invoked this. The authority of the Petrine Office is behind it.

But it is increasingly regarded as a dubious tradition. It is famously illustrated in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, but scholars now question whether the absence, from a farewell meal, of the two women closest to Jesus — his mother, Mary, and Mary Magdalene — is credible. As for Mary Magdalene, she is now regarded as an apostle in all but name.

Writing in The Furrow (published monthly from St Patrick College, Maynooth) in 2003, Phyllis Zagano, senior researcher at Hofstra University, in New York, said: ”The concept that the maleness of Jesus takes precedence over his humanness is both insulting and wrong. Women cannot represent Jesus in expressly the same way men can, when the accidents of gender are considered, but women most clearly can — and do — represent Jesus in his human nature”.

The American theologian, Elizabeth A Johnson, writing in Commonweal in 1996, put it even more forthrightly: “The naive physicalism that reduces resembling Christ to being male is so deviant from scripture, and so theologically

distorted, as to be dangerous to the faith itself”. In fairness to Francis, he has established a commission to examine the question of female deacons. But even this modest measure has drawn opposition from ultra-traditionalists, who fear that allowing deacons will eventually lead to women priests.

Looking back over five years of the pontificate of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Paul Vallelly, author of Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, points out that the Pope’s view of women remains very traditional and very old-fashioned.

“He’s an 81-year-old Argentine, a man who comes from a macho culture. He talks of his mother and grandmother minding house, fixing flowers, cleaning up. He’s rooted in the old theology of complementarity — the view that men and women are equal, but different.”

This view of the Pope has also been expressed by Jamie L Manson, a columnist with the National Catholic Reporter, in the USA.

“The way he talks about gender and sexuality suggests he has a deep attachment to the theology of complementarity. This was developed in a series of addresses Pope John Paul II gave at general audiences between 1979 and 1981.

“It teaches that God has designed man and women for different purposes and roles in society, in the family and in the Church.”

Manson says that various comments suggest that Francis is a passionate defender of complementarity. “He frequently speaks of women in exaggerated, lofty terms, while simultaneously confining their role to that of wife and mother.”

In fact, Francis’s view of the role of women in the wider society isn’t all that different from the view (much-criticised by feminists) enshrined in Article 41 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, the 1937 Irish Constitution. This exalts the role of women “within the home” and stresses that “mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”.

If Francis, as the evidence suggests, is wedded to the concept of complementarity, then there is little likelihood that he can — or even wishes to — promote women in the Church.

In her speech in Rome, Mrs McAleese said: “We challenge Pope Francis to develop a credible strategy for the inclusion of women as equals throughout the Church’s root-and-branch infrastructure, including its decision-making”.

As he enters the sixth year of his pontificate, this is just one of many challenges the Pope from Argentina faces. The scandal-ridden Vatican Bank — known officially as the IOR (Institute for Works of Religion) — is proving very resistant to reform.

And matters are not helped by the fact that Cardinal George Pell, the prefect for the secretariat of the economy with overall responsibility for sorting out Vatican finances, is back in his native Australia, facing historical sexual offences charges.

A wider reform agenda, including nurturing a renewed Catholicism, with mercy at its core, advancing greater collegiality, and building on his programme of “pastoral populism”, as well as the ongoing need to reform the Roman Curia, will absorb much of the Pope’s energies.

So far, he has only achieved a cautious decentralisation of the Church.

“Overhauling an ancient and unwieldy Roman Curia is a painfully slow process,” says Christopher Lamb, the Rome correspondent of the English Catholic weekly, The Tablet.

“The Pope has likened it to cleaning the Egyptian sphinx with a toothbrush.”

And then there is the persistent controversy over clerical sex abuse.

Despite references to the need for zero tolerance, Francis has failed to match his words with action.

“Scandals have not gone away,” says Lamb.

“The most serious of them — clerical sex abuse — has been poorly handled.”

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