JENNIFER SLEEMAN is that most dangerous kind of revolutionary – one with a very good argument.
One who, in the gentlest and most reasonable terms, gives voice to the views of a huge number of people in an effort to achieve something that long ago became commonplace in virtually every sphere of life.
She is a David facing her Goliath and her deadly pebble is an idea that has been accepted as the civilised and equitable position of modern, inclusive, tolerant and progressive societies for a century or more. She, and those who support her, want the Catholic Church to do no more than “stop treating women as second class citizens”. She articulates what a great many discontented and troubled Catholics feel. She expresses the kind of disenchantment that means great numbers of people can no longer support the Catholic Church though she remains an active and loyal member.
During the summer she suggested a form of protest – a Mass boycott – that many people, who were born into Catholic families, have already made but on a permanent basis. The huge number of “lapsed” Irish Catholics – so described as if they might return to the fold when they get sense – have left a Church out of kilter with their lives and the society they live in.
Nevertheless, many who agree with Ms Sleeman may not support her action. To many of these people her arguments seem defiant, divisive and possibly even radical. Her position, to contented Catholics, seems to muddy the waters between them and the beliefs and sacraments they cherish. Beliefs they are prepared to observe no matter that they debar their sisters and daughters from office in a way that would seem outrageous if applied to their brothers and sons.
In August, Ms Sleeman suggested that Catholics who are unhappy that their church defines their possibilities by their gender boycott Mass for just one day. That day arrives tomorrow and in the intervening weeks the debate has been as animated as it was passionate.
Traditional Catholics have defended their position, happy that so many offices of their church are closed to women and happy that their priests should at least take a vow of celibacy. Others have suggested that involvement rather than boycott is the better option.
During that time Pope Benedict visited Scotland and England where, despite warnings of protests and rejection, Catholicism enjoyed a victory of the kind that underlines the resilience that has served Christianity well for 2,000 years.
During that 2,000 years Christianity has split into many churches, each certain of its own integrity. It is unlikely that Catholicism can sustain its ideas about the place of women and remain – or become again – the force it was. Catholicism may be prepared to sacrifice influence to honour its own truth but many millions of people no longer share that understanding of faith.
That is why, irrespective of Ms Sleeman’s proposal, so many churches will be so very empty tomorrow.
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