Introduction to Part Four

The fourth and final section turns to church institutions, hierarchies and structures, exposing many ways in which the absence of women limits the capacity of the institutional Church in its mission of evangelisation and pastoral care. It is here that women are most invisible and silent in Catholic life.

While many Catholic communities, schools, parishes and pastoral organisations depend upon women’s participation and commitment in order to function effectively, the various forms of leadership and ministry in the Church are almost exclusively male. Not only does this exclusivity deprive the Church of women’s intellectual and administrative skills, it also creates a credibility gap between the Catholic Church and most other institutions and churches in modern society, where women are increasingly able to play a full and equal part alongside men. The contributors in this section are not claiming their rights over and against men, but are committed Catholics serving the Church in many ways. They seek a deeper, richer engagement with the life of the institutional Church in equal and mutually respectful relationships with men.

Mary Aquin O’Neill draws on sociological research to question what it means to speak of women in terms of “the role of women,” for “woman is not and cannot be a role.” Rather, “Women, like men, are capable of filling many different roles, according to our preparation and our gifts.” Questioning the ways in which influential male theologians have interpreted St Paul’s understanding of the headship of Christ in relation to the Church, O’Neill appeals for a theological model that is more faithful to the Genesis understanding of the creation of woman as “helpmate” to man, a relationship in which, to cite the Catechism, “she thus represents God from whom comes our help” (CCC 1605).

Lucetta Scaraffia describes the exclusion of women from the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family as the Church “breathing with only one lung.” She argues that the absence of women’s perspectives from reflections on the family impoverishes Catholic life and contributes to the sense of “’disconnect’ between the practices of the faithful and Catholic moral teachings on the family. Scaraffia describes “the emancipation of women and radical change in sexual behaviour” as two revolutions of the twentieth century that have far-reaching implications for the Church. In the face of the ambivalent and sometimes negative legacy of these revolutions, there is a need to redefine male and female roles. Like several other contributors to this collection, she argues that this new understanding must include a greater emphasis on men’s domestic responsibilities, and affirm the Christian belief not only on the importance of the maternal role, but on equality between spouses in marriage.

Christine Schenk draws attention to the ways in which Lectionary readings are often edited to omit scriptural references to women’s leadership in the Gospels and the Pauline epistles. She asks what effect these omissions have on our sons and daughters, potentially leading young girls to internalize a sense of inferiority in relation to boys, and seeding equally damaging assumptions in boys. Schenk proposes a revision of the Lectionary texts to raise awareness “about the inclusive practice of Jesus and St Paul through biblical preaching and proclamation.”

 Still on the subject of preaching, Madeleine Fredell argues that “there are many passages in the Bible that would benefit from being expounded by women.” She appeals for a review of Canon Law so that not only ordained ministers but lay women and men can also preach the homily, in recognition of the fact that all the baptized are called to be “priest, prophet and king, representing Christ to our fellow pilgrims.”

Rhonda Miska explores the “blessings, challenges and hopes” of young Catholic women’s ministries, drawing on her own experience of leadership in social justice and interfaith work. Such work brings blessings of “encounters and relationships” that “energize” young Catholics in their work. Challenges include the sometimes irresponsible exercise of priestly power and low wages, but also for women the problems of sexism that devalues women’s ministries. The hope for “millennials in a post-modern world” is that the Church will creatively engage with their struggles, in the context of Pope Francis’s vision of a joyful and engaged Church which is “out on the streets” (EG, 49).

Finally, Catherine Cavanagh asks about the impact on family life and the perceptions of children when “Sunday after Sunday” they learn that only men can preach and read the Gospel at Mass, only men can be the Imago Christi, that priests hold the decision-making power in the Church, that there are Fathers but no corresponding Mothers in church life, and that a host of consequences flow from these practices. Some propose the ordination of women as the answer to such problems, while others say that this is “inconceivable, even forbidden.” Whatever the disagreements, Cavanagh asks that we “wrestle with the reality” in mutual trust.