The transformations taking place in women’s roles and identities have had a profound influence on our most intimate relationships. In 2014, in the light of rapidly changing values and expectations, the Catholic bishops embarked on a far-reaching process of reflection on the family. Although the discussions of the bishops were wide-ranging and often bold in the questions they addressed, the wisdom of women was almost entirely lacking from these deliberations.
Women are the custodians of family life and human relationships. In every culture, they remain the primary care givers for the young, the elderly and the vulnerable. Young girls are conditioned to accept these roles and to subsume their own desires for personal development and self-fulfilment to dedicate themselves to serving others. While such service is fundamental to the Christian understanding of neighborly love, women today are realizing that love of others does not require the negation of self. Jesus commands us to love our neighbours as ourselves. Discussing this commandment, St Thomas Aquinas reminds us that we ourselves belong among the good things of God which are to be loved, and we should desire for ourselves what we desire for others (ST II-II, 25, 4). Women today are asking how they might realize their human dignity and equality in the context of loving and responsible domestic and social relationships in which all are able to flourish.
Such visions of flourishing are fragile and sometimes even seem futile, for we live in a wounded world of broken relationships and failed attempts to realize our dreams of wholeness. Ours is a faith that calls not for perfection but for forgiveness, healing and redemption in Christ. Many of the essays in this section grapple with painful and complex realities, as women of faith bring theological and personal reflection to bear on the dilemmas and challenges of modern relationships and family life.
Julie Clague offers an overview of surveys which confirm that there is “a significant disjunction” between the Church’s official teaching on marriage and family, and the diverse values and practices by way of which Catholics express the being of the Church in different social and cultural contexts. Clague also points out that there is broad consensus among Catholics with regard to many of the challenges facing families because of social and economic pressures, violence and conflict, diseases, loneliness and bereavement. She concludes that only through greater participation of the lay faithful in the institutional Church will it be possible “to close the gap between theological rhetoric and pastoral realities.”
Lisa Sowle Cahill considers theological approaches to the relationship between family life, marriage and sexual relationships. She argues that “a contemporary ethics of family life should be concerned with the justice and the supportive nature of intergenerational relationships, not primarily with approved or disapproved sex.” This shift in emphasis calls for an embrace of Pope Francis’s vision of a Church in which Gospel values of forgiveness, hope and resurrection create a space for mercy and “neighborly empathy” rather than “righteous judgment” with regard to the struggles and sorrows of family life.
Clare Watkins offers a nuanced reflection upon the ways in which such struggles constitute the holiness of ordinary families, not in spite of but often because of their transgressions and failures. In an essay that resonates with Gomez’s essay in Part One, Watkins argues that it is “a failure of maternal wisdom” when mother Church regards teaching as “the handing down of rules” rather than a process of unconditional loving and growing through the different ages and stages of human development. It is in and through the transgressive challenges of family life that “a profundity of compassion, grace and peace” can be experienced.
Sara Maitland offers a robust and incisive challenge to the idea of “complementarity,” pointing out that appeals to “natural” complementarity have served to justify the oppression of women in ways that invite comparison with “the rhetoric of apartheid.” She argues that, in a world in which women still suffer the effects of inequality and violence across cultures and contexts, the “philosophical problem about gender and its meanings” is also a question of justice. What is needed is a shared endeavor to better understand and describe differences between individuals, and an acknowledgement that “sometimes we get things wrong.”
Tina Beattie revisits the medieval cult of St Anne, to ask what it might teach us today about different ways of representing holy families. She refers to late medieval iconography which depicts the conception of the Virgin as a tender embrace between her elderly parents, Joachim and Anne. She also considers representations of St Anne and the Virgin in various contexts which affirm the mother-daughter relationship and show the infant Christ being cared for in maternal kinship groupings. Reflecting on grandmothers caring for HIV/AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa and on changing models of family life, Beattie suggests that the medieval cult of St Anne might offer alternative ways of envisioning what it means to be a family, beyond the model of the nuclear family that emerged in the context of the modern state.
Margaret Watson describes the dilemmas she faces as a recent convert to Catholicism, because her Baptist husband of forty years cannot take communion with her when they attend Mass together. A particular problem is the inconsistency of different priests with regard to whether or not non-Catholic Christians can receive communion. Some say, “We must keep the rules of the Church,” to which her response is, “What about the urging of the Holy Spirit?”
The next three essays by Alison Concannon Kennedy, Pippa Bonner and Anna Cannon offer personal accounts of divorce and remarriage. As the Church seeks a pastoral solution to the challenge of divorced and remarried Catholics, these women speak of the grief of Eucharistic separation, which so often exacerbates the anguish of divorce and the fragile process of learning to love again. They show a concern for the care of children and the nurturing of faith through and beyond marital breakdown, offering insights into the trauma of divorce and possible pastoral processes that can support the transition to healing and new life.
Contraception remains one of the most vexed questions with regard to church teaching on marriage, being the area where Catholic practice is most clearly out of line with magisterial teaching. Jean Porter’s essay examines the status of that teaching in the light of the Catholic theological tradition’s consistent affirmation of the value of procreation. She suggests that the current teaching on contraception might come to be quietly dropped, using the example of the marriage debt – the teaching that spouses who deny their partners sex on request are guilty of serious sin – as an example of a previous teaching to which this has already happened. In the case of contraception this process would recognise that, while the Church safeguards revelation, it does so in the context of human limitations – a point which, she suggests, invites further reflection.
The next three essays once again move us from theological analysis to personal reflection with regard to contraception and the Church’s promotion of Natural Family Planning (NFP). Rachel Espinoza and Tawny Horner, both practitioners of NFP, give a searingly honest account of the tensions this method can create in a marriage. Olive Barnes, Amelia Beck and Giovanna Solari explain why they decided to use alternative forms of birth control because of damaging experiences of the failure of NFP in the lives of either their mothers or themselves. Emma Jane Harris writes as a “millennial,” a young woman who represents a new generation of Catholics who follow their own consciences around issues of sexuality and contraception. She writes, “While the Church works out its complex and contradictory relationship with gender, sexuality and the millennial generation, I have a life to live and work to do.”
Another challenge facing the Church today is that of same-sex relationships. Margaret Farley offers a theological analysis of arguments that might support same-sex marriage, in the light of new insights about human sexuality and changing social and economic circumstances. Mutually pledged commitment is now seen to be at the heart of marriage – “a permanent blending of loves” in which a commitment to fruitfulness “can take many forms.” If this is so, Farley asks, why should same-sex marriages not also be “experiences of the presence of God – manifest not only to the partners in marriage but to the Church and the world?”
We turn to the voices of personal experience to illuminate these theological reflections. Sophie Stanes and Deborah Woodman movingly describe their experience of civil partnership as Catholic women with a deep commitment to one another and their church community. Having lost their premature twin babies, conceived through IVF, they are able to say that they have “seen the Church at its best and its worst.” They have experienced warm support and prayer from their community and from some priests, and been harshly rejected by others – an experience which “leaves us as second class citizens who give all we can but risk everything when we ask.” Like Margaret Watson’s experience of her husband’s exclusion from the Eucharist, their reality is of a vexing inconsistency in the ways in which individual priests apply church teaching in their pastoral practice.
Ursula Halligan describes her tormenting experience of realizing as an Irish Catholic teenager that she was gay. She lived much of her adult life in secret self-loathing and loneliness. The Irish referendum on same-sex marriage emboldened her to speak out publicly about being gay, in the hopes that, “If my story helps even one 17-year-old schoolgirl, struggling with her sexuality, it will have been worth it.”
Eve Tushnet discusses her decision to adopt a celibate lifestyle as a gay woman after her conversion to Catholicism. In a nuanced and pragmatic reflection, she explains her reasons for embracing the Catholic faith, and her willingness to accept teachings that she might not fully understand. She suggests that gay Catholics, “by leading lives of fruitful, creative love, … can offer proof that sexual restraint isn’t a death sentence (or an especially boring form of masochism). Celibacy can offer some of us radical freedom to serve others.”
In a theological reflection on Thomist virtue theory, Katie Grimes questions the argument put forward by Tushnet and other celibate gay Catholics that acceptance of their homosexual identity is consistent with respecting church teaching that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” Not so, suggests Grimes, for while “the magisterium tells homosexual persons they can be but they must not do,” this directive is not consistent with the way in which virtue ethics understands the relationship between desiring and acting. “If one should not do, then neither should one be,” argues Grimes, adding that “perhaps lesbian and gay Catholics struggle to find a home within ordinary Catholic parishes because there is no place for them in the pages of magisterial teaching.”
Finally in this extensive exploration of Catholic women’s relationships and sexual identities, we hear from a religious sister about the positive benefits of female celibacy, and from a single woman who has learned to live creatively on the periphery of society. Janette Gray refers to the lack of attention paid to women’s celibacy in the context of religious vows, an oversight resulting from the preoccupation with problems associated with male celibacy. She draws on her research into women’s experiences of celibacy to argue that “abstinence from sexual activity can be understood not to devalue sex, the body, or women’s sexuality, but to represent wider human experiences of sexuality and relationships than sexual intercourse.” An incarnational celibacy that is open to sexuality “reveals that God is found in the diversity of creation and human encounters, not in narcissism nor exclusively in the isolation of the couple.”
Patricia Stoat describes how she learned to embrace a life of solitude and to celebrate it as “a vocation, an art form, a lifestyle, a way,” even when this might not have been the life she would have chosen. Drawing on biblical and historical examples, she suggests that single women belong among those who are on the margins where “the creative heart” is to be found, for in the “the new reality” that reflects the Church, “the outsider is the insider.”
These theological essays and personal reflections offer some insight into the expansive range of Catholic women’s ideas and experiences with regard to pastoral questions facing the Church today. It is the longest and most substantial section in the book, because it addresses some of the demanding issues facing women as they seek to express their faith in Christ amidst the complex realities of their daily lives. As we said in the introduction, these accounts are not intended to be read instead of but rather alongside the witness given by married couples who addressed the Synod on the Family in 2014. When the perspectives offered here are included, a more rounded picture of Catholic family life emerges than the one that is formed when only officially sanctioned voices are permitted to speak. Even so, this remains a partial snapshot, for many voices are still to be heard from within the abundant diversity of the global Church.