Introduction

Introduction

In his opening address to the 2014 Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis reminded his fellow bishops of their “great responsibility: to carry the realities and the problems of the Churches, to help them walk on that path that is the Gospel of the family.” He encouraged them to speak with parrhesia – “to say all that, in the Lord, one feels the need to say: without polite deference, without hesitation.”[1] Even though few women were present when he gave his address, the contributors to this book have taken Pope Francis at his word and have spoken with parrhesia.

This anthology is a collaboration among many women who believe that the Church cannot come to a wise and informed understanding of family life without listening to women. Cardinal Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, in a letter sending his greetings to the contributors, described the book as “a narrative enchiridion of some of the issues – or rather persons – whose voices are an essential part of our community.” He expressed his “commitment to listen to every voice and to have free and serious dialogue, even on delicate and complex questions, with people who believe, with those who do not believe, and with those who believe or think differently.”[2] We hope and pray that other leaders in the Church will be equally open to dialogue, so that this book might be a resource for all who are responsible for the Church’s ministry to families in the modern world, and for those who wish to understand how women’s lives are shaped by their faith in Christ and the teachings of the Church.

Contributors to the book represent a little of the rich diversity and complexity of Catholic women’s lives, not only as wives and mothers but as women who are single, women in religious life, professional women, single mothers, women without children, divorced and remarried women, lesbian women, academic theologians and women in a wide range of pastoral, social and domestic roles. We are Catholic women who practise our faith and seek prayerfully to understand and respect the Church’s teachings. We sometimes have difficulty, however, with the ways in which these teachings are interpreted and implemented through the Church’s hierarchy and institutions, not least because these institutions remain overwhelmingly androcentric.

We are different in our cultures and contexts, and in our struggles and insights. We do not speak as one voice but as many voices with a common desire to enrich the Church through our differences, as we seek “a unity which is never uniformity but a multifaceted and inviting harmony” (EG 117). We do not all share the same perspectives, and we do not all agree with one another. We do not speak as “Woman” but as many women who together form part of the body of Christ.

We believe that we have something to say that is not being heard when members of the hierarchy discuss women and family life. Apart from the roles that define us in relation to our families, we women remain “other” with regard to the Church’s institutions and teachings. We are often spoken about in language that seems remote and detached from our own endeavors to articulate “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the women of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted” (GS 1).

We hope that the voices in this anthology will enrich the conversation. Our intention is to ask questions and explore issues that do not find space for open discussion in the Church. For example, while there were a few women present at the 2014 Synod of Bishops, most of them were invited to attend only in their capacity as wives, speaking with their husbands as couples who celebrate and uphold the Church’s teaching on the family. While we value and respect their witness, we regret that no one spoke on behalf of the millions of Catholic women who do not so easily conform to this model. Despite the theme of the Synod, those gathered did not engage with the work of women theologians who have for many years been writing on issues of marriage, family life, sexuality and human relationships. In other words, women’s voices were not heard in a way that would authentically represent the vast diversity of Catholic women’s lives, nor was the contribution of women theologians acknowledged. In this book, we speak as some of those missing voices.

We are aware that no book can claim to encapsulate this rich and abundant diversity. However, we hope that our desire to open up a space of dialogue and encounter will enable others to speak and be heard. Pope Francis cautions against “imposing a monolithic uniformity” on our human diversity. He writes, “Differences between persons and communities can sometimes prove uncomfortable, but the Holy Spirit, who is the source of that diversity, can bring forth something good from all things and turn it into an attractive means of evangelization” (EG 131). We intend this book to be a means of evangelization – not in spite of but because of – the different points of view it represents. We acknowledge that some of these points of view might be uncomfortable perspectives to consider.

Pope Francis has said that “we have not yet come up with a profound theology of womanhood, in the Church.”[3] Such comments reduce women to objects of study, a separate category of reflection. Theology, from this perspective, is primarily for and about men – the “we” implicitly referred to here. Women have been doing theology since the time of the New Testament. Indeed, one could argue that the first Christology was articulated by pregnant women, when Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” recognized Mary as “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43).

We resist, therefore, any suggestion that the Church needs a theology of “Woman” or “womanhood.” Rather than a deeper theology of women, we say that the Church needs a deeper theology of the human – a theological anthropology that can be developed only by the full inclusion of women in the process of theological reflection informed by the experiential realities of daily life. In her welcoming address to participants at a conference on “Women in the Church: Prospects for Dialogue” at the Pontifical Antonianum University in April 2015, the University’s Rector, Sister Mary Melone, said, “We are not mere guests – we are the Church, and we wish to be so more intensely.” That is the spirit in which this book has been written.

Pope Francis speaks of the need for us to become a “messy” Church, a Church that is not afraid to take risks in order to live the joyous adventure of faith. This book expresses the messy realities of women’s lives, realities that challenge the Church’s current practice in many ways, realities that the Church must acknowledge in order to communicate the joy of the Gospel to future generations. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis quotes St Thomas Aquinas, who in turn cites St Augustine, to argue that “the precepts which Christ and the apostles gave to the people of God ‘are very few’” (EG 43).[4] This means, says Pope Francis, that

the precepts subsequently enjoined by the Church should be insisted upon with moderation “so as not to burden the lives of the faithful” and make our religion a form of servitude, whereas “God’s mercy has willed that we should be free.”[5] This warning, issued many centuries ago, is most timely today. It ought to be one of the criteria to be taken into account in considering a reform of the Church and her preaching which would enable it to reach everyone (EG 43).

This book tells of the burdens that women bear in a tradition that too often continues to make religion a form of female servitude. It also tells stories of courage and joy, patience and perseverance, often in the face of extreme adversity. The chapters constitute a chorus of women’s voices speaking of faith, hope and love, without fear and without self-censorship. We hope that those reading these pages will “listen with humility”[6] to what their sisters say, in order that dialogue can begin.

We have ensured that all the pieces are relatively short and accessible to a general readership.[7] This editorial decision allows us to disclose the rich diversity, engagement and learning of Catholic women today. The hierarchy has not acknowledged this diversity because it speaks about us but seldom with us. Meanwhile, secular culture often dismisses Catholic women as subservient handmaids in a Church that is perceived as patriarchal. This book suggests that these impoverished attitudes do not do justice to our faith in Christ, our fidelity to the Church and our considered reasons for remaining Catholic. Beyond all the inevitable frustrations and failings of our finite institutions and fallible lives, we discover in the scriptures mediated through the faith and sacraments of the Catholic Church our communal home on earth and our hope of that eternal joy where we shall all share as beloved of Christ in the heavenly wedding feast.

The Catholic Women Speak Network

July 2015

Notes:

[1] Pope Francis, “Greeting to the Synod Fathers during the First General Congregation of the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops,” Monday, 6 October 2014, https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2014/october/documents/papa-francesco_20141006_padri-sinodali.html, accessed 15 June 2015.

[2] Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi, President, Pontifical Council for Culture, personal letter to Tina Beattie, 7 July 2015.

[3] Press Conference of Pope Francis during the Return Flight, Apostolic Journey to Rio de Janeiro on the Occasion of the XXVIII World Youth Day, Papal flight, Sunday, 28 July, 2013, at https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2013/july/documents/papa-francesco_20130728_gmg-conferenza-stampa.html, accessed 22 July 2015.

[4] Citing S. Th., I-II, q. 107, a. 4.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Pope Francis, “Greeting to the Synod Fathers.”

[7] Links to longer versions of some of the articles are available on our website, as well as other articles and links for those who want to read further. Please go to http://www.catholicwomenspeak.com/.