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When Catholic Women
Are Equal Partners

By Mary E. Hunt

11 April, 2005
CommonDreams.org

Catholic history is measured in centuries, not decades, and Catholic women have been an integral part from the beginning. One would never know that from observing the funeral, conclave, and plans for a new papacy following the death of Pope John Paul II. A visitor from Venus would think that men gesture, genuflect, and guard, while women pray silently under their mantillas with candles and rosaries in hand. More important, men make all the decisions while women, who at best can be their spokespersons, are expected to abide by them.

By virtue of their ordination, clergymen (not lay men or any women) run the church. Only men are eligible for the top spot and to elect the one who will hold it. The trickle-down sexism is legendary: prohibitions on women priests, laws against women making sexual and reproductive decisions, official policies that keep women from teaching in seminaries, and a clerical culture that has no place for women. Ironically, women already do the lion’s share of the ministry in the U.S. Catholic Church and elsewhere, though the men reserve the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Penance, and financial and theological matters to themselves.

Some wise person decreed that when the pope dies virtually all official Vatican offices are vacated and the new pope starts fresh. What might it look like if by some act of the Holy Spirit, as the Cardinals like to say of their politicking, the next papacy were to reflect women as equal partners in the church?

The first change would be to tone down the whole thing. With war raging, the environment in peril, and people dying of HIV/AIDS, the current hoopla is simply too much. Not even the deepest spiritual graces justify the expense of the travel, costumes, and media surrounding this good man’s death. Women I know would have suggested a simple, dignified burial and continuing on with the work he loved.

Another change would be declericalizing the church. That does not mean simply ordaining women and married men and going on with the show. What is transparent in this interregnum (the word alone speaks volumes) is the wide gap between clergy and laity, indeed between management and members, between the ordained and the rest of us. The days of clerical privilege are behind us. If sound theology were not enough to demonstrate that a “discipleship of equals” is the preferred model of church, the pedophilia and episcopal cover-up scandals are. Clerical secrecy is reserved for the most private of situations; accountability is a two-way flat street in Christian communities.

A third change would be to start from scratch in terms of institution building, seeking horizontal integration of a global church. The unique cultural, linguistic, and religious contributions of each local community would become part of a grand chorus, not erased in favor of the least common denominator. This is the major challenge of the twenty-first century on every front, not simply the religious. With technology, travel, and tenderness I have every confidence it can be met. I have worked with women in international settings and seen creativity trump static rules of order, translation handled with skill and ease, new models of shared leadership tried with great success.

Finally, Catholic women want a church where love and justice translate into concrete social political action, beginning at home. We want to use the moral energy of our religion to stop war, eradicate greed, empower women, and eliminate racism. But we want to do so as a modest community of believers, not as a transnational religious corporation whose CEO is elected by the board. We want to invite and include, especially those who have been kept at the margins by princes of power. We want to be part of the action, but only in a renewed church.

Mary E. Hunt, PhD is a Catholic feminist theologian. She is the co-director of WATER, the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual in Silver Spring, Maryland. mhunt@hers.com




 

 

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