Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Pope Francis highlights the role of women, but will he usher in a female priesthood?

Some would argue that Pope Francis is breaking with tradition.

The pontiffs recent comments about the role of women has brought with them the usual comments about the pope 'breaking with tradition' and therefore the possibility of a change in how women are viewed within the Catholic Church.  For examples see this article in The Guardian! the Christian Post and here in the Huffington Post . All these articles are reflecting the interpretations of groups such as  the Association of Italian Women Theologians, which promotes female experts on religion and their visibility in the Church, whose spokesperson Marinella Perroni said;

"Pope Francis is taking up, with a stronger emphasis, the teaching of previous popes about the role of women in the foundation of faith and the resurrection of Jesus....The fact that the Pope acknowledges that the progressive removal of female figures from the tradition of the resurrection...is due to human judgments, distant from those of God...introduces a decidedly new element compared to the previous papacy." 

All these sources, of course, make a link with the role of women priests.  Is it just me, or are they trying to suggest that the Pope in 'breaking with tradition' is likely to increase women's role within the Church and this will inevitably lead to the priesthood?

But what do Catholics mean by Tradition?

Firstly, let us examine what is meant by tradition.  There is traditional practice e.g. the celibacy of priests, the washing of male priests feet on mourn day Thursday, eating meat etc.  These are what most people see as tradition, longstanding customs or norms. However Catholicism talks about Tradition in terms of scared tradition, those beliefs passed down from the apostles and the Church fathers that enlighten scripture to ensure its correct interpretation.

In Catholicism the magisterium points to the fact that the apostles did not ordain female priests, therefore this enables the Chruch to interpret passages within the Bible to determine whether women can be priests.

Therefore if Perroni, and those subsequently reporting her words, is inferring that the Pope, whose statements you can view here, is about to open up the priesthood to women I believe this is not the case quite simply because he can't. As John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis (1994) declared, “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.” The reason for this lack of authority? Jesus only had men with him at the Last Supper when he instituted the Eucharist, the main raison de etre of the priesthood.

Did Jesus not include women at the Last Supper because of the contemporary male dominated society?

For many years, like others, I was not satisfied with this as a reason.  I heard the arguments that Jesus only did this to conform to the social prejudices of the time, it was easier to only include men;  in reality Jesus would want to have women priests. For a long time these arguements impressed me.  However, upon closer inspection they do not stand up to scrutiny.

Firstly look at Jesus' actions - He was a revolutionary when it came to women and  He certainly wasn't afraid then to go against the social constraints of His time.

  • For example, despite the restrictions reading the scriptures, Jesus taught women.  When Jesus visits the home of Martha and Mary Martha calls upon him to admonish Mary; she is left doing all the work, surely Jesus should intervene? Except instead of turning to Mary with the request to get into the kitchen and make his dinner he says "Martha, Martha you are worried about many things, but few things are needed - or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:41-42). He therefore continues to teach her.  Jesus clearly sees it as more important for Mary to learn than to fulfil her social obligations.
  • Think also of the belief that women should not have authority over men, or teach them.  Who is the first person Jesus announces that he is the Messiah to? (A note here should be made that this is unlike Peter who's understanding of Jesus' mission and nature where revealed to him by the Holy Spirit). A woman, in fact even more significantly a Samaritan woman, therefore He shocked his disciples by not only talking to a woman who is outside of his family, but a Samaritan which results in her teaching others about him.  All against the attitudes towards women and outsiders by the Jewish community (John 4:1-42).
  • Also, was Jesus ever cowered by society into not doing the right thing? How could Jesus, God, be sinless if He ignored the dignity of women and did not allow them a place in the last supper and therefore the institution of the Eucharist if He was doing this only as a result of social pressure?  Therefore it can only lead you to conclude that as He wasn't afraid of making a few ripples with the religious elites when he needed to (it kind of got him killed) and He did this with women continually the fact that they weren't at this significant moment was itself by Jesus' design.  He was saying something about women and men and their natures.  He treated them as equals, but at this moment He significantly treated them differently.

Pope Francise refers to the women finding the risen Lord and it's significance.  I believe it is signifcant in two ways.

How then is the fact that it was women that found Jesus risen so significant?

Throughout the Bible God doesn't use strength; he picks the weakest and the most vulnerable so we can see the power of God.  Think of it, David a shepherd boy, Moses an outcast, Jesus an illegitimate carptenter's son, Mary a girl from a backwater.  Following the days of the Bible the same pattern emerges; Joan of Arc, Catherine of Sienna etc. In fact, those with power and status often lost it in order to demonstrate the Gospel in its fullness; St Francis.

In these times the fact that women were the first to meet the risen Lord becomes of itself significant.  As Pope Francis rightly points out there testimonies is whitewashed out of the letters and communications of the apostles.  Why? Because in the courts of Ancient Israel the testimony of women were seen as less significant than that of men.  However, it is the women's testimony that is recorded in the Gospels.  In other words. if you were going to make this up to convince your contemporaries why would you have women witnessing the resurrection?  It is like bringing the tramp down the street as your character witness to court to confirm your good character. You just don't.  You call the doctor, teacher, local constable etc. It therefore points towards the resurrections Truth for those willing to look.

Secondly, and it is for this reason that I believe that Pope Francis is highlighting women in this manner, the women are the first evangelists of the Good News. Pope Francis is confirming that his pontificate is about evangelism and the first evangelists are mothers, grandmothers etc within the homes.  It is why our role's as women are so significant.  The world looks for power to enforce it's message.  God has always used love and humility.

How has the Catholic Church viewed women?

Pope Francis isn't the first to look for women to bring their roles as the first evangelists and all that their true nature has to offer to the forefront. Kathryn Jean Lopez, in her recent article about the instatement of a female (Kim Daniels) for the role of spokesperson for Cardinal Dolan, includes the words of the then Pope Benedict XVI;
the hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is under-going so deep a transformation, women impregnated with the spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid mankind in not falling.
You women have always had as your lot the protection of the home, the love of beginnings and an understanding of cradles. You are present in the mystery of a life beginning. You offer consolation in the departure of death. Our technology runs the risk of becoming inhuman. Reconcile men with life and above all, we beseech you, watch carefully over the future of our race. Hold back the hand of man who, in a moment of folly, might attempt to destroy human civilization.

By focusing on motherhood and the family in my blog I do not mean to limit women to these role, after all in all stages of life we are called to do different work for the Lord.  However, the most significant position we hold is within that family unit.  This is especially true because of the moral agenda our children are being exposed to later in their lives in our schools and colleges. Without a firm moral foundation delivered in the home how will our children be able to counteract this?  With the best will in the world we cannot be open to all the opportunities of imparting spiritual wisdom when we are tired from working outside of the home.

The New Evangelism calls us to be creative and to reach those not just outside the Church, but those on the peripheries as well. Not all women have been given, or recognise they have been given, the opportunity we have to stay at home and care for our families. That is why we need to cherish it and be grateful and by doing so we witness the importance of life in a culture dominated by material value. We need also to be able to support those whose earthly life and worries is leading them away form the source of peace - Christ. 

What does this mean for women today?

I have recently been searching for playgroups to involve my little one and was struck by how they are all located in secular environments or in our local Protestant churches - but not in our Catholic Church were it is acknowledged the congregation are getting older; what a wasted opportunity! It struck me as so odd as, in attending weekday masses with my sometimes crying daughter, I have been made so welcome by women who obviously love children and this has caused me to think.
We need to think about how can we aid our sisters in Christ to nurture their young as they drop them off at the door of their local, secular, daycare.  
Is there room in your Church for a play group? Are there retired ladies with love and wisdom to give to their younger sisters through this? What a wonderful way to not only provide the physical space and support, but also the emotional and wisdom.  To share our knowledge of the challenges and sacrifices as well as the joy in figuring out family and professional balances. 

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I welcome your posts whether you agree with me or not. Can I ask that people are respectful to each other; no-one has the right not to be offended, but I think that we can talk to each other without swearing or using personal insults.
If you want to use the whole "sky fairy" thing when you're talking to people with faith that too is your perogitive. Just know that for me and many others when you do you've lost the argument.