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Historical tensions visit women and the Church

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Andrew Hamilton |  18 June 2009

Mary McKillopVisitations are usually awe-inspiring and terrifying. They go with thunderbolts, particularly when conducted by Head Office. So the news that the Vatican will conduct a visitation of United States female religious congregations was naturally received with some anxiety by many of its beneficiaries.

But in this case the style of visitation seems disarming. It follows a recent Vatican visitation of United States seminaries which passed equably.

It is to be conducted, not by Bishops, but by two religious sisters. Its terms of reference are broad and not loaded. The visitors are to look at the life of different religious congregations, examine their contribution to the church and society, and reflect on their future service of the church. The visitation website invites comments.

The questions posed, too, are of interest to the wider church, given the huge contribution made by religious women in the United States. In the last half century the number of religious sisters has declined greatly, the average age of the members has risen, and the future of many congregations is not assured.

None of these things, however, will completely allay anxiety. In their relations with the men who have authority in their local parishes or dioceses, sisters have always needed to defend their proper autonomy.

In parish convents the tension was handled ceremoniously. When Father came to celebrate morning Mass, he was invited to breakfast in the parlour. The place, the doilies, casters, saucers, plates, butter pats and thinly sliced toast were both a sign of welcome and a reminder that he was a guest whose writ did not run over the life of the community.

In their early years, too, many congregations struggled with local bishops over the limits of autonomy. Some founders, like Mary MacKillop (pictured), were even excommunicated. It is not surprising that ancestral antennae sense danger when male church leaders decide on visitation.

This visitation also takes place in a climate of lively conversation about the place of women in church and society and about the scope of the Second Vatican Council.

Discussion of the place of women often focuses on feminism. Catholics are divided between those whose instinct is to praise feminism for its unflinching advocacy of equality and freedom, and those who associate feminism with the extension of the demand for freedom to sexual morality and the transmission of life, and associate equality with the denial of difference. The latter point has consequences for the priestly ordination of women.

Catholics also argue about the extent to which Vatican II endorsed radical change. It certainly encouraged significant changes to religious life, which have been welcomed by most women religious. For others the changes in the rules of religious congregations, in dress, in customs and the opening of a public role outside the Christian community explain why religious vocations have diminished and many religious have left their congregations.

They find support for their argument in the growth of some religious congregations that wear the ordinary women's dress of earlier times and follow a traditional rule.

These issues are important and need to be debated. Many women religious, however, fear that in the visitation a negative attitude both to feminist aspirations and to the changes brought about by Vatican II will be assumed as its starting point. They can find historical grounds for this fear.

Take, for example, the experience of Mary Ward in the early 17th century. In the previous century women's congregations had been reformed by the insistence on enclosure — the confinement of sisters to their convent — which safeguarded space for prayer and sobriety of heart.

Mary Ward saw the growing need of young women for education. She asked that her sisters be free from the obligation to sing the office and that they be able to go about as their work of spreading the faith and of education demanded.

Her work prospered, but she met resistance from within the Catholic Church. Like our own, it was a time of consolidation. A Papal Bull was dedicated to 'completely suppress and extinguish them, subject them to perpetual abolition and remove them entirely from the Holy Church of God'.

The Bull appealed to attitudes to women that were patronising and demeaning. It can be seen now to be driven by fear rather than by the freedom of the Gospel. It described Mary Ward's companions in these terms:

'Free from, the laws of enclosure, they wander about at will, and under the guise of promoting the salvation of souls, have been accustomed to attempt and to employ themselves at many other works which are most unsuited to their weak sex and character, to female modesty and particularly to maidenly reserve — works which men of eminence in the science of sacred letters, of experience of affairs and of innocence of life undertake with much difficulty and only with great caution.'

The example of Mary Ward suggests how easily women's desire to express the freedom and energy of the Gospel can be frustrated by cultural prejudice dressed as traditional wisdom. The visitation of the sisters in the United States calls for and offers an opportunity for a more confident engagement.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

 



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I really enjoyed this piece and the sensitivity with which it was written! It also educated me about something I have never heard about before - Vatican visitations.

I am a believer in the priestly ordination of women and so always interested to read articles about the role of women in the church. I see no good reason why women ought not be ordained assuming there to be vocations. Perhaps it doesn't happen because the decision makers on that front are male.

Georgina 18 June 2009

Thank you, Andrew.

It strikes me that global 'cultural prejudice' has completely ignored the fact that women were Jesus' first disciples. It is truly time that women were recognised as being 'equal if different' from the male hierarchy, but I won't hold my breath.

Patricia 18 June 2009

It is beyond belief that the Church still treats women, ‘the glory of creation’ as second-class citizens. How long will it be before the irresistible waves of revelation [communication of knowledge to man by a divine or supernatural agency] open the closed, cobweb-encrusted minds of the Vatican ancients, provoke a generation change, remind the Pope that God is smarter than the Curia and open the doors to woman priests? Come on God, get on with it.

Dermott Ryder 18 June 2009

Thanks for the degree of reassurance you give, Andrew. That phrase from your last paragraph, "Cultural prejudice dressed as traditional wisdom" needs to be asserted constantly in the face

Joe Castley 18 June 2009

On 25th March the Church celebrates the most mysterious and the most solemn event in the history of mankind and of the universe.

At The Annunciation God, whom neither time nor space can encompass, enters His created world. He chooses to become man in the womb of a woman. Christ,The Word of God, is made flesh - an event made possible through the consenting word of a woman, an event just as amazing as bread & wine becoming the Body & Blood of Christ through the words of an ordained man.
Meditation on that pivotal point in history should guide all discussion about God's will for the role of women in spreading the Good News.

Since the Vatican Visitators to the US female religious orders are nuns themselves I am hopeful that they will be accepted and listened to as Luke tells us Mary listened to Gabriel.

Uncle Pat 18 June 2009

I am new to the Church, a catechumen, and I too asked the question of why women can't be ordained. The answer was that Priest's are the persona Christi, a representative of Jesus, who was a man, who in turn transformed 12 men into apostles, to represent him, and share the great news of our salvation, this is the core of our tradition. It was theological. But, this is 2009, women can do men's work, so why shouldn't they?

Mary is a great role model, devoted to God, loving and nuturing to his Son, and supporting the apostles.

Over time I noticed Mary in my church, but not as a painting or sculpture. She was in the women loving and serving the parish behind the scenes in personally assisting the Priest, organising events, teaching the children about Christ, in presenting first or second readings, in the piety store, at home praying for others, or acting as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. Catholic women can to "men's work", that isn't the issue. The Priesthood isn't a job, it's a spiritual vocation from a tradition that in itself is a central thread that makes up the fabric of this wholesome Universal Church.

Richard 18 June 2009

Somehow I sent off my previous comment on the article on the visitation of women's orders in the US without adding the final words. It should have finished more graciously "...in the face of objections to Vatican 2.

Joe Castley 18 June 2009

I was delighted to read Richard's comments.

I am always interested in the views of adult catechumens. I value them as adult seekers after truth and how they respond to the dogmas and the canonical laws of the catholic church.

As a cradle catholic I was taught that only men could become priests because Jesus chose only men to be his "special" ministers, especially in the ministration of the sacraments.

By the time I was in my 20s I questioned this when I started to think a bit more deeply about the mystery of the Incarnation - when The Trinity asked for the cooperation of a woman so that the Divine Second Person, the Word, might become a completely human person.
God did not have to act that way. The Word could have been made flesh by divine fiat, not through Mary's fiat.

It seems to me that the arguments restricting priesthood to men are bogus. As Tevye sings in Fiddler on the Roof - Tradition is why we do what we do.

Uncle Pat 18 June 2009

I have been spending some months on sabbatical in the UK, and through visiting friends and relatives at weekends have ended up attending quite a few Anglican Church communions, many these days presided over by women Anglican priests. A number of things have struck me about these experience. Some of the feminisation of the proceedings and especially sermons I have found a bit irritating at times, with a tendency to being just a bit too `touchy-feely` for my tastes, but I have to say no more so than some of the detached, mechanical maleness that I have often experienced in RC church liturgies. But what is most obvious is how these women are accepted and loved by their communities as their priest; how well they do their jobs; how natural it all seems to the extent of being just ordinary, albeit in a somewhat different way to what one is used to. Vivent les differences?

Haydn Walters 19 June 2009

Since Vatican II, most religious congregations of women in the West have shot themselves in the foot, if not the head. Vatican II called for the updating and renewal of religious life - not its wholesale destruction. In defiance of the principles laid down by Vatican II and the post-conciliar documents, we have seen the abandonment of common life, choral recitation of the Divine Office, the apostolic work designated by the founder, an identifiable habit and other vital elements. Religious life amongst women - or anybody! - cannot flourish under these conditions. Little wonder, then, that questing, educated young women in Australia, if they feel a sense of vocation at all to the religious life, are heading off to the very few traditional religious convents in Australia or, more likely, overseas. It is a matter of profound regret that many of the great women's congregations which have made an incalculable contribution to the development of Australian Catholicism - Charities, Mercies, Good Samaritams, Josephites, Presentations, Dominicans - are probably doomed to extenction. Iy was not inevitable but bad decision-making has, alas, almost ceertainly made it so.

Sylvester 19 June 2009

I am heartened by Richard and people like him who recognise that God is eternal, even if the structures of 'God's people' do not truly represent the love of God equally for all people. The contemporary deconstruction of the Gospels and the necessity to read them within their cultural context leaves us with the question of whether we can live with being told what they mean (ie Jesus chose only 12 male companions to follow his ministry) or whether we can grasp their significance for all people and their call to holiness, regardless of gender. I do have hope for the future, following the great example of the many women who saw the possibilities of a life 'full of God'. Are we up to the challenge? Are the 'men of the church' also up to the challenge?

Judith 19 June 2009

It's interesting that traditional, habit-wearing orders are very much in the minority in the US, yet they're getting about 80 per cent of vocations right now. In fact, they're booming.

So I'd say a visitation is very much overdue, if nothing else, to find out what they're doing right.

As to the question of women priests... As a recent Catholic 'revert', I well remember loudly declaring how backward this institution was, how sad that they couldn't get with the modern age and recognise the value of women.

I'm so happy to have discovered the truth on that question. This is not about the value of women, it's about what a priest actually is and what they actually do when they're standing there behind the altar.

If you're completely set against the Church's teaching, you'll find its arguments unconvincing. But as someone who's turned a full 180 degrees on this issue, and on so many others, I can testify to the fact that it is quite possible to read your way into changing your mind!

Margaret 25 June 2009

It's interesting that traditional, habit-wearing orders are very much in the minority in the US, yet they're getting about 80 per cent of vocations right now. In fact, they're booming.

So I'd say a visitation is very much overdue, if nothing else, to find out what they're doing right.

As to the question of women priests... As a recent Catholic "revert", I well remember loudly declaring how backward this institution was, how sad that they couldn't get with the modern age and recognise the value of women.

I'm so happy to have discovered the truth on that question. This is not about the value of women, it's about what a priest actually is and what they actually do when they're standing there behind the altar.

If you're completely set against the Church's teaching, you'll find its arguments unconvincing. But as someone who's turned a full 180 degrees on this issue, and on so many others, I can testify to the fact that it is quite possible to read your way into changing your mind!

Margaret 25 June 2009

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