August 31, 2013

Pope inspires Catholic women to aspire

While he has ruled out female priests, women are more hopeful about other leadership positions.

The Washington Post

When Pope Francis convened his now-famous news conference aboard the papal plane during his trip home from World Youth Day in Brazil, he drew international attention with his comments on homosexuality, specifically his words, "Who am I to judge?" (Only the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.)

A nun walks next to pictures of newly elected Pope Francis and one of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI near the Vatican
click image to enlarge

A nun walks past pictures of newly elected Pope Francis and one of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, top left, near the Vatican on March 15. Francis says he wants to shed the image of the Catholic Church as chauvinistic.

Reuters

But the eyebrows and hopes of many Catholics were also raised when the first Jesuit pope called for a deeper theology of women.

It's true that Francis dismissed the possibility of women's ordination to the priesthood, saying that "door is closed." But he also noted "a lack of a theological development" when it comes to women and proclaimed that "the role of the woman in the church must not end at mother and worker."

The pope said women are "more important than the bishops and priests" and, referring to debates over the role of women in the church, implied that there is no longer any question that women can be altar servers, lectors and heads of major Catholic organizations.

In the era of "nuns on the bus," "the mommy wars" and "the war on women," many female Catholic leaders see in Francis's call to action tremendous potential for starting conversations about gender in the church and society, with possible outcomes ranging from finding feminine ways to describe the divine to church support for paid maternity leave.

For most of history, "the way religion in general has understood women in relationship to God has been through the lens of men," said Sister Carol Zinn, the new president of the Leadership Council of Women Religious, an association of leaders of Catholic orders of nuns in the United States. The Leadership Council was censured by the Vatican last year for promoting what it called "radical feminist themes" not in keeping with church orthodoxy.

Although her group does not desire to replace patriarchy with matriarchy, Zinn said, "the birthing images, the laboring images, those are just as valid to represent the incredible capacity God has to love us" as male-generated images.

In order to develop a theology of women, Zinn said, the first thing the Catholic Church would have to do is, "in fact, talk to the people about whom you're trying to create a theology."

Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun and a prolific writer on Catholic issues, including gender, is more pointed when discussing how to correct what she sees as the absence of genuine female experience reflected in Catholic theology.

"Church men have got to begin to read good feminist philosophy, theology and science. They've got to understand that their positions (on gender) are embarrassingly groundless," Chittister said. "Then we've got to pull women together. We have thousands of years of churches whose whole theology is built (on) half of the insights of the human race. And that's supposed to be an adequate theology?"

No one denies that women have played a crucial role in the spiritual life of the church, from the often-thankless work of raising children and ministering to the needy in parishes, to the theological contributions of the four female "doctors of the church" (all named since the 1970s), including Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Therese of Lisieux.

The church already has a theology of women -- referred to by Francis -- centered on such documents as Pope John Paul II's "On the Dignity of Women" and his work on what is called the "theology of the body," the teaching that differences in gender point to differences in the nature of men and women. But even Pope Francis says more must be done.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the first female director of media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that "women don't feel heard. So just being heard is a major move forward."

(Continued on page 2)

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