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Parish life blog: What the Church owes women

Dr Anne O'Brien  |  27 February 2018

When we talk about what is owed women in the church, I have to ask myself: which women are we talking about?

There are those who lived as handmaids of the Lord in the priestly, patriarchal society of their day.They cleaned the brass, looked after the sanctuary, the priestly vestments, and the sacred vessels. They cared for the priest: cooked and cleaned for him, protected him from unwanted intrusion into his privacy.

Many of this group have died; others have left the Church as they came to realise that women are worthy of much more respect from the clerical Church.

Then there is another group: young, idealistic women, often tertiary educated, who align themselves with the increasingly conservative Church. This group would not perceive that the Church owes their generation anything. They tend to embrace wholeheartedly the certainties and securities offered by conservative leaders.

But many older women would tell the Church that they are owed an apology for a life of suffering imposed on them – often under pain of mortal/serious sin. They would cite the bondage in which they have been held for decades. They bore children often beyond their capacity to cope: physically, mentally, psychologically and spiritually. They were to ‘service’ their husbands, no matter what the cost to themselves. They had to endure harsh sermons from some local clergy reinforced by the fire and brimstone meted out by missioners brought in to maintain high standards in the parish.

Ruled by fear

It was not uncommon for the sacraments to be used to put the fear of God into women – most men were more easily able to dismiss Church rules.

Baptism was essential for entry into heaven. Women have agonised about having their child baptised soon after birth. They feared the possibility that the child might never see God and be consigned to limbo. If the child was stillborn, some mothers were accused of aborting the child.

Celebration of the Eucharist has always demonstrated the power of the priests of the Church. Only the male person has the power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. Some Catholic women are demanding their right to the privileges of this clerical caste through ordination to the priesthood. Other women argue for a different form of leadership manifested in collegial relationships based on the ministry of service as revealed in the life of Jesus.

Church control over the marriage state has destroyed many families. It was most important to be ‘married in the Church’ – even if this meant in the sacristy, out of sight of family and friends (if one party was a non-Catholic). Divorce followed by re-marriage was a grave sin: you had married ‘outside the Church’ and this would have far-reaching consequences, including exclusion from reception of the Eucharist.

What does the Church owe women? It is impossible to grasp the pain and suffering of many women; it is something that the clerical caste is unable to face up to. (If this is how many women experience the Church, what hope is there for members of the LGBTIQ community?)

As distinct from the people of God, the institutional Church is facing a terminal illness. Women should not expect any significant changes in their favour in the future.

Closed ranks

It is impossible to have a conversation about this issue within the Church today because it is a ‘boys’ club’. Clerics close ranks when discussion leads them to feel under threat from demands for change.

About 10 per cent of Catholics are practising members of the Church, and it is predicted that this number will continue to decline.

What, then, is this ‘Church’? The Catholic Church is irrelevant to, and beyond the experience of, many of our children and grandchildren.

Sr Sandra Schneiders observes that, ‘The theology that undergirded our spirituality in the past cannot be resuscitated and intelligent people cannot live a spirituality, which is theologically bootless.’ Many Catholics are now celebrating their life events with rituals beyond the Church: their births, marriages, deaths, coming of age and renewal of vows.

Much of the religious and spiritual education of Catholics has focused on attainment of the next life – heaven. This has been to the detriment of challenging us to contemplate the interconnectedness that human beings share with every other form of existence on our planet and in the cosmos.

The Church has already lost its moral authority in society. It has exerted endless time and energy in defending traditional doctrines and practices, which many have rejected.

Nature will have the last word. Never before has humanity been at such a crossroads.

The Catholic Church should devote its energies to the real issues confronting us today. It must reclaim its moral authority, leading the charge against such destruction of God’s unbelievable natural and human creation.

Dr Anne O’Brien is a former Sister of St Joseph where she taught at both primary and secondary levels. Since then she has worked in The Catholic Education Office of Victoria, and in two Melbourne parishes. She is a registered psychologist and civil celebrant.

Image: Catholic Church England and Wales


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