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Summer 2001 cover

National Observer Home > No. 47 - Summer 2001 > Articles

Feminism in the Catholic Church

Michael Gilchrist

The failure in 1992 of the American bishops' attempt to produce a pastoral letter on the role of women in the Catholic Church in America did not deter Australia's Catholic bishops from embarking on a similar project in 1996. The American bishops, after four drafts and thirteen years of consultations with 75,000 Catholic women, could not provide the needed majority at any of their annual conferences, so the project was eventually dropped.

In Australia, however, despite a similar polarisation between orthodox and feminist Catholic women, the project proceeded on schedule. Research for this involved a long series of hearings and verbal presentations in dioceses throughout the length and breadth of Australia, hundreds of written submissions, and the implementation of the Catholic Church Life Survey in hundreds of parishes, via a number of questionnaires.

Findings from this process were embodied in a feminist-influenced 496-page report, "Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus", which was launched on 18 August 1999. Just over one year later, responses to that report's recommendations were set out in the Australian bishops' annual Social Justice Statement, publicly launched on 13 September 2000.

Perhaps a consensus on such a divisive topic was easier to secure in the smaller Australian bishops' conference, with opposition less easy to mount by those bishops with misgivings about the wisdom of the project. The more liberal bishops despite twenty-two years of supposedly "strong" appointments by Pope John Paul II still appear to be dominant.

Perhaps also, Australia's feminist elites are relatively better placed to exert influence than their American sisters are. Indeed, much of the Statement reads as if written by the same feminist religious women who instigated the project. The bishops notably those supporting the feminist agenda appear to have obligingly rubber-stamped the document.

The Social Justice Statement capped almost four years of ambitious and expensive research, which many Australian Catholics have regarded as a needless waste of time and money, given other far greater priorities notably those embodied in the recent important "Statement of Conclusions". This Statement agreed to by Australia's bishops and the Vatican in 1998 constituted a clear blueprint for reform in fundamentals, if the Church in Australia was to survive far into the 21st century in any recognisably Catholic form.

However, in 1998 the women's participation project was already well under way.

The project's suspect pedigree was of particular concern, given that it was the brainchild of the Church's feminist elites principally from within the dissenting ranks of the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes who already possessed considerable power and influence. This was evidenced by the fact that they were able to persuade the bishops to support such a dubious project in the first place. Their talk of "exclusion" and "sexism" had a decidedly hollow ring, and represented a transplanting of general feminist thought into this context.

In fact, it is doubtful whether any specific cases of highly-qualified women, barred from positions canonically open to them, simply on the basis of their gender, could be cited today. Everywhere a Catholic looks, women are visibly exercising responsibilities at all levels of the Church's life (barring the priesthood and hierarchy): editors of Catholic papers, directors of Catholic Education Offices, heads of liturgy departments, professors at seminaries and universities, facilitators of "renewal" programmes the list is almost endless. And the female presence continues to increase.

If anything, it is now men who find themselves increasingly marginalised: the more parishes have become feminised with around two-thirds of Mass attenders now women the more men seem to stay away. As altar girls materialise in greater numbers, so have altar boys vanished from many church sanctuaries. Indeed, of more urgency and relevance than any women's document might be some "affirmative action" to bring back more males into the life of the Church and certain areas of decision-making, such as parish liturgies.

Meanwhile, much of the present Social Justice Statement and its style of language has an unmistakable feminist "newchurch" character.

Just as the original "Woman and Man" report of 1999 inflated the complaints of an unhappy dissenting minority at the expense of a generally satisfied majority of orthodox Catholics, so does the Social Justice Statement in turn inflate its responses to match those inflated complaints. Although it conceded that not all Catholic women surveyed found barriers to their participation in the Church, it fails to mention that it was a large majority who found no such barriers, according to the Catholic Church Life Survey the one statistically valid part of the whole research project.

Again, although the bishops make clear they do not support any calls for women priests or changes to Catholic moral teachings, they seem at pains to set up some kind of equivalence between outright dissent on such issues and the views of those supposedly out of tune with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council: "Bishops cannot and would not wish to change the teaching of the Church on any matter despite the difficulty some respondents have had with elements of the Church's teaching. Likewise they cannot reverse the changes in the Church asked of us by the Second Vatican Council or turn away from its path, to satisfy the concerns of others."

This bogus parallel seemed designed to placate the feminists.

Likewise, in the Social Justice Statement the role of mothers in the Church is accorded token acknowledgement "We wish to draw attention to the significant role that mothers play in the life and mission of the Church and society, lest their participation be taken for granted or considered of less value than other forms of participation" before the document proceeds with a lengthy series of policy decisions, most of them calculated to satisfy the concerns of the minority of feminists and dissenters, rather than those of the large majority of mainstream orthodox Catholic women churchgoers. So a "better balance" of men and women, and clergy, religious and lay people, "in leadership, professional, advisory roles", is first called for. But what if men are already in a minority in some of these areas? Will that "balance" work in the opposite direction through "affirmative action"?

The Social Justice Statement then commits the Church to fostering research in such areas as "contemporary ecclesiologies and their theological, catechetical and pastoral implications, especially for the participation of women in the Church". The term "contemporary ecclesiologies" usually refers to assorted dubious interpretations of Catholic teaching, often feminist influenced. In any event, such "research" hardly needs further encouragement, given the present situation in most Australian theology institutes, university campuses, colleges and seminaries, where liberal interpretations of Church doctrines, liturgy and Scripture presently hold sway.

Similar observations may be made of the Statement's call for research into "ministry in the Church and in particular the role of lay faithful and especially women in ecclesial ministries, from the scriptural, historical, theological, liturgical, sociological and canonical perspectives".

The aspirations of those feminists who set the project in motion are again endorsed with a commitment to the following: "Through the Bishops' Committee for the Liturgy to look into the possibility of providing at the national level guidelines and education, as well as appropriate resources, to provide rituals to be used in the absence of a priest in the prison and hospital apostolates"; the "provision of guidelines, materials and resources directed to integrating elements of indigenous culture into the celebration of the liturgy"; "the drawing up of guidelines concerning the use of inclusive language in the liturgy, prayer, pastoral and social life of the Church"; and "the establishment of guidelines to assist with the understanding and implementation of Canons 766 and 767 concerning lay preaching". (These Canons make clear that preaching a homily during Mass is restricted to a priest or deacon, and may not be done by a lay person.)

Given that Aborigines (and part-Aborigines) represent barely two per cent of the national population, and that "inculturation" has been frequently linked to liturgical abuses, the bishops' encouragement of "integrating elements of indigenous culture" is significant, as is their support for feminist claims for "inclusive language", which has long been regarded as inappropriate by the Vatican, which in recent years has refused to authorise liturgical texts using such language. Moreover, only three percent of those surveyed in the Catholic Church Life Survey considered inclusive language to be an "issue", while few signs have existed of dissatisfaction by Aboriginal women.

Next the Social Justice Statement sets out a pledge to "draw up policies of care to respond to the pain of people and groups in the Church who are struggling with the implications of Church teaching" on the question of divorce and remarriage, and to provide "guidelines to assist in the pastoral care of those who are finding difficulty in understanding and accepting the Church's teaching on the restriction of ordination to males" as well as "appropriate pastoral statements concerning Catholic teaching on such areas as sexuality, marriage and family planning".

These initiatives echo the strength of liberal/feminist influences in the Church's educational institutions, which are countenanced by liberal bishops. And episcopal sympathy for the feelings of dissenters rarely extends to more traditional Catholics when they express concerns about theological dissent, liturgical abuses or weak and unsound religious teaching in Catholic schools.

Administrative bodies and executive positions to be set up for implementing the plethora of policy decisions listed in the Social Justice Statement are then described in it in some detail, while the bulk of the document's remaining recommendations maintain the feminist, politically correct orientation. The employment of additional feminists and liberals within the Church is thus foreshadowed.

Thus the re-education of "clergy, religious and lay people" so that they "exercise their ministries in a more collaborative way" is also called for, while bishops are instructed to "request each theological institute or faculty and adult education centre in Australia to explore the theological and pastoral implications of the ["Woman and Man"] Report, for example, through public lectures, faculty seminars and published papers".

The increasing use of parish pastoral associates (religious men and women and paid lay people who assist a priest in running a parish) and the employment of more lay women in this capacity are also urged. In fact, a good majority of pastoral associates are already women, as highlighted by a recent photograph in the Adelaide archdiocesan newspaper that showed all thirteen pastoral associates at a meeting to be women.

And despite the already noted very small number of Aboriginal Catholics, much space is allocated in the Statement to recommendations for meeting their perceived needs, such as training priests to "develop further under-standings, both through studies and experience, of Australian indigenous spirituality, culture and history"; a call for "dioceses, parishes and all Catholic organisations" to "recognise and promote equality and inclusivity for Australia's indigenous peoples"; an assertion of the need to ensure "that Australian indigenous women be included as part of decision-making, especially in judgments and decisions which affect them"; and a recommendation to "investigate more employment opportunities for Australian indigenous women in a range of roles and tasks in the Church". Significantly, similar mention of "inclusivity" as regards other larger and equally deserving racial and ethnic groups in the Church Vietnamese, Maltese, Poles, Italians, and so on is nowhere to be seen in the document.

The Statement concludes by exhorting bishops and other responsible people to ensure "that women's needs in relation to participation in the Church be made a financial priority for the Church", that "when pointing to the signs of the times" there be an acknowledgement of "positive developments in the role and status of women" and that "greater attention be given to the education of clergy, religious and laity towards attitudinal change in recognising equal value, equal rights of women and men within the lay faithful of the Church".

Talk of "education" towards "attitudinal change" suggests that intense feminist/liberal pressure will be placed on Catholics, with emphasis on alleged "sexism" and other politically-correct matters.

It may be hoped that now that the Australian bishops have got this ill-conceived project out of the way, they may henceforth be able to devote more of their energies to the real issues affecting the local Church, as set out in the 1998 "Statement of Conclusions". After almost two years, there has been little sign that more than a handful of Australia's bishops are serious about implementing this document's infinitely more important agenda of serious reforms to seminaries, university campuses, religious teaching, liturgy and theology courses.

If a small fraction of the effort, paperwork and expense that has gone into the women's participation project were to be directed towards implementing the "Statement of Conclusions", the Catholic Church in Australia could view the future with some degree of hope and confidence.





National Observer No. 47 - Summer 2001