Catholic Women Don’t Preach

They blog instead. Or, I daresay, they lecture their spouses occasionally, if they are married, or their communities, if they happen to be nuns (we call it “giving a conference”). Dr Johnson, as everyone knows and some regularly misquote, thought that a woman’s preaching was very like a dog’s standing on its hind legs, remarkable but not necessarily done well. Having listened to the preaching of several Anglican and Methodist friends, I have to dissent from the Great Cham’s opinion on the surest of all grounds, that of experience. Some of the most brilliant preaching I have ever heard has come from women. Why is the Catholic Church so iffy about allowing women into the pulpit?

Partly, we know, it is because of what the Catholic Church believes about the Mass (which is where most preaching occurs) and the sacrament of Orders. It is quite wrong to see this as an equality issue although it is sometimes presented as such, by those who wish to uphold the status quo as well as those who wish to attack it. I don’t think “equality” really comes into it, but what we believe about the Mass and Orders may affect perceptions in other areas. For all kinds of reasons, women in the Catholic Church are still seen primarily as wives and mothers, even if they are neither or have many other roles in addition. We don’t usually define men in terms of their being husbands and fathers (although American Catholic men seem touchingly ready to define themselves that way). The argument from complementarity works well on paper but is less convincing in action. I have a sneaking feeling that some of those most passionate in its advocacy are secret admirers of the article on “woman” in the old Catholic Encyclopedia. (I read it, entranced, at the age of eleven and have wondered ever since whether it would be possible to meet such a being.)

Blogging is a low-cost way of addressing an audience and many Catholic women, including me, have taken to it with delight. It doesn’t need an imprimatur (remember them?) or a sacrament or anything in particular to validate what is said. I do believe that anyone claiming to be a Catholic blogger should take the trouble to find out what the Church actually teaches before launching into the ether, and I hope I’m scrupulous in that regard, though that is for others to judge. The trouble is, I am still haunted by Dr Johnson’s little joke. Am I preaching when I jot down my posts, musing aloud in public (which is what I like to think) or performing some kind of verbal acrobatics? Doughty dame or dancing dog, who knows?

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9 thoughts on “Catholic Women Don’t Preach”

  1. I think the argument from experience extends back in to the Benedictine tradition – plenty of doughty dames there with valuable things said, if we can judge from the conferences that have manage to emerge from behind the cloister wall.

    Then there’s Julian of Norwich? Gertrude von Helfta? Birgitte of Sweden? Laurentia Johns?

    By their fruit…..

    • I’m afraid, I have to Second Fr Chris on this one!

      And without sounding as if I am creeping, I have heard Digitalnun give a conference/homily/sermon on several occasions, and they have been both inspiring and memorable.

      I only hope people say the same of me.

  2. I have ‘known’ you through your lively and thoughtful blog posts for only 6 days. And I am (in less than a week) listening with gratitude and admiration…

    About Dr. Johnson, his (in)famous words can be understood in the kind of context Virginia Wold conjures in her A ROOM OD ONE’S OWN when imagining how, if Shakespeare had had a talented sister, she would have fared, and she has the fictional sister driven mad and to suicide by her talent (with no sanctioned outlets for it.) So… speaking of women who were not respected as intellect or spiritual authorities, Samuel Johnson might have spoken the truth: a striking female preacher would have been remarkable for her very existence, much as that dog walking on two legs would be. I am not sure if I am making myself clear — but I’d like to say is that one could say, yes, you are right, dear Sir, for your cultural and intellectual context — but that’s all.

  3. Thank you, everyone. This has produced an interesting inbox here at the monastery. Those who know the community have interpreted the post as it was intended but some of those who don’t have been quite hostile and accusatory. Personally, I like the ‘commonality’ of blogging: one writes and others comment and a dialogue may develop. Much less restrictive than sermonizing!

  4. I have just found this ‘blog’ and am finding it really interesting. Some of the themes are challenging and provide much food for thought.

  5. I am an aspiring Lay Dominican. The Dominican order is the Order of Preachers, which includes many women. In my “OP Lessons,” I have learned that although we don’t homilize, Catholic women preach by teaching, writing (blogging), raising children in the Faith, and by living a Christian lifestyle. We preach, but not the way people might think.

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