Inchoate Thoughts on Women and the Church

The feast of St Thérèse of Lisieux is one I approach with mixed feelings. When I discovered that there was a lot more to her than the sentimentality of earlier times suggested, I was delighted. The Little Flower had an inner core of pure steel to which I could relate. Carmelite spirituality is not for me, but here was a Carmelite nun saying interesting things in an interesting way, with the ring of truth about them. This morning I was reflecting on just one. Thérèse could hardly say today what she was free to say in the nineteenth century, that she longed to be a priest, without being widely misunderstood and castigated for breaking the ban on the discussion of women’s ordination. I say misunderstood advisedly, for Thérèse knew quite well that she couldn’t be a priest and was not a champion of women’s ordination avant la lettre. What interests me, however, is not the question of ordination but the way in which women in the Church are perceived. It is telling that even today, when Thérèse’s unexpurgated writing are readily available, many still persist in seeing her as a bit of a milksop, all acquiescence and self-abnegation, not really a person at all, and hold that up as a model of what a Christian woman should be. (I exaggerate slightly, but I am the innocent victim of many a clerical panegyric on Thérèse.)

Is it any wonder that women in the West are often amused and sometimes angered by an ‘ideal’ of womanhood so remote from reality? Yes, men and women are different; but men no longer have a monopoly on education or power in the secular sphere, and it is, frankly, difficult to move from being a fully responsible adult in one area of life to being someone who is considered to be not quite so responsible in another. The appointment of a woman to full membership of a Vatican Congregation has sparked some earnest discussion about whether women can assume such roles since they cannot be ordained. The theological question is important, but there is another I think equally important, and it is in essence equally theological.

If women are always to be consigned to handmaiden roles in the Church, occasionally praised but in practical terms not taken very seriously by the hierarchy, we may be guilty of ignoring something we all need to acknowledge, whether we are men or women, ordained or lay. A Church which is exclusively male and clerical in orientation may not be a true (i.e. full) reflection of God, who created man and woman in his own image and likeness. The Church, by its very nature, must reflect the whole Christ. Men and women may not have the same roles to perform, but a more collaborative effort is surely essential if the gospel is to be proclaimed and lived in all its fullness. We are all members of the laos, the people of God. We all have the duty of spreading faith and love wherever we go. Thérèse said she would be love at the heart of the Church. Let us ask her prayers that love may not grow cold because it has been rebuffed or trampled on.


12 thoughts on “Inchoate Thoughts on Women and the Church”

  1. As an Anglican, I find the ban on discussion of women’s ordination in the Roman Catholic church very hard to understand. I would love to know what you think about the matter and feel sad that you cannot enter into public discussion about it. Thank you for this post. I have always thought Therese of Lisieux to be something of ‘a milk-sop’. You have now inspired me to look further into her life and writings.

    • The only comment I would make on the ban is that it is the only thing, as far as I can see, that we have ever been forbidden to discuss. It is not what I would have done, but then, I am not, nor ever will be, pope!

  2. Oh how I struggle with this one. In one breath are told to believe that “for us men and for our salvation” really means all people… (why doesn’t it SAY that!?) and in the next, “oh no dear, in this case God meant that only men can hold positions of power.” Thank you Sister for voicing it perfectly. Blessings today.

  3. The Church is entrusted to the people of God, they are the body of Christ. There are no men, no women, just those for whom Christ suffered and died, whether they offer mass, are involved in church administration or instruct children in the faith, all are one in Christ. Men or women who wish to be ordained because of their gender, rather than because of their calling, must be considered a problem in a church that allows for the ordination of all God’s people or not. St. Thérèse may not have become a priest, but she was far more influential in leading people to Christ than most of her peers.

    • Thank you. I personally don’t think the real question is ordination/power, but, as I said, one of perception. There are all kinds of service that need to be done to build up the Body of Christ. I think we fail when we say ‘this matters; that doesn’t’ because only too often what we are really saying is, ‘this person matters; that one doesn’t’; and somehow, I don’t think God sees things/us like that at all. But what would I know?

  4. I have expressed myself badly, your point was the one I was indirectly trying to make. I mentioned ordination especially
    because it was applicable to St. Theresa, and the ordination of women, certainly in the communion to which I belong,
    is a topical subject.

  5. Priesthood should never be perceived as a position of power. However, the use of that position to prevent women from following their calling (blessed by their church) is an act of power.

    I will tell any male priest this, and he will know that ‘I am right’. On someone’s deathbed people see beyond the priest’s gender and straight into the eyes of Christ, if it’s their time and they want to draw closer to Him. I have been with men during the last weeks of their life in nursing homes and the macho nonsense goes out of the window. The love of the world and its ways decreases and that opens doors to Christ’s Holy Spirit to go to work in their lives. Do they care if it’s a woman or man? Quite simply no, they don’t.

    Father God made his child a clay drinking pot, which the child drank from every day and loved unconditionally. Then one day someone told the child that blue pots are for boys and pink ones are for girls. This day the child realized that the beloved pot was not what it seemed, and the child withered and thirsted for want of a drink.

    Concerned for the life of His beloved child, God took the child’s sight away. Then God held out the pot and said, ‘Look at it again without your sight, and what do your see?’

    The child held it in its hands and said, ‘I see a vessel perfectly formed by your loving hands. I see a vessel that once quenched my thirst because it could be filled to the brim.‘

    Then God said, ‘Taste the drink child. Can you tell what colour the pot is?’

    And the child said, ‘No Father.

    So. God gave the child back its sight and said, ‘Now go and drink your fill. I gave you the pot to drink from, so that the thirst in your soul can be quenched, who made it an offence to your eyes?’ (ct 2011)

    • Thank you. Perhaps I should emphasize that I am not talking about priesthood or power as such; and I’m not going to enter into a discussion of the theology of priesthood here (I know my limitations!). I think it’s unfortunate that discussion of women in the Church is so often focused on ordination. That in itself merely reinforces the idea that only ordination counts.

  6. Sister ,

    I find your comments ring a chord with me – and I think the young find the church’s approach quite difficult. A few years ago my son said to me ‘Mum if you were treated at work the way you are treated by the church you wouldn’t stand for it ‘. I wonder how many young men and women are ‘put off’ by the overall approach of the church – and what skills we are missing. But I am sure things will change- when I was a child I wanted to be an altar server- alas not possible – but we do have them now!

  7. I totally agree that the role of women in the Church is not only limited to the aspect of priesthood. Most Catholics are not priests, half the population is made up of women and yet their opinions and gifts always seem to play second fiddle.

  8. It’s how the world is and mostly always seems to have been. The Church is “in the world” and takes on its characteristics – sadly, but She’d be little use to it if She wasn’t. Undoing the damage in gender relations God prophesied in Genesis 3.16 is a huge call.

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