Cardinal Burke and the Feminisation of the Church

I have refrained from commenting on Cardinal Burke’s recent New Evangelisation interview on ‘The Catholic “Man-Crisis” and What to Do About It’ (which you can read here) for the simple reason that so many others already have. But today’s feast of SS Timothy and Titus, and the consecration of the Revd Libby Lane as Anglican bishop of Stockport, make reflection on pastoral office and the way in which we view the Church inevitable.

St Paul’s advice to Timothy and Titus is eminently practical. In the case of Timothy, he pays a gracious compliment to the faith of Timothy’s grandmother, Lois, and Eunice, his mother, and the role both played in his Christian formation. It is a reminder of a much more fluid situation than now exists in the Church, where the role of women as leaders was less controversial — reflecting, perhaps, the contradictions, as we might call them, of the status of women in Ancient society. We look at the past through the lens of several hundred years of history, and no matter how hard we try, we cannot avoid being influenced by the way in which later generations have circumscribed the role of women — even demonising the feminine at times in order to maintain a particular theory of masculine purity.

Cardinal Burke pays one or two gracious compliments to ‘wonderful women’ in the Church, but I hope I may be forgiven for feeling that they are rather on a par with priestly references to ‘the good sisters’, i.e. uttered out of a sense of obligation rather than genuine conviction. The subject he is addressing is important: the decline of Catholic men’s involvement in the Church in the U.S.A. but his suggestion that a root cause of this is the feminisation of the Church is, frankly, difficult to accept when one sees how he articulates it. Quite apart from the fact that the whole Church is eternally feminine before God, I have not noticed women being any less keen than men on good liturgy, nor do I think they can be blamed for liturgical abuses. Indeed, in my experience, it is men rather than women who fuss about lace and silk and sometimes obscure the liturgical action by crowding the sanctuary with ‘flower-pot’ servers — or, at the other extreme, adopt a casual and self-referential approach to the Mass which makes the whole celebration slovenly. The cardinal’s repeated invocation of ‘manly discipline’ and ‘manly identity’ is hardly a substitute for thinking through what the Church is, how she operates and how she conveys a sense of Christian vocation to all her children. To appeal to a form of family life that, for good or ill, is no longer the common experience of most American Catholics is hardly helpful. Just as Timothy and Titus had to deal with the actual experience of the people of Ephesus and Crete, so must we. Our sense of the Church and her mission grows out of our ordinary, everyday life and is both transformed and transforming by reason of its consecration through exposure to scripture and the sacraments.

What I think Cardinal Burke’s interview highlights is the sheer awkwardness of trying to maintain a clear masculine/feminine divide in the way in which we understand service in the Church. Many men have highly developed ‘feminine’ sides; many women have highly developed ‘masculine’ sides. What matters is that all are put to work, with humility and faith. They are God-given graces, meant for building up the Body of Christ. We think of Mary Magdalene as the ‘apostle to the apostles,’ the Blessed Virgin Mary as the mother of the Church as well as Mother of God; and as St Paul reminds us, there are now no distinctions between Jews and Greeks, slave and free, male and female, but all are one in Christ. That is not to downplay the importance or uniqueness of the gifts men bring to the Church, whether as priests, religious or laity. It is to recognize that the Church is incomplete without all her children.

Perhaps today we might think and pray about how we can encourage one another, men and women, to be what we are meant to be — ‘sons in the Son’, the Bride of Christ, one in faith and love. We do not need to try to score points off one another; still less do we need to be afraid of one another.


7 thoughts on “Cardinal Burke and the Feminisation of the Church”

  1. I suspect two things bypass our “The church is too feminised” brethren:

    1) Just how “feminine” Jesus was in comparison to their modern view of “masculinity”

    2) The feminine aspect of God so beautiful articulated in the Wisdom literature

  2. What a wonderful essay. As a writer of (well-researched, I like to think) historical fiction, the way the early church which so revered the ideas and actions of women, gradually pushed them aside and out of the body of the church, has long perplexed me. As you know, I am not a Roman Catholic and many of my objections to your church are rooted in the behaviours of the Medieval papacy and those who used the church to further their own political and financial objectives.

    In the 21st century, and especially since the elevation of Pope Francis, Catholicism has come a long way towards rectifying some of those travesties. But, if this work of addressing the failings of the past is to genuinely progress, the critical role that women have to play in supporting lives lived in faith must be acknowledged.

    • Thank you. The Church is a church of sinners not yet saints; so as soon as one fault or shortcoming is eradicated, another tends to take its place. The important thing is for the Church to conform herself, as fully as she can, to the mind of Christ — always a work in progress.

  3. In the words of the old song:
    Che sera sera whatever will be will be the future’s not ours to see.
    it is for us to look at our times and to work for unity in our knowledge of the Father’s love for us his children.
    Evolution is unstoppable and will continue in an obscure way. We can perceive this in attitudes to sexuality today and we can only conjecture but cannot formulate the development of humanity a hundred years ahead let alone a millenium or three.

  4. Thank you for a thoughtful post. I wasn’t aware of the business with Cardinal Burke, and I’m not sure that I’d agree with him in any case.

    I can understand that getting men more engages in Church isn’t just something that affects the Catholic Church, we have similar issues in the CofE, where women, while fighting for inclusion in Ordained ministry, do huge amounts to sustain the Church through a wide range of roles that they perform on a voluntary basis, and I know that they’re ministry is highly valued and loved.

    Many men also do vital things, but getting them to engage in small groups and some local ministry roles isn’t as simple. We do lots for families, but in the main, it’s mothers and children who participate. I don’t know the underlying reasons for all of this, but perhaps there is a sort of embarrassment within men in doing things that they regard as more of a role for a women.

    Our lunch club for the elderly, alone or bereaved was an initiative from a women and in the main, the catering is done by them. I host and serve and talk, but I know that without their participation the whole thing would flop. I’m trying to see how I can get others involved, particularly as the clients are mainly male – and there is only so much football that I can talk about. (Not being an avid follower of that particular sport).

    I could speculate that women are now coming forward in church more than men, due to a reaction against the influence of the power that men have traditionally held in the church, but I don’t believe that particular motive.

    Is it about power? I can’t be sure. I feel called to serve, perhaps its more about us encouraging individuals in their vocations, the ministry of all of the baptized.

    But, I wouldn’t describe this as the feminisation of the church, just how people are responding to a call in different ways, in our particular context. And no doubt it’s no different in the Catholic Church as well.

    • Thank you, Ernie. If you read the whole of the cardinal’s interview, you’ll have seen why his remarks struck me as questionable. Of course service should never be about power, but we’d be idiots to pretend that it never is, wouldn’t we? I think it’s very important that we encourage one another.

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