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.