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.

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