Gender imbalance in Roman Catholicism: Divine plan or human construct?

In an earlier column I mentioned that several issues remain after the amicable settlement between the Vatican and U.S. women religious and their leaders. Among them is the fundamental theological issue at the heart of the difficulties that first came to widespread attention in 2009. This is the question of whether the gender-based imbalance of power in Catholicism that made the apostolic visitation and doctrinal investigation possible in the first place is a human construct subject to reform, or a divinely established order to be maintained despite cultural change.

In approaching this question I have found a distinction between classicism and historical consciousness, originally drawn by the late Canadian theologian Jesuit Fr. Bernard Lonergan to be very helpful. Using Lonergan's categories, the idea that gender roles in the church are divinely established represents a "classicist" position, one emphasizing the stability of truth and tradition, without regard for historical evidence of change and development. Modernity, however, has opened up the possibility of a "historically conscious" position, which recognizes that formulations of truth and social arrangements are culturally conditioned and limited by the historical circumstances in which they were developed.

The gender-based imbalance of power that contributed to tensions between the Vatican and U.S. women religious is clearly evident in the fact that according to canon law all females are excluded from the sacrament of orders, which has long been a prerequisite for holding church office, that is, for exercising the power of authority in the church. Women have always exercised moral and spiritual power, but in Roman Catholicism they lack the juridical power of office. Thus it would have been theoretically possible, although a pastoral disaster, for Roman officials to decree harsh punishments for women religious with whom they disagreed. Is this arrangement God's will forever, as a classicist might say, or is God free to endorse other sorts of arrangements in the community of believers?

Theologically it seems to me that posing the question in these terms yields the conclusion that God, who transcends all our images and ideas of Divinity, is surely free to draw human beings along new paths. The Bible is replete with narratives in which people are called to leave past assurances behind and venture in a new direction. As the prophet Isaiah (43:18-19a) expresses it, there are times when God declares, "Remember not the events of the past; the things of long ago consider not. See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" On the other hand, remembering God's gracious deeds, and acting deliberately in memory of Jesus, are also both necessary and salvific. How then can we discern what we should "remember" and what we should "forget" of past attitudes and practices, especially where gender roles are concerned?

One approach is to look at the effects of these practices, on whether they are helpful or harmful to individuals and the church community. Here, given the cultural diversity in global Catholicism, there will likely be some evidence on both sides of gender role questions, but in many societies the psychological, moral and social harms caused by excluding females from leadership roles in the church are increasingly being recognized. As I note in my book on Catholic women's church vocations, Conscience and Calling, sociologist Andrew Greeley estimated in 1984 that more than a million Catholic women of all ages did not attend church regularly because of a "complex of imagery" regarding God, Woman, Mother and Church. He also found emphasis on gender roles to be a significant factor in the nonattendance of some 200,000 young Catholic men. Another sociologist, Patricia Wittberg, a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati, observed in a 2012 article for America ("A Lost Generation?") that for the first time in history, young Catholic women ("millennials") were more likely than their male counterparts to say they do not go to Mass — and have never considered a religious vocation. Wittberg concluded that failing to address this changed social situation would likely result in fewer young women, and eventually their families, remaining Catholic, and this will greatly diminish the church's influence in society.

Another approach is to examine the reasons used to maintain the status quo.

One of the reasons often given for excluding women from sacred orders and church leadership is based on an interpretation of the Gospel narrative about Jesus' celebration of Passover with his apostles before his death, and especially the words now so central to the Christian Eucharist: "This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me" (Luke 22:19). Here Lonergan's categories of classicism and historical consciousness can be very helpful. A classicist interpretation of this text, and of the similar words in 1 Corinthians 11:24 ("Do this in remembrance of me"), assumes that these words amount to Jesus ordaining his 12 male apostles to the priesthood, and limiting his church to male leadership forever. By contrast, the historically conscious approach, held by most biblical and theological scholars today, understands such texts very differently. As Raymond E. Brown wrote in 1975 in Biblical Reflections on Crises Facing the Church), "[Jesus] chose the Twelve (Luke 22:30), but they were to sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. There is no biblical evidence that he thought about any of his followers, male or female, as priests, since there were already priests in Israel" (p. 54).

Historians recognize that ministries were quite fluid in the early years of Christianity, and approaches to church governance and understandings of sacraments evolved over time. Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek provide convincing evidence of this in their 2005 volume Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History, and Gary Macy explains how understandings of ordination changed dramatically in the 11th and 12th centuries in his 2008 study The Hidden History of Women's Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West. As a committee report published in the 1997 Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America observed, "St. Paul had a number of women as his co-workers in ministry," but by the time 1 Timothy 2:12-14 was written "women were being excluded from roles that involved teaching and authority over men," not with reference to the example of Jesus, but because of an alleged unsuitability due to beliefs about the role of Eve in the Fall. The CTSA committee acknowledges that historical studies turn up some "references to the fact that Jesus chose only men among the Twelve," but finds "it is undeniable that a consistent argument for the exclusion of women from the priesthood was rooted in the conviction that women were not apt subjects for such ministry because of the inferiority of their sex and/or their state of subjection in the social order" (pp. 199-200). The implication is that the modern recognition of women's equal human dignity, which has been strongly asserted in Catholic teaching since the time of Pope John XXIII, weakens the prohibition against ordaining women, and opens up the matter for reexamination today.

In the 40 years since 1975, which the U.N. designated the first "International Women's Year," the momentum of Catholic feminism has grown significantly, and yet there remains the "stained glass ceiling" of sacramental sexism. Although women serve in so many pastoral, educational and administrative capacities today, the canonical ban on women's ordination continues to undermine claims of the hierarchy to respect women's equal human dignity. Although Pope Francis is unwilling to open up this topic for consideration, his position strikes me as significantly different from that of his immediate predecessors, who argued vehemently against the possibility of ordaining women priests and bishops. Instead of making unconvincing arguments and forbidding a discussion, Pope Francis has simply said that the "door is closed" on the subject of women's ordination, and he has gone on to devote his energies to writing an inspiring and challenging encyclical on the environment, Laudato Sí. As discussed in an earlier column, I have interpreted Pope Francis' remark about the closed door as "the gift of papal silence" that is buying some time for the universal church to prepare for a momentous change in the canonical status of baptized females.

The new papal encyclical is inviting everyone to historical consciousness, especially concerning humanity's role in what has happened to the Earth and our environment since the rise of modern technology. It also invites us to an awakened sense of responsibility for changing unsustainable practices. My hope is that Catholics will increasingly see the connections between traditional attitudes toward "nature" and toward women, and will through prayer, study and discussion be inspired to adapt our structures and activities so as to give appropriate respect to all of creation, and especially to female humanity.

[Anne E. Patrick, SNJM's most recent book is Conscience and Calling: Ethical Reflections on Catholic Women's Church Vocations ​(Bloomsbury/ T&T Clark). She is William H. Laird Professor of Religion and the Liberal Arts, emerita, at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.]