Roles for women in the church

by Mary Aquin O’Neill


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Of late, much attention has been paid to “the role of women in the Church.” Several conferences and many articles have addressed the issue, with varying results. The problem, however, lies in the use of the singular for, as Elizabeth Janeway argued persuasively many years ago, woman is not and cannot be a role.[i] Drawing on the work of sociologist Talcott Parsons, Janeway explained the components of a role and their significance for the question of “woman’s role.”

A role requires three dimensions: (1) a role other; (2) an activity; and (3) a social system. “Role other” refers to the person or persons for, or with whom, one performs the activity. Thus a teacher must have students, a doctor needs patients. An activity, of course, means the deed that the person in the role performs. Thus a teacher imparts information and stimulates the student to learn; the doctor heals or cares for one who is ill. Any role might have multiple activities but there must be some action that the person in the role carries out. A social system refers to the institution or network within which the person in the role functions. Most often, for instance, a teacher operates within a school, college or university and a doctor within a hospital or clinic.

This analysis should bring important realizations. “Church” is not a single institution, but an enormous network of institutions that stretches from the Vatican through dioceses to parishes. Each level has its own set of systems within which one could imagine functioning. Likewise, the activities carried on cover a wide variety of possibilities. Role others will also differ according to the system within which one is operating and the activities in which one is engaged. Seen in this way, the very question, “What is woman’s role in the Church?” becomes nonsensical. “Woman,” as such, has no role other, no single activity and no particular social system.

Women, like men, are capable of filling many different roles, according to our preparation and our gifts. The fact that some 80 percent of church personnel in the United States are women should be enough to show that we are already doing so. Why, then, does the question persist? Perhaps because those who think about the issue in the context of the church are still working out of deep-seated cultural assumptions. Janeway demonstrates that, when writers or speakers consider woman’s role, they have in mind what are really three different roles: wife, mother and housewife. (It is interesting that Pope Francis recently said that “the role of women doesn’t end just with being a mother and with housework” –assuming, it seems, that all else is added on to what are universal tasks for women.)

Janeway demonstrates convincingly that, in the case of the wife, the “role other” is the husband; the “activity” involves all that constitutes conjugal relationships; and the “system” is marriage. Whereas, where the mother is concerned, the “role other” is the child or offspring; the “activity” is bearing and raising him/her/them; and the “system” is the family (today we would have to say “in whatever form that takes”). The housewife, on the other hand, finds her “role other” in an inanimate object, the house. Her activities are multiple, but all concern the keeping of the house. The system for a long time was an economic one in which the women kept the house and the man worked outside the home to earn a living for both of them. This has changed radically, though one can’t say that the one responsible for “keeping house” has changed much at all.

A fundamental problem with ecclesiastical reflections on the roles of women is that influential male theologians have enshrined one image used by St. Paul to characterize the relationship between Christ and his church: “For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior.” (Eph 5:23) This image of the church as “wife” to Christ has resulted in a theology of headship that rests on an assumption about the role of wife: namely, that it is a role in which the woman is always subordinate to the role other, who is the husband. Despite mammoth societal changes, few but feminist theologians have challenged the insistence on this dominant image and the way in which it has been applied to women in the church. The conviction of subordination is, in fact, difficult to square with the Catechism of the Catholic Church itself. That authoritative text proclaims that the teaching of Genesis is that “The woman, ‘flesh of his flesh,’ i.e., his counterpart, his equal, his nearest in all things, is given to him by God as a ‘helpmate’; she thus represents God from whom comes our help.” (#1605) Here, the Catechism reminds us that the word for “helpmate” in Genesis is a term also used for God in the Old Testament. As representative of God, then, the wife can hardly be considered under the “headship” of the husband.

Perhaps it is now clear why talk of a “theology of woman” is problematic. It is rather the case that assumptions about woman or women have had an impact on many other aspects of theology, sacramental theology and ecclesiology being the most obvious examples. Janeway’s analysis drives home the need for women with a critical consciousness to be present where false assumptions about us prevail, so that they can be challenged and changed for our good and for the good of the Church.   

[Mary Aquin O’Neill  is a Sister of Mercy who holds the doctorate in religion from Vanderbilt University. After many years of college teaching, she founded Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women and was its director from 1992 to 2009. Since the center closed in August of 2013, Sr. Aquin is in semi-retirement, writing as well as giving lectures and retreats.]