11 March 2014

Women In The Church, Feminisation, Etc: Some Background

This all started as a result of a discussion on Twitter provoked by this post by Men Are Like Wine. It being Twitter, the discussion was too curtailed to get anywhere, but I somehow ended up tasked with finding out how far the National Pastoral Congress in Liverpool had been a catalyst in changing the role of women within the Church.

It was.

But before we go down what has become to me a drearily familiar track, let us reflect on two things: first, that the woman who said that the role of lay women in the Church was catering and domestic work was probably reflecting a truth which it would be difficult to spin into anything positive; and second, that when some 100,000 Catholics were given a list of 13 topics and were asked to pick the six they thought of greatest moment in the Church in England and Wales early in 1979, "The Role of Women in the Church and in the World" came 13th, only 20% of those opining choosing to put the subject on their list.  Are these two things related?

We have discussed previously the way that attendees at the Congress were largely self-selecting, and were representative of the vocal and interested activist.  There's no easy way round this.  If I form the League of Catholic Lepidopterists, make a lot of noise claiming to be the authentic voice of Catholic lepidopterists in England and Wales and start petitioning Rome on the League's behalf, sending plentiful press releases to the Catholic and lepidopterist press, blogging freely and putting myself in the public eye, by default I will become the Voice of Catholic Lepidopterists, indeed, of Catholic Lepidopterism, even though I only represent myself, and anybody sufficiently weak-willed or gullible to follow my lead.  Yet if the CBCEW suddenly finds itself one lepidopterist policy short of an environmental strategy, to whom will it turn?  The hard answer, of course, is that it shouldn't be where it is in the first place: Bishops don't need lepidopterist policies and should be offering paternal correction to the deluded person who thinks they should, but we have noted previously that he two most senior prelates in E&W were out for change, and this change fitted their agenda.  So the last subject on the list managed to fond its way onto the agenda.

I mentioned above that women with real gifts to offer the Church had been sidelined, but at the Congress, their sidelining was not what the delegates wanted to highlight. There was no mention that some women might be uniquely place to advise on the suitability of men proposing themselves for the priesthood: instead they wanted a woman on every selection panel. They wanted two things: a place in the administration of the Church and a place in the Ministry of the Church.

The discussion was summarised as follows:


The Gospels and the Second Vatican Council, plus more recent detailed statements from the 1970 Synod of Bishops and Pope Paul's address to the International Women’s Year, make it quite clear that women and men are equal and both should have the opportunity to offer their distinctive gifts in the service of the Church and the world to build up the kingdom of God. All are agreed that there is an imbalance as the Church is led, organised and largely planned by celibate men. Though condemned by Gaudium et spes, there is still obvious discrimination against women in the Church - which, while itself preaching freedom and justice, has a clear duty to set its own house in order.

Women have so much to offer to the total Church their gifts and abilities are rarely being used at the national, diocesan and parish levels, particularly in planning and decision making. Many priests fail to use the variety of skills which women can offer.

Women are an integral part of the laity, not shadow men. But it does appear that they do need definite encouragement, e.g. discrimination in their favour until the effects of years of adverse cultural conditioning which has limited their role are eliminated. Single women and nuns suffer from the same difficulties of being in many cases assigned to fixed or inferior roles by the Church authorities and by laymen at the parish level. We feel that the work of women in religious orders in particular has not been given due recognition in the Church.

The whole question of human relationships between men and women concerns us, and we feel that from childhood women are conditioned to adapt these roles. We are concerned about the training of priests, as we feel that many of the difficulties stern from their inability to relate honestly and openly to women as people. It is felt that a large number of priests would be more open to lay partnership and the gifts of women particularly, if continuing education were a normal part of priestly life.

We live in a rapidly changing world and there is a great need for the total church to listen, reflect and adapt to new needs and new situations. The Second Vatican Council gave us the ideals, but the Church's normal structures at all levels do not favour a partnership or shared vision of responsibility and so tensions have arisen ever since the Council on how to carry out these new ideals at the local level. To adopt a gospel image, it seems to have been a case of new wine in old wineskins. Now we feel we need some new wineskins if the old ones are not to burst and the precious new wine be lost.



1.  We recommend that the ability of women to play a full role in the Church should be fully recognised and assisted by a policy of continuing religious adult-education in parishes, deaneries and dioceses, using existing colleges of education and seminaries so that priests and lay people may study together. Such training should include that of interpersonal skills and group leadership, also community-building. This would help priests to work with and communicate with women more easily.

2. The changed attitudes called for by the Second Vatican Council and subsequent statements should be fostered from childhood upwards, particularly in Catholic schools, in order to avoid the trap of role-assignment or acceptance by women. Both girls and boys should be prepared for an active and varied service to the Church and the wider community.


3. We recommend that parishes in suitable areas be organised on a team basis which would include lay parish assistants as well as parish sisters working with priests to promote such areas as adult formation, catechetics, visiting, and to act as catalysts for real community building, and in particular to develop the ministry and potential of laywomen.

4. We also recommend that the establishment of some form of parish council open to both men and women should now be mandatory in every parish.


5. Girls and women should be involved in, and commissioned for, all ministries now open to lay people, such as reader, acolyte, and special ministers of the eucharist.

6. We ask the bishops to continue to press for girls and women to be allowed to act as altar servers (as takes place already in many countries).

7.  We recommend the wider use of women as liturgy animators locally and on diocesan bodies.


8. We ask the bishops on their parish visitations to' enquire closely as to the ways in which lay women are involved in all levels of the life and mission of the local parish.

9. We ask that diocesan commissions on the Christian family might be set up to supplement the work of the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council. They should be concerned with family policy and special needs such as those of one parent families, the handicapped or elderly people.

10. It is recommended (if this has not already been done) that married people should attend' as 'periti' at the forthcoming Synod on Marriage and the Family, as it is they who have the practical experience.

11. We propose that women should be admitted to the permanent diaconate as there is considerable scriptural and historical support for this step.

Carried: 38 for, 26 against, 3 abstained.

12. We ask that there should be continued study and consideration of the nature of priesthood to see if in time it might be possible for women to share in this great vocation. We need to explore more fully the model of priesthood down the ages to see if it is the only one possible, and whether it ignores the feminine gifts and potential for leadership in the Christian community.

Carried: 30 for, 21 against, 3 abstained.

(We ask the bishops to note that the majority of members of our topic group desired the eventual admission of women to the priesthood. In particular two areas of urgent need were mentioned: (a) that of women religious and secular institutes whose way of life requires the availability of a priest; (b) women religious who are chaplains or parish workers and are seriously impeded in their work by being unable to celebrate the eucharist in the groups with which they are working,  and are also unable to absolve those whom they serve.)"

There is a mix of the totally acceptable, the totally unacceptable, and the things that will be slipped in as a stepping stone towards making the unacceptable seem a little less unacceptable next time.  Of course women should have the same access to training as men so that they can act as catechists within the parish; of course women can't be deacons or priests, but to make up for having to say "No" to something you are so keen on, we'll let girls be altar servers and women "special ministers of communion" (can you see what they did there?) for now.  (By the way, have you ever seen non sequiturs lake those in the parenthesis at the end?)

What this is all about is another aspect of the entryism of the activists into ecclesial structures in England and Wales.  It's not about all women: it's about some women, and about how they fitted into the plans Cardinal Hume and Archbishop Worlock had for the Church.  I've missed out some of the patronising guff the Congress documents contain about priests: poor deluded misogynist men who need to be re-educated; but it is interesting that this was another field on which the Bishops enlisted the laity to marginalise priests.

None of this proves anything about what happens in your parish church each Sunday.  But it is another reflection of the insidious effect that the Congress had on the Catholic Church in England and Wales: the middle classes elected themselves as the laity's representatives and made a contemporary middle class social agenda theirs, and the Church's.


Anonymous said...

Yes , I remember the effects the National Pastoral Congress had on my parish. There was a promotion of people from professional classes - especially teachers and ex-teachers, People who were " educated " were asked for their opinions and groups were formed. Anyone who was not must have felt marginalised - no doubt. I do think it is right to ask Catholics to use their gifts but as all gifts are not deemed of equal worth ( no , they aren't ! ) it was inevitable that non intellectual Catholics drifted away. Its sad. Lyn.

Anonymous said...

I was just thinking about the Churches Together Lent meeting I went to today and the subject of " perfection ". It seems to me that the further one goes from the Catholic Church the more one ends up in a cul de sac of good, but rarefied people. I just hope Pope Francis is able to explain the teachings of the Catholic Church whilst extending mercy to those who cannot ( at the moment ) follow them. Lyn.