If ever proof was needed that the scriptures are the living Word of God that speak as radically to us today as to the people who first listened to them, then the quote used as the title of the Synodal Working Document, is that proof.
In fact, the Document concludes with a fuller quote from Isaiah: Enlarge the space of your tent, spread out your tent cloths unsparingly, lengthen your ropes and make firm your pegs. (Is. 54:2) Written in the 6th century BCE after the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, these words addressed a Jewish people in exile who had drifted from their core religious, cultural and social identity.
The writer of Second Isaiah urges them to have the courage to set out on a journey (back to Jerusalem) that will help them to re-discover as a people who they fundamentally are, and who God is for them.
This text calls today therefore, for our Church at the start of its third millennium to enter into a journey of listening and discernment that will hopefully lead to it becoming a place of welcome and inclusion for all… a Church which always opens itself to being moved and changed when required – encountering God anew wherever its tent is pitched.
The Working Document points to many groups that feel either outside of – or, at the very least on the margins of – today’s Church. The very sad but unsurprising reality is that one of those excluded/marginalised groups accounts for over 50% of the Church’s population – that is, Catholic women. From every part of the world, women spoke of living with and trying to negotiate the tension that exists between the roles and vocations mandated by the Official Church for women, and those aspired to and experienced by women themselves.
The input from the Irish Church reflects that many Catholic women are not prepared to be considered second class citizens anymore. It acknowledges that many women have already left, or are currently considering leaving the Church because they feel that even though they have deeply and consistently contributed to its mission and life over the years, their contribution has, in the main, been taken for granted by those in leadership.
Women who I have recently interviewed for my own research about their experience of belonging to the Irish Catholic Church echo such feelings. One of those who spoke to me pointed out that “there are women out there – and I would be one of them – who feel that we have a huge gift to offer the Church but where does that gift find expression?” In one simple sentence, she articulates the frustration (evidenced by both the national and the international synodal reports to date) which the vast majority of Catholic women feel as a result of their giftedness, voice, and vocation being repressed within the Church.
Even among groups of relatively conservative Catholic women, there’s a hunger for change in many aspects of the Church. Such aspects include (but are not limited to) how the Church is administered and led, greater inclusion in decision-making, leadership in the Church’s sacramental and liturgical life, and the development of moral and social teachings that reflect the diversity of personhood, sexuality, and family found among its members.
The silencing of women happens on two levels within a clericalised Church – not only does the power to name their experience of being women exist outside of themselves and in the hands of a male, celibate priesthood, women are also deprived of any formal means of consultation open to them in which they can discuss and/or challenge such teaching.
A Church that is terrified of any attempt to explore understandings of gender outside of its simplistic theology of complementarity (emphasised during the papacy of John Paul II and continued by Pope Francis), talks of “the feminine genius of women” which presents women as naturally nurturing and caring, and is encapsulated in the claim that “in giving to others each day women fulfil their deepest vocation”.
In the face of being defined in such a way, many women are left negotiating the tension of indeed acknowledging and celebrating themselves as deeply relational, while also trying to avoid the established tendency to judge women in terms of their willingness to put the needs of others before themselves.
Women need also to be affirmed in challenging and/or sometimes walking away from relationships that are unhealthy and oppressive. As one woman in my own research remarked: “I want to be able to give of myself without losing myself”. While there is almost universal agreement by women across the world that their lived experience, giftedness, and voice are, to say the very least, ignored by/within the Church, the Working Document observes that there is not consensus given as to how such a deeply ingrained reality can be rectified.
Rather, women across the globe have offered a variety of opinions. Such an open response is to be welcomed as it will hopefully put an end to the definitive and confident way in which the Vatican makes pronouncements on women’s nature and vocation despite women themselves increasingly questioning whether such homogeneity is either possible or even desirable.
Rather, it should open the Church up to the rich potential that exists in further listening to and including women from across a spectrum of colour, race, sexual orientation, class, and nationality, in every aspect of its mission and structures.
Women have embraced the synodal listening process with passionate honesty despite articulating fears that their contributions will ultimately not be heard and/ or respected.
While often feeling marginalised and voiceless, women have simultaneously expressed their love for the Church to which many continue to deliberately choose to belong for a variety of reasons. It is their Church too.
Not being part of the institutional Church, women’s intuitive model of Church is very often one of community – a community marked by inclusion and equality rather than one of hierarchy. It is church as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12) where what happens to one member affects everyone equally and which, despite its many limitations, can still strive towards the fullness of life for all of its members promised by Jesus Christ (Jn 10:10).
Such commitment of women to the Church cannot be presumed to go on indefinitely, however. Sociology of religion professor Elaine Howard Ecklund observes that there are two characteristics that help define women’s discernment about staying or leaving the Church: The necessity for meaning – its values and vision resonate with and confirm what they hold as central in their lives, even if some aspects of its patriarchal expression leave them disillusioned, angry, disaffected. The second characteristic is the opportunity to effect change – people remain in an organisation if they believe they are both involved in decision-making and can make a difference.
All of the women in my own research considered their ongoing commitment to the Church in such terms. Echoing both the pain and the hope expressed by the prophets of the scriptures when discerning the will of God, one woman reflects that: “I sort of feel I’m still in there – as tentatively as I am – because I believe in the ability of the Church to change. I believe it can change. And I believe that it will change. And I want to be part of that. I feel well, if I want something to change, I have to be invested in it. If I opt out, I’m leaving it to everybody else. Y’know? And I think that’s why a lot of women have hung in because they see the value of staying somehow in there with the hope that it’s going to change. It’s not just that they’re saying ‘ah well, sure that’s the way it is.’ I don’t think so. I think if you scrape the surface, most women are pretty pissed off.”
Catholic women’s combined experience of being ignored by, and subsumed under, named male experience, results in their finding themselves within a system of meanings and symbols with which they cannot fully identify, and which cannot always identify with them.
As the Irish report and the overall universal Working Document clearly show, Catholic women’s voices are crying out from their Procrustean bed for the diversity of their giftedness, faith expressions, and pastoral presence to be given visibility and voice, and to be celebrated as a joyous manifestation of Ruah, the Spirit of God, breathing a new creation into birth.
It is evident from such reports that the vast majority of women strive and pray for the space within their Church to be widened and enlarged so that they and others can feel that they fully belong. In all corners of the world, women continue to work for a Church that pitches itself in the very reality of people’s lives.
Gráinne Doherty is currently working freelance in pastoral ministry and facilitation. Prior to this, she was part of the Theology department in All Hallows College (Dublin) for many years, while also working in pastoral leadership at both parish and diocesan level – most recently as Director for pastoral development in the Raphoe Diocese.