Unappreciated talents, silenced voices – the women of our Church

“Women have no official role in the Church, except occasionally, on the whim of men, to fill in gaps, that would always be better filled by any available man”, writes ex-nun turned author, Mary T. Malone.

There are not many signs to indicate that the Roman Catholic Church, with its patriarchal hierarchy, is capable of, or even desirous of, bringing about an inclusive Christian community after the model of Galatians 3:27–28: “as many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”.

Even Pope Francis, with his refreshing new openness to new possibilities, has definitely linked himself with his predecessors on the subject of women, at least on the subject of women’s ordination. When he speaks of a new theology of women, he is definitely not speaking about Christian feminist theology, but about a theology of women done by men, as it has always been done. There is, however, an alternative tradition that we can call on. and this is the history of Christian women, who, from the very beginning have been followers of Jesus.  

However, from approximately the year 55 CE, in the writings of Paul to the Corinthians (of which there will be much more later), women have been silenced and considered of little or no account in the Christian community. Nothing has ever been expected from women except obedience – even up to the present day. 


If women are going to participate more fully in the Christian community, it is only on the whim of the male clergy. Nothing is needed from women in terms of female theology or liturgical leadership. In one of the most recent Papal allocutions given at the close of the recent Synod of Bishops, women are again confined to the home, where indeed, it is implied, their efforts at the new evangelisation are sorely needed.  

But this is to emphasise, yet again, the private nature of women’s Christian lives. This is the distinction I make between being a Catholic woman leading a private, non-participatory Christian life, and a woman Catholic, who brings the whole of her bodily being to her faith, and worships the God in whose image she is made, as a woman. Catholic women are prescribed to lead private lives, mostly as mothers, and to keep their faith to themselves.  

The Church seems to have no need of this faith. As far as the institutional Church is concerned, little has changed since Paul’s Corinthian letter in 55 CE. Women are to be silent in the churches, subject to their husbands from whom they learn all they need to know. Not only is it unlawful for women to speak in church, it is shameful; that is, such behaviour would go against their very nature. 

It would fly in the face of everything that God has intended for the female of the species. This is the back drop to all papal and episcopal pronouncements about women. The Church is a hierarchical patriarchy, a graded society where women are placed on the very lowest rung. The interpretation of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was questioned by Pope Paul VI in the late sixties, shortly after the close of Vatican II. He requested the Pontifical Biblical Commission to examine the text to see what it might really mean. He offered two possible choices, which offer a quite unique insight into the new Testament exegesis of the time.  

The first possibility was that this text was indeed the Word of God, inerrant and true for all time and in all places, and therefore impossible to change. The second possibility was that this text represented a pastoral decision made by Paul in a particular place, Corinth, and at a particular time, the middle of the first century of Christianity. If this were so, then the teaching could be changed in another pastoral decision in another place and at another time. The Pontifical Biblical Commission opted for the latter solution.  


Apart from all the questions this particular decision raises for those who tend to read the Scriptures literally and see the Word of God contained verbatim in each word of the text, it gave Paul VI the opportunity to declare publicly that the Church now believed that women’s silencing and invisibility were at an end. The possibility that the Church could now begin to harness the gifts and energies and wisdom of women presented itself. This is not, however, what happened. Pope Paul chose to make a symbolic gesture, which in fact was missed by most of the Church. perhaps that was precisely the intention, since symbolic gestures, by their very nature, are easily ignored or misinterpreted.  

What Pope Paul VI chose to do in 1970 was to make Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila Doctors of the Church, Catherine representing all lay women, and Teresa representing all consecrated religious women. The occasion, important though it was, barely caused a ripple, and the consequences, in terms of the intentionality of the act, have been almost negligible.  

Since then Thérèse of Lisieux (1997) and Hildegarde of Bingen (2012) have been made Doctors of the Church with similarly negligible consequences for Catholic women and even for many women Catholics. The intention surely was to announce to the Church that the writings of these women had been recognised as of similar importance to the Church as the writings of the male doctors, but no analysis of this situation has become general, and the writings of the four women doctors remain practically unknown. The one exception might be Thérèse of Lisieux, but it is usually not her doctorate for which she is remembered, but her ‘little way’. 

It is within the possibilities offered by Pope Paul VI to the pontifical Biblical Commission in the late 1960s that the characteristics of Catholic women and women Catholics are clearly and definitively delineated. Catholic women, it is believed, are placed by God in a particular position of silence and invisibility, obedient to men and at their bidding and service. They are the ones who are taught, and they are never to be seen as official teachers, especially as teachers of men.  

Women are the listeners, the taught, the silent unquestioning ones, and even though the vast majority of Catholic women would probably reject this designation, this is precisely the basic ecclesial premise of their lives. it is also the basic ecclesial practice of the Church of our day, including the Church in Ireland.  

Women have no official role in the Church, except occasionally, on the whim of men, to fill in gaps, that would always be better filled by any available man. Women study men’s theology – the theology of the new women doctors of the Church has never become integrated with ‘mainstream’ theology. Women often have spoken and unspoken misgivings about this state of affairs, but it is universally believed that there is just ‘theology’, a kind of pseudo-generic phenomenon, created by men for men in the words of men, and altered hardly at all by the presence of women students. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a brilliant example of this wholly-male theology, and according to the most recent Synod of Bishops, it is to be the main instrument of teaching for the Year of Faith (2012–13), and the new evangelisation, in preference, it seems, both to the Bible and the official documents of Vatican II.  

The language of the Catechism is so male-centred that it is often unintentionally humorous. Whether Catholic Women notice this or not, women Catholics (whom we shall describe for much of the remainder of this book) find it almost impossible to read or take seriously. They are not addressed, their lives are not considered, and they are subsumed under the male persona. I am using the term ‘Catholic women’ to include all those who apparently find this situation to be quite normal, impossible to change, and relatively tolerable.  


‘Apparently’ is the important word in the above sentence, for even if such Catholic women have questions about this situation, they keep their questions to themselves because they see no possible alternative to the current situation. They often focus on the personality of the local priest or bishop, his kindness, pastoral concern or good homilies. The larger ecclesial situation remains beyond their concern. This book is designed to illustrate that there is an alternative to the current male-dominant situation, and that there has always been an alternative. There is a genuine, legitimate, and continuous tradition of Christianity as experienced, celebrated, and interpreted by women. 

Even the teaching of the four women Doctors of the Church has been treated as almost an irrelevancy, and their doctorates are seen as honours rather than as a distinct contribution to the theology and meaning of Christianity. It is the thesis of this book that unless attention is paid to women’s contribution to Christianity, then Christianity will practically disappear. The fading of what can be called ‘men’s church’ is already well under way. 

There is an insistence, in Vatican documents, that the language of the Church always be male, to represent the real humanity of men. Women are subsumed within this and do not need to be mentioned separately. What men do is ‘normal’ and sufficient. In the ecclesiastical context, these prescribed roles of women and men have continued relatively unaltered down through the centuries to our own day. These roles take their origin in the physical shape and purpose of female and male bodies, roles that have been socially and religiously articulated as ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’.  


Women are designed by nature – and God – to function mostly in the private sphere in silence, service, and obedience, and in their particular ‘genius’ of nurturing. Men are designed for the public arena as rulers, thinkers, teachers, masters and decision-makers. In this dualistic world of strength and weakness, ruling and obeying, men always appear on the positive side of the dualism and women on the negative. The first theological articulation of the reasons for women’s silence and confinement to the private sphere comes in the First letter to Timothy, Chapter 2, vv. 11–15: “let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing”. 

This has always been seen as the biblical explanation as to why women have to take the second place, humanly speaking, and why they are not really seen as fully human. This theological explanation of the position of women in God’s plan became a kind of mantra and was repeated constantly and consistently throughout history – women were ‘created second and sinned first’. From this all manner of conclusions were drawn and still continue to be drawn in papal writing explicitly, and in most other ecclesiastical writing by implication.  


This is also one of the main reasons for priestly celibacy, since the male cleric must be preserved from the sinful female. It is obvious that, even though not expressed as such, this is the main and definitive reason against the ordination of women to the priesthood. The exclusion of women from priesthood is so great that it cannot even be discussed. in this church which still functions explicitly in the sphere of ‘ontological complementarity’, women are not seen to have full human qualities, and certainly not the qualities of leadership, intellect, decision-making and teaching that are necessary for ordination. No more elaborate explanation need be sought as the Bishop of Meath said in a television interview (20 January 2013) on the subject of women, ‘This will not happen’.

The silencing and even excommunication of clergy who espouse the cause of women are by now, sadly, too numerous to mention. With the exception of a brief period in the fourth century, when it was taught that after the renunciation of sex women and men were equal, ontological complementarity has remained the official teaching of the Catholic Church for millennia. This teaching has also vastly influenced the inner life of most other churches, even of those who ordain women.  

Within the Catholic Church, the voice of women is never heard. All is prescribed for women by men. There is not the slightest interest in what women think about anything, even the most intimate issues of their lives. Mutuality is a recognition that women and men come to a relationship, or exist as separate beings on their own terms. It moves beyond the strictures of femininity and masculinity. it recognises that women and men are interdependent and that the voice of women and the experience of women is just as essential to this situation as the voice of men. Mutuality is a move beyond stereotypes and a discovery of the unique gifts of each person.  


This is where the woman Catholic exists, knowing that her femaleness, her womanhood, cannot be predetermined by men, ordained or otherwise. Even though, throughout the history of Christianity, Woman Christians/Catholics have been seen as an intrusion on the Church of men, and have been treated as such, there is a long, continuous history of women believers who thought for themselves and imaged God for themselves and taught this to others.  

The woman Catholic is a self-defined woman who fully accepts her female nature and the Christian teaching that she, as female, is made in the image of God. This God, then, cannot be an exclusively male-metaphored God.  

The fact of femaleness is the starting point, and for most women Catholics, it is a starting point of grace, not of original sinfulness. ‘Just to be born is grace enough,’ they profess, and ‘my real me is God,’ as the mystic Catherine of Genoa proclaimed. This sets up a completely new theological agenda, starting from the lives of women and their God, as reflected on by women. The difficulty lies in the fact that the history of women in Christianity is largely unknown. It has been erased from the consciousness of male historians, male theologians and male clergy, from pope to parish priest. nevertheless, it is possible to trace a continuous history of Women Christians from the very first days of the Gospel story.  

With the exception of the women mystics of the Middle ages, these women have left little trace of their lives, and certainly nothing of their voices. Nevertheless, it is possible to trace their presence, as endless Synods, episcopal and papal pronouncements, and theological and saintly denunciations of the activities of women litter the pages of Church history. 

For women, the Second Vatican Council was, for the most part, a repetition of the ancient prescriptions, but as always, when a door is opened, women rush through. This time, against all the odds, it was the door of Women’s ministry. as a result, the face of the church, though not its teaching, was changed dramatically. As well as this, the promotion of biblical scholarship and biblical spirituality by the Council awakened in women a need to participate in their own traditions and spirituality that has not been, nor can it be, quenched. Around the same time as the Second Vatican Council, that is the mid-sixties, the arrival of Christian Feminism brought a whole new sense of liberation, at least to some women Catholics.  

Feminism vastly disturbed the Catholic women, that is most women in the Catholic Church, and this breach has never been healed. Christian feminism opened doors to women theologians, exegetes and other scholars to begin a female-based exploration of the traditional documents of the Church.  

The official church, at every level, fears this development and denounces it at every opportunity. The long, continuous, brilliant and radical history of women’s Christian presence may break the deadlock of a Church which seems to be stuck in its own intransigence.

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