Women and the big picture

The time has now come to live courageously, without equivocation and eschewing
all patriarchal/misogynistic prejudices, writes Garry O’Sullivan.

By any objective standard, Catholicism is facing its greatest crisis since the monk Martin Luther supposedly nailed his (in)famous ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. Luther saw ‘the big picture’ and the ordinary people of Germany flocked to his cause.

At the heart of Luther’s thinking was one word: ‘freedom’, and within living memory another ‘Martin Luther’, with the surname ‘King’, gave voice to that same imperative in 1960s America, when he called for a revolution of values based upon an appeal to altruistic love transcending creed, tribe, class, race and nation.

Some historians view the Confederation of Kilkenny (1642) as the first official appeal to, and recognition of, the individual’s inalienable right to freedom of religious and political thought, but its remote history may go back to 697 CE, when another monk – St. Brendan the Elder- presided over a synod close to the town of Birr, Co. Offaly.


It passed the Cain Adomain Statute, according important legal, if very limited, human rights to women and children. Brendan, a wise and humane abbot, had with a stroke of the pen made it possible for women to no longer be seen as the ‘mere chattels’ of men.

This brave initiative did not survive the test of subsequent developments and vicissitudes, but it remains nonetheless a small beacon of light which long ago pointed us here in Ireland, and elsewhere for that matter, towards a better future.

It is that ‘better future’ which Pope Francis hopes to secure for the Church, by initiating and seeing through to its conclusion the synodal process, which sadly is unlikely to be successful. Many factors will contribute to this likely outcome, but central to the unfolding catastrophe is the magisterium’s incompetence in dealing with the women’s issue, highlighted by a recent interview given by Francis to the journal America, where he employed the Orwellian strategy of attributing a virtual god-like status to women whilst at the same time advancing the paradoxical case that this very status means that there is no need for them to be represented in the Sacrament of Order.

Irish priest and poet (Fr.) Gabriel Daly, in the early 80s, said that Vatican II was a massive surgical operation carried out without anaesthesia on a patient who thought she was in the best of health. Daly’s tentative prognosis was that ‘the patient’ would probably recover.

Many would say he was mistaken. The situation is now ten times worse than it was then, and much of the cause is because the magisterium is incapable of hearing voices outside of its own sound chamber, talking only to itself, with no one really listening anymore. The command to go out to the peripheries failed badly and showed that the Church does not have the reach to go beyond its parish boundaries.

The hierarchies of the world are unable to discern the Spirit of Truth because they are paralysed by the spirit of fear, unable to move forward, rather like the proverbial rabbit ‘trapped’ in headlights. Well, those “headlights” are a massive sociological and theological juggernaut coming their way, because the bishops – worn down by what Pope Francis has called the disease of clericalism – cannot embrace purposeful change, imprisoned as they are within a discredited Christian anthropology and interpretation of the nature of revelation, rendering them unable to read the signs of the times so lauded by Vatican II.

Final document

Its final document, the Declaration on Religious Freedom (7 December 1965), includes these words: ‘The right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human being …’ (n. 2), with the further statement that ‘truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth’ (n. 1).

It would seem that the magisterium does not believe its own doctrine, for the simple reason that its revisionist interpretation of the spirit of Vatican II has imposed upon Francis’ synodal initiatives structural limitations that effectively prevent the laity from realising the vision implicit in the ideals articulated by the preceding paragraph.

We should not be surprised, therefore, that the response of Irish women religious to the preparations for the 2023 Synod expressed with exasperation the reality now facing them: ‘We hold on by our fingertips’. Pope Paul VI (d. 1978, the Year of Three Popes) was quick to grasp the significance of these ideals, when – soon after the Council – he said that they would prove to be prophetic.

Paul has been proven right, but perhaps not in the manner he had envisaged. The Declaration (debated heatedly by the Council Fathers) certainly amounts to a volte-face. In 1864, Pope Pius IX (d. 1878) had decreed that people do not have the right to religious (and, by implication, political) freedom, in The Syllabus of Errors.

The irony is that, by 1965, what the magisterium was willing to concede to non-Catholics has never really been available to its own faithful. This situation, almost sixty years after the close of Vatican II, is shameful. In 1865, Punch Magazine, in its first issue of the New Year, had a clown declaim that ‘I was prepared to swallow with unquestioning docility, the biggest things delivered by Superior Infallibility’, accepting the ‘condemning of free press, conscience and liberal constitution …’ The Spectator made the suggestion that the Pope should ‘as soon pray against the first law of motion’.

160 years on from The Syllabus, we are faced with a situation where the official Church’s ‘take’ on women (but not only that issue) is as open to caricature as was Pius IX’s pontificate. The current policies endorsed by the magisterium are, metaphorically speaking, an attempt to defy ‘the first law of motion’, and those policies will fail, as surely as day follows night: the age of docility is now in terminal decline, and possibly already ‘dead’.

Most of the Church’s big picture thinkers have been sidelined and ignored, the victims of power masquerading as service, rather like how in ancient Greece its women physicians were prevented from practising medicine, for which ‘crime’ one of their number was sentenced to death, but later reprieved and permitted to practise, but only in respect of women.


Society has come a long way since then (leaving aside the appalling practices of the Taliban, in Afghanistan), but true democracy in the Catholic Church remains in its infancy; indeed, to borrow Daly’s image, it is probably much too late anyhow for ‘the patient’.

Paul VI had the vision and wisdom to know that what the Church needs most of all is more prophets; in the words of Franciscan Richard Rohr, persons who can name reality truthfully, fearless when confronted by sectional interests and ‘political expediency’.

They are the big picture thinkers of our time, speaking truth to power, and willing to courageously give voice to the hope that is within them (Col. 1:27, paraphrase); for without their vision, the people will surely die (Prov. 29:18). The time has now come to live courageously, without equivocation and eschewing all patriarchal/misogynistic prejudices. St. Paul’s vision of Church: 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. (Gal. 3:28).

Leave a comment

Subscribe to The Synodal Times weekly newsletter


Become a Member

Ireland’s only synodal publication is available for under €2.50 a month.

Join today to access all the latest analysis from the ongoing Irish Synod.

Members also receive a FREE eBook of The Synodal Pathway.

€25 per annum