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There's no stopping the rise of women

Especially in Asia, their role is changing as girls seen to be at least men's equal, certainly colleagues

  • Father William Grimm
  • Japan
  • August 26, 2011
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A T-shirt in the United States had on it the words, "A woman’s place is in the house." It was illustrated with a picture of the residence of the US president, the White House.

No woman has gotten there yet except as the spouse of a president or a member of the staff, but it is probably only a matter of time before the world sees a female American president.

That will be big news in the West, where woman leaders are still rare when compared with Asia. The recent election of Yingluck Shinawatra as prime minister of Thailand is just the latest of many examples of women being chosen to lead Asian nations.

While that has not yet occurred in more Confucian-influenced places such as China, Japan, Korea or Singapore, it is only a matter of time before some of those countries are led by women. In fact, that might happen in China or Japan before it does in the US. That is ironic, given Westerners’ ill-informed prejudice that they lead in recognizing and giving scope to women’s rights and talents.

Generally, women as political leaders have shown themselves to be neither more nor less capable, honest, peaceable, intelligent or effective than men. Women are clearly the equals of men where governing is concerned. Whether that is good news or bad depends upon the leaders’ records. Gender makes no difference.

Even in the Church, women are beginning to take on leadership roles. I experienced that personally when I worked in a department of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan and my boss was a woman. Occasionally, someone would be surprised that I, the priest, was not in charge, but most people did not consider it unusual. My superior had seniority, experience and talents that suited her to the job, qualifications that I lacked.

In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI has placed women in unprecedented levels of curial authority. Given that it is only since 1917 that ordination has been a requirement for cardinals, might we one day see further changes that bring women into that level of service in the Church? There is certainly nothing inherent in the office of cardinal that requires being a man, and women will certainly look no more strange in scarlet silk and frilly lace than the men who currently wear them.

These thoughts were provoked by a report that the rector of a cathedral in the US has announced that henceforth only boys will be allowed to be altar servers. Those girls who have been serving will be retrained to be sacristans: liturgical housekeepers.

The priest feels that altar serving is one of the steps towards ordination and that removing girls from that ministry will increase young men’s willingness to enter the seminary. The article I read did not say if he intends to eventually limit the ministries of lector, extraordinary minister of the Eucharist and musician to males. Those steps would, of course, be logical extensions of his decision. (In fact, several popes have forbidden women in choirs, most recently Pius X in 1910.)

At a parish meeting in Tokyo, one of the participants wondered if the fact that the majority of the altar servers and all the server leaders were girls might keep boys from joining the ministry. The conclusion was unanimous that once upon a time that might have been true, but boys today are increasingly used to seeing girls as at least their equals, certainly as colleagues. That American priest’s decision will probably mystify and alienate both the girls and boys of his parish, not to mention the adults.

The role of women in the world is changing, perhaps most dramatically in Asia. Those changes are bringing about changes in the attitudes and lives of men. They will also continue to bring about changes in the life of the Church.

Father William Grimm is a Tokyo-based priest and publisher of UCA News, and former editor-in-chief of “Katorikku Shimbun,” Japan’s Catholic weekly.
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