Women have important insights to give the whole Catholic community. (Photo: Women's Ordination Worldwide)
The recent motu proprio of Pope Francis confirming the roles of women as altar servers and lectors came as a surprise to many.
One felt there was little need for a pope to comment on practices which for many years now have become acceptable in almost every parish in India.
But one can be mistaken. There are still many, many places in the Catholic world where even these minor public roles for women are frowned upon and forbidden. Strange but true.
How then can one have any meaningful conversation about women as priests or deacons?
Is there really such a lot of misogyny in the Catholic Church? Sadly, there is, and it exists side by side with the most fervid devotions to Mary, immaculate virgin and mother of perpetual help — a seeming contradiction. But then, these fissures in the Catholic psyche run deep indeed.
But perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this mentality is not just Catholic, it is male-centered or, to use current parlance, patriarchal.
Most men tend to think that women are weak and inferior, that their proper place is the home with domestic duties, their main task being the care of children.
In such a mentality, men are there to “take care” of women, for which women should be sequestered and protected. The rough and tumble of public life is certainly not meant for them — and one reason for the decline of ethics today, it is argued, is the increasing absence of women at home, where their influence used to be salutary.
These are complicated issues faced today by many societies and by many religions which continue to play a normative role in these societies. In a world which is changing so rapidly, how much space should be given to women, especially public space?
Though not articulated as such, this is the real tension regarding access to ordination to the priesthood for women in the Church.
Priesthood and male power
Let’s face it, ordination to the priesthood is notionally a role of service in the Church. In reality, it is the route to power. No one in the hierarchical Catholic Church today exercises any form of authority who has not been first ordained.
Women have realized this since quite some time, and this is why the more assertive among them have pressed their demands to be ordained.
Not every woman wants this, of course. Most accept their roles of service with great equanimity. Is this because they have brought up to think like this? Maybe.
But increasingly, young women, nourished on ideas of equality and community, and confident of their parity with men in education and the workforce, are asking themselves: if men are eligible for public office, why aren’t we? The Church’s hierarchy has no convincing answer.
Let me add another factor, very much part of modern Catholicism, which has queered the pitch: the practice of obligatory celibacy.
All authority in the Church is exercised by ordained priests who have made a public promise of permanent celibacy. Over the centuries this has created an exclusivist club, an all-male coterie suspicious of women and apprehensive of what female wiles and manipulations could do to their sense of entitlement and privilege.
Confident of their sole access to promotion, power and property, males have made sure that no women will breach this enclosure.
Is this so surprising? Males have claimed privilege in other areas too by excluding members of “inferior races,” social classes and other faiths from equal participation in education, employment and privilege. Gender is only the last barrier.
Seen in this way, all the so-called theological arguments against admitting women to the priesthood simply melt away.
Women’s place in a synodal Church
The larger question relates to how soon women will be admitted to positions of executive authority in the Church. Priesthood is an important route, but it is not the only one.
For example, years ago Pope Francis broke tradition by appointing a group of nine cardinals as his advisers — the Council of Nine. Can he, will he go further still by making at least half these advisers laypeople? And half of these women?
After all, Bergoglio comes from a country whose head of state is a woman and who arguably has not been worse for Argentina than the junta of generals which plunged it into a dirty war.
Here then is a practical application of synodality or collegiality — sharing in the task of governing the Church. It is too delicate a task to be entrusted only to celibate males.
No, Pope Francis, women are not just there to be lectors at Mass, altar servers or voices in the choir. They are not even there only to preside over the Eucharist, significant though that is.
They have important insights to give the whole Catholic community — prophetic insights — about relationships, governance, finances and specially about ecological sustenance.
They must be given a voice to speak, not just spontaneously and individually but through holding office in the Church.
The challenge lies plainly before us. Will this happen in our lifetimes? The time to act is now.
Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.