One Image, One Thousand Messages?

On Tuesday, before succumbing to election fever, I attended All Souls' Day Mass. One of my favorite holy days, All Souls' Day provides me the opportunity to think about and remember my friends and relatives who have passed on, and to reflect on what the Catholic faith offers in terms of hope and redemption. And beyond remembering those I knew personally, the day prompts me to reflect on those to whom I owe my faith: my forebears from Ireland and Germany who brought their Catholicism with them across the Atlantic all those years ago. While not exactly up there with Easter, Christmas, or even some major feast days honoring various saints, All Souls' Day nonetheless is a beautiful aspect of the Catholic faith.

During Mass, I was looking up at the sanctuary, and I noticed that there were many, many people participating. Joining the celebrant were several priests and deacons, lay lectors, Eucharistic ministers, musicians, and altar servers. Attending Mass at a cathedral usually means the sanctuary is quite crowded, so this wasn't unusual. But during a quick moment, when I should have perhaps been focusing on prayer, I did a quick count. There were 20 people present in the sanctuary. 18 were men.

I point out the male to female ratio not to criticize this particular church (in fact, this parish does an admiral job presenting its gender and ethnic diversity), but to ask the question: what does an image like that say to girls and women sitting in the pews? That is, what do women and young girls feel while looking up at a sanctuary filled overwhelmingly with men? Of course, on any given Sunday in any Catholic church, a man is celebrating Mass, but the point of this post is not to raise the question of female ordination, but simply to ask what impact this image is having on Catholic women. Do Catholic girls and young women, who have more professional and social opportunities now than ever before, feel resentful and excluded? Do they look up at the sanctuary, and compare what they see with images from other churches that ordain women pastors and bishops? Perhaps they shrug it off completely, realizing that the image they see is like that for a reason, and accept things the way they are? Some may appreciate the clear gender roles the church offers? Not being a Catholic women myself, I don't know the answers. But I do know that images are powerful, and that they quickly present complex messages, ideas, and values. What is the church saying to women and girls with images such as the one I saw on Tuesday?

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7 years 10 months ago
"some of the bitterness Catholic women feel is due in part to a sense that they deserve to receive the deference that the male clergy receive. "

Deference and respect must be earned,  not given automatically to someone just because they're a priest.  Women don't want to be priests so others will treat them with deference, I suspect most women want to be preists for the same reason most men do - because they feel called by God  (unless I'm wrong, and most men want to be priests so someone will finally respect them  :)
Jim McCrea
7 years 10 months ago
Maybe if official Catholicism did away with such Anglican pretensions as His Excellency, My Lord (English silliness), Your Eminence, Very Right Reverend, Most Reverend, and - yes- Your Holiness (an appellation not supportable in history), then this "deference" would stand a chance of dying the quick death it deserves.

I think that women should boycott any participation in parish and church official activities for a year, and then we men would be forced to see just how desperate this organization would be without womens' contributions.
Jim McCrea
7 years 10 months ago
Maybe if official Catholicism did away with such Anglican pretensions as His Excellency, My Lord (English silliness), Your Eminence, Very Right Reverend, Most Reverend, and - yes- Your Holiness (an appellation not supportable in history), then this "deference" would stand a chance of dying the quick death it deserves.

I think that women should boycott any participation in parish and church official activities for a year, and then we men would be forced to see just how desperate this organization would be without womens' contributions.
Marie Rehbein
7 years 10 months ago
David,

Do you mean deference to authority, as in who gets the last word on something?  I often find that I get the last word, but not because I want it or need it.  It's just that no one else has a better idea and I have presented my idea in a non-threatening manner.  Sometimes, I wish someone would at least point a flaw, but they do not seem to have enough insight into whatever the matter is. In other words, I would not need to be a priest in order to experience deference.

I think there is a big difference between respect and deference, if the above is your definition of the latter.  I show respect to everyone, but I don't automatically give someone authority over what happens to me just because he or she is in a position of authority.  If I am convinced that the person has more expertise, then issue by issue that person gets to call the shot.  Maybe that's not what happens when a cradle Catholic encounters a priest, but I think it should be.  Maybe if it were, the pedophile priests would not have gotten away with it for so long.
Carolyn Disco
7 years 10 months ago
Thank you to Michael O'Loughlin for posing the questions:

'What is the church saying to women and girls with images such as the one I saw on Tuesday?...what do women and young girls feel while looking up at a sanctuary filled overwhelmingly with men?'

That a man would even think to ask is hopeful, though I suspect older men are less sensitized than those younger, like O'Loughlin.

Here is what a septuagenarian (as of today) thinks: what a disgraceful reminder of my gender's exclusion, and what a shame that the full gifts of women are so marginalized. If I ponder the matter in depth, I only get angry at the insult, and cannot concentrate on prayer.

It is actually the obverse of the image O'Loughlin presents that brought the issue home to me. Go back decades to the installation of Barbara Harris as the first Episcopal bishop. By chance, I came across some television coverage and was stopped in my tracks.

There on the altar was not only a WOMAN wearing a mitre, but a whole phalanx of women priests in vestments were in view. I had never seen women so vested, and at the center of worship.

Out of nowhere, I started to sob, just sob. The power of the images of women as ministers overtook me. I was mesmerized and sat there in joy to absorb what it meant to be affirmed in that way.

I wonder what qualities of ministry attach to a penis over a vagina, to put it graphically. My conclusion is that hierarchs feel threatened, and prefer to keep the status quo - not really out of any theological consideration, but as markers of their psychological dysfunction. The fear of the feminine is a powerful one. It poses too many centering questions.

I have since attended services where Episcopal women priests preside, and always welcome our female pastoral associate filling in at Eucharist services or whatever. A sign of the alarm women ignite is a recent chancery communique warning anyone to stay away from a woman priest in our area, and promising excommunication to those who attend her celebrations.

No matter, change is coming from the bottom up, and someday all this will seem like foolishness. Maybe that priest shortage is for an inspired reason, though married men come first, and when all other options are spent, women become acceptable. I don't sweat it too much because the time is coming, and eventually, it will be, 'What was all that fuss about?'
7 years 10 months ago
My experience has been that women have always been much more religious and faithful to the Church than men.  There were always more women at Mass than men.  And I understand that has been true for almost 2,000 years.  
Marie Rehbein
7 years 10 months ago
You know, I really appreciate the way women's options have been expanded in my lifetime.  However, it does not bother me in the least that priesthood is men only.  There's no money in it.  It has a lot in common with motherhood, but lacks some of the bigger perks.  I hear from God personally.  So, I do not really know what it is that would make (or makes) women resentful that priesthood is not an option for them. 

However, the mother of one of my daughter's friends is an ordained Presbyterian minister who was never asked to participate in any liturgies at the Catholic school our girls attended, while the Greek Orthodox pastor who was the father of another student was often included.  That women cannot be priests is one thing, but that women who are ministers or priests in other Christian churches are not acknowledged is another.  This actually bothers me a bit. 
Molly Roach
7 years 10 months ago
The Roman Catholic Church has a well documented history of mysogny. The history is illustrated by the predominance of men in the sanctuary.   This will not last forever but it will last as long as spitefulness and ignorance shape the status quo of the Vatican gang.
Marie Rehbein
7 years 10 months ago
David,

Since I am not Catholic, I am wondering what this deference toward clergy looks like.  I don't treat the priests, or even bishops, I meet any differently than I do anyone else.
7 years 10 months ago
"what does an image like that say to girls and women sitting in the pews?"

I was an adult when I became a Catholic, but my first impression was that women were percieved by the church as spiritually second class.  Since then I've learned a lot more about the church - my opinion of the hierarchy has plunged even lower, but I've also become aware of some within the church, like William Barry SJ (http://povcrystal.blogspot.com/2007/11/william-barry-sj-women-and-ordiantion.html), who see women as worthy of equal opportunities.   I'm very inspired by the Episcopal Church's Katharine Jefferts Schori  and in my own church by women like NT professor Sandra Schneiders (http://www.womenpriests.org/classic/schneide.asp).

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