Women and the Church

A farmer, a stockbroker, and woman who was a lawyer were standing in line, waiting for their chance at entrance into Heaven. St. Peter called the farmer first. "We have only one simple requirement for entrance here," St Peter said, "You must spell ’God’." "Easy enough," said the farmer, "G-O-D." And he entered Heaven. Next, St. Peter called the stock broker. "We have only one simple requirement for entrance here," he said. "You must spell ’God’." "No problem," said the stockbroker, "G-O-D." And he went in. Finally, the woman lawyer approached St Peter. "Good riddance to the world," she said. "My whole life, I’ve tried to excel in a male-dominated society, only to continuously bump into the proverbial ’glass ceilings’ at every point. I can’t tell you, St Peter, how glad I am finally to be rid of male chauvinism." "Well, you’ll certainly find none of that here," said St. Peter. "I’m sure you’ll enjoy heaven, if you can meet this one simple requirement for entrance. You must spell "Czechoslovakia." One of the things I find reassuring about today’s Gospel is that the Church seems to be have been wrestling with women’s leadership since the very beginning. It’s the issue that will not go away, and we should never just equate leadership with Ordination. The story of Martha and Mary is a complex narrative. It can be read on at least two levels. The first level is extraordinary enough: it focuses on Mary who assumes the position of the Rabbi’s student and is defended against any attack on her right to be there. As biblical scholar Jospeph Fitzmyer tells us, that in first century Palestine, Jewish women were "not permitted to be taught the Torah, but only instructed about how they should live their lives in obedience to its demands. They were not permitted to touch the scriptures nor to take part in public debate or official liturgical ritual." (Fitzmyer: Luke: 892) From this context and against the practice of his own day, we can see the sort of freedom Jesus envisaged for women. On another level, however, this story focuses on Martha. The writer of Luke’s Gospel tells us that we are in Martha’s home and, that with Jesus as special guest at table, she is serving the members of her household with care and devotion. Martha comes across as strong and outspoken. Mary, meanwhile, is passive and silent. It is likely this story is criticising a call in Luke’s community for women to move away from the leadership Jesus gave them and to adopt again the traditional roles to which the Jewish/Christians were more familiar. At the Vatican on the 21 May 2000 Pope John Paul II told a group of Bishops from the USA, that, "The genius of women must be ever more a vital strength of the Church of the next millennium, just as it was in the first communities of Christ’s disciples." To that end today’s story from such a community holds a key to our own dilemma. Just as Jesus broke through the gender boundaries of his own day, so too must we. We must renew our commitment to ending anything that degrades, exploits or dehumanizes women throughout the world. But more, it’s time for the Church to take some strong symbolic and practical steps to defend the leadership of women within our own Catholic community. For example, it would only take a couple of relatively recent changes to canon law to clear the way for lay women and men to be readmitted to the College of Cardinals. The last Cardinal who was not a deacon, priest or bishop (he was in minor orders) only died in 1876. Women could continue to assume high profile positions in each Diocese and also high profile leadership roles within the Roman Curia, starting with those departments that deal with instructions and decisions that directly affect them; and the Church could consider the ordination of women as Deacons. These avenues would enable women to have even more options for them to demonstrate and realize the full extent of their genius, as the Pope puts it. At the Eucharist, then, let us recommit ourselves to using, in the best possible way for the mission of the Church, the gifts, talents and strengths of over half our community. May we learn from the earliest Church that "the better part must never be taken from her." Richard Leonard, S.J.
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