Women are living in a new historical era. How will the church respond?

Sandra Moore-Hunt sings with the choir during a Mass marking the close of the centennial year of the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary Oct. 8 at St. Charles Borromeo Church in the Harlem section of New York City. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

I was addressing a diocesan women’s conference when the mother of a teenage girl asked me a difficult question. If I do not have a better answer next time—and if the church universal does not have more answers to offer soon—I wonder how we will engage girls of the 21st century.

Her daughter wanted to know how to relate to a church where a father God sends a son whose good news is proclaimed most visibly by a male hierarchy.

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I am not a theologian. Bummer. But I did the best I could with the classic responses. I spoke of taking Jesus’ incarnation seriously while remembering the Marian face of the church. I referred to the problem of mistaking ordination for a power trip. I affirmed equality alongside a diversity of sexes and roles. I argued for God’s image as two-sexed and Jesus’ good news as transcending the listener’s sex. I spoke of the many vowed and laywomen who already lead Catholic efforts, and of the near invisibility of women’s heroic family and service work.

But I still felt inadequate.

A male clergy running the most important institutions in Catholic lives, dispensing moral guidance and weekly interpreting revelation, would seem powerful in anybody’s book. Even as we know their work to be service. Even as we know their sacrifices on our behalf.

We proclaim Christ as the model human, that Christology is anthropology. Of course, women and men look to Mary as the human who conformed herself most closely to Christ. She was as brave and strong as any person imaginable. Still, no one should be surprised that many 21st-century Catholic women do not clearly grasp her. There is no “vicar of Mary.” Mary is known most as “mother,” while contemporary women are single longer and more often single mothers. We are also employees and not infrequently breadwinners for our families.

Women are more used to operating independently in some spheres and to collaborating with men in others. We participate in the governance of institutions that affect us. At work, we find female role models of efficacy in formerly all-male environs. We struggle to put family first while also doing justice at work.

In the personal realm, most women desire both children and commitment from their father but have revealed a willingness to enjoy the former without the latter, if that is the best we can get. We are regularly told that sexual availability unlinked from children and marriage is the starting block of a relationship. Look “hot,” and everything else will follow.

It can be argued for all the “classic” reasons listed above that young Catholic women can manage without more visible female role models within the church, more collaboration with clergy and more guidance pertinent to women. And it is true that the church should not operate like IBM. I am saying only that if the church wants women to know real freedom—the freedom of the daughters of Christ—then it needs to make the case more visibly, and more intentionally directed to women’s new historical situation.

This is hard, and I can offer only initial suggestions. Perhaps more female saints who have juggled the demands of the contemporary female life! Certainly also more insights from qualified women wherever doctrine and pastoral practices are deliberated: synods, bishops’ conferences, diocesan and parish groups. If the church takes God’s two-sexed image seriously—and it does—then it is clear that women’s comparative advantages must be joined to men’s in order to understand God and the Christian life. This is not to fall into the clericalism trap. Rather, substantial collaboration should help men to better experience their work as service and women to value their contributions precisely as women. Surely, too, this would better reveal the Marian church Pope Francis celebrates.

There are inevitable moral hazards when any one group leads an enterprise. There are inevitable lacunae when any affected group is excluded from significant collaboration. Women are living in a new historical era. If the church is to be for younger women what it is meant to be for all—the living Christ present at every point in history—I suggest we provide some new forms of witness, dialogue and representation for women.

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Luis Gutierrez
11 months 2 weeks ago
It is understandable that you felt inadequate. Anything short of ordaining women to the sacramental priesthood is an exercise in window dressing.
Lisa Weber
11 months 2 weeks ago
We have no leadership structure for women, therefore we have no women leaders to speak on our behalf whether in dialogue with the men in the church hierarchy or among ourselves. Without recognized women leaders, we have no role models, no women we might admire and emulate. What is new for women is participation in community life. It has happened in the larger society and the Church has yet to catch up. The Church could be leading the effort of women to take part in community life, but it has to allow women into the leadership of the church community before it will be able to help women participate more effectively in the community life of the larger society. The whole question is complex. One aspect of the movement of women into the community has been to devalue the feminine. The Church values the feminine primarily in the traditional roles of wife and mother, but feminine insight and the work of women is more encompassing than that. It would be lovely if we could even talk about these things within the Church. A dialogue alone would offer women young and old some hope and some sense of their own value in the world. The men in the church hierarchy need to help women develop a leadership structure for the good of the church, but neither the men in the church hierarchy nor the women of the church seem to be able to develop any initiative toward a dialogue about it. Thanks for raising the questions in this article.
L J
11 months 2 weeks ago
Professor Alvaré feels inadequate because she cedes the argument from the get go. The mother's question harkens back to the days of the infamous now neutered movement of "horizontal theology". That movement has been with us since the days of Judas Isacriot: power. https://wikileaks.org/podesta-emails/emailid/6293 Americans learned in the Wikileaks emails of John Podesta the thrust of the "Catholic spring" (yet another horizontal movement). Jennifer Palmieri, Tara McGuinness, and the usual suspects found in these movements and on comment forums on the web are, as we say in Spanish, "perro que ladra pero no muerde" (dog that barks but does not bite). Their grievances are horizontal in focus, not vertical. There is nothing vertical or Christocentric in Podesta's emails never mind Palmieri or McGuinness. These people are not about the vertical theology of "I-Thou" but rather "we are church" (another defunct failed movement). Movements come and movements go. Christ remains the same. The answer to the daughter's question is, "imitate Christ" and all else is tertiary. Can she out do Christ? Only in First World nations are these "pressing" issues. Such a lost culture seeing power as the answer to all of their misery. Enter Donald Trump and Clinton Incorporated
Barry Fitzpatrick
11 months 1 week ago
Helen Alvare leaves us with much to ponder and the beginnings of what could be a fruitful dialogue that would lead to meaningful change in structure and emphasis. Some will over-interpret her message and call for immediate "clerical" changes, while others will abhor her even suggesting that the historical change in the place of women in society would be something that requires a response from the Church. What is clear, I hope, from her article, is that prayer dialogue must begin to bring us to a new understanding that will no longer exclude women from "significant collaboration." The beauty of Helen Alvare's piece is in her concluding sentence. Let's bring everyone to the table to see what these "new forms of witness, dialogue, and representation" might be. And let us not limit what is served up as the menu for that table. Saying that certain forms of ministry are off limits at the beginning of the dialogue necessarily limits the full participation right at the outset, and it condemns another generation of women to be judged by their "hotness" and not their ministerial ability to bring Christ to us.
James Sullivan
11 months 1 week ago
Great Professor Alvare! There is an AA saying: We're as sick as our secrets. The secret is that 3/4 of the Hierarchy wish women would just go away except for those dedicated ladies from the Altar Society and other totally non- threatening parish activities. The Hierarchy don't GET women: they are for the most part grumpy old men who want to run well-ordered dioceses and maintain strict control. Women for these 3/4 bishops are a pain in the arse(excuse vulgarity), annoying and never happy-- these bishops are like Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady- wishing women could be just like men. Its all profoundly sad: most RC moderate/progressive women I know love the Church but stay a mile away from grumpy bishops, and some very consesending and patronizing parish priests-- these priests don't have a clue. Sigh.
Jim Lein
10 months 3 weeks ago
Professor Higgins indeed! I can't help talk-sing him right now: Why can't a woman... be like a MAN! I can hear the assembled 3/4 bishops performing this in unison. Sad but most probably true.
William Crozier
11 months 1 week ago
If a majority of the women who work for our dioceses and parishes would go on a general strike would that get the attention of the Authorities/Clergy?
MAUREEN O'RIORDAN LUNDY
11 months ago
I too have daughters, young adults with whom I struggle to communicate. I struggle to understand my own womanhood and to articulate any coherent response to Dr. Alvarez. Some thoughts I cannot let go of include the following: do I really think the best thing a woman may do with her life is to become president of the most powerful nation on earth? No, I honestly do not. Do I wish this for a woman in order to prove equality? No. Do I feel this is a betrayal of women? No. Do I long for a female priesthood? No. Do I understand how young women may find love and marriage while at school into their twenties and refraining from use of contraception? No. Do I understand how the same young women may find time to build a career and a marriage and include motherhood? No. Do I feel I will be scoffed at and sidelined for such comments? Yes. In my heart of hearts, I think the Church's struggle with feminism is giving women a space to think about self-actualization, to imagine what that might look like and to resist, despite great pressure, the push to accept a male role for womanhood.
alan macdonald
10 months 3 weeks ago
This article fits perfectly with the tacit goal of female ordination by the American JEsuits. This goal is in every issue, not openly supported of course, as that would be heresy. Rather, in a tangential, sleight of hand manner that is fundamentally very fuzzy.

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