A Church of Women

Two provocative offerings in this week’s issue deserve particular attention, not only in light of their authorship, but also because of the importance of their message for the universal church. The first is this year’s John Courtney Murray lecture, delivered by Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., on ways of envisioning Mary at the dawn of the new millennium. The second is a short document published this April by some of the most prominent women theologians, scholars and writers in the country.

In April of this year, Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., gathered together 16 women, all of whom had at one time delivered the prestigious Madeleva Lecture. The annual lecture series is named after Sister Madeleva Wolff, C.S.C., the pioneering educator who served as president of Saint Mary’s from 1934 to 1961. At the close of the conference these women, representing an astonishing range of talent, experience and learning, issued what they called "The Madeleva Manifesto," which forcefully challenges the status quo in the church.


It is by any standard a prophetic document, at once hopeful and challenging, measured and bold. It underlines an important truth: that while the hierarchical church has always welcomed the energy and talent of women, it has often been inhospitable to their voices and experience. Its structures and traditions have also made it difficult for women to exercise any real authority in the church. As a result, for many Catholic women today the church is a sometimes painful place.

Key to this document is the concept of "Gospel feminism," which, as Elizabeth A. Dreyer suggests in her accompanying article, may be defined as advocacy for the full humanity of women within a Christian context. Sadly, over the past decades, some Catholics have caricatured all feminist thought as "radical feminism," thus labeling any effort to embrace the full humanity of women in the church a sort of nefarious plot. (A notable example is the ICEL controversy, in which inclusive language is regularly described by opponents as part of a strategy by "radical feminists.") But what an enormous disservice such thinking is and how much it impoverishes current discourse in the church. For true feminism, which admits and asserts that women should be equal members of societyin all ways and in all placesis part of the Gospel message of inclusion and welcome for all.

A further issue implicit in "The Madeleva Manifesto" is "complementarity," an idea that has bedeviled many discussions of women in the church. The notion of complementarity can be described briefly as follows: Men and women, though equal, have natures that are different and complementary; therefore their roles and functions in society must flow from these natures. It is a philosophy espoused most strongly by Pope John Paul II in such writings as his apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem ("On the Dignity of Women," 1988).

It is also one of the themes of the 2000 John Courtney Murray Lecture, "Miriam of Nazareth: Friend of God and Prophet," by Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., who argues that the tradition that casts Mary as the ideal feminine paradoxically does a disservice to women. In the traditional model (which relies heavily on the notion of complementarity), men are viewed as essentially intelligent, assertive, independent and decisive, and therefore equipped by nature for "leadership in the public realm." Women, on the other hand (drawing on traditional Marian imagery), should be possessed of a nurturing, gentle nature fit primarily for the "private domain" of childrearing, homemaking or caring for the vulnerable. One weakness of this model is that it denies women the possibility of developing a personality that could include other characteristicsfor example, those necessary for leadership in the community. Needless to say, such a model also casts doubt on the idea of a nurturing, gentle man. (One wonders how, for example, Jesus would fit into this model.) There is, Professor Johnson argues, no essential feminine nature. One could conclude that women are as free as men to serve in leadership roles.

Simply by considering these two ideas - Gospel feminism and the notion of the ideal feminineone recognizes the need for the church to reexamine its ideas about women. Such a re-examination and, to use the word of the Madeleva scholars, re-imagining is critical if the church desires the full and active participation of half of its members. While drawing on tradition, the church also needs to consider present-day thinking, and, most especially, to reflect on the experience of millions of women in the church, in order to empower all Catholics for fuller service and discipleship. Likewise, we in this new millennium need to pay close attention when theologians of the caliber of Elizabeth Johnson and the Madeleva scholars speak. To paraphrase the powerful, prophetic words of Miriam of Nazareth at the wedding feast at Cana: Listen to them.

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