Click here if you don’t see subscription options
John W. DonohueMay 21, 2007

One summer in the early 1920’s, Ms. Lorelei Lee, a resident of Manhattan who had grown up in Little Rock, Ark., made a trip to Europe. This diversion was sponsored by her gentleman friend, Mr. Gus Eisman, known as the Button King of Chicago. During the journey, Ms. Lee kept a diary, which, fortuitously preserved by Anita Loos, was published in 1925 as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It became an American classic.
Ms. Lee and her traveling companion, her wisecracking friend Dorothy, did not find all parts of Europe equally agreeable. “Paris is devine” Lorelei recorded in her personalized spelling, but a detour to what she called the Central of Europe was less pleasing. From the window of their compartment on the “Oriental Express” the travelers found the view “really quite unusual...because it was farms, and we saw quite a lot of girls who seemed to be putting small size hay stacks onto large size hay stacks while their husbands seemed to sit at a table under quite a shady tree and drink beer.”


What disenchanted Ms. Lee was a case of the oldest form of discrimination in history—that of men against women. Over the millennia and around the globe there surely have been many families in which the wife/mother rather than the husband/father was the dominant partner. In politics, however, and in business, education, the arts and sciences—and the churches—men have managed until quite recently to secure the top positions for themselves.

Christianity rejects the bias here. Paul told the Galatians that among them there should be neither male nor female, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). In the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (1965) the bishops at the Second Vatican Council spelled this out: “Every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent” (No. 29).

But not all distinctions are discriminatory. In the Catholic Church, for instance, governance is linked to ordination. But since only males may be ordained, women and unordained men cannot exercise jurisdiction. When a professor of canon law explained this to a seminary class, one student objected: “What about St. Hilda? She had jurisdiction.” In the seventh century, at Whitby in Northumberland, Abbess Hilda presided at a synod and ruled over a double monastery of monks and nuns, who had separate quarters but chanted the Liturgy of the Hours together. The canonist was not impressed by this example. “She may have thought she had jurisdiction,” he said, “but she didn’t.”

Jurisdiction aside, there have been many influential women in the church, and scholars who are not themselves Catholic have noted this. In the spring of 1973, Ellen Moers (1928-79), a professor at Barnard College, stopped by America’s offices to talk about a discovery she had made while working on her book, Literary Women (1976). She had been examining the concept of heroism and observed that in the past only men were called heroes, because heroes were traditionally rulers, soldiers or explorers and these pursuits were closed to women.

Professor Moers observed, however, that within the Catholic Church women had for centuries been acknowledged as heroes. Their number included not only canonized foundresses like Bridget of Sweden, Angela Merici and Teresa of Avila (to name a few at random) but hundreds of others, canonized or not, who were leaders in both the church and civil society.

One such life may stand for them all. In the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, each of the 50 states has placed statues of two of its distinguished citizens. Washington State in 1980 selected as its second choice a member of the Sisters of Providence, whose religious name was Mother Joseph (1823-1902). She was born in Canada as Esther Pariseau and for 46 years worked in the Pacific Northwest, where she founded 29 schools, hospitals, orphanages, nursing homes and Indian missions.

When Dixy Lee Ray, who had been elected governor of Washington in 1976, signed the bill approving the choice of Mother Joseph for Statuary Hall, she said:“Mother Joseph liked to see things accomplished. If something didn’t go the way she thought it ought to, she rolled up her sleeves and did it herself. When they wanted to impose a water tax in her community, she said, ‘Let’s dig our own well,’ and she did that.... She liked to see decisions made and not just studied to death.”

St. Hilda could never have imagined a record so dazzling, but the divine grace that sustained it she would have recognized.


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
16 years ago
I was surprised and delighted to see Fr. Donohue's editorial in the May 21 issue of America. For the last two or so years there has been a dearth of challenging commentary in the magazine. Finally, something that is on many minds, is put forth for consideration: the discriminatory aspect of the governance of our church!

This month we lost our Pastor - "to the other side of the altar." He's. been a model of Jesus for us all and we are deeply hurt to see him leave the priesthood. What is happening in our church that leads men of faith to abandon their call? Where is their hope for a different day?

What now? We have one less priest/pastor in a small diocese. We ask for assistance from an order community and continue on as if this crisis will go away.

For heaven's sake, when will the hierarchy address the issue of the clergy availability? I quote from a good friend of mine. She was in the seminary studying to be a Presbyterian minister when she converted to Catholicism. She finished her training, but what future does she have in our church? Here are her recent comments:

"Last Sunday on the way to Mass I was thinking about all the many years that the Church has asked people to pray for vocations and how that same Church continues to turn its back on many who genuinely sense that vocation already- just because their gender or marital status doesn't match up with that of Jesus! It seems like God is answering prayers and the Church turns around and says: 'No, that's not the answer we wanted! We won't accept it! We'll just keep praying in hopes that someday we can bring you, God, around to our way of seeing things!'"

When oh when will we allow the "2007 St. Hilda's" to answer their call? When will we allow the "ex-priest", now husband and parent, to answer his call? What a sad commentary on a church so forward thinking in social justice!

The latest from america

Pope Francis delivers his homily during his Pentecost Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican May 28, 2023.
In his homily for Pentecost Mass in St. Peter's Basilica May 28, the pope said that the Holy Spirit is "the heart of synodality and the driving force of evangelization."
And when the trembling shook the entire house it woke me into shock
LukeMay 28, 2023
Greg Chisholm, S.J., gestures while giving a homily
In the inaugural episode of Preach, host Ricardo da Silva, S.J., speaks with Greg Chisholm, S.J., about advice he received as a young priest, then Father Chisholm gives his homily for Holy Trinity Sunday.
PreachMay 28, 2023
photo of stained glass window depicting a dove
A Reflection for Saturday of the Seventh Week of Easter, by Jill Rice
Jill RiceMay 27, 2023