People often ask how I can continue to be part of the Catholic Church when its governance and ministerial structures discriminate against women. Even though there are now more women in leadership roles in Catholic institutions than ever before, including female college presidents and diocesan chancellors, canon law restricts church governance to the ordained. No woman can ever serve as a canonical pastor, exercise episcopal leadership, select who may be a pastor or a bishop or elect the pope. And while 80 percent of all paid lay ecclesial ministers in U.S. Catholic parishes are women, their positions can be, and often are, eliminated when a new pastor is appointed.
Episodically, therefore, I find myself asking why I stay in the Catholic Church. The question plagues me especially when I am tired or discouraged. I was 25 when I first began to comprehend the depth and breadth of female exclusion—and I do not mean only exclusion from the priesthood. Women’s leadership and witness in our church have been suppressed for millennia. Yet my reasons for remaining a practicing Catholic have only deepened and intensified these past 35 years.
It helps to keep perspective. Until recent centuries, with a few notable exceptions, most of history—not only the Old and New Testaments—was written by men. Female was believed to be a subset of male, so for the most part the activities, thoughts and words of men were recorded for posterity. It should not be too surprising, then, that Lectionary readings in both Protestant and Catholic churches are mainly about male biblical figures. When women’s stories from Scripture are included, the selections and attendant preaching often reflect what men think or have thought about women rather than what women themselves thought or did in biblical times.
Which Women’s Stories Do We Hear?
Consider, for example, a Lectionary omission in Holy Week. In Matthew’s Gospel (26:6-13), just before the passage we read on Palm Sunday in Year A, there is the story of a woman who takes the prophetic leadership role of anointing Jesus’ head, much as Samuel once anointed King David. Yet her story is excluded from the Palm Sunday and Wednesday of Holy Week readings, even though Jesus, after rebuking the male disciples for criticizing her generous act, is recorded as having said: “I assure you, wherever the good news is proclaimed throughout the world, what she did will be spoken of in memory of her.”
While Mark’s version of the anointing woman’s story is part of the Gospel passage for Palm Sunday in Year B, it may be omitted, making it possible for us never to hear about this woman’s prophetic gesture that must have been very consoling to Jesus. One can only wonder why Jesus’ promise to tell the story “in memory of her” was not taken more seriously. It is hard to imagine a similar directive from Jesus involving a male disciple being deleted or made optional for over 2,000 years.
Unfortunately, the anointing passage we do hear about regularly is the one in which a female forgiven sinner washes and anoints Jesus’ feet with her hair (Lk 7:36-50). We hear about this woman on the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, and every year on Thursday of the 24th week in Ordinary Time. Although this story may have the same roots in the oral tradition as the one recounted in Mark and Matthew, the focus is entirely different in the Lucan version and completely obscures the prophetic nature of the woman’s action. The selectivity seen in the choice of anointing passages can easily give the impression that women and sin are invariably linked.
Women, Jesus and St. Paul
To educate about women leaders and to model gender balance in Scripture proclamation, the organization FutureChurch launched special international celebrations of the Feast of St. Mary of Magdala, beginning in 1998. Each year nearly 300 such events are held in mid-July. Participants hear presentations by biblical scholars about early women leaders and take part in prayer services at which competently prepared women preach and preside.
One reason the Mary of Magdala celebrations have proved popular is that Catholic women and men are edified to discover that Jesus included women in his Galilean discipleship. Most Catholics mistakenly believe that Jesus called only men, although Lk 8:1-3 tells us that Mary of Magdala, Joanna, Susanna and many other women accompanied him and ministered with him in Galilee. This Lucan reading is rarely heard on Sunday, since it is optional on the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time in Year C. These three short verses immediately precede the much longer story of the “woman sinner” who washes and anoints Jesus’ feet with her hair at Simon’s house (Lk 7:36-50). This leads Ruth Fox, O.S.B., who did much of the research about women in the Lectionary identified in this article, to inquire: “But why? By association with the woman in Lk 7:37, are the women named in Lk 8:1-3 also assumed to be sinful?” Sadly this represents a no-win scenario for accurate understandings about Jesus’ female disciples in the current Lectionary. If the optional Lk 8:1-3 reading is not proclaimed, very few Catholics will ever hear that Jesus included women in his closest circle of discipleship. But even if it is included, a pejorative association between women and sin is reinforced.
Many also mistakenly believe that St. Paul was anti-woman. Yet, as Pope Benedict XVI said so well in an address in February 2007, St. Paul worked closely with women leaders like Phoebe, Junia, Lydia and Prisca. Unfortunately, Romans 16, a passage that names 11 women and identifies some of them as deacons, apostles and co-workers, is never proclaimed on a Sunday. Nor are the accounts of women leaders in the Acts of the Apostles (Lydia, Prisca, Tabitha), which are read only on the weekdays of Easter. As a result, most Catholics never hear about these women’s important ministry alongside Paul.
Proclaiming Lectionary texts that exclude or distort the witness of women, particularly in a church where all priestly liturgical leadership is male, is a dangerous for our daughters and our sons. Young girls can hardly avoid internalizing the notion that God must have created them less important than their brothers; otherwise, wouldn’t they be seeing a female leading worship on Sundays?
And where are the biblical stories of the strong women leaders of salvation history? Couldn’t we include the story of Shiprah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who saved a nation of boy-children, perhaps even Moses, by defying Pharaoh’s law to kill all male infants born to the enslaved Hebrews? Currently the Lectionary version of Ex 1:8-22 (Monday of the 15th Week in Ordinary Time, Year I) completely excises these valiant women by skipping the verses that tell their story (15 to 21). Our sons and daughters would also be inspired by the stories of Deborah, a prophet and judge of Israel, and Queen Esther who courageously saved her people from annihilation. Yet neither of these strong women leaders from our Judeo-Christian tradition is included in the Lectionary for Sundays.
If all-male liturgical leadership and Sunday Lectionary readings are subtly seeding subordination in our daughters, what is being planted in our sons? When I become discouraged, I remember how high the stakes are and how important it is to stay the course, not only for my own sense of integrity, but for the sake of my nieces and nephews and for their children’s children.
After the Synod on the Word
For two years, FutureChurch spearheaded a campaign to “put women back in the biblical picture” at last October’s Synod on the Word. For the first time in history Catholic bishops meeting in a synod “recognized and encouraged” the ministry of women of the Word, discussed the need to restore women’s stories to the Lectionary and invited the greatest number of women ever to participate as auditors and biblical experts. Two female synod experts assured us that had it not been for our work, they would not have been invited. It is not an exaggeration to say that synod discussion of women in the Lectionary and the drafting of a proposition addressing “Women and the Ministry of the Word” would never have occurred were it not for the enthusiastic support of people all over the world who joined us in asking that these specialized conversations take place.
FutureChurch is now following up with the Synod of Bishops requesting re-examination of the Lectionary to “see if the actual selection and ordering of the readings are truly adequate to the mission of the Church in this historic moment,” as recommended by Synod Proposal 16. We are asking church officials to convene a gender-balanced group of biblical scholars and liturgists to decide which women’s stories would be most fruitful for prayer, preaching and catechesis if added to the Lectionary. We also want church leaders to restore women like Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2), Lois and Eunice (2 Tim 1:4) Shiprah and Puah (Ex 1:8-22), and Mary of Magdala (Jn 20:11-18) to Lectionary texts from which they have been deleted and to consider adding the stories of other prominent female biblical leaders like Esther, Deborah, Huldah and Judith.
Raising awareness by biblical preaching and proclamation about the inclusive practice of Jesus and St. Paul is a worthy and achievable goal for our church right now. It can bring great benefits for our sons and our daughters because it bears witness to the truth that Jesus’ saving power can heal a deeply rooted sexism that distorts the God in whose image both women and men are made.
This is why I stay in the Catholic Church. If people like me leave it to its worst demons, future generations will continue to suffer from the terrible wounds of the past. Worse, we will never transform a well-meaning but flawed worship that witnesses to a subtly sexist God rather than to the God-Beyond-All-Names. For me, leaving rather than confronting the church is definitely not what Jesus would do.
Note: For educational and prayer resources about women in the ministry of Paul, women and the readings of Holy Week and Easter and helps for organizing Mary of Magdala celebrations, visit www.futurechurch.org.