There are huge risks to talking about women, qua women, in the church. Let me count the ways: generalizing, stereotyping, demeaning, ignoring marginalized women in favor of the privileged, putting women up on a pedestal in order to get them out of the way, ignoring history, shortchanging men and, let’s not forget, plain old getting it wrong.
So forgive me for veering in any of these directions while trying mightily to avoid them in a mere 700 words. Otherwise I would spend most of this column issuing caveats.
Pope Francis has opened a door to new thoughts about women’s roles in the church. Since then, there have been scattered responses. This isn’t a criticism. It’s a huge topic and there is plenty of room for varied responses addressing different needs, shortcomings and opportunities.
Here’s my contribution. A possible “theme” for considering the question of women’s roles in the church is women’s ability to maneuver for the common good from outside of bureaucracies. The reasons for this modus are plentiful, no doubt: culture, sexism, nature, necessity, the immediacy of women’s relation to life and women’s caretaking prowess, to name a few. I am most interested, however, in what wisdom and consequences are associated with it and what it might portend for a church that is both grappling with bureaucracy and more open to women’s experiences.
It’s pretty easy (that’s my point) to think of Catholic women over the centuries who operated outside the system: Mary, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Jeanne d’Arc, Mother Teresa. Then there’s Catholic women’s perennial dedication to human services work—Catholic sisters in particular. Not to oversimplify, but there is a historical record of Catholic women perceiving an unmet need and tangling mightily with the bureaucracies of church and state to address it. Think women’s leadership in health care, education, capital punishment, abortion, hospice care, human trafficking, crisis pregnancy and peace. It’s even easier to think of Catholic women in our communities, dioceses and families who move us with their quiet but dogged attention to the needy.
What might this experience offer the church today, at a moment in time when reforming the bureaucracy is front and center for Pope Francis?
There are a few lessons. First: when it comes to reforming the bureaucracy, Pope Francis and his “gang of nine” should turn to women for a grasp of its shortcomings and their human cost. They can also turn to the women who are today running large church organizations—e.g., charitable, educational, health care—for examples of how they are doing things differently. The church should also ponder that human beings are most moved by personal, loving witness of the kind given in one-on-one relationships and small groups, of the kind with which women spend a great deal of time. How often people testify that their lives were changed by the example of a single person or small group! They are moved to a better place by people who are plausible to them because they have shown their love in concrete ways.
One of the lessons here must certainly involve tone. The church is struggling with how to speak to those facing family breakdowns or disconnections between sex, marriage and parenting. Within their personal spheres of influence, women learn that tone matters as much as substance. The Extraordinary Synod on the Family’s relatio gestures toward the importance of tone. Pope Francis directly affirms it.
Women are also particularly skilled at confronting big odds and big organizations beyond their control on behalf of the weak. Think of the woman who founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving; think Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., Norma Ray, Rosa Parks, Jeanne d’Arc and Mother Teresa. Think of the hundreds of thousands of women who started and staffed crisis pregnancy centers and marched on Washington in order to make pro-life the living, breathing force it is today.
There is much more to be said about what women can bring to the church. Considering their extensive experience with more “outsider,” small-community work, however, women should at least be tapped to help figure out how the church can operate without the shortcomings bureaucracies entail.