When I was a boy I used to like to watch the reruns of “The Little Rascals”. The show featured a cast of elementary school age children, including two boys known as Spanky and Alfalfa. One of the recurrent themes of the show was the boys’ determination to keep little Darlene – who, if I remember correctly, was also the object of Alfalfa’s unspoken affection- from crashing the meetings of their “He-man Woman Haters Club”.
It was a funny bit on television but not so funny when it seems to be playing out in the Church. And lately, I’ve begun to wonder if remaining in communion with the Roman Catholic Church means being a part of the “He-man Woman Haters Club.”
From it’s earliest roots, the Judeao-Christian tradition has been shot through with a view of woman that sees them as less important than men. Try to find the name of Mrs. Noah. Read the lovely story in Genesis when Lot, Abraham’s nephew,in an effort to protect the three angelic visitors who are spending the night in his house from the violence of the mob offers to send his daughters out so that the thugs might rape them. Or notice the original words of the 9th and 10th commandment – Do not covet your neighbor’s goods and Do not covet your neighbor’s wife. “Spouse” doesn’t quite capture the thought process behind this commandment – a woman was considered to be a special class of property belonging to her husband.
Yes, it does get better in the New Testament, but not much better. The twelve apostles are men; Mary Magdalene, who must have played an important part in that early community, has been all but air-brushed out of the story. Jesus does defend the woman who has been caught in adultery – but did you ever wonder why the man wasn’t dragged out also? I learned in biology class that sexual intercourse required a man and a woman.
It appeared for a time after the Vatican II Council that the legacy of Sexism along with Racism and Anti-Semitism in the Church was finally going to receive the attention it deserved and that the Body of Christ would begin the process of repentance and reform. That’s what it means to be a pilgrim Church.
But then…something happened. Maybe the grip of the sins of our past proved to be stronger than we realized. When Pope John Paul II told us we could no longer discuss the issue of ordaining women to the priesthood because the Church had no authority to do so I was sad but obeyed. When I saw how the new pastor in my parish pushed out our female pastoral assistant despite the wonderful work she was doing I expressed my disappointment but remained in the parish. When the United States bishops pastoral on Sexism in the Church was eviscerated by the Vatican to the degree that it would have been pointless to publish the document at all I prayed for the wisdom and the courage and the grace to transform myself, to look at the sexist ways of thinking and acting that I could change and control. Through all of this, I have always believed that the Spirit is working: quietly, subtly, slowly She would lead us towards a Church in which all of the faithful would be free to respond to the call of the Spirit by whatever means necessary.
This current investigation and disciplinary action by the Vatican towards the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has troubled me deeply. Perhaps there are issues that need to be addressed. But there is absolutely no issue about the fact that women religious in the United States have been on the frontlines both in working for social justice in the Church and in taking the exhortation of the Vatican II Council seriously in forming and instructing the laity so that we might take our proper place as full participants in the Church of the 21st Century and beyond. It’s hard not to see the way the Vatican has carried out this investigation and disciplinary action – without any consultation or dialogue with the sisters themselves – as anything but the most recent example of a Sexism that does not value the opinion of a woman as much as that of a man in the Church.
Just last week I learned that a good friend of my wife and mine had decided, after a lifetime of faithful Church attendance, that it was time to leave. My wife finds it harder and harder to have any connection at all with a Church that seems to her indifferent if not hostile to the concerns of women.
I will continue to pray for a greater understanding of the movement of the Spirit within the Church and to look to the transformation that needs to take place within myself. One of the things I will pray for, however, is that the eyes of our leaders might be opened to the affect their actions are having upon and the message that is being sent to so many women within and outside of the Body of Christ. Please, Pope Benedict and all those who share with him the sacred minsitry of shepherd – listen carefully to the Spirit. Don’t allow the Church to become the largest “He-man Woman Hater’s Club” that the world has ever known.
Jim Philipps (3rd millennium pilgrim)