The National Catholic Review
Cynthia Reville Peabody
What keeps women in the church?
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More and more I think the time is long past due for us Catholic women to have a conversation among ourselves about what keeps us in the church and what we can pass on to our younger sisters in faith. I am not suggesting a confrontation, mind you?since confrontations are exhausting and often end in divisive misunderstanding?but a conversation.

I envision an informal, global conversation made up of many, many smaller discussions that cross generational lines, cultural boundaries and dogmatic fences. We can tweet it, blog it, e-mail it, write it, Skype it or just sit down together over a pot of tea—lots of different pots of tea. The important thing is that we talk and listen to one another with open minds and hearts.

My work on religious environmentalism and eco-justice has afforded me an opportunity to meet many wise, strong and committed Catholic women. I am no longer shy about asking them, “Why do you stay?” And I am no longer surprised when they jump at the chance to talk about the muddled mess of feelings they have toward the church. Love, betrayal, commitment, tradition, shame, anger, compassion—what do we make of all this?

Aileen O’Donoghue, a friend and colleague, summed it up best when she said to me, “Sometimes being a Catholic woman is just so lonely.”

Last year, at an event on Catholic feminist theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, I was particularly struck by how much women need to nurture and bolster one another. Four young Catholic scholars gave a presentation on the book Frontiers in Catholic Feminist Theology, edited by Susan Abraham and Elena Procario-Foley (2009). The presenters’ scholarship was creative, exciting and insightful, but I was saddened when one of the contributing authors expressed “complete despair” about the place of women in the church. She felt that women had once again been relegated to meeting in dark church basements and one another’s living rooms.

I am not as despairing. If women are in the church basement, it is because that is where we women feed the ever-growing number of hungry people in our neighborhoods and set up cots for the homeless to spend a safe, warm night. If we are in each other’s living rooms, it is because we are trying to figure out how to fund our efforts to give sanctuary to immigrants. We rock boarder babies and sit at the bedside of dying people. We are ardent peacekeepers and peacemakers, respected scholars and teachers. Our work honors the tradition of Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa and Sister Dorothy Stang. We are very busy doing the hard, dirty work of creation in the largest sense of the word.

Perhaps becoming more aware of each other’s work could instill a pride powerful enough to dispel despair and keep more of us in the faith. Certainly sharing each other’s exhaustion, exhilaration and confusion is more necessary now than ever.

No Catholic woman I know has any hope that the Vatican will acknowledge our efforts anytime soon. A few weeks ago, I was discussing this problem with a young Catholic colleague who lamented that “staying in” was getting harder. She believes that a whole new order of church is in the offing and wants to be part of that evolution. The institution, she said, starved by human constructs that deny the fresh air of the Spirit, will suffocate and die; but the Spirit will continue to breathe the air of life and community into all those who are devoted to building the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

I took this idea to other Catholic women whom I respect and admire. Every woman I spoke to affirmed that her faithful work is in and for the once vital, now hidden “church of the people,” that is, a spiritually, intellectually and materially generous church that recognizes God in every human being. Most of the women agreed that at some point we would return to being a church of the people, but few of them believed it would be anytime soon.

We long for a church that is honest and humble enough to admit to mistakes and misunderstandings but strong enough to work through difficulties and disagreements without alienating or isolating one another.

Mother Teresa has counseled: “Holiness is not a luxury for the few; it is not for some people. It is meant for you and me, for all of us. It is a simple duty because if we learn to love, we learn to be holy.”

In her book There Is a Season, Joan Chittister, O.S.B., writes about the merits of being what she calls a spiritual rebuilder: “Rebuilders are those who take what other people only talk about and make it the next generation’s reality. These are the superstars of the long haul…. They give up prestige and money and being the Peter Pans of the public arena for the long, hard struggle of turning their personal little worlds on their tiny axles. They build the new world right in the heart of the old.” Chittister acknowledges, “Their lot is too often, too plainly a lonely one.” She is right.

Rebuilders are what the Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt refers to as “ministers on the margin.” But I do not think we women have to stand on the margins isolated and alone.

We owe it to ourselves, to the women who lived the social gospel before us, to our daughters, granddaughters, students, patients and friends (and to many men, of course) to join together in the struggle to make sense of our relationship with the Catholic Church. We can continually rebuild each other as we are rebuilding the church we long for. Let us make a point of asking each other, “Why do you stay?” And then let us listen without judgment or cynicism and with compassion and understanding.

Cynthia Reville Peabody is director of the Center for the Study of Science and Religion at The Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York City.

Comments

Robert Dean | 7/28/2011 - 11:38am
The end of the article says, "And then let us listen without judgment or cynicism and with compassion and understanding." Somehow, Mr. Lyons, I don't hear that even-handed, cordial sentiment expressed in your posts. Honestly, you just seem so angry.
LOUISE MANCINELLI | 7/26/2011 - 10:46pm
Thanks so much for a wonderfully clear and provoking commentary.  I think the question is not why are women leaving the church but why in the name of Everything that is good and holy, are we staying???????
I love "the Church".  I grew up in in, thrived in it, deepened  my spirituality and sense of service through it.  But "the Church" I experience now is remote, controlled, power hungry, and so unlike Jesus that my favorite prayer is "Poor Jesus!"  When will we find our way back through the centuries to the simple, straightforward way to love God and all people that Jesus modeled for us?  When will we be willing to sell everything we have accumulated over the centurries to buy back the Pearl of great price that Jesus left us?
I'm not leaving "the Church" - but I am trying very hard to live in the model that Jesus left us.
Patricia N.
Mary Sweeney | 7/26/2011 - 9:20pm

I just finished reading (listening on audio CD) the book The Help by Kathryn Stockett. The book tells how a young white aspiring journalist takes the advice of a publishing mentor to write — to write all she can, especially about the things that she feels are important but that no one pays attention to. She records the stories shared by the black maids who work for the white families of Jackson, Mississippi. They are speaking about their experience - what it is like to work for these white families on the day to day level. Anyone see a parallel here? Look around the parishes. Who is making the decisions? Who is doing the work? In the book, it was "Yes, Ma'am. No, Ma'am." What is it for us? We need to tell our stories. Maybe Kathryn needs a second book... Or where is our Skeeter? Read "The Help". See what you think. I think this has possibilities.

Nora Bradbury-Haehl | 7/25/2011 - 12:16pm
How about a website like the "It Gets Better" campaign called Why Do You Stay? I'm tired of arguing and really just need to talk with other living signs of hope :)
Anne Chapman | 7/25/2011 - 12:05pm
In #23, E. Tenneson wrote " I am not so sure I would want this church for my children and granchildren, especially females.  As for myself, I will stay in the church, just as one would remain in a dysfunctional family unless it threatens to poison the life of my soul."

And that is why I am on the verge of formally joining the Episcopal Church - I have been part of an Episcopal parish for more than 2 years - the Episcopal "Church has all of the beauty of the Catholic church, and it has the Eucharist.  It also has a humility that is absent in the Roman Catholic church, it understands that it is not God  and that it is not an "infallible" conduit of God's thinking; it is open to trying to listen to the Holy Spirit, even at great cost in serious struggle among its members.  The Roman Catholic church has already "poisoned the life of my soul" and instead of reversing its destructive course back to the midaevil, monarchical thinking that has so dominated its history, it is accelerating it.  Women are more and more marginalized - pretty soon they will be back to the 50s, at least - forbidden from the altar completely (as girls are already forbidden from serving at the Latin mass), and probably forced into readopting that patriarchal symbol of male dominance,most commonly seen in fundamentalist Islamic cultures these days - forced to cover their hair at mass.

 I do not wish to enable the structure and "magesterium" that has so twisted the gospels that it is hard to find Christ anymore in the "official" church, although Jesus's spirit is, fortunately, alive and well among the ordinary people - the laity, and many parish priests (but fewer and fewer - as the Vatican II generation retires and dies, and the "JPII" priests take their places). Once I opened my eyes to the "non-Catholic" world of Christians I discovered amazing things - they too have beauty, the sacraments, social justice ministries and all of the other things I loved in the church of my birth - they also have more than enough priests, because they do not exclude married men nor women; they do not demand unquestioning obedience, they don't pass "law" after "law" after "law" because they operate based in God's laws, not those of men' they consult THE church in making big decisions, such as selecting new bishops, or deciding new rules of governance. They do not, as many say of the Roman Catholic church, ask people to "leave their brains at the church door." 

Women who stay - and pay - may be in danger of passively enabling the dysfunction of the church family - sometimes family members do have to leave - for the sake of their own souls, and even for the sake of the dysfunctional family members, who may not reform until their props that support them in their dysfunction are totally gone. What incentive does the hierarchy have to reform - the drop in numbers of priests just pushes them to hurt the people of God in more and more ways - closing parishes without consultation etc, dreaming up new fundraising schemes etc, to make up for the 30 million who have left in the US . What is one doing if staying and donating "time, talent and treasure" while not even gaining the minimal respect of dialogue from the "leadership" -  is this simply being an enabler?  Stay if you must - but stay with self-respect and figure out how to do so without enabling the continuation of these sins in the church's leadership and teachings.
Dorothy Parma | 7/25/2011 - 11:32am
I've come across one comment talking about why a woman left the Roman Catholic Church, but I am disappointed that, even among the comments about staying, no one raised the issue which ended up being the straw that broke my camel's back.  I was a cradle Catholic, first in the Philippine church (very similar to the Spanish church), and then in the U.S. I found it liberating to live amongst people of faith who didn't subscribe to every single dogmatic thing.  And there have been many things about Rome that have disturbed me (such as being anti-birth control, and of course minimizing the role of women).  My husband, another cradle Catholic, left several years before, and his reasons were not sufficient for me.  But here came the final nail in the Roman Church's coffin:  the repeated incidents of child abuse, and worse, of the behavior of bishops in denying its existence and hiding the guilty.  Overall, I was severely disappointed in a church that would not take ownership, responsibility, for its own sins.  Didn't Jesus Himself say such people should be thrown in the sea with a millstone around their neck?  So, thoroughly sickened by the unremitting decay in the church hierarchy, I left and have since made my home in the Episcopal church.  I feel no sense of abandonment or broken ties.  The Church to me is the Body of Christ, that is the people.  I care not for the hierarchy that has long ruled Rome and steered it down this path to Hell.  I only hope that those who remain fight for change.  A church who lies to its own people cannot long remain relevant.  Because it cannot be truly called Christian.
Andrea Hattler Bramson | 7/24/2011 - 10:24pm

WOW Cynthia - Say it sister!


No I don't know who was "Cardinal of India when Mother Theresa was alive? Who was the bishop of Alabama during Mother Angelica's rise of EWTN" and we are not all the selfless humans these women have been, I know that. It just seems it would be easy to USE the brains of the women - and ALL lay people - of the church, rather than to consistently fight them off. I have appreciated anyone with whom I could have a conversation on this subject, but am often put off by the knowing smirks, and "Well now..." comments. Well aware of the fact that the Catholic Church is not a democracy I only would like to think that we would be smart enough to have the right person serve in the right role, at the right time for the right reason. Regardless of their gender.


A small group of Catholic women have traveled to, and approached many cardinals in the Vatican causing quite a stir. They have been received, they have been heard, and they plan to return to keep having the conversations that center around the role of women, and lay people in general, in the church. The hope is that the conversation will spur action. It is a glacially slow process, kinda like evolution.


Until the Vatican takes action this small group of women (and millions of others) continue to work withtin the bounds of the church within which we were baptized, educated, and nurtured. Can't think of a good reason to leave that, I just hope to leave it a better Church than when I found it.

Katie Mahon | 7/21/2011 - 1:41pm
Why do I stay? It's a nagging question. What troubles me most isn't so much certain realities: that women can't become priests, that priests can't marry, an archaic view of birth control, but rather, the authoritative, hierarchical system itself that excludes too many voices-men and women alike, and priests, nuns and laity alike-from the dialogue. It can be difficult to evolve when the only ones trying to fix a problem or meet a challenge are those responsible for perpetuating it. The handling of the sex abuse scandal, which seems to have no end, is a tragic case in point.
One of the best representatives in the Church I have ever had the privilege to know was Father Declan Deane, once an Irish Jesuit who decided to become a diocesan priest, to all of our good fortune in the parish where he served in the San Francisco Bay Area. He once gave a sermon where he excoriated Church authority for elevating within its ranks only those who adhered to the party line (he wasn't anticipating his next promotion). He also encouraged us to stand with him outside San Quentin in protest before a death row inmate was to be executed, consistent and clear on the Church's message of the sanctity of life. He preached about social justice and eventually left to go to a poor parish where he felt he could better do God's work. I look at Catholic Relief Services and the work being done all over the planet by representatives of the Church. Mother Theresa! It is here where Jesus lives. And that is why I stay...for now.
Elaine Tannesen | 7/19/2011 - 11:36am
The church resembles, in many ways, a large traditional, sometimes dysfunctional family.  It is patriarchal, in that those that make the rules and decisions are accountable in this world only to themselves.  They hold the power and, as with all human organizations, this power can be corrupting.  An example would be the shameful lack of accountability on the part of the hierarchy in the child abuse cases.  Just as a family denies and covers up child abuse to protect the status quo, the church hierarchy has denied and protected their own.

At first glance it would appear that women in the family exist only to serve others and make babies.  But, below the surface there exists a woman's culture, one that is rich in thought and relationships.  When the authority of the traditional head of a family is threatened by a woman's desire for dialogue or cries for justice, the typical response is to tighten the reins of power.  This appears to be what is happening in the church coupled with the not-so-subtle theological bullying and "love it or leave it" message found in several comments.

I have been a member of this catholic family all my life.  It has formed my very being with  powerful examples of holy lay women and men, priests and religious.  My children were married in the church and I have been most fortunate to be a member of a parish peopled with remarkable examples of daily kindness.  However, I am beginning to see more and more self-righteous fundamentalists who are scornful of the words "social justice", while at the same time rallying to a preferential option for the rich.  I am not so sure I would want this church for my children and granchildren, especially females.  As for myself, I will stay in the church, just as one would remain in a dysfunctional family unless it threatens to poison the life of my soul.
NORMA NUNAG | 7/17/2011 - 10:48pm
To change the mindset of people (Church leadership) needs patience and courageous strategy.  Yes, patience, because it will take time and courageous because women do have a great influence in bringing up their  male children!   So,  calling all women and mothers, beginning right now educate your male children to be Jesus like.   One day these children will grow up to be bishops, priests, deacons, and even popes!  And voila a new mindset that includes women in Church governance!    But first every woman/mother should do her  homework... educate your male children to be like Jesus Christ!
Michael Cassidy | 7/16/2011 - 4:45pm
    Thanks for a great article - one which has clearly hit a nerve for many people.  Women certainly have additional concern them directly, while they affect men only indirectly or perhaps not at all.  Still, it is important to realize that the Church's behavior toward women does also affect men.  
    So, as a man I too am faced with the question, "Why stay?"  And my answer also boils down to the Eucharist.  But one writer has alluded to the forthcoming liturgy debacle in the fall, and for me this poses a huge problem:  The Curia and our bishops are instructing us to use a translation that results from actions directly in conflict with the teachings of Vatican II on at least three fronts (collegiality, ecumenism, and liturgy), and in addition contains a formulation which is probably heretical.  How can any Catholic accede to a command of that sort?  The language is terrible, but that is not the major issue.  The major issue is that our bishops are asking us to use a liturgy forged in sin and deliberate disobedience to an Ecumenical Council.  
    I have not yet decided precisely how to respond.  One option under consideration is to take an extended "vacation" from the Latin rite but without leaving the Church; and to spend that vacation in one of the Eastern Churches.  That will not necessarily be any solace so far as liturgical language is concerned, but will address the questions of heresy and disobedience.  The sad thing is that I will probably die "on vacation", because most of our hierarchy and virtually all of the Roman Curia are deaf and blind.  They refuse to hear trenchant criticisms from informed laity (women or men), from respected liturgists or theologians like Anthony Ruff or Paul Philibert, or even from their own ranks from bishops like Donald Trautman of Erie PA.  (Ten years ago — a full decade — Bishop Trautman wrote an article which laid out all of the concerns about ecumenism, inclusive language, pastoral concerns, etc. which are being discussed today.  And no one in a position to do anything constructive paid him any attention whatever.)  
    I had an insight the other day:    No matter what the bishops of India do, the American  bishops are not going to do anything about the liturgy translations for one reason:  They will make money from it.  They own the copyrights, not only on the liturgical texts but on the New American Bible (Revised Edition), and they are going to collect the royalties.  The deal that they have cut with the Catholic Biblical Association seems to indicate that they are hard-pressed for cash (an interesting development!), so they are going to go forward no matter what.  Even if they 'lose' in the end, they'll just make more money by issuing revised texts.  The case could be made that this constitutes simony - traficking in sacred things.  
    If they retracted approval now, they might owe Liturgical Press and some other publishers some major cash, for copies either unsold or now unusable.
    Set this in the context of perhaps 30 million former Catholics in the U.S.:  Consider if each of these 30 million put only one dollar in the collection only once a month, on average.  As Senator Everett Dirksen used to say, "Pretty soon you're talking about a lot of money."  That would be $360 million/year.  If those same 30 million Catholics averaged only one dollar PER WEEK, the total would be a staggering $1.56 BILLION per year.  Perhaps this explains why the bishops  find themselves so short of cash that they feel the need to short-change their own biblical scholars.  
    Perhaps it is mostly about money.  I do not intend to help the bishops solve that particular problem until they start listening and responding in a much more human and respectful way.  

John Lyons | 7/14/2011 - 3:42pm
Susan - and you others.... the bottom line is either that humanity has to make it up as we go - in which case living members of ANY group of human beings ought to be free to re-visit their groups' ground rules, core beliefs, morals etc. on a regular basis and on the basis of democracy alone, change everything to suit current whims..... or with respect to the Church at least, we're dealing with the legacy of an other-worldly intervention towards which we all have some sort of responsibility to adhere to rather than consider ourselves sovereign owners of.

If you believe the Church is merely the sum of its current human members - then of course the clergy/laity distinction is utter convention and is not possibly grounded in anything other than mere human will power. Nothing sacred to it, nothing referential to any reality (like God) beyond the will of the members' or their leaders' convenience etc.

If, on the other hand, you accept the truth claims of this Church's members that God became a human being, taught us certain doctrines and ways of life, chose some men to be his apostles, commanded them to make disciples of all the nations and gave them his power, spirit, and promise.... and that all the "rest of it" - sacraments, dogmas, councils, scriptures, disciplines and charisms are but the unveiling of God's plan in the world through the ministry of the successors to these apostles...... then you are no longer in a position - intelligibly - to demand total freedom to change this or that, tinker with this or that, or assume that every doctrine, discipline and dictate is "mere human whim/power" to be overcome.

Two options. if the first then there Gospel is bunk - we still don't know if Jesus existed or if God is as the Gospels (written and approved by men) are true..... but neither can we assume whatever 'church' of OUR making will endure the ages either - because whatever we can do to the institutions and rules we've inherited can be done to our works by future generations yet unborn. So don't be too sure about any would-be "progress' for women because if the whole thing is "merely" human, there's no permanent victory, and no possible "direction" towards which we can "progress" except some temporary and limited places of power that are more accidents than "providence".

If the latter - that Jesus is real, his apostles are truely inspired and empowered and that therefore our faith is grounded in a reality beyond humanity and our fidelity in time will be rewarded in eternity.... everything that passes for 'crisis' today are trifles compared with the principalities and powers against which we really contend and the miracles we are called to perform in Jesus' name. Power and respect in human terms are hardly as desirable as spiritual holiness and the grace of friendship with Jesus....
The former - it's all horizonal and human - dooms us to eternal frustration as other people (especially men!) will NEVER live up to our fantasies for power and respect. but if the latter - the Church is a union of divine and temporal realities and persons... the current crosses of our own burden and others cannot separate us from the love of Christ and total human fulfillment in Him regardless of our 'state in life' and our power, prestige, possessions and public esteem.
Susan S. | 7/14/2011 - 12:21am
I have devoured this article and comments, and have been returning constantly, eager for even more postings. This is just the type of conversation I've been searching for for years.

I long to join in the dialogue, as well, but don't feel erudite enough to hold my own with those more spiritual and learned than I.  Nor with those who would inevitably turn it into a theological wordsmithy debate because they don't even begin to "get it".  Suffice it to say, I am one of (probably countless) silent everyday lay women with one foot barely in the door.  For me, today, it might just be good 'ole "Catholic guilt" that keeps me there, combined with a lack of courage to do anything else.

But how can I stay with a "church" that may say, but in truth, does not really value or respect my gender's point of view, presence, and many contributions as an integral part of The Whole.  (I'm not just talking ordination. It goes way deeper than that.)  Further, the narrow obfuscation of the fundamental teachings of Jesus, when it comes to women, gays, those of other faiths, etc. is becoming really too much to bear.

These rigid attitudes, and unshakeable (as a dog with a bone) dictates, along with the inability to have an "inquiring mind",  are no longer confined to the patriarchal hierarchy of the Catholic Church, where I used to be able to ignore them.  They now have real repercussions for our parish communities, and for each one of us. The Church in the U.S. is dying. Does no one see that?  We are valiantly being held together with bailing wire by dwindling elder priests who've earned and deserve a respectful retirement, by a smattering of priests recruited from other countries with more conservative traditions, and by the numerous voiceless women who are the real glue behind the scenes. Young people are running away in droves and I won't even begin to touch on what the more horrific topic of abuse has wrought.   There is little fresh thought and energy coming through to stimulate and invigorate any of the faithful these days.  

Without that, how can we continue to nourish our spirituality?  Further, how can we then truthfully grow together to become "one holy catholic church" dedicated to building the kingdom of God?  Yes, there is the Eucharist, but blasphemy aside, one might consider the Anglicans and Lutherans and perhaps others have it too?  In any event, Eucharist does not exist in a vacuum.

So,  in conclusion to what began as a mere comment, but triggered a smoldering Pandora's box within me, I welcome any and all opportunities to continue this dialogue, as well as suggestions on where to find/start them in my own rather staid back yard.  I may be bashing my head against the wall with regards to systemic change, but it will surely open a window for some individual fresh air and growth.  That's a start - and perhaps it will provide encouragement for others in hiding like me to stay in the room! 
 
 
Katherine McEwen | 7/13/2011 - 11:21pm
I'm going to comment from another perspective: why I DIDN'T stay. The last Catholic parish I belonged to was where I starved to death spiritually. For a variety of reasons I began attending the Episcopal parish I've belonged to for 18 years. Here I have Eucharist and the Blessed Sacrament. I've noticed reverence for the Eucharist is actually much more honored in the Episcopal church than I've sometimes experienced in the Catholic Church. What pains me though is the fact that I and several others in my parish felt we had to leave the Catholic church. In my Episcopal parish we have a staffer who studied theology in Rome and a scripture expert who worked for the local archdiocese. I owe my love of liturgical music to my exposure and experience as I was growing up; I got my degree in music ministry from a local Christian college-being a Catholic was a plus in that program! What also makes me sad is the clergy sexual abuse scandals in the Church. Priest of a certain age got no education whatsoever integrating their sexuality into their lives as they went through seminary which sometimes has made them menaces and downright dangerous to the people they've interacted with. As an Episcopalian I love having clergy who are married and single, male and female. Another thing I've noticed that the Catholic church does well is: outreach to people who need help. And, other Christian denominations have adapted liturgical changes from the Catholic church; check out a Lutheran or Episcopal church. Plus spirituality; Centering Prayer as taught by Fr. Thomas Keating is a popular item in my parish. After all this: I'm glad I'm not a formal member of the Catholic Church right now; however, even with all its missteps, the Catholic Church is still doing a lot of things right!
Cody Serra | 7/13/2011 - 5:07pm




I must ask this delicately because I would not want it interpreted as a hostile question. Rather, I really do want to understand.


What does keep disaffected women in the Roman Catholic Church and not migrating en masse to one or another of the more liberal protestant denominations? It would seem that what precisely distinguishes the Roman Catholic Church from, say, the American Episcopal Church or ELCA Lutheran Church is that characteristic such women find most offensive – specifically the strictly patriarchal/hierarchal model of authority and leadership. So, what does keep women in the Church when there appear to be several ready alternatives? What is it that these alternatives lack and how might they be corrected?






By David Haschka, S.J. on July 11, 2011 at 12:46 PM






 This response will follow 15 previous ones. I would like to give my personal response to Fr. David Haschka, SJ, in the most “delicate, thoughtful and respectful” way I can.


   Many persons have expressed their opinions and feelings, and have given reasons for which they (women) stay in the RCC. I agree with most of them. However, I feel compelled to address two particular points made by Fr. Haschka.


 First:  why do women stay in the RCC?  The question itself hurts me deeply. It seems to imply what many, inside and outside of the church suggest: if you don 't like it, leave it. The church may be better.


We received the Baptism by which we share in Christ priesthood, and received the Holy Spirit. This sacrament does not make distinctions between male and female.  Neither does the Eucharist nor any other sacrament. They are equalizers. They are inclusive. It is only necessary to be open to God’s love in order to receive them and follow Christ.  Many canonized saints have been dissidents at their time. They became saints in spite of their dissent with Church authorities. It took many years or centuries for some to be blessed. Some of them were women. But not only women, but many members of the laity, would like a different ecclesial model, less patriarchal/hierarchal. (I m not referring to ordination at this point, though I believe it will come in God’s time).


 Second: I’m aware of many theologians, canon lawyers, and likely, some bishops around the world, and certainly many members of the laity, who favor changes from the status quo, the role of women in the church, and a more collegial model of governance. Many have published or spoken their views, with different consequences. Among those who have written recently about the need for changes in the structure of the church, and the role of women in it, two of your Jesuit brothers come to mind: Ladislas Orsy SJ, Receiving the Council (2010) and Gerry O’Hanlon SJ, A New Vision for the Catholic Church (2011).


 It is our responsibility to speak up with responsible freedom which represents the sensus fidelium so treasured in the conciliar documents of Vatican II. The outcome is in God’s time.

Mark Banks | 7/13/2011 - 8:33am

Dear Cynthia, thank you for your interesting article. In posting this reply, I’d like to take a slightly different tack in my response by suggesting that you also ask men the question “why do you stay?”, and to gently ask you why you have not considered that many men also have issues to do with the running of the Church?

In the past year or two I’ve been through much upheaval at my parish, as have many other parishioners that I know. For me, I can completely relate when you talk of “the muddled mess of feelings… toward the church… love, betrayal, commitment, tradition, shame, anger, compassion”. As a layman who often feels very powerless to influence things for the better, or perhaps even to influence things at all, I’m also often left asking myself the question: “why do you stay?”. As a single layman I also find myself diverging into tracks of thought hereunto not considered previously, such as: ‘should I join the priesthood or become a religious?’. Yet I soon rein those thoughts in with the realisation that it is most probably other things in my life driving my frustrations with the Church; and that to join the priesthood with the main intention of effecting change in the Church, would not be an action borne out of true love and pastoral concern for others. However, the possibility of a religious life cannot be ruled out definitively, and so results an unwanted process of frustrated discernment as to what God’s will is for me my life.

However, in answer to the original question, my response, time and time again - as many others have indicated in their responses too - is the Eucharist… Tradition… the God-given Authority of the Catholic Church. "You do not want to leave too, do you?" Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. (John 6:67-68)

Lisa Weber | 7/13/2011 - 1:10am
As a woman who returned to the Catholic church after 40 years away, my sense is that most of the problems in the Catholic church are in the feminine half of the church.  Women do the majority of the work in the average parish, but are invisible.  We are dying of our unwritten rules and our inability to create and maintain public dialogues.
 
Unwritten rule number one is that women shall not talk to the clergy about the church.  This unwritten rule is so effective that no dialogue exists between women and the USCCB.  We are unlikely to develop a more fulfilling role for women in the church if we can't organize well enough to talk to church leaders.

The other dialogue necessary for women to build a better church is for women to talk among themselves about the feminine half of the church.  Many questions need to be answered.  How do we want female leaders chosen?  How do we want female leaders formed?  How would we hold female leaders accountable?  How do we learn to deal with female aggression in the church?  Female aggression usually takes the form of relational aggression, i.e. destroying the relationships of the women targeted.  Being most people come to church at least partly for friendships and community, destroying relationships destroys the motivation people have for coming to church.  Relational aggression is usually covert, but invisible aggression is still aggression and still has effects.  Gossip is probably the most common form of relational aggression and I can say that returning to church has offered me lessons in how vicious gossip can get.  Female aggression is mostly invisible to men, and is a problem perpetuated mostly by women, and directly mostly at other women.  Women have to address it.  Until we can acknowlege and address the aggression among ourselves, we are unlikely to be able to build a church that is attractive to more people, particularly more women.

The most important unwritten rule for women both inside and outside the church is - Thou shalt not grow up and disregard "mother".  Being "mother" is usually the most aggressive woman or clique in a group, women talk honestly only among their closest friends.  We need to develop a culture in which adulthood is allowed.

What keeps me in church?  The sacraments, particularly the Eucharist and reconciliation.  Why is a matter for yet another dialogue.
Katherine Lawrence | 7/12/2011 - 3:13pm
great article. 

I stay in the church for these reasons 1. beauty and mystery of Eucharist 2. dedication of the religious - who would give up so much material things on the faith of something more.

Most Jesuits and other orders prefer fighting against injustices outside the church rather than against injustices inside the church. Easier to point fingers at others.

The dialoging has been going on for decades and is useless untill the men in the church change their ACTIONS or the catholic church breaks apart. 

I'm too old to believe that dialoging in the church will change anything substantively. it's all been said and the men refuse to act. Oh, but they love welcoming dialog!


ROBERT NUNZ MR | 7/12/2011 - 2:54pm
A large majority of lay ministers in the US Church are women.
The there are the "visited" religious siters.
Despite the issues so many Catholic women feel, I think most will continue their service in spite of and not because of policy makers.
But I also think said policy makers wil have to answer for those they have driven away by any mysogyn.
Mary Eigel | 7/12/2011 - 12:34pm
Great article, Cynthia! You raise some critical issues. I recall my mother saying, in the early 70's that before long we would have a split in the church. It would probably end up with an American and a Roman church. It is so painful to think of all the great work, that I see the women of the church doing, while the patriarch undoes liturgy changes that Vatican II put in place. For me, this is the last straw. 
When friends ask, what is my problem. I tell them it is not so much what the church is doing, which is ludicrous, but what they are not doing. Hurray for the Feminine Divine showing her face more richly.
http://bluestarmoon.wordpress.com/ 
Boreta Singleton | 7/12/2011 - 11:56am

Thank you, Cynthia, for your article. I am always encouraged and inspired by the example of the women who make up the fabric of our Church as well as the men( lay, religious and clergy), who support us!  I see my ministry as a teacher to have its origin in the same Gospel message  as those who minister the Sacraments.  As  baptized Christians, we are all called to  pray and serve our brothers and sisters so that the Kingdom of God is present among us. Our expression of that ministry is, of course, different, but discussions over many pots of tea and coffee can help, as you quoted Sister Joan Chittister, for all of us, both male and female, to be rebuilders!

Crystal Watson | 7/11/2011 - 6:49pm
The first comment asked a question  -  "So, what does keep women in the Church when there appear to be several ready alternatives? What is it that these alternatives lack and how might they be corrected?"

I can't answer for others, but in my own case, the reason I don't leave the Catholic Church and become an Episcopalian is not because there's anything lacking in the Episcopal Church. I don't want to be chased out of my church by a conservative hierarchy - instead I want to change my church  for the better.
Angela Murphy | 7/11/2011 - 6:39pm
Dear Cynthia,
Thank you for the wonderful article.  I also ask this question many times especially when I see the male deaconate candidates and long to be one of them. The answer always comes to the Eucharist as the reason I stay.  Erin has captured my thoughts as well on this piece.  I also always remind myself that Jesus embraced women and all of the outcasts.  I recently attended a very patriarchal mass in my local diocese and with tears reminded myself that I would prefer to be outside the walls with Jesus rather than a part of the "good old boys".   You article provided me with a sense of hope that the church can indeed one day be "rebuilt" to truly fulfill the teachings of Jesus. 
John Lyons | 7/11/2011 - 4:32pm
Quick Ladies, who was the Cardinal of India when Mother Theresa was alive? Who was the bishop of Alabama during Mother Angelica's rise of EWTN? Don't know? Neither do I. Neither do untold hundreds of millions of Catholics who saw in the two women great leadership, great inspiration, great guides in our faith in Jesus Christ.

So what do you want? Recognition? Power? Authority? Or holiness and a benevolent, helpful impact on peoples' faith journey?

Must you have power to be valuable? Must ordination be allowed for 0.01% of women for all the rest to have dignity? Did God really say you can't eat of ANY trees of the garden...? Or only just not the one in the middle?

If ordination is the proof of dignity - in your opinion - then what sign of Divine will, what criteria of evidence do we base our decision to change a 2000 year old tradition on? Popular vote? Agitation? Coercion? Or repeated miracles, saints, martyrs, Marian apparitions all invariably pointing to the necessity of ordaining women?

Look to the Acts of the Apostles - in every single case where a judgment call had to be made with respect to some major change in the Church's self-understanding, the change was preceeded by a divine theophany - whether Peter's vision or the angel appearing to Cornelius.... preceeding baptism of pagans.... or the Council of Jerusalem preceeding the Gentiles being held equal without first becoming Jews. Nowhere is there a call for "dissent" or agitation as a good thing.

Finally, there is much talk about 'the church feeling threatened' as though the Church is reducible to "mere men"...but the irony of such talk is how those proposing women's ordination proceed to think in tems of threats (change or I leave!). I've a word of caution: threatening a Church that has survived every empire with violence or with defection is a losing strategy.
George Trejos | 7/11/2011 - 3:55pm
Thank you for the provocative article.  I fowarded it to women friends and local pastors to provoke thought and discussion. I would like to think that the article might inspire women to become 'spiritual rebuilders'.

Personally I would hope and pray that the Church of the next 20 years might not feel threaten to offer good women the invitation to deaconate ordination. 
Paul Howard | 7/11/2011 - 3:53pm
I predict that in 40 years, even the bishops will be saying, "what were the bishops (of 2011) thinking? I know - glacial speed!
TRACY SCHIER | 7/11/2011 - 3:41pm
I am a Providence Associate, in relationship with the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, IN. Providence Associates were privileged to be part of the first days of the congregation's recent Chapter. As Associates we were more than observers-we were welcomed as participants whose contributions were encouraged. It was a time when we could process who we are in relationship with the congregation as well as experience something that models what church could and should be.
The sessions exuded trust-at-work. And servant leadership-at-work. These women are grownups acting as grownups, with integrity that is palpable. In a time (and church) when so many in "leadership" seem to be in their positions for personal aggrandizement and/or out of a sense of entitlement, seeing the leadership team of the Sisters of Providence acting as a team and listening to the voices in the room was-frankly-something that I don't always experience in my work around the country with institutions large and small.  The SPs have many challenges that were openly discussed. all the while, the Provincial and her team listened with open hearts and capacious minds. They are realistic about the challenges-aging membership and growing expenses are real. But they continue to grow their generous educational, justice and eco-justice ministries. Their foundress, St. Mother Theodore, struggled 170 years ago to be in right relationship with the institutional church. And these women, in her footsteps, struggle as she did while trusting in Providence. As I see it, they exemplify what is needed if we are to, in Cynthia's words, "rebuild the church that we all long for."
Erin Tribble | 7/11/2011 - 1:18pm
Cynthia, Thank you for your article. It really hit home. I work full time as a lay Catholic chaplain at a Catholic community hospital. I cherish my ministry; I know God has called me to follow this path, but I also sometimes experience the frustrations, loneliness, and confusion you address in your article.

As for why I stay in the Roman Catholic Church, that is a good questions and, for me, it boils down to the Eucharist. This beautiful, beating heart of the Catholic faith is something very real and alive for me. At a time when debates seem to be getting more divisive (e.g., over the new missal translation), I am somewhat reassured by the fact that no one is fighting about the Eucharist. At least in this essential, the Church appears to remain united. The debates (some might say fights) seem to revolve more around ecclesiology: models of Church, our understanding and experience of Church.

As you can see, I have a lot to say. So when and how are we going to begin this conversation among Catholic women? How and when are we going to set up the tweets, the online chats, the living room teas?
Sarah Kotlinski | 7/11/2011 - 1:07pm
May I respectfully suggest one other group to consider?  You might also talk to women who are new converts and ask us what brought us to the Church.
David Haschka | 7/11/2011 - 12:46pm

I must ask this delicately because I would not want it interpreted as a hostile question. Rather, I really do want to understand.

What does keep disaffected women in the Roman Catholic Church and not migrating en masse to one or another of the more liberal protestant denominations? It would seem that what precisely distinguishes the Roman Catholic Church from, say, the American Episcopal Church or ELCA Lutheran Church is that characteristic such women find most offensive – specifically the strictly patriarchal/hierarchal model of authority and leadership. So, what does keep women in the Church when there appear to be several ready alternatives? What is it that these alternatives lack and how might they be corrected?

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