The Discipleship of Equals

From the August 9, 1985 Issue

After the festive opening of the Vatican Council in October of 1962 I sought to share my excitement and hope with a friend who, like me, was a graduate student in theology. To my great shock she looked at me over her glasses and replied,' 'I am not interested in what a bunch of old men will have to say; it will not have any significance for me but will just re-assert their power and repeat their condemnations." At the time I could not comprehend her unwillingness to expect any good to result for women from the council. The council seemed to prove her wrong. The bishops who gathered in Rome took seriously Pope John XXIII's vision of a "pastoral" council that would not condemn but would encourage; that would "open the windows" so that fresh air -- the Spirit of life -- could blow through the church; that would set free the church's energies for advancing God's reign of truth and justice, love and peace. The past twenty years proved that these were not just lofty words, but that they were acted upon by countless Catholics, especially by women who have come to experience a new self-identity as women and as church. While the council taught us to value our human and Christian dignity and rights, the women's liberation movement enabled us to act upon them. As we reflected upon our own experiences as women engaged in the struggle for liberation, we developed a feminist theological perspective that recognized domination and dehumanization in any form as structural evil and personal sin. 

However, in view of the repressive actions in recent years against theologians of the first and third world, against clergy and nuns in politics, the ban of girls from the altar and of women from preaching, the investigation of bishops; the punitive reaction of SCRIS (Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes) against the nun-signers of the New York Times ad, the institution of the Marshall commission to investigate seminaries and theological schools especially with respect to women as students, faculty, and spiritual directors, and countless other attempts to silence responsible dissent in the church, I often wonder whether my friend might have been right after all and I might have been wrong all along. For many women committed to the renewal of the church, excitement seems to be turning into disillusion; hope is endangered by despair. The silent' 'exodus" of women from active participation in the Roman Catholic church will continue if the coming synod does not recognize that the hierarchy, especially in the Vatican bureaucracy, has failed to implement the teaching of the council on human rights and dignity within the institution of the church. 

Liberation theology has reminded us that history and its interpretation is written by the historical winners. Since women will have no voice in the reinterpretation of the council at the synod, it is important to write our own interpretation of the council's impulse and reception among the people of God who are women. Although the last twenty years were a period of struggle, women have most faithfully sought to put into praxis the spirit of the council for the benefit of the whole church. To be sure, this would not have happened if the women's liberation movement and if the conciliar movement for the renewal of the church had not coincided. Women’s struggle for the renewal of the church in the spirit of the Gospel strengthened women's struggle in society for justice and truth, and vice versa.

Already before the council Pope John recognized that women's struggle for justice and wholeness ought to be recognized by the church. In his encyclical Pacem in Terris the pope remarked that "the signs of our times" are: the economic and social advancement of the working classes, the equality of colonial peoples and races, and the participation of women in public life. The more we women become conscious of our human dignity, the more we must claim the rights and duties which accord with this dignity as human persons. Just as women and men suffering from the evil of racism must claim their rights as signs of their dignity, so all women must insist that others have the duty to recognize and value women's rights. 

The silent' 'exodus" of women from active participation in the Roman Catholic church will continue if the coming synod does not recognize that the hierarchy, especially in the Vatican bureaucracy, has failed to implement the teaching of the council on human rights and dignity within the institution of the church. 

Although the pope spoke only of the entrance of women into public life, the council applied this to the participation of women in the church: "Since in our times women have an ever more active share in the whole life of society, it is very important that they participate more widely in the various fields of the church' s apostolate" (Decree on Apostolate of the Laity III, 9). Gaudium et Spes proclaimed: "Nevertheless with respect to the fundamental rights of the person, 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" (29). After having stated that "by divine institution Holy Church is structured and governed with a wonderful diversity," the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church went on to say: "Hence there is in Christ and in the Church no inequality on the basis of race or nationality, social condition or sex," and it quotes Galatians 3:28 in support of its statement (32).

In the past twenty years women in the church have taken these words of "the Fathers of this most sacred Council" seriously. Consistently we have insisted that women be acknowledged as human and ecclesial subjects rather than objects of power. We have applied the teachings of the council also to the institutional structures of the church and have maintained that our human and ecclesial dignity and rights are violated by institutionalized sexism. The credibility of the church and its proclamation of salvation depends on its rejection of domination and violation of human rights in its own life and structures. As the 1971 synod of bishops so succinctly states:" While the church is bound to give witness to justice, it ["she" in the original] recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak about justice must first be just in their eyes. Hence we must undertake an examination of the modes of acting, of the possessions and lifestyle found within the church itself [herself]" (Justice in the World, 40). 

Yet the call to conversion from ecclesiastical patriarchy has met with increasing rejection by the Vatican. While women have denounced the structural and personal sin of patriarchal sexism and have claimed our ecclesial dignity, rights, and responsibilities, the Vatican has appealed to the authority of Christ, the apostles, and tradition in order to legitimate patriarchal church structures that exclude women from sacramental, doctrinal, and governing power on the basis of sex. This struggle for women's ecclesial dignity and rights is more than a struggle to incorporate a few token women into the lowest ranks of the patriarchy in and through ordination. The women's ordination movement in the U.S. has theologically articulated why the struggle for women's ordination is not a claims the human and ecclesial authority of women, the majority of whom are triply oppressed by racism, poverty, and sexism. 

Does women-church misinterpret the mandate of the council, when it insists on the human rights of women and indicts any structures of domination and exploitation? When one looks at the documents to find what the "Fathers of the most Sacred Council" -- as they called themselves -- had to say about the exploitation, marginalization, and oppression of women in and outside the church, one finds very little. Looking up "women" in the index to the English translation of the conciliar documents I have found but five entries, not counting those under nuns, virgins, or widows. True, in its closing messages the council addressed women, but it expressed its message in the lofty theology of saving "womanhood," an expression long recognized as the romantic creation of androcentric ideology. 

More importantly, if one is sensitized to masculine exclusive language and verse in analyzing patriarchal structures, it is painful to read even positive theological statements of the council such as: Christians are sons of one Father who have received a spiritual patrimony. The members and leaders of the church are "he" and God has called them to serve him in universal brotherhood. Therefore the Christian fellowship may let its fraternal love shine before all men. The church is she. As the bride of Christ she is subordinated to her head, represented by clerical fathers. 

Yet it would be anachronistic to read the council documents of the sixties in the light of our heightened consciousness of the eighties. Whether such grammatically masculine language is to be understood as exclusive of women can only be decided after we have ascertained whether it functions in the interest of a patriarchal church, If the November synod has to discuss what should be done "so that the church's life will continue to develop according to the spirit and letter of Vatican II" (emphasis mine), then it must question whether the letter promulgates a spirit of the council that is exclusive of women. 

In order to adjudicate this question one must ask: Did the council intend to promote a patriarchal church when it spoke of the ruling power of the exclusively male hierarchy characterized by superordination and subordination, dominance and control? Or did the council seek to avoid such a misunderstanding when it redefined ordained ministry as service, when it defined church as the people of God rather than male hierarchy, and when it stressed that Jesus Christ instituted a variety of ministries "for the nurturing and constant growth of the People of God"? "Sacred power" entrusted to bishops is not dominating but enabling power "so that all who are of the People of God, and therefore enjoy a true Christian dignity, can work towards a common goal freely and in an orderly way, and arrive at wholeness[ salvation]" (Lumen Gentium III, 18).

Again, to expect to find the issue of patriarchal structures explicitly mentioned in the council's documents would be anachronistic, since at the time such feminist theological questions were not yet articulated. However, if that is the case, one must ask whether the synod will be able to preserve the spirit and the letter of Vatican II, or whether by following the letter we will lose the spirit. The priority of the spirit over the letter ought to be clear "for the letter kills but the spirit gives life" (2 Corinthians 3:6). 

What was the llfe-giving spirit set free by the council that has in the past twenty years allowed women and other marginalized and silenced members of the church to reclaim their Christian dignity and responsibility as church? The council’s emphasis on church as the pilgrim people of God was prepared by the biblical, liturgical, and Catholic action movements that had fostered the participation of all the baptized. The biblical language, allusions, and images of the conciliar documents -- even though their language is androcentric -- evoke a participatory model of church that is not an end in itself, but serves the realization of God's intention in creation and redemption. The stress on collegiality and mutual service for the building up of the "body of Christ" sought to engender a transformation of the monarchical pyramid into a circle of the discipleship of equals. The stress on freedom of conscience, the rights and dignity of the human person, social responsibility, and mutual support envisioned a dialogical community of adult Christians with different gifts and vocations but with a common commitment.

Although many council texts stress the hierarchical nature of the church and the ruling power of the clergy, the council was also clear that the church in virtue of its mission and nature is not bound to any "particular form of human culture, nor to any political, economic, or social system" (Gaudium et Spes IV, 42). Feminist theology has amply demonstrated that the structures of the church are derived from patriarchal GrecoRoman structures of household and state and that therefore the church as an institution is not bound to them. 

Moreover, the council stressed that because the church has a visible and social structure, it can and ought to be enriched by the development of human social life. "The reason is not that the constitution given it [her] by Christ is defective, but so that the church [she] may understand it more penetratingly, express it better, and adjust it more successfully to our times" (Gaudium et Spes IV, 44). Feminist theology has elaborated that the beginnings of the church are best understood as a discipleship-community of equals. 

This failure to acknowledge within the church's structure the full human and baptismal potential of women not only robs the Roman church of its full catholicity, but also jeopardizes the ecumenical dialogue among Christian churches, and legitimizes the dehumanization of women oppressed by racism, poverty, and colonialism engendered by societal patriarchy.

Finally, the council taught that the Gospel is entrusted to the church of Christ "which proclaims the freedom of the children [sons] Qf God, and repudiates all the bondage which ultimately results from sin. The Gospel has a sacred reverence for the dignity of conscience and its freedom of choice, constantly advises that all human talents be employed in God's service and that of human persons [men]" (Gaudium et Spes IV, 41). In the face of such a statement how is one to explain the constant refusal of ecclesiastical leadership to employ women's talents and spiritual gifts in the liturgical service of God and the Ministry of the church?

Although the church has never ceased to be the sign of salvation on earth, the council acknowledged that throughout history there has been a great cleavage between the message of the church and the failings of those to whom the Gospel is entrusted (Gaudium et Spes IV, 43). I have sought to point out one great cleavage between the message of the church on human fights and Christian dignity and the failings in this regard of those to whom the Gospel is entrusted. This failure to acknowledge within the church's structure the full human and baptismal potential of women not only robs the Roman church of its full catholicity, but also jeopardizes the ecumenical dialogue among Christian churches, and legitimizes the dehumanization of women oppressed by racism, poverty, and colonialism engendered by societal patriarchy. It hinders the coming of the "hour of women" which was announced at the close of the council: "... the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect, and a power never hitherto achieved." Can the institutional church afford to lose the influence, effect, and power of women "pregnant with the spirit of the Gospel”?

One might object that ! have engaged in a selective reading of the conciliar texts and that, for example, Cardinal Ratzinger's selective reading might very well consider "women's rising consciousness in a patriarchal church structure" as one of the "errors, abuses, or exaggerations of an indiscriminate opening to the world," since women in traditional theology were identified with the body, the flesh, the world, and even sin and evil. Yet the council did not share this view of women, but rather called on women "to bring the spirit of this council into institutions, schools, and daily life," Women have faithfully sought to fulfill this commission of Vatican II. We women have sought to bring the spirit of the council into theological schools, convents, and all levels of church ministry so that the church could practice what it preaches; we have sought to live the Gospel in slums and favellas, in political action and academic inquiry; we have sought to create institutional forms that respect and foster the dignity, self-identity, justice, and love of women and all those marginalized in the church. We have called for the conversion of the whole people of God, and worked for the liberation of the church from its patriarchal captivity. Women in the church have actualized the participatory model of church. We have lived church as the discipleship of equals that advances God's reign of justice and love in all dimensions of life. 

The criterion for evaluating whether the spirit of the council is correctly interpreted and applied was articulated by Pope John XXIII at the opening of the council: The church "considers that it [she] meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of its [her] teaching rather than by condemnations . . . It [she] opens the fountain of its [her] life giving doctrine which allows people [men] enlightened by the light of Christ, to understand well what they really are, what their lofty dignity and their purposes are"; and finally, through its members the church spreads everywhere the fullness of Christian love because "nothing is more effective in eradicating the seeds of discord, nothing more efficacious in promoting concord, just peace, and the sisterly [brotherly] unity of all." 

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