Last year Jimmy Carter made news for having resigned from his church—after sixty years—because of its refusal to ordain women and its insistence that wives be subservient to their husbands. He had disassociated himself from the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000, but an opinion piece he wrote advocating women’s rights brought his departure back to the headlines. From what I understand, Carter had long criticized these views within his church. I guess his patience finally gave out.
His decision brought to mind my many discussions over the years with certain college friends who wonder how I can possibly be part of a church that fails on so many levels to empower and include women. These friends are capable, smart women, women who have raised children and run companies. Though they are prayerful and religious, their patience with the Catholic Church ran out a long time ago, and they left it to become exemplary Congregationalists or Episcopalians. Over time we’ve come to a respectful détente, but Carter’s grand exit opened the way for a couple of biting phone calls and e-mails from a few of them.
It’s not my aim here to discuss the ordination of women, or even to evaluate the church’s treatment of women in general. I’ll leave that to those who are brighter and have more ink to spare. I merely want to point out something that is obvious to all Catholics at the parish level—namely, that a holy order has come to women from somewhere higher than Rome.
I was first made aware of this by the finest of teachers. Wanda was the secretary at the first parish I was assigned to as a newly ordained priest, decades ago. I was the third such newbie in a relatively short period of time at that parish, and Wanda joked that she should get combat pay for having to train this succession of neophytes. One day, she was at her desk in the office when there arrived a parishioner whose husband had recently died, a widow still fresh in her grieving. Passing through, I overheard Wanda, a widow herself for many years, engaging the woman in quiet conversation. A short while later, I walked through again and found the office deserted; later, I discovered that Wanda had taken the woman into the kitchen and made her a cup of tea. “The poor dear needed someone to listen to her who understood what it was like,” she told me—the first of many lessons from a master.
I began then to understand that there are whole worlds of experience that men will never discover, and that God sends effective ministers to those worlds regardless of whether they are ordained. I’ve watched it happen many times. A woman will discreetly put a plate of food together at a parish party, slip on her coat, and take the meal down the street to someone who couldn’t be there, quietly rejoining the table before anyone notices she’s been gone. She’ll give a young mother a call after a prebaptismal class because she sensed something was amiss, and end up becoming the vehicle to heal a crippling depression. She’ll relate how she and her sister anointed the body of their mother with oil blessed in a cup, because no priest could come.
Time and again, I have seen it: a way of ministering that in many ways is uniquely feminine. It has a gentle and intuitive touch. Its authority doesn’t rely on a formal imposition of hands, but rather a divine imperative from the heart. I have seen it, and it has made me marvel at a God who refuses to be contained.
At my parish, a woman organizes the biggest annual fundraiser. Women ensure that the hall looks festive for our Christmas party. Women are the best lectors and most conscientious meal-makers for the soup kitchen. From what I’ve seen, women are the wind in the sails of most Catholic parishes. A friend of mine often jokes that if all the women who volunteer in parishes were to stop what they were doing at the same time, the entire church would grind to a halt in two weeks. She laughs when she says this.
I never laugh. The prospect scares the hell out of me.