In the memorable opening lines of the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the bishops proclaimed their solidarity with “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age.” One of the most pressing hopes of the age has been the struggle to achieve equal rights and treatment for women, and the council fathers also spoke to that concern. “Where they have not yet won it, women claim for themselves an equity with men before the law and in fact,” they wrote. “Now, for the first time in human history all people are convinced that the benefits of culture ought to be and actually can be extended to everyone.”

October marks the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the council. Of course, no women participated in those momentous deliberations, although a few were allowed to observe the second session. If a third Vatican council were convened tomorrow, there would still be no decision-making role open to women. Since the council, women have made great strides in every kind of secular endeavor. They have also been ordained as priests and bishops in churches that long resisted such reform. Juridical authority in the Catholic Church, however, remains firmly in the hands of men. Whatever position one takes on the ordination of women, the idea that it is essential to God’s purposes that the exercise of authority in the church be reserved to men alone defies reason. 

Historically it was the God-given superiority of men that justified excluding women from the priesthood. When that explanation became an embarrassment, others were proffered. Now the church teaches that it must follow the example of Jesus, who chose only men as his apostles, and that, because of their physical resemblance to Jesus, only men can act symbolically in persona Christi. Most American Catholics find these explanations unpersuasive. It is possible, of course, that the magisterium is right, and that those living in societies that place such a high value on equality cannot appreciate the importance of distinct gender roles in the church’s sacramental economy. It may be that ineligibility for the priesthood is not itself a denial of women’s “equity with men.” But the church still uses that ineligibility as a reason to exclude women from positions of authority, and this creates a serious credibility problem for the church’s leadership, especially when it comes to issues dealing directly with women.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s recent censure of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for “serious doctrinal problems” raises a number of familiar, if troubling, questions. The LCWR, which represents most American nuns, exists to provide support for the work sisters do for the poor, the imprisoned, the ill, and the marginalized, and to give the various religious communities a corporate voice. As part of the CDF’s action, the LCWR will be put into a kind of receivership under Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain—essentially suppressing what little autonomy the group has had. Its statutes will be rewritten and speakers for LCWR meetings will now be vetted. The sisters were specifically reprimanded for speaking out in opposition to positions taken by the U.S. bishops but also for keeping “silent” about church teachings on ordination and same-sex marriage. Is silence now considered a form of dissent? Are women religious not even allowed to determine the priorities of their own ministries?

This isn’t about whether everything done under the LCWR aegis is immune from criticism. Feminism has certainly had an influence on the group, and most women religious probably do disagree with the church about women’s ordination. Yes, on occasion New Age spiritualities have gotten a hearing. Yet much of what the LCWR does looks like very smart and sensible women carrying on apostolic activities and preaching more successfully by action than most of the clergy and episcopacy do by word. The LCWR, like the church itself, is a diverse group, and the CDF offers no evidence that the women are unduly influenced by “radical” feminism. It might even be said that the LCWR has faced the same challenge as the bishops and met it better—namely, maintaining community and solidarity, dialogue and conversation, and encouraging innovation, creativity, and risk-taking in service to the gospel.

The CDF action is certain to be a pastoral disaster, another instance of the hierarchy acting in an imprudent and counterproductive fashion. All Catholics should support the effort of the bishops to preserve and pass on the fundamentals of the faith, and correcting doctrinal error is part of that process. But wouldn’t the bishops be more effective in that task if they did not confuse disagreement about public policy with doctrinal dissent—and if the experience and judgment of women were given an honored place and a decisive role in the church’s governance?

Related: Letters, September 14, 2012
Cross Examination, by Sister X
Missing the Mark, by Sister Y

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Published in the 2012-05-18 issue: View Contents
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