The Common Good
September-October 2012

The Presumption of Equality

by Rose Marie Berger | September-October 2012

Women still are forced to operate as second-class citizens in the church.

EVER SINCE THE apostles positioned Mary Magdalene as an “unreliable narrator” telling an “idle tale” in Jesus’ resurrection story, some men in the church have claimed maleness as normative and orthodox and femaleness as, well, not.

A ninth-century mosaic of women leaders in the church of St. Praessede, Rome.

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In the recent case of the Vatican vs. the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the integrity of women’s witness is, once again, called into question by male hierarchs.

These Catholic sisters represent an unbroken, cohesive expression of faith in the history of American Catholicism and in women’s presumption of equality, completeness, and active moral agency both under law and under God—a presumption that is a shining light for women around the world. The sisters might have once shared accolades for faithful servant leadership with their brother priests, bishops, and cardinals, but over the course of nearly 30 years of unfolding pedophilia scandal and blasphemous mob-like cover-up, the laity has learned to look to the sisters alone for examples of Catholic gospel witness and Christian maturity, strength, and just plain grit.

But let’s not sideline this issue as “a Catholic thing.” We don’t get off that easy. The struggle over women’s authority runs right through the denominational diaspora of the body of Christ.

“Christian churches have long been ambivalent about us,” wrote Protestant female theologians in a letter of support to the women of LCWR. “Women’s roles have been embraced in private, not public forums. Women leaders are affirmed as long as they are seen, but not heard (at least too much).” And as long as what the women say doesn’t contradict male authorities.

Even in Christian denominations that ordain women to leadership, too often they are forced to operate as second-class citizens. Women pastors don’t get called to prominent congregations; they’re not allowed to prioritize the most urgent needs in their parishes; and they face constant friction. Time and again, we see the ideas of men described (and funded) as “entrepreneurial,” “innovative,” and “bold,” while women’s initiatives are “unorthodox,” “suspect,” and “back-burner, support-staff kind of thinking.”

“The plight of the powerless is familiar to the women of the church,” continue the Protestant scholars. “We, however, do not believe that authorities in any church should take away women’s power to determine for ourselves a vision for our ministries and vocations.” Many women—and men—have raised questions similar to those asked by Catholic women religious. Did God plan for an exclusively male priesthood or did it form as a result of the sin of misogyny? Do our baptismal vows anoint girls into the fullness of ministry as “priest, prophet, and king” in Christ or do they not? Is providing for the poor, the outcast, the sick, the prisoner, and the foreigner at the core of the gospel message or is it not?

“What we see in this struggle is not a lack of our sisters’ integrity and authentic witness to Christian faith,” the open letter continues, “but a struggle that has been too familiar for all women of faith—a struggle over authority and who should have the power to define true faith.”

In 2009, when the Vatican announced an investigation of American Catholic women’s communities, Sister Sandra Schneiders wrote incisively of the motives behind it.

“It is a hostile move and the conclusions are already in,” Schneiders said. “It is meant to be intimidating. But I think if we believe in what we are doing (and I definitely do) we just have to be peacefully about our business, which is announcing the gospel of Jesus Christ, fostering the reign of God in this world.”

It takes a tremendous amount of strength for women to stay focused on the mission at hand, while constantly being undermined by unrepentant, unexamined chauvinism. And yet, like Mary at the resurrection, we know what we’ve experienced and nothing will stop us from preaching about it.

Rose Marie Berger, author of Who Killed Donte Manning? (available at store.sojo.net) is a Catholic peace activist and a Sojourners associate editor.

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