We need equality for women in the church

Yesterday was Women’s Equality Day, a day set aside to celebrate the progress women have made in their struggle for equality and also to recognize the very many challenges women still face in achieving full equality with the males of the species.

It’s hard to believe that one hundred years ago, women in most western countries did not have the right to vote. Now the United States is on the verge of electing its first female president. It’s hard to believe that less than 50 years ago, Irish women had to leave the civil service once they started a family. And while more and more women are fighting their way up the corporate and political ladders in more and more countries, there is still an enormous amount of work to be done before there is anything like full equality with men. Hollywood leading ladies are still paid substantially less than their male counterparts. Female sports stars get less recognition and reward than the men. The same is true of so many other sectors, organizations, and industries.

It is most certainly true of the Catholic Church.

It took me years before I noticed the maleness of the leadership of the church. During my youth and seminary days, I was oblivious to it, as I’m sure most others were too. Altars and sanctuaries and seminaries and synods were men only because only men could be ordained, and only men had authority in the church. I didn’t question it; it was just the way things were. And then I began to not only notice it but to become embarrassingly aware of it, especially at big liturgical events where there were lots of clergy. Here were all these men in splendid vestments assembled in solemn procession or gathered around an altar and not a woman in sight. And I wondered how that made women in the congregation feel. Some women, of course, fail to notice it or have no problem with it, but for many others it is a source of great pain. Now I do not concelebrate at Mass at all, if I have the choice. I do not want to add to the maleness of the celebration. So I prefer to sit in the pews with the people of God.

Church leaders routinely speak about the equality of women, yet a few years ago they introduced a new English translation of the liturgy that is sexist in its language and gratuitously insulting to women. The sexist language could easily have been avoided but those in charge chose not to. It boggles the mind.

The church emphasizes the importance of the family, yet at the two sessions of the Synod on the Family, which concluded last year, there was just a few women, and none at all who had voting rights. It’s hard to imagine how you can have a real debate about family and family life in the 21st century if women aren’t part of the debate.

The real problem, of course, is that power in the church is bound up with holy orders, which is limited to males. At local level, the parish priest is the ultimate authority. He can ignore the wishes of the parish council if he wants, and there’s nothing they can do about it. The leadership of the church in every diocese and in every country is male. In the hierarchical institution that is the church, lay people are at the bottom of the ladder, and because women are women and cannot be ordained, every woman is at the bottom of the ladder. Unless power is separated from priesthood, or women are allowed to be ordained, the fact is women can never have full equality with men in the Catholic Church.

One significant hopeful move towards a greater say for women in the church is the decision by Pope Francis to set up a commission to took at women deacons. Another positive step is that 50 percent of its members are female. Nothing may come of this commission, but the very fact that it was set up in the first place is a most welcome development.

I do not know if I will be alive to celebrate the day when women in the church will have full equality with men, but I hope I do. It would be wonderful to see a sanctuary populated with women as well as men, and to hear their voices as equals and partners. It would truly bring new life to this trembling church of ours.

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The way bishops are chosen is broken – we need to fix it

The current papal nuncio to Ireland has found himself in a uniquely privileged position. He got the job in 2011 at a moment of extraordinary crisis in the Irish church and, as luck or otherwise would have it, he has had the opportunity to put his mark on the shape and orientation of the Irish bishops’ conference for many years to come. Since his arrival, Archbishop Brown has appointed 10 bishops, and is in the process of appointing six more. That amounts to 16 dioceses out of a total of 26. That’s a whole lot of influence and power. 

But even with all this influence and power, when it comes to selecting bishops, the nuncio faces a number of problems.

One problem is that there is a shrinking pool of men from whom to choose. There are fewer available priests out there and fewer still who are under 60 years old.

A second problem is finding suitable candidates from among that under-60 age group. With a shrinking pool of priests and scare vocations, the number of clergy with the requisite education, pastoral skills and leadership ability has also gone down.

A third problem is the reluctance of clergy to become bishops. It’s impossible to prove because the process is so secretive, but anecdotal evidence suggests that a significant number of priests have said no to episcopal office in recent years. Who could blame them? They are all too aware of the challenges facing the church in Ireland today. They don’t feel qualified enough for the job, or would rather not have to spend years trying to staff parishes and find vocations and close churches and administer dioceses with ever dwindling resources.

But though all these problems exist, there still remains a pool of priests out there who would make fine bishops, if only chosen and encouraged.

Imagine, though, if bishops were chosen in a different way, if they were chosen along the lines adopted by the early church.

If that were to happen, each diocese would nominate its own bishop. The bishop would be chosen after wide consultation among priests and people in a manner that was open and transparent. The bishop would be elected at a synod attended by priests and people from throughout the diocese. The pope, who would be obliged to accept the candidate unless there was clear evidence of his incompetence and/or unorthodoxy, would then ratify the new bishop formally.

Imagine if each bishop came from within his own diocese. He would not be a ‘blow-in’ from another diocese or be from a religious order or congregation but would be one of the clergy of that diocese. From the local church, of the local church, called by his own people into leadership, he would know the smell of his sheep and their needs, and they would have knowledge of him. Only in exceptional circumstances, such as the danger of political interference in the selection process or major disunity in the diocese, would a non-native be appointed.

Imagine if each bishop remained in his diocese for the duration of his episcopal ministry. Chosen by the priests and people as their shepherd, it would be unthinkable that he would transfer elsewhere, or use his appointment as a stepping-stone for promotion to a larger or more significant diocese. In keeping with the understanding of the early church, his relationship with his diocese would be seen as being like a marriage relationship, and so to break that bond would be akin to divorcing the community he was ordained to serve.

When you compare how things were done in the past with how bishops are appointed today, it is clear that there have been significant changes from the practice and understanding of the early church.

The method of selecting bishops today is secretive. Some consultation is done but only with a select few whose recommendations do not have to be accepted. How the consultation is done and what questions are asked is never revealed. The local church gets very little say in the selection of its leader. The first engagement most people and priests of the diocese have with the process is when their new bishop is presented to them.

Nor is every bishop from the diocese he has been chosen to lead. In fact, all of the recently appointed bishops are from another diocese. When you are an ‘outsider,’ it inevitably takes time to settle in, to get to know priests and people, to understand the issues and challenges the diocese faces, as well as its history and heritage. It also weakens the sense of the shepherd as one of the local presbyterate who is called into leadership by his own flock.

And, of course, there is the long-established practice of transferring – or promoting – bishops. There is no guarantee that a bishop, once ordained, will remain always in the same diocese. Quite a bit of moving around takes place, which leads to the danger of careerism and undermines the image of bishop as being wedded to his diocese. There will always have to be some moving around, moving upwards, but it should be the exception.

One can debate how lucky or unlucky the Irish church has been in the bishops chosen to lead it. But what is clear is that the system of selection needs urgent reform. Given the many pressing problems that confront the church today and in order to reclaim the understanding of bishop as one who is called by his local ecclesial community to be its leader and shepherd, it’s time to change how bishops are chosen and return to our ancient, more transparent, practice.