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.