What is clear from even the most cursory survey of the North American Catholic ecclesial scene in this Year of Faith is the ever-widening gap between Church authority - most specifically the hierarchy - and the role and status of women in the Church.
Think of Nuns on the Bus, the canonical investigation of women
religious, the censure of women theologians like Elizabeth Johnson and
Margaret Farley for theological and ethical positions deemed
irreconcilable with Catholic orthodoxy, the actual decline in the number
of women in seminary faculties, and the highly contentious conflict
between Catholic politicians and the US episcopacy.
It is, of course, not black and white in spite of the efforts of
various commentators, ideologues, and over- zealous sons and daughters
of the Church to make it so.
What is missing is a dialogue among the
shapers, thinkers, and those who exercise appropriate oversight in the
Church, a dialogue that is not reduced to sloganeering, remonstrances,
and mutual recriminations.
The issues at stake are hugely
It is myopic to think that the feminist issues roiling the North
American Church - and in great measure the European as well - are
culture-specific and that the universal Church will be spared great loss
in membership through compensating growth in other jurisdictions.
short-sighted thinking can provide some temporary relief from the grim
demographic haemorrhaging of numbers that we see in the Western
Church, but such thinking fails to take into consideration the full
impact of higher education, conscientising through the social media, and
the profound paradigm shifts that are occurring in human
Globalisation is not just an economic undertaking; it is a communications and anthropological phenomenon.
To deal best with the conceptual and social challenges that face us
as a Church it is not sufficient to rely on denunciations of secularism,
materialism, consumerism and relativism.
Increasing numbers are not
The approach, especially in light of the New Evangelisation,
must be open, transparent and non-judgemental.
This is the approach of
John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council and we would benefit
enormously by reviving it for the new generations.
One very practical way of ensuring that such a dialogue - especially
around the role of women in the Church - can happen would be to expand
membership in the College of Cardinals to include the laity.
the college is not an apostolic creation, because there are no doctrinal
complications involved in changing its membership criteria, and because
the college has in fact changed over the centuries so that an argument
on the basis of irreformable tradition makes no sense, the Pope could
easily begin a process of reconstitution by simple fiat.
After all, new
cardinals are his ‘creation’ alone.
In establishing such a dialogue body, he can draw on an array of
resources, intellectual and spiritual, the like of which no such other
international body currently has at hand, including the UN.
re-energised College of Cardinals will no longer be simply or only a
repository for loyal servants, senior residential prelates, and
high-ranking curial officials .
With its expanded membership it would
add immeasurably to the fount of experience and learning the pope can
rely upon to keep him meaningfully engaged with the world.
Having around the papal table at any given time the likes of Mary
McAleese, Mary Robinson, Mary Kenny or Sister Stan could not help but
enrich the content and tone of papal pronouncements, provide advice when
consulted on matters of considerable complexity, and deepen the Pope’s
appreciation of other ways of thinking and feeling.
I think that the success of the Year of Faith and the strategies of
the New Evangelisation will only be truly and lastingly successful when
they begin to tackle the mutating place of women in the Church - the