Monday, January 21, 2013

A place for women in the Church (Opinion)

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, USA, talks with US Sister Sara Butler, a professor of dogmatic theology at St Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, New York, centre, and Sister Luisa Ciupa, vice president of the Commission for Catechists of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, before a meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the new evangelisation at the Vatican in October 2012. The nuns are experts at the synod. Photo: CNSWhat 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 consequential.

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.  

Such 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 self-understanding.
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 listening.  

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.  

Because 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.  

A 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 global  Church.

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