On March 16, 2022, Deborah Rose, Co-Director of FutureChurch offered a witness for our synodal session on Women’s Equality and Full Participation in the Catholic Church. It has been updated with an addition — the new constitution issued by Pope Francis on March 19, 2022 which opens the doors for women at the highest levels in the Vatican. Read her witness below or download a PDF.
I appreciate this chance to offer a witness. But, it is just that, one witness. I will inevitably fall short in saying what needs to be said on this topic. I will not capture the full picture, norname all the women I want to name; those whom I want this Church to love, and to lovefiercely.
When people at parties ask me what I do , Catholic or not , they usually laugh at my answer, the perceived futility of my work. Or, they go quiet; that awkward, stilted quiet thatusually leads to one of us deciding we need another drink at the bar, or, the bathroom.
But if the other person is curious enough to learn more, somewhere around the 8 minutemark they inevitably ask, “Why do you stay?”
“Why would any woman stay in the Catholic Church after being treated the way they aretreated?”
Well, every woman on this call, every man, every person, will have their own answer to thatquestion – a question I am sure you’ve also been asked.
But, for me, its personal.
There’s a fire in my belly that hasn’t been extinguished in the 66 years I’ve been on this planet. I expect I will die with it. Since I was young, I have always passionately cared forthe poorest women and children at the edges of existence. As my mother told me overand over again growing up, “You, Debbie, are always for the underdog.”
And I recognize the role that this behemoth, the Catholic Church, plays in exacting justicefor vulnerable women, or hobbling and endangering them by sacralizing men’s worstimpulses. Working for, and alongside women so they might gain equality, dignity, autonomy,access; that is what I was born to do.
As a kid, I went to church most every day in the summers, during Lent, and on FirstFridays. I lived about 5 minutes from the “compound” – the graveyard, grotto, convent,priest house, school and parish, and loved being there. I had a happy existence and I feltvery close to God.
But, as I grew up, like most women, I began to recognize the limitations that were beingplaced on my life.
College was out for the girls in our family. I married young; became a mother. In my smalltown, I got condolences instead of congratulations when I had daughters three and four.
But, like most women, I learned to resist. On vocation Sunday, with my four daughterslined up in the pew next to me, Father aimed his homily at the men and boys. My girlsand I and all the rest of the women at Mass were invisible.
The injustice infuriated me. When I went to receive the Eucharist, and Father offered, “TheBody of Christ” I replied, “Not yet.” Jesuit Daniel Berrigan once said, “Until women are fullyintegrated into the Catholic Church, every time I go to the altar, I feel compromised.”
I have never felt called to the priesthood, but I understand how important it is for women tobe priests. I remember the first time I saw a woman priest. She was an Episcopal priestthat I had heard about because of her work on the streets with the poor. I was late getting to the church, and by the time I was able to slip into the back bench, she was alreadypreaching. She was petite, but she had on the full priestly regalia; green for a Sunday inOrdinary time. And she had both hands in the air as she energetically preached theGospel. But, as I watched I noticed her vestments were moving. And the movement did not coincide with her preaching body. It continued about a minute more, and then, out fromunder her vestments popped this tiny, toddling, blond boy; who then, began runningcircles around her as she preached. It was her grandson. And he was just being a kid.
And she was just being a grandma, even as she preached about the plight of the poor andJesus to her parishioners. As I sat in the back pew, I wept , watching the familiarity of it all, the joy, the humanity. I thought, what would it be like if we Catholics saw that modeled at our altars?
We are an impoverished bunch. That’s for sure. We are left starving for, women’svoices, women’s faith, women’s wisdom, women’s love throughout our Catholic land.
And many of us struggle on, working ever so hard to squeeze out meaning in a communallife, too narrowly imagined by a group of elitist, clericalist men.
The same men who:
This is a corrupted, clericalist structure; one that women are resisting; that women aredismantling; that women are re-imagining and re-building.
Women are rising. They always have. They always will.
Think of Mary Magdalene. She was close to Jesus. I dare say his co-equal in Spirit. AndHE recognized her faith, her relationship with God in her own right. And he relied on her,her gifts, her support, and her courage in the face of brutality. When others fled, she andthe other women stayed. When the church in the West tried to downgrade her toprostitute status, feminist theologians and biblical scholars recovered her and her truehistorical role; a role for which she was finally officially recognized in 2016 from theVatican – the Apostle to the Apostles.
Think of Phoebe. She is named diakonos in the Bible, and although she is anunderachiever in the tradition of a male dominated church that applies one set ofinterpretive rules to men and another set to women, women theologians, biblicalscholars, and canonists have recovered her historical role – her authentic leadership andministry – for all the Church to follow.
Recall the way women organized into religious communities where they could expandtheir autonomy and their missions in the face of an increasingly patriarchal andhierarchical church. Religious sisters played a critical role in shaping Christianityestablishing schools, hospitals, orphanages – and confronting poverty and injustice ofevery sort. And, as we witnessed in 2009 and 2012, when the Vatican and the US bishops tried to crack down on them, they resisted. And I might say, in stellar form!
Think of the way Black Catholic women religious disrupted slavery’s ravages, desegregated white religious congregations, confronted racism within the Catholic Church, and challenged the oppression of their day by educating and caring for children of color. Werightly know John Augustus Tolton, the first Black priest in the United States, but have notyet understood and appreciated the role his mother, Martha. She played a critical role in the life of the Church when, with three small children in tow, including John, she escaped slavery by rowing a broken down boat across the Mississippi to Illinois.
Consider the way women have pioneered a pathway to the priesthood today in the face of excommunication by churchmen. They are growing a community of ordained equalswho are rebuilding the priesthood into a servant priesthood.
Since Vatican II
Since Vatican II
Since Vatican II
And although there were troubles aplenty under Pope John Paul II, who wanted to remarket the sacralized repression of women under the clever new title“complementarity”, with its famous descriptors of women, as “feminine geniuses”, womenare rising.
After the election of Pope Francis in 2013, there have been some significant changes. And these changes have come about because of the decades long work of women.
Women are rising. All over the world.
They are making new demands for women’s equality in Germany as they continue their synodal process.
They are holding churchmen accountable in Australia as their plenary process proceeds.
And they are gathering in the streets in India and crying out for justice, when criminalsdressed in bishops’ clothing rape and abuse nuns.
Women are the lifeblood of the church.
They have shaped me in profound ways: whether it was struggling over a theologicaltreatise by Rosemary Radford Ruther; being challenged to see my own participation in racist structures by Diana Hayes, Shawn Copeland and Shannen Dee Williams; orwitnessing the courage, candor, and strength of women under direct attack by churchmen,like Chris Schenk, Louise Akers, and Pat Farrell.
I have been forever transformed by women in our church. And I am profoundly grateful. How about you?