“So…how do you deal with being Catholic when they won’t let you lead?”
That question, particularly sigh-inducing, is one I get frequently (along with “What about the Crusades?” which is often asked when I admit to teaching church history – uh, they were bad??). Why does this make me sigh?
Because I help kids learn how to pray. Because I have theological chops and am seen as a religious authority by some kids, some adults. Because last night I conducted a choir at a festival liturgy that I coordinated. I wrote the prayer of the faithful, I decided what would be spoken or sung, I made sure everyone knew what was going on. Is that what not leading looks like?
A few months ago I won a book that Leigh Kramer at HopefulLeigh was giving away. I was eager to read The Resignation of Eve because it dealt with two of my favorite topics: gender and religion. It dealt with them, however, among Christian groups that are not my own. I could read, think, and not have a dog in the fight.
I believe all of the people he profiled would be categorized as evangelical, but I am sensitive enough to the nuances of ecclesiology to include the caveat that I might not know what I’m talking about.
I really enjoyed Jim Henderson’s anecdotal approach. He tells compelling stories of women and church, and categorizes them based on the subjects attitude toward the ways that their ministries were limited (or not) by their communities. Although he claims his inclination toward an egalitarian approach from the beginning, he doesn’t try to read the evidence to support himself. He includes quotes from bloggers and lots of stats, and he leaves the reader to make their own opinion.
This reminded me of Christian Smith’s Soul Searching, although I have always thought Smith was too gloom and doom, and too eager to draw sweeping conclusions from the people to whom he had spoken. Henderson wisely resisted any potential urge to explain the entire religious landscape based on his research (though, admittedly, his research is much less expansive than Smith’s).
Next time I am asked the question with which I opened this post, am I allowed to respond “It could be so much worse!!!” because that was my takeaway from this book. For all of the heat that the Catholic Church takes for it’s theology of ordination, I don’t think the naysayers realize how much easier it is for things to be so black and white.
Women cannot preside at sacraments. Women cannot be part of the formal governance of the Catholic Church. Other than that, go at it, girls. Of course, women are and were subject to whatever sexism existed in their day, but history shows us that in the grand scheme, participation in the life of the Church has allowed many women more influence and experience than they would have had otherwise. (Example: Hildegard and Catherine of Siena were free to NOT die in childbirth having their 17th sons at age 30).
So many of the stories in The Resignation of Eve were of women and men tying themselves in knots over interpretations of Scripture on what particular teaching and leading roles women should be allowed to have. Reading these theological contortions made me feel weary. It felt to me like people were using Scripture in an attempt to codify culture-wide, throw-back sexism. But people wouldn’t use the Bible like that, would they??? (that was sarcasm).
All in all, a readable, worthwhile book. I want to highlight one sentence, so impressive to me that I managed to remember the page it was on so I could go back and comment on it: I didn’t decide to follow Jesus in order to get to heaven, escape hell, or be holy or right. I accepted Jesus’ invitation to join his movement for one simple reason: Jesus is the freest person who ever lived, and I want to be free.
Preach on, brother.
Love hearing your thoughts and perspective, Margaret! It’s so interesting to hear about the ways the Catholic church differs. There can be freedom in boundaries- or the black and white thinking you describe. I’m glad you’re able to use your gifts regardless and I’m glad you liked the book!
Thanks! And thanks for helping me get my hands on the book. It was great.
Val Davia says
I once transcribed several interviews with nuns for a book entitled “Poverty, Chastity, and Change,” about the differences in expectations and nuns’ lives post Vatican II. What struck me most was the opportunities the convent offered for women who wanted to lead–those with talent and skill went on to run schools, hospitals, etc. The other side of the coin were those who clearly couldn’t survive in a traditional world, essentially mentally ill, who needed the safety and routine of the religious community. It was, and still is, a fascinating subject, despite my anti-organized religious stance on most everything.
2012’s OAI program started last night…miss you!
That transcription project sounds so interesting! Your point about religious communities being a haven for the vulnerable is an important one. I think some of the modern disappointments with priests and other religious leaders is connected to that – once upon a time someone could become a priest and be one of 7 at a church, and if he wasn’t up to leadership could serve as a glorified altar boy. Nowadays with vocations to ordained and consecrated life so rare, everyone is expected to be capable of everything, and when they’re not we fault them for it.
Hope all is well in Steamboat. I wish I were there! xoxo
Marlene Stewart says
Thank you, Elaine. Thoughtful and well-stated.
Jim Henderson (@byJimHenderson) says
Its refreshing to hear a Catholic woman’s take on my book. I appreciate your perspective and generosity toward my imbalances. I also appreciate you “calling out” my favorite quote from the book as well. It’s the reason I joined Jesus’ movement originally and is what keeps me going today.
I didn’t see them as imbalances at all! I think a book suffers when it tries to do too much. It doesn’t surprise me that was your favorite line in the book too. It was beautiful and inspiring, and gave me lots to think about! Thanks for reading, and thanks for your great work on the book.
Thought-provoking post that, as a Protestant woman striving for ordination who also attended and immersed herself in Catholic liturgy and leadership (as best she could) while in college, leaves me really torn. The knot-tying scriptural interpretations is so Protestant (thanks, Calvin!), yet so frustrating (and so common in every. single. “who belongs?” issue EVER). It just makes me sad, and sorry, that we all can become so clouded by our cultural and political leanings that, when we don’t focus on tradition as much as some of the Church’s other denominations do, our understanding of the good news gets tied up in petty little details that amount to much more than petty little misunderstandings.
But I can’t help but feel like I still fall under the category of “naysayer” with regard to leadership in the Roman Catholic church. For years at BC I seriously considered immersing myself in the RCIA program. But even in semesters when I didn’t acknowledge it, I felt this call to minister, to preach, and to serve. And, as much as I wanted to join BC’s religious community, I knew I couldn’t fill that calling without being able to serve the sacrament. And even though I was (somewhat) ok with being left out of taking communion because of my own choices to be confirmed Methodist (I understood and respected the theological differences between our understandings of the sacrament), I couldn’t reconcile God’s call in my life with a church that wouldn’t allow me to fill that call because of who God made me to be.
Sorry for the novel. It’s a fantastic post, Meg, and made me think a lot. I really agree with you on the role of the Church in women’s lives and leadership in all other ways. I find myself often defending the grey-ness of both the Catholic church and other religious organizations against those who want it to me simpler than it is. There’s just…this tinge inside that makes me so sorry for the first two sentences of your third-to-last paragraph.
Don’t you dare applogize for the length of what you wrote – that’s one of my favorite comments ever! Anther issue I didn’t think to touch on was the argument that “seeing women lead makes men not want to come to church”. Someday we will have to chat about that one too 🙂 Hope the move was swell.
Heather W says
Oh yes, that’s worth an entire blog post on it’s own, isn’t it?