I’ve done quite a bit of reading lately on the topic of women and the Catholic church. (And I still have more reading to do!)
Now, before you all jump ship, thinking this is going to be some sort of diatribe, let me just clarify a couple of things. First, I don’t actually believe that the Catholic church denigrates women. I’ve never believed that. I actually think that more than most places, the Catholic church gives women the significance and recognition that they’re due. And second, based on the theology I’ve read lately, I’m no longer convinced that women should be ordained. And third, I come from a non-denominational evangelical background, where there wasn’t really anyone being ordained, male or female, though both sexes could fill the pulpit and be pastors.
Sigh. It’s that second point that is raising questions and complicating my life, especially when I consider it in light of the way the third point has shaped my life.
I had a loosely laid out plan for my life until this journey of exploring Catholicism began to derail it. It was a plan that had been constructed with much prayer and wondering and waiting. With careful listening for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and a belief that this was the long-term calling of Christ for my life. I would finish nursing school, work for a little while to pay off debts, and then likely end up working with missions overseas. I even knew which mission organizations I was interested in, and which would most fit who I am and how I feel I’m most gifted to serve. More importantly, at the time I was leading a small house church, and my plan was to continue to be involved in this sort of leadership and teaching role within churches.
And then I went to a Mass last summer and my loosely laid plans began to self-destruct.
As it has become more and more clear that I will move forward with the process of joining the Catholic church, the issue of women, ordination of women, and women in ministry has remained one of the few that has niggled painfully, refusing to be ignored.
I did initially struggle with the theology of not ordaining women. If I’m honest, I still wrestle with it a little. It just feels foreign to me, coming from a background where in church leadership men and women were roughly equal. Again, I didn’t wrestle with it particularly because I see it as denigrating the value of women, but because I struggled with the arguments in favor of a male only priesthood, and the implications of that for my life. A few weeks ago I sent the following paragraphs by email to a dear friend:
Like I’ve said before, I have no trouble with the idea that the Church sees women as equal in value and promotes that, I just haven’t been quite able to wrap my head around the argument for not ordaining women.I kept getting hung up on the idea that somehow the fact that Jesus only chose women as disciples was a cultural thing (which I think is the implicit teaching I’ve sort of grown up with – that while Jesus clearly did empower women, the reason he didn’t choose them as disciples is because it would have been so completely counter cultural that it would have destroyed his “witness”) . I understand the arguments being made in the articles I read – about Christ as bridegroom, and the priest as representation of Christ, and therefore male, and the distinct roles of male and female. These helped, but I was still hung up on the whole cultural argument that I’ve been steeped in – especially after reading articles that admit that church doctrine and the church fathers has often been unduly and negatively influenced by that.and then, as I hopped off the bus and headed into school, a whisper of thought occurred to me. If I believe that Jesus truly is infallible and perfect, then why do I assume that in this one area of culture, he was unduly influenced? Why do I assume that he was less than perfect and deliberate in his choices of establishing the priesthood as male?it’s a thought that is oh so rapidly forcing me to reconsider my position of dislike for the lack of ordination of women 🙂I admit that I still wrestle with the giftings I have – the fact that I have this sense of calling to ministry, and the knowledge that my personality is strongly pastoral (and unfortunately!) prophetic. That I’ve done teaching and leading of a house church and felt called by God into that. And that with so little background in the Catholic church, I don’t have any idea how those skills and gifts can even begin to be expressed.And yet, that whisper of thought carries the weight of conviction – the voice that I’ve long learned to associate with Christ speaking to me… and more convincingly so since it came on the heels of a quiet wish/prayer that I could simply ask Jesus about the issue…how funny that – that a prayer would be quietly answered in such a way.
And with that my loosely constructed life plan disintegrated even further. It’s become increasingly clear that my expectations of what a life of ministry would look like aren’t going to be anything like what may happen with my life. The mission organizations I’d been interested in partnering with will likely not accept a candidate who is Catholic. The sorts of leadership and pastoral roles I’ve played for so long, and expected to continue to play aren’t available to me.
And when I stop and consider this topic, I inevitably bump into this: I’m not only a woman, but I’m single. If the epitome of Catholic femininity is Mary, is marriage and motherhood, if the epitome of ministry for a woman is to serve alongside her husband, and raise children, where does that leave me? What do I do as a single woman (with no immediate prospects of that changing, even though I’d love for it to be different) who has pastoral and leadership giftings? Where on earth do I fit in this completely foreign world of Catholicism that I’m now exploring?
And I guess that’s where I stand today. I’m making this leap of faith that seems crazy to me at least 50% of the time, and I’m surrendering more of myself to Christ (even in trusting the idea of a male only priesthood that still feels foreign to me), but I’m left wondering what on earth comes next. How do I live out a call to ministry as a single woman (not called to the religious life) in the Catholic church? Somehow I suspect that this is a question that’s going to take some doing to sort out – that it may be a “for the rest of my life” kind of question. And that requires a bit of surrendering too. And I tend to forget that surrender is rarely easy or bloodless. But I also forget that it’s almost always worth it. So maybe I’ll work on looking for the things that make these new places of surrender truly worth joyfully celebrating. Because celebration seems better than wallowing on a bloody abandoned battlefield after the surrender has been given.