IN MEMORY OF THEM-WOMEN IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
BY THOMAS LEDERER, M.A.
Home Page for the Theological Works of Thomas G. Lederer
After attending a number of Sunday masses presided over by
Father Tom Fusco at St. Patrick's Church in Huntington, NY something
unusual became obvious: during the recitation of the Nicene
Creed, when it came time for him to say, "For us MEN and for our
salvation," instead he said, "For us and for our salvation..."
In that brief moment of silence, Father Tom was, in his own
way, addressing an explosive issue, one which has the potential
to rip apart the very fabric of the Catholic Church here in the
United States as well as in other Western nations: the Catholic
Church is being asked to reassess its attitude and dictums
On the surface, this matter may not appear as volatile as it
is in the minds of some Catholic women such as Sister Elizabeth
Johnson, a feminist and a professor of theology at Catholic
University in Washington, D.C. She has publicly stated that,
without changes in the Church's attitude toward women, they will
start "protesting with their feet," and walk away from the
A number of controversial questions are being raised today
about women's role in the Catholic Church. Language in the New
Testament and in Church documents is being scrutinized for sexist
references, as part of the "inclusive language" movement. The
Vatican is being pressured by feminists as well as some American
bishops to answer questions about women becoming priests and
deacons, beyond the answers provided in 1977 by Rome's
"Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the
Ministerial Priesthood," and its Biblically-supported arguments
against any such right.
This matter of Catholic women as priests and deacons has
become the most provocative woman's issue within the Church. In
the reasoning of feminists, the refusal of the Church to
seriously consider female priests is representative of all the
Church's misdeeds directed toward women over the past 2000
To Catholic feminists, the 1700 year-old Nicene Creed waves a
red flag in their faces, much like John Cardinal O'Connor's
recent declarations about the maleness of God. Written by male
clergy in 325 A.D. as a means for helping to clarify some
theological issues that were dividing the Church in its infancy,
the creed uses repeated references to God as "Father," Jesus as
"Son," and humans as "Men," further fueling feminist resentment
of a male-dominated Church. Further questions are being raised about
the original translations of the Creed as to whether or not references
were being made to man ("homo") as the species or to man ("vir") the males.
Today, women are asking for much more of a response to the
question of women's roles in the church than a token moment of
silence from one isolated enlightened member of the clergy. Many
Catholic women--not just feminists--are asking for a totally new
perspective in regard to women in the New Testament in efforts to
clear up questions which have lingered unanswered for centuries.
Their contention is that the New Testament has been
misinterpreted and misused over the centuries by male magisterium
to directly or indirectly stifle women in their quests for a
prominent and/or equal role in Church leadership.
The underlying problem for either side--Catholic women or
traditional Catholic theologians--is that, barring a significant
amount of help from the Holy Spirit, surviving documents may not
provide enough clues about Jesus' thinking or the thinking of
anyone else from that era as to indicate appropriate roles for
women in the worship of God and the perpetuation of Christ's
teachings within the Catholic Church.
"It is now generally agreed that much material written about
or by women was lost or destroyed in the Church's struggle with
Gnosticism and what has emerged about women is no more than the
tip of the iceberg," said Elisabeth Moltman-Wendel in her book,
The Women Around Jesus (5).
What roles did women play in the New Testament and what was
their importance? How did their roles affect Christ's thinking?
What is the relevence of New Testament thought to questions
raised nowadays about women in the Church? We must use available
resources to find the answers, but without first hand accounts,
we may never really know the truth.
THE HISTORICAL JESUS
As far as we know, Jesus left no written accounts of his life
or his works or anything else related to his time here on earth.
The only Bible he knew was the Old Testament. The two oldest
documents to survive the ages and find their way into the New
Testament canon were written 20 and 40 years after Jesus' death.
Between 30 and 40 A.D., some of Jesus' words of wisdom were
collected in a document called "Q." Q was quite likely utilized
by Mark and subsequently Matthew in their Gospels, the first real
attempts to convert the oral communication of Jesus' work into
the written word. But even that was not until decades after
"Although available evidence suggests that the life of Jesus
is a likely story, there is no hard archaeological or
anthropological evidence that Jesus did actually live when we
think he lived," said University of Arizona archaeological fellow
Anthony Della Croce shortly after returning from a National
Geographic project in Europe. "There are records that show us
confirmation of the travels of the disciples after Jesus' death,
the travels of Paul, and the persecution of Christians by the
Roman. But there is no hard evidence about Jesus himself."
Father Richard P. McBrien,in his prolific work Catholicism
disagrees. He claims that Jesus' birth and death and
the general knowledge of the in-between years are "an historic
fact." However, he sees all other implications associated with
Jesus' life on earth as being open to subjective analysis.
"Jesus, therefore, is a matter of historical record," he said.
"Christ is a matter of meaning or of interpretation, an
interpretation we call `faith'" (McBrien, 374).
Andrew Greely, priest, sociologist, and author, states in The
Bible and Us, the book he co-authored with Rabbi Jacob Neuser,
"The search for the historical Jesus is problematic but modern
scholars still feel there is enough about Jesus in the Gospels to
get a good idea of what he did and said" (Greely, 181).
Can we accurately pinpoint a time or a place during
Jesus' lifetime and expect to find answers to questions such as
those being asked about women's role in the New Testament?
Difficult? Perhaps. Pointless? Not according to hundred of
authors who have seen fit to devote hundreds of volumes to
deductively and inductively examine with an alleged scientific
methodology specifics and details of history for which we have no
scientific proof even took place. Nonetheless, the investigative
methods used in seeking finer truths in other literary areas are
also applied to Biblical exegesis:
1)Form Criticism-a method of biblical interpretation
involving analysis of the original oral form of material
incorporated into the gospels.
2)Redaction Analysis-method of biblical interpretation used
especially to discover an evangelist's purpose through his/her
redaction (editing) of his/her sources
3)New Historicism-takes a representative piece of historic
literature (which reflects and captures the spirit of that age)
and pits it against a piece of non-canonical literature, not
looked upon as representative of the age but from the same time
period. The time period is subsequently reconstructed to reflect
a new view, thus creating a new historic look at this period.
Just as the lack of first-hand, scientific (referring to
physical sciences, not social sciences) evidence of Jesus' life
and deeds leads to a wide-range of interpretation, the lack of
first hand accounts from New Testament women (i.e. extant written
works authored by women about their lives, experiences, beliefs)
makes the application of New Historicism toward the unearthing of
relevant truths about them difficult if not a fallacious concept.
Nonetheless, such an examination of New Testament literature must
be carried out using the best of all available means.
Father Michael Himes, associate professor of theology at the
University of Notre Dame, addressed the issue of "New Historicism
and the New Testament" at a symposium at the Seminary of the
Immaculate Conception in Huntington in April of 1991. Father
Himes stated that it is essential for 20th and 21st century
theologians to utilize new historicism in their work.
"Everything must be read and interpreted within historical
context," said Father Himes. "And that includes the historical
condition of Jesus' time. He was human and he must therefore be
viewed in human terms."
Michael Himes also stated that theologians must seek to find
what was behind ("and in front of") the authorship of historic
texts and they must also see what is behind the mind-set of the
At the conclusion of his presentation, Father Himes was
asked about how far the subjectivity of new historicism might
be taken before it undermines the very infrastructure of what we
know to be the basic tenets of the Catholic faith. He answered
that there were any number of accepted historical, spiritual, and
theological facts that cannot be disputed within the framework of
"Those questioning the meaning of important events and tenets
must be humble in their approach," he added. "They must be
modest in their claims to have unearthed the `gospel' truth, and
must say: 'As best as we can tell, it means this or that to us
in our time.'"
Taking into account the concerns of those who indignantly
question the way the roles of New Testament women were
interpreted down through the ages as well as the concerns of
those who prescribe caution in such exegesis, we proceed.
SCRIPTURE OUT OF CONTEXT
Despite the fact that many theologians warn New Testament
readers--lay and otherwise--that a fundamentalist, inerrant
approach to biblical interpretation is unwise if not dangerous,
verbatim examination of scriptural passages is still utilized to
justify almost any ecclesiastical argument. In his work, The
Critical Meaning of the Bible, Father Raymond E. Brown instructs
readers in the imperative use of an "historical context."
According to Father Brown, who also edits the Jerome Biblical
Commentary, "The Bible ceases to be an instrument of comfortable
self-affirmation for Christians and the Church when we recognize
what the word (of God) meant (then) and what it means (today)" (23).
In his work, Father Brown also intricately examines the
proper definition of the phrase, "The Word of God." He cautions
readers not to assume God's communication with humans would be on
a human level, in fact states that it could not be human because
God is not human. Father Himes, on the other hand says that if
God is communicating with humans, it would have to be on a human
level. How else, he asks, could we know he was communicating
Raymond Brown also points out that the words of Jesus were
time-conditioned as well as context-conditioned, and that his
earliest followers were aware of this. Biblical scholars and
theologians also know this to be true because Christ's words were
obviously changed to suit new contexts.
In his work co-authored with Rabbi Jacob Neuser, Andrew
Greely cautions, "Do not go through the Bible in search of
passages with which to impose a moral or political obligation
(11). He also warns people against using Biblical material as
proof for doctrines that were developed after the Bible was
written. As an example, he states that, as a priest, he accepts
the infallibility of the Pope for not because of anything that
St. Matthew said.
"The Gospels are not transcripts but invitation to
discipleship," said Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza in her
feminist work, In Memory of Her (103). "They are theological
interpretations in process."
Despite all the cautious warnings from these renown and
respected theologians about not putting too much emphasis on
specifics in the Scriptures to prove their own special points of
view, they all seem to be guilty of it at one time or another.
In his work, Father Brown devotes an entire chapter to
disproving the perpetuation of the episcopate within the Catholic
Church using any number of passages from the New Testament to
substantiate his claim.
Greely leans on numerous excerpts from Scripture to prove
some of his declarations. And, Dr. Fiorenza, the most outspoken
opponent of an inerrant acceptance of Scripture written by men,
about men, translated by men, canonized by men, uses two passages
from the male-dominated New Testament to make 85% of her case
against men: the first being Mark's annointing episode (14:9)
and the second Paul's statement in Galatians (3:28) about the
equality of men and women.
These gifted theologians still must be cautious when they
speak of subjectivity out of one corner of their mouths and then
selectively claim inerrancy when it is convenient to their
own philosophy. Realistically, theology is philosophy, not
astro-physics where exactitude is of primary concern. However,
the credibility of their scholarship does rest somewhat on the
consistent use of their own ground-rules.
IN MEMORY OF HER
In all four gospels, as Jesus' fate is secured and his
passion begins, a woman comes to him and annoints him with a
precious ointment, an act of great significance in Old and New
Testament times. Those are the only consistent specifics that
we have about that event because it varies significantly in each
We do not know for certain who the woman was and what was her
specific intent. We do not know for certain whether it was
Christ's feet or his head that was annointed because it happens
both ways in the different gospels. And, much to the chagrin of
feminists, we do not know why the act did not receive the kind of
recognition or import that Jesus gave it in Mark (14:9) when he
said, "And truly I say to you, whenever the gospel is preached in
the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of
In Mark's gospel, the woman is unknown and unnamed and that
set of circumstances aggravates University of Notre Dame
professor Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza in her book, In Memory of Her.
"In the passion account of Mark's Gospel, three disciples
figure prominently: on one hand, Judas who betrays Jesus, and
Peter who denies him and on the other hand, the unnamed woman
who annoints Jesus," said Dr. Fiorenza. "While the stories of
Judas and Peter are engraved in the memory of Christians, the
story of the woman is virtually forgotten" (13).
Dr. Fiorenza contends that this episode (which she later
calls a "politically dangerous story,") typifies the roles that
women played in the life of Jesus and the subsequent way in which
the roles were interpreted/misinterpreted over the centuries.
She states that women were the first, last, and most loyal of
Jesus' disciples. She cites the perseverance and love of Mary
Magdalene who, in some contexts bore the male label of a
"prostitute," or, in looser interpretation, a "sinner.
Dr. Fiorenza says that male chroniclers and interpreters of
New Testament events cannot bring themselves to admit the
important roles that women played as disciples, as proclaimers of
Jesus' miraculous resurrection, or, in the case of Mark's
unidentified woman, the highly honored role of the prophetic
annointer of a King.
Matthew's Gospel portrays the anointing in similar fashion
to Mark, while Luke paints a portrait, not of a prophet but a
sinful, wicked female, groveling in her search for forgiveness.
It is in John's Gospel that the woman is finally given a name,
Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus and Martha.
MARY AND MARTHA OF BETHANY
Mary of Bethany and her sister Martha take part in another
New Testament episode which significantly explores the
representative roles of women in New Testament times. In Luke
(10:38-41), Martha is running around the house carrying out
chores that would fall into the category of housework. It is the
role that is most commonly associated with women of that time
(and others,) that of mother, housekeeper, and generally
subordinate background music.
Martha asks Jesus to chastise her younger sister Mary, who is
quietly, reverently sitting at his feet and not helping with the
housework. Jesus delivers a mild rebuke to Martha and an
important message to all, that the worship of Christ and all that
he stood for was certainly more important than mundane tasks or
worldly matters. From one theological point of view, Martha
represents the status quo while Mary represents Jesus' "gospel of
liberation." In his Gospel, St. John points to Mary's
discipleship evolving into leadership, as Jews from all over came
to visit her following the resurrection of her brother Lazarus.
From the perspective of Pope John Paul II, in his "Mulreris
Dignitatem" ("On the Dignity and Vocation of Women,") Martha's
exchange with Jesus about him being "the Christ, the Son of God
coming into the world" is "one of the most important passages in
the Gospel" (272).
"While Martha of Bethany is reponsible for the primary
articulation of the community's christological faith, Mary of
Bethany articulates the right praxis of discipleship," said
Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza in her book, In Memory of Her
."She is explicitly characterized as a beloved disciple whom the
teacher (Jesus) has specifically called" (330).
Besides cult-like myths that surrounded Martha in the Middle
Ages, portraying her in art and literature as a dragon-slayer,
she primarily goes down in history as the housekeeper of great
renown. Her sister, on the other hand, according to Biblical
scholar Herbert Lockyer in his work All the Women in the Bible
(P. 104,) will be remembered for her introspective devotion to
Jesus, a model for female religious of the future.
"Mary occupied her own peculiar place among the inner group
of Christ's friends," says Dr. Lockyer. "She was a woman who,
with deep spiritual inner thoughts, was busier internally than
Down through the centuries, hundreds, perhaps thousands of
books have been written about women in the New Testament, with
special attention paid to Mary, Jesus' mother, and Mary
Magdalene, a special woman in Jesus' life, debated to be either
saint or sinner or a bit of both. Little has been directed
toward Mary of Bethany who may have been most representative of
the woman around Jesus in the New Testament.
It is Mary of Bethany who anoints Jesus, quietly assuming
the role of a prophet in the first vivid foreshadowing of his
fate. It is she who demonstrates the proper spiritual
perspective in reference to the man who is to become the savior
of the human race, and revealed as the Son of God. It is she who
is thought by some to have become Jesus' most effective
evangelist (see "The Ministry of Mary of Bethany," by Elizabeth
TYPIFYING THE NEW TESTAMENT WOMAN
While the Bible may not chronicle history during a specific
time period, we may count on Scripture to provide us with
"types," models from which we can draw conclusions and apply to
wider-based situations. Women in parables give us clues about
other women of the time, not just one woman or a small group. A
woman with a hemorrhaging problem or one possessed by seven
demons represents a mind-set, a philosophy, a morality tale as
much as a historical person or event.
Elizabeth Moltman-Wendel takes issue with the ways males have
perceived the roles of women in the New Testament down through
the centuries. She believes that superficial examination of the
women has yielded some superficial significance fraught with
"stereotypes," not the "types" or models previously discussed.
"Women in the New Testament are associated with sex and/or
sin (ie Mary Magdalene,) cooking and cleaning (ie Martha,) and
motherhood (ie Mary, Jesus' mother,)" she stated in her book,
The Women Around Jesus
. "And women are expected to be receptive
like Mary, active like Martha, and restrained like Mary of
HAIL MARY, FULL OF GRACE
The episodes in the New Testament that mention Jesus' mother
Mary vary from gospel to gospel in terms of how they are
portrayed or whether each evangelist decides to portray them at
all. Despite the importance given to Mary down through the ages,
there is precious little in the New Testament to get a whole
picture of who she is. There are the infancy narratives and the
annunciation whereby she sets the tone for the ultimate spiritual
receptiveness when she gives a profound "Yes" to God in her
willingness to bear His Son. We see her perhaps a classic Jewish
mother searching for an errant son who had stayed behind to talk
with Talmudic scholars in His "Father's House." And then we see
Jesus' Mother again much later on at the wedding feast at Cana.
She appears at her Son's crucifixion and later in the upper room
with the disciples after the resurrection.
Mary stays in the background during the heart of her Son's
life with some scholars such as Elizabeth Molten-Wendel
suggesting that she viewed Her Son's actions during His mission
as a bit frivolous if not neurotic. It seems as if she suffered
a change of heart after His death.
Ultimately, Mary's role in the life of Catholics expanded
manifold over the centuries as a result of mythological
embellishments which put her in the category of a pagan goddess,
of sorts. In the eyes of one noted theologian, she became "an
ikon of redeemed humanity." Her role was minimized with Vatican
II but with recently reported apparitions and mystical
communications, her role is becoming enhanced almost at the
expense of her Son's teachings about love and selflessness.
JESUS AND HIS RELATIONSHIPS WITH WOMEN
Without question, Jesus is portrayed as having treated women
in a very special way. Using today's standards let alone those
of 2000 years ago, when women were veritable indentured servants,
Jesus' egalitarian approach is considered by some as miraculous,
in the eyes of other zealous commentators, proof in itself of his
Father Andrew Greely speaks in glowing terms about Jesus and
His relationships with women. Greely states that there "is not
a single incident in the Gospel where Jesus puts down a woman or
treats a woman with contempt or speaks slightingly of a woman or
blames a woman or speaks harshly to a woman." Other than Jesus'
mild altercation with a Canaanite woman, Greely is probably right.
Greely also states that, with His demonstrative respect and
love for women, Jesus was a model for "sexual maturity." Greely's
definition of terms must be questioned to determine if he is
referring to what modern sociologists refer to as sexual maturity
or what Greely himself considers sexual maturity. In either case
Greely should realize that it may not be logical to plug those
modern frames of references into a society that existed almost
2000 years ago. Greely's logic or lack there of is unfortunately
typical of those who might be subjectively sizing up events in an
ancient civilization using modern units of measure.
Greely also plays a bit of a game with what he imagins could
have been Jesus' sexuality. He sets a stage similar to the one
set in the book and movie "The Last Temptation of Christ,"
whereby Jesus had a relationship--not necessarily carnal--with
Mary of Bethany. Father Greely portrays her as Jesus' first
interest whereas Kazantzakis had her coming to Jesus on the
rebound after the death of Mary Magdalene.
Greely's primary contentions are that Jesus being human and a
male at that, there would be little reason why He would not be
attracted to someone as devoted and loving as Mary of Bethany.
He also deals with the converse, that, given the circumstances
that we do know of their relationship, it would be understandable
for her to fallen in love with Jesus in the way we know people
fall in love.
The intimate life of Jesus Christ with the women around him
is certainly a subject open to an infinite amount of speculation
with no reliable means of verifying any of it. As stated
earlier, historical records or lack of them, make it difficult to
really exact an accurate impression of the roles that women
played in the New Testament and to determine whether or not the
portrayals by the respective evangelists were accurate.
It is even more difficult trying to discern how women
affected Jesus' thinking, though even the articulation of such an
idea about the Son of God sounds a bit like the tail wagging the
dog. However, in generalized psychological terms, there was a
pronounced "feminine" side to Jesus' personality as is often the
case with talented males with special gifts. This unusual side to
His personality allowed Him to get emotionally closer to woman
than most men (without feeling threatened by them) and allowed
this perspective to develop even more so. Thus, women may very
well have had a profound effect on who Jesus was and how He
If we are to believe what we read, Jesus certainly treated
woman extraordinarily well compared to any man in any time in
recorded history. However, we also know that Jesus treated most
everyone with the utmost respect, and was especially loving to
the down-trodden in the world. Unfortunately, the women of His
day were considered to be among the downtrodden.
Women certainly seemed to be so much more a part of Jesus'
day-to-day life, more so than, for example, a slave, a leper, or
another of the "anawin," and that may have played an important
part in how He perceived the inequality in His society. Women as
disciples, relatives, or admirers daily made a case that cried
out for better treatment from a male dominated world, and Jesus
observed this and went about changing it, and persisted until
His death. Despite the injustice in this world, His work is
being continued on many fronts.
THE ROLES OF WOMEN IN THE NEW TESTAMENT AND THE CHURCH
To look at events surrounding New Testament women and how
they have directly or indirectly affected the Church's attitude
toward women's issues today, it should be clear at this point
that we must examine not only Scripture but how that Scripture
has been interpreted down through the centuries.
In the final analysis, the issue of women as deacons,
priests, and or bishops in the Catholic Church seems to be the
major bone of contention among women who question the Church's
androcentric attitude. That the Church's magisterium will not
seriously consider women as priests or deacons is interpreted by
feminists as an affront to their dignity, not just an ill-advised
interpretation of 2000 year old Scripture. It is the firm belief
of a faction of theologians and historians that, in the first few
hundred years of Christianity, women did indeed serve in
positions of leadership equivalent to those of priests and
"Through the examples of Jesus in his attitude toward women
and as the result of his truth He taught, women were prominent in
the activities in the Early Church," said Dr. Lockyer in All the
Women in the Bible.
"Women ministered unto the apostles and came
to hold official positions of spiritual influence in the Church"
Dr. Fiorenza, who more than once has emphasized that "history
is written by the winners," agrees with this assertion.
"While for apologetic reasons, the post-Pauline and
post-Petrine writer seek to limit women's leadership roles in the
Christian community to roles which are culturally and religiously
acceptable," she said in In Memory of Her, "The evangelists
called Mark and John highlight the alternative character of the
Christian community and therefore accord women apostolic and
ministerial leadership" (334).
Dr. Fiorenza believes that the questionable translation of
the nebulous Greek word "diakonia" led to some confusion about
women's roles in the early church. In the house churches of
early Christianity, the meal was a primary part of the religious
service. The word diakonia implies both someone who assists as a
server, almost like a waitress but also implies assistance in a
religious service, as in the word deacon. Were the women in the
early Christian church waitresses, deacons, or both? Dr.
Fiorenza is convinced that those women were viewed as religious
leaders in their time.
Archeologist/anthropologist Anthony Della Croce indicates
that a number of experts point to the year 325 AD and the Council
of Nicea as a major turning point for the Church in its relations
with women. Up to that time, he says, various archeological and
anthropological sources indicate that women had served as
ministers in Early Christianity. In the fourth century, about the
same time the patristic trends began in the Church, it is the
belief of some that male Church leaders did all in their power to
eliminate the practice and any historical trace of women serving
"Probably the most important consideration when looking at
the role of women in the Church is the effect that the
Hellenistic culture in the first few centuries after Christ had
on early Christian writings, the resulting canon and,
subsequently, the Church itself," said Sister Mary Maher, a
professor at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in
In 1977, the Vatican issued a position paper on the subject
of women becoming priests or deacons called, "Declaration on the
Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial
Priesthood." As mentioned previously, the Papal document uses
extensive reference to New Testament readings as proof that,
because Christ was a male and his twelve hand-picked disciples
were males that there was no place for women in the re-enactment
of the Last Supper we call the Eucharist. The Vatican supports
its stance by pulling isolated sections of Scripture out of
context, posing a problem in logic but not in Church doctrine.
As stated in numerous church documents and reinforced in Vatican
II, Scripture may be subjective to the laity, but it is the role
and the divine right of the magisterium to decide what it all
Although the Church softened its stand somewhat in Pope John
Paul's 1988 treatise, "On the Dignity and Vocation of Women"
(Mulreris Dignitatem) by saying that Jesus picked men as his
disciples but not because women of those times were inferior.
But regardless of the reason, he picked men, He was a man, and it
can therefore be assumed, says the Vatican, that God intended
that only men were to become priests.
In a 1989 interview with Bishop John R. McGann of the Diocese
of Rockville Centre in the New York Times, he was asked about the
role of women in church leadership. He responded by pointing out
various leadership positions within his diocese that were held by
women in the fields of education, medicine, mental health, and
"Of course the question that comes up very often is whether
or not there will be women priests," the Bishop continued. "I
would say that the present Holy Father and his advisers tell us
no. His reasoning is that, theologically, it has not been
established that a woman can be a priest; not that she is
inferior, but that it is a different responsibility."
Beyond theological reasons, the Vatican also claims that the
demand for women to be considered priests or deacons is in
response to an "American problem," whether that be in reference
to a shortage of priests or liberated women. Women members of
the Catholic clergy who have worked in third-world nations hold
a different point of view.
"The strong wind, the Pentecost is blowing through the world
of Catholic women," said Sister Francis O'Connor who recently
returned to America after years in Africa. "When you talk to the
women in these countries, (not the men speaking for them,) they
want the same things as American women, treatment as equals and
fullest of baptismal rights."
THE DIGNITY OF WOMEN
A major dispute between the Vatican on one side and American
bishops and feminists on the other side is the issue of the
bishops' pastoral letter on women. In the works for the past
five or six years, the letter follows on the heels of others from
the bishops such as "Economic Justice for All," and "On World
Following a meeting between representatives of the bishops
and Vatican officials in the Spring of 1991, the bishops were
cautioned that their pastoral letter on women was inappropriate
since it did not deal with principles or theological issues
involving women. Feminists have condemned the stance of the
magisterium as being insensitive to the modern problems of women
in the world and pushing certain vital issues under the rug of
After reading the first draft of the bishop's pastoral letter
on women, it is evident that the bishops indeed did a thorough
job of outlining the problems and plight of women in the world
today. However, it is not unfair to ask the necessity of
bringing all these issues to the forefront in an ecclesiastical
presentation. The Vatican is against women priests and deacons
and, right or wrong they have spelled out that stance clearly.
The issues raised by the bishops are primarily matters of human
dignity and respect toward females. It is questionable that,
because of anything the Church has or has not done, it cannot
reasonably be inferred that it is turning its back on rape, the
physical abuse of women, the poverty of women as single parents,
or any of the problems facing women in today's civilization.
Although critics suggest that he may have overemphasized
Jesus' Mother Mary as a model for servitude and motherhood, Pope
John Paul II in his paper "On the Dignity and Vocation of Women,"
presents a sensitive and gentle discussion of women, their
problems, and their roles in the world replete with numerous
biblical references. He emphasized a "complementary but not
equal" point of view. The second draft of the Bishops' letter
on women is said to make twenty references to the Pope's paper,
and all but eliminated controversial material.
The bottom line for supporters of the bishops' first letter
and critics of the Papal paper appears to be that, to deny women
their rights of baptism, an equal role with men in the
celebration of sacraments is a veiled suggestion that women are
inferior to men. Such a stance is perceived to directly or
indirectly endorse sexism, gender discrimination, the physical
and verbal abuse of women, and the denial of women their
God-given egalitarian rights. It seems as if they are saying,
"Once androcentric, always androcentric."
Men are probably not the ones to decide whether or not that
is an accurate appraisal of the Church's attitude toward women.
"Some have said in reference to the bishops letter that
women aren't the problem--patriarchy is the problem; sexism is
the problem; male chauvinism is the problem; a skewered,
distorted, and enslaved theology of God is the problem, not
women," said Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister in a recent
edition of the "National Catholic Review." "I say, just give me
something, one little church document out of thousands of years
of them to warm my heart on dark, cold days, with an admission at
last that sexism was at least a sin. It boggled my mind to
imagine what a little sentence like that could do to topple
kingdoms in years to come."
Dr. Fiorenza summarizes her rage in the following manner
"How can we point to the Eucharistic bread and say: "This is
my body," as long as women's bodies are battered, raped,
sterilized, mutilated, and prostituted, and used to male ends?"
Virtually every author discussed in the aforementioned
text--from Pope John Paul II to Elisabeth Schussler
Fiorenza--are in agreement about one thing: St. Paul provided us
with a formula in his epistle to the Galatians (3:28), a formula
that may have been overlooked, misinterpreted, or cast aside by
scholars and magisterium alike. If there is one Biblican passage
that bears extraction from context, isolation, and emphasis it
may very well be what Paul told the Galatians, told the world,
and told us:
"There does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave or
freeman, male or female. All are one in Jesus Christ."