Saturday, March 4


Women in the Church

Monument to Matilda of Tuscany, St. Peter's Basilica

Recently, two statements of the Pope have attracted much attention--one in the blogosphere, and another in the mainstream media. The first is, of course, Benedict's apparent decision to drop the title of Patriarch of the West, less a statement than the absence of one. Of this, much cybernetic ink has already been spilled. What I find more intriguing--and perhaps even more of an insight into Benedict's complex mind--is his recent remarks on the subject of the role of women in church governance. Essentially, what the Pontiff said was he was considering the nature of women's role in the Church, particularly the institutional aspects of that role. He cited women's "charisma"--presumably what JP the Great meant by "feminine genius"--as a powerful force in the history of the Church, and referred to Mother Teresa and St. Catherine of Siena as well.

The media, of course, has written about this with a stunned, breathless excitement, always bringing in the little caveat at the end that he's not talking about priestesses or anything like that. I suppose to them it'd be like Archie Bunker putting in a plug for the Equal Rights Amendment. For those of us in the know, it's really no surprise; Benedict and JP II before him have long had an appreciation for the key role that women play in the Church. Heck, there was a whole encyclical about it, Mulieris Dignitatem. In particular, Benedict's close friendship with right-hand woman Ingrid Stampa is a good example of the man's aptitude for the feminine genius.

Benedict's papacy has been full of what must seem to the world an astonishing number of curve-balls; one supposes they expected that the moment the Grand Inquisitor came to power the Church's internal clock would be re-set to 1959, by force of arms if necessary. (A more careful study of the American Church's apparent golden age indicates that, like any era, there was a lot more going on, both for good and for ill, than most people realize: we may have had Fulton Sheen, but we also had the beginnings of weird liturgical experimentation and the Kennedys.) However, comments such as these show that Benedict knows well that mere cultural restorationism is not the answer to the world's ills. What is needed is not June Cleaver or Donna Reed but the hard-headed, world-wise mysticism of Teresa of Avila.

Women have certainly had a powerful, if backstage, role in Church politics and church governance for ages. To belittle their contribution would be a vast injustice. Every parish runs on the strength of that tireless, undervalued and often ignored team of busy ladies who chair the sodalities, answer the phones, teach catechism, or (nowadays) sit on the parish council. There was Countess Matilda of Tuscany who saved the Papal States. On the other hand, the nay-sayers will doubtlessly mention there was the senatrix Marozia, who nearly made them a joke. Of course, many more men, and priests too, have done just as ill in their efforts to pull strings in the papal curia. Institutionalizing a feminine role would aid the Matildas, I'd think, and dissuade any would-be Marozias (I rather doubt there are that many of them these days!) from taking an underhanded path.

What sort of institutional role is the Pope talking about? It's difficult to say, for sure. I'd imagine positions in the Curia, either local or Roman, would make sense, and grant greater recognition to the roles that women, lay and professed, have played in the Church, especially since,in ages past, they often gotten short-changed. This is less a problem of Church doctrine--as it is at the height of the Middle Ages that one finds the age of the great abbesses, and only when a more secular outlook is in the ascendant do the great uppity women of the Middle Ages mysteriously vanish. The Medieval epoch had Joan of Arc, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the ladies of the Order of the Hatchet and the militissae of Bologna, Christine de Pisan, Hildegard and Catherine, while after 1500, we have, at best, Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria, who I'd gladly trade in for Ysabel of Castille any day.

One might say with regard to laywomen and nuns in the curia, sure, well, no problem if they're the right sort--Nashville Dominicans or orthodox laywomen. Certainly--though one might say of the appointment of any priest behind a desk or in a confessional, "well, if they're orthodox," too. Heterodoxy is hardly an exclusively feminine province, for all the alleged talk of empowerment that some souls like to throw round.

Inevitably, the discussion of this subject will come 'round to priestly ordination. I think this topic has been discussed enough to not go in-depth here, but it seems obvious to me it's possible that women exercise their feminine genius and authority within the Church in a way which differs in nature from that of the priesthood. To say that a women need be a priest to be listened to misses the point. Pope Gregory listened to Catherine to return to Rome and ultimately ignored the flock of ordained cardinals that surrounded him. For a woman to become masculine in order to exercise her authority would be to rob that authority and genius of its uniqueness and its value.

There is also the matter of lay cardinals and female cardinals, a subject that has popped up on the blogosphere a number of times before, though Benedict has not mentioned anything on the subject at all. First, a point of clarification--as far as I can ascertain, most of the lay cardinals of Renaissance days were, at the least, in minor orders. In some sources, Cardinal Consalvi is described as a layman, but he appears to have been ordained a deacon after his elevation to the sacred purple. Garbled etymologies that attempt to link the first cardinals to a group of Roman citizens who acted as door-guards for the persecuted Church appear to be spurious. Some authors link the "cardo" or pivot in the Cardinal's title to concelebrants among the Roman clergy who stood at the corners of the altar during Papal masses.

A 1936 work entitled The Triple Crown by Valérie Pirie claims that lay cardinals were not allowed to vote in the Papal conclave anyway without a special permit, or not without first being ordained as deacons in the conclave itself. I've never heard this before, and can't vouch for its authenticity, but if true, it does suggest that the concept of a "lay cardinal" in the past means far less than we often suppose.

If all this is true, the question is not, "should women be cardinals?" but "should lay people be cardinals?" I don't know. The question must not be seen as a matter of power, however. (St. Catherine was far more influential in the history of the Papacy than any one cardinal and she wore a halo rather than a scarlet hat). Part of me dislikes the idea of tampering with something so well-established and fine-tuned over time, and which produces some pretty good results. After all, we got Benedict XVI and JP II from it, not to mention Piuses V through XII, didn't we? (And Pius II wasn't too shabby, either). Nonetheless, given that the system of papal elections has certainly changed over time, the idea is not impossible. One again, as with any male cardinal, cleric or lay, it depends on who one appoints. (Amy Cardinal Welborn, anyone? Well, she is in Rome this week...) At the very least, in terms of protocol, we'd have to find something besides churches (hospitals or convents, perhaps), for the lay men and women to be titulars of.

My principal concern is at this point it might mostly confuse people who do not understand the difference between the cardinalatial dignity and the priesthood, and ask, "if lay men and lay women can elect the pope, why can't they say mass, too?" Which would really lead to a theological mess. Perhaps it'd be simpler just to bring back the title of Papal Count and Countess.

Anyway, Benedict knows what he's doing, and I look forward to seeing where this all goes. Thoughts?

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