The Glass Ceiling
Last Sunday I attended mass at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Downtown Houston. I was in town for a wedding, and the 11am mass at the Co-Cathedral just happened to work for my day. It turns out that day they were having a beautiful special ceremony to honor the city’s fire fighters, celebrated by an Archbishop.
After honoring the fire fighters, the Archbishop began to preach on the Gospel reading of the persistent woman who receives justice, even though the judge “neither fear[s] God nor respect[s] any human being” precisely because she keeps asking. Jesus says that if we, too, “pray always without becoming weary,” God will likewise “secure the rights” of those “who call out to him day and night.”
The Archbishop used this story as a lens through which to honor another group of people – the persistent women who have fought for equal rights for centuries. The Archbishop spoke about the reality of the injustice that women face when they are denied equal pay for equal work, saying this was an issue of basic justice. He mentioned the “glass ceiling” that women often face in the workplace. His respect for the struggle of such women was palpable and authentic, and it was affirming to hear the passion with which he spoke.
Then the Archbishop began to talk about women and the Church. He spoke of the many women whom he works with, recognizing their vital role in the Archdiocese. The Archbishop then likened the fact that women could not be ordained to a “glass ceiling” that wasn’t going to change. He also spoke of an idea he and others had discussed starting a few decades back that could possibly give women more “power” in the Church – by separating a type of juridical power from holy orders, ie letting lay people and women sign decisive documents within the Church. He gave the example of signing the dispensation for a Catholic to marry a non-Catholic, referencing a woman who works high up in the Archdiocese, but who can’t ultimately sign the dispensation because she isn’t ordained.
In that moment, the Archbishop’s words communicated to me precisely what is off about the way some currents of thought address women’s role in the Church.
That the Catholic Church does not ordain women as priests is not a glass ceiling. It is a recognition of the order of being of woman. It is an affirmation of the “theology of womanhood” as an organic part of the theology of humanity. It is a celebration of her unique vocation, just as the ordination to priesthood is a celebration of man’s unique vocation. The glass ceiling analogy is based on the assumption that not being ordained is a limitation, and on the assumption that women are following the same “route upward in power” as man but must stop before reaching the higher floors reserved for men.
Woman is not following the same path as man, nor vice versa, because each must follow their own path according to his or her order of being. And there is no limit to the height which a woman can reach when she follows her soul’s ordered nature to God, just as there is no limit for man when he follows that which God has likewise written into his soul.
So what about this buzzword, “theology of womanhood?” Pope Francis recently brought it into the public light during his interview on the flight home from Rome:
“A Church without women is like the Apostolic College without Mary. The role of women in the Church is not only maternity, the mother of the family, but it’s stronger: it is, in fact, the icon of the Virgin, of Our Lady, the one who helps the Church grow! But think that Our Lady is more important than the Apostles! She is more important! The Church is feminine: she is Church, she is spouse, she is Mother. But women in the Church… a woman’s role in the Church must not end only as mother, as worker, limited. No! It’s something else!…Paul VI wrote a very beautiful thing on women, but I think we must go further in making the role and charism of women more explicit. A Church without women can’t be understood, but active women in the Church, with their profile, which they carry forward. I’m thinking of an example that has nothing to do with the Church, but it’s an historical example: in Latin America, in Paraguay. For me, the Paraguayan woman is the most glorious of Latin America. Are you Paraguayan? After the war, there were eight women for every man and these women made a rather difficult choice: the choice of having children to save the homeland, the culture, the faith and the language. In the Church, it must be made more explicit. I think we have not yet made a profound theology of woman in the Church. She can only do this or that, now she is an altar server, then she does the Reading, she is president of Caritas. But there is more! A profound theology must be made of woman.”
The Pope recognizes that the role of women in the Church isn’t about one by one giving her more duties or jobs (like altar server, president of this or that function). It is not about giving her bits of juridical or administrative power piecemeal, because that does not change the paradigm, but merely chips away at duties which are seen as having power according to a masculine, political and external definition of power. In this way it would seem to reinforce the paradigm of women gaining power by imitating men, or worse, by receiving the scraps that men decide they can relinquish.
Rather than measuring a woman by the yardstick of the charism of man, and saying that she is not being given enough “power,” we must grasp what the dialogue about the role of women in the Church is precisely about: as Pope Francis says, understanding in an explicit way “the charism of women.”
The Charism of Woman, ie, a Profound Theology of Womanhood
How could we describe a theology of womanhood? All I can do is offer two people who have shaped my own personal theology of my lived experience of being a woman: Fr Joseph Kentenich, and Gertrude von le Fort.
Fr. Joseph Kentenich, Founder of the Schoenstatt Movement, worked in women’s formation extensively in his pastoral service. Not only did he found two communities of consecrated women, and work closely with them throughout their development, but he also gave retreats and conferences for lay women (and for lay married couples) decades before it was an accepted or usual practice. Herbert King introduces a sample of Kentenich’s teachings on the masculine and feminine soul by saying that Kentenich was careful to illustrate that he was not “inclined to be rigid in attributing certain qualities to the two sexes. They fall somewhere along a continuum…Nevertheless, there are certain typical tendencies in the two sexes, so that we can talk about the “being” of man and woman. Since people are so insecure today, these questions often give rise to heated feelings, I would ask you to read the following text very carefully and not get stuck too quickly with on or the other statement.” *
Fr Kentenich then talks about four elements of the order of being of woman, through the mind, the will, extroversion/introversion, and the heart.
First, to paraphrase, Fr Kentenich says that we can speak of the mind of the woman saying that she thinks intuitively, or has more intuitive intelligence. She sees things in a circular rather than linear way, organically connecting the different components together in one picture, or two pictures, or more. With this intuitive feminine way of thinking, the heart is often emphasized over the will (but of course, not always nor in all cases), so that love is the motivating force behind actions, rather than willful resolutions. Second, in regards to the the will of woman and leadership, woman is also more inclined to guide others than to dictate to them. Women “know how to lead a soul slowly, simply, without overpowering anyone.” Third, she is more inclined to be introverted, not meaning by shy but meaning “more inclined to look inwards.” Last, in describing the heart of a woman, Fr Kentenich says, “She has the inner urge to give herself in a complete way…If a man surrenders, he gives something. If a woman surrenders, she gives herself.” *
Fr Kentenich talks about the order of being of women as being expressed through the giving of soul to the world, which is the giving of self, through surrender. Being inclined in an inner way, and intuitively grasping the inner connection of things, it is woman’s role, her order of being and vocation, to give this inner life to the Church. It is part of women’s vocation to connect people in this inner way, as well. How many women are really at the quiet epicenter of their parishes and communities! Through the bonds which they organically create with others, community is born – ecclesia itself (church) is born.
Gertrud von le Fort, theologian and author in her book The Eternal Woman, also speaks of surrender, silence , and inner mystery as being the radically active (not passive!) components of the role of women. She says that “Surrender as a metaphysical mystery, surrender as a mystery of redemption is, according to Catholic dogma, the mystery of woman.”** le Fort and Fr Kentenich both suggest that the life of the Church, of culture and and society depends on woman knowing and fulfilling her call to be a deep of pillar inner life. le Fort says, “The essentially spiritual life of the Church is hidden…Woman, by her apostolate as mother, comes into most intimate relationship with the inner life of the Church. She does this by means of her own hidden nature, for in the Church the apostolate of woman is first of all one of silence, and it is in the central enclosure of the sacred place that the religious character of women necessarily carries its strongest emphasis. The apostolate of silence means that woman is called upon above all to represent the hidden life of Christ in the Church.” And it is this silence and mystery, says le Fort, that “remains hidden but transforms everything.” ***
Lest you misinterpret this inner, hidden way as powerlessness, as often happens when people measure woman by man’s scale; lest you misunderstand surrender as wholly passive or totally weak; lest you think that men are the ones who solely determine the course of the Church and the world through visible and external power, Gertrud von le Fort reminds us all:
“The scales are still trembling. The profound consolation that woman can give mankind today is her faith in the immeasurable efficacy also of forces that are hidden, the unshakeable certainty that not only a visible but also an invisible pillar supports the world. When all earthly potentialities have exhausted themselves in vain, and this in the present distress of the world is nearly the case, then, even for a humanity largely grown godless, the hour of the other world will strike again. But the divine creative power will break forth from heaven to renew the face of the earth, only if the earth itself responds again with the religious force, with the readiness of the “Be it done unto me.” The hour of God’s help is always the religious hour, the hour of the woman, the hour of the creature’s cooperation with the Creator. God grant that woman may not miss her approaching hour! On the agonizing way between heaven and hell along which humanity is traveling today, the same guides to whom Dante entrusted himself are needed. The poet…unfolds the vision of all the abysses and steps of purgation in the world of being; but he finds the way to Paradise only when he meets the loving woman whose eyes rest in God.“ ****
* Fr Joseph Kentenich, The Masculine and Feminine Soul (1963).
** Gertrude von le Forst, The Eternal Woman (p 11)
**** (p 65-66)