Women in the Church: Church Teaching and Leadership

The rapidity of change in culture all over the globe has inevitably put the Catholic Church on the defence in many areas. Much of this change has been caused either directly by technology, or indirectly through the impact of technology on lifestyle and attitudes. Developments as widely different as the invention of the contraceptive pill, the increased opportunities for women to work outside the home, and genetic engineering, all raise new questions for the teaching of the Church, and a reasonable degree of conservatism is understandable and, indeed, advisable. However, this can lapse into defensiveness and rigidity. One way of ensuring that this does not happen is to encourage theological debate, even at the risk of making mistakes.

But in recent years the Vatican has shown a penchant for silencing theologians who break new frontiers, and for putting discussions of a number of issues ‘off limits’. There has also been a tendency to emphasise the unchangeable nature of the Church’s teaching. These actions can be interpreted as signs of defensiveness, of a preference to hold established positions rather than to take risks and break old moulds.

This is true in regard to women’s issues as it is in other areas. For women very often the guarded response from the Church to their changing situation contrasts with the willingness that other institutions have shown to adapt and change. Women have seen government departments, companies, clubs and organisations of all kinds entering into the spirit of new anti-discrimination laws and new codes of conduct relating to the treatment of women. They have seen trade unions opening up male-dominate occupations to females. They have seen quite significant changes in language, with the development of a whole range of inclusive terms and phrases. It would be wrong to say that the Church has not responded at all to this wind of change. Women are now allowed to participate in the liturgy to more or less the same degree as laymen. Many priests do work hard to include women as much as possible in the Church and the parish activities. But much more needs to be done regarding new structures of authority in the Church in which women as well as men can play a full part in decision making.

Under the present law of the Church women can give advice and make decisions to a far greater extent than at present. This is made clear in the 1988 Apostolic Exhortation of John Paul II, the “Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World” (Christifidelis Laici), issues after the 1987 Synod on the Laity. In this document the equality of women and men is asserted (para. 49), discrimination against women is repudiated (para. 49), and the participation of women at the Diocesan and Parochial Pastoral Councils, as well as Diocesan Synods and particular Councils, is urged. These Councils are for purposes of consultation, but are also involved in “the process of coming to decisions” (para. 51). Elsewhere (para. 25 & 27) the thrust of this position is reaffirmed with regard to laity, men and women, in general. But the relative invisibility of women in roles of decision making and power in our Church in India does not seem in accordance with the officially stated Church position. There is plenty of potential for change, if there is a will to change. The voices of women must be heard and heeded in the making of decisions, especially those that affect their lives as women.

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