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Contemporary Catholic Belief and Action


The mission of ARCC is to bring about substantive structural change within the Catholic Church by seeking to institutionalize a collegial understanding of church where decision making is shared and accountability is realized among Catholics of every kind and conditio n.
Once people start to believe change is possible, 
the drive to achieve it accelerates. 
                                          -   Patrick Sullivan, ARCC President
The cult of the clerical collar
Catherine Pepinster
Querida Amazonia

Little will change while sentimental notions of nurture dominate Pope Francis' idea of women

There's a picture I have in my mind of Pope Francis. I imagine a little Jorge Mario Bergoglio on tiptoe at his grandmother Rosa's side, as she bakes a cake. Maybe he dips a finger in the mixture and she gives him a humorous slap on the wrist. The warmth and stability of his family relationships made Bergoglio the Pope who can connect with people so effectively. But his early relationships also made him deeply sentimental about women. He has described them as "the strawberries on the cake".

I too, like almost all children, made cakes with my mother and grandmother. But my convent school headmistress was adamant that girls were much more than some decorative addition. "We leave matters like needlework and cookery for the home," she once said. "It means there is more space in the timetable for Latin and mathematics." But I wasn't just taught Latin and maths. I was introduced to theological discourse, to authors such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Above all, I was taught that women were men's intellectual equals and we girls were to go out into the world via university to serve God and his world.

That experience stood me in good stead for life, yet not for the Church that those nuns loved so much. Despite the Second Vatican Council's reforms, the laity have still not been given their rightful place in the Catholic Church. We are still so often treated as second best to the male clerics who still dominate it. At every level, it is priests who pull the levers.. Take a look at the staff employed by the bishops' conference or by your local diocese and you will find most of the leadership positions - heading liturgy, finance, chancery - are held by priests. Fifty-five years on from the end of the council and the cult of the collar still reigns. For women in particular, this male-dominated, clerical Church can be deeply alienating.

Pope Francis is trying to shift the Church so that the council's reforms are embraced. In his apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia, he advocates a greater role for laity in the Church. He recognises the importance of lay people helping to run parishes in the Amazon basin. But is that really enough? The bishops of the Amazon basin made it plain that there is a need for more priests. Francis did not sanction married deacons being ordained, and, as for women, that sentimental strand in his thinking emerged again. He sees women as maternal and nurturing - and that is all. They cannot be given a central, sacramental role.

It would be easy to walk away if the Catholic Church were entirely misogynist. But its messages are mixed and confusing. An increasing number of theologians are women, taking on the mantle of the nuns who educated so many of us so well as a formidable intellectual force in the Church. And yet other women are still treated like maidservants: I always cringed when, as editor of The Tablet, I visited successive Archbishops of Westminster and the only other woman in the drawing room would be a nun serving the tea and crumpets. This is also a Church that has women teaching deacons how to give a homily and others writing homily cribsheets for priests who can't manage to write their own. Yet those very women producing these texts are forbidden from venturing into the pulpit to preach or even read the Gospel - let alone preside at the Eucharist.

There is a similar confusion in Francis' recent announcements regarding women. I was in Rome a few weeks ago when news emerged of the appointment of Dr Francesca Di Giovanni to a senior position in the Secretariat of State - a role closed off to women in the past because top diplomatic Vatican roles were always held by priests. Other women working in Rome, including the 14 serving as ambassadors to the Holy See, were delighted. But just when it seemed that Francis had finally realised how women's experience, talent and skills can be put to better use to serve the Church, we get Querida Amazonia, with its dismissal of women's ordination because it would make them more clerical. So the way to deal with clericalism among the male priesthood is not to combat it but to see women as a problem instead.

That is such confusing, exasperating thinking that it needs to be called out - just as one woman once called out what she believed was utterly wrong from the pulpit, where women shouldn't go. That was Francis' grandmother, Rosa, who once bravely deplored Mussolini from a Turin pulpit. See, your holiness - women can be a lot more than strawberries on the cake.

Catherine Pepinster is a former Editor of the Tablet
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