A week ago, the Jesuit-operated Georgetown University in the US capitol of Washington pledged itself to raise A$128 million to benefit the descendants of the African-American slaves it once owned. The decision was taken by the leaders of the Jesuit Order in the US and is believed to be one of the largest commitments ever made by any institution to make amends for its participation in legalised slavery.
The remarkable move on the part of Georgetown, one of the most prestigious Catholic universities in the US, recognises the intrinsic injustice of slavery, which flourished until the cessation of the Civil War in 1865. That Georgetown, a Catholic-run institution, could ever have participated in the buying and selling of human beings seems remarkable now. Yet if anything, it demonstrates the lesson that the Church should never allow itself to become caught up in adopting the values of the age in which it exists, no matter how conventional or laudable these may seem to be.
The point comes to mind in relation to comments by Sr Joan Chittister, a US Benedictine, during a Zoom meeting with Australians. Sister Joan gives a very good impression that she is not happy with a lot of things in the Church, including some of its teachings.
Jesus’s relationship to woman mattered every bit as much as His relationship to men – but it was different
We can allow Sister Chittister to be unhappy with the state of the Church because, if truth be known, it has been in trouble since about the time it was founded and has scarcely ever been out of trouble since then. That’s because the Church, while divine, is made up of human beings who are not. And the problems seem to come about quite often when the Church’s human members seem to think that they know better than the Church.
Sister Chittister’s particular bugbear – or one of them – is the issue of the ordination of women, which she gives a very good impression of being completely in favour of despite the Church’s official teaching. In this argument she has a major advantage. In an age where the equality of man and woman is more self-evident than ever before, any teaching such as this is always going to be poorly received as proof that the Church really does believe deep down that women are not really up to the job. In this sense, the Church can only win brickbats rather than bouquets.
But Sister has a problem and, like Georgetown University in the 18th and 19th centuries, she may not even realise it. Presumably Jesus realised that he could not openly share his sacramental and ministerial priesthood with women, much less confer it upon them, because of the rigid social and religious conventions of the age in which He lived. To do so would have caused uproar. Obviously this must be the case. Why else, after all, would Jesus not institute the priesthood to include women?
Yet the feminist interpretation of the Gospel, which interprets the Church primarily as a paradigm of the exercise of male power, fundamentally misses the trajectory and dynamics of the Lord’s entire life and mission. God asked a woman her permission to enter the world, was born of a woman in exactly the same way every other baby has ever been born, broke all kinds of religious and social conventions in His relationships with women in order to speak to them in the concrete circumstances of their own lives (such as the Samaritan woman at the well) and clearly had a relationship to women that was completely different to His relationship with His male disciples.
It was the men – not the women – who either betrayed Him or abandoned Him in His hour of need. While the men evaporated, the women stayed as close to Him as they could get every inch of the way. At the foot of the Cross it is women who predominate and accompany Him as he consummates His sacrifice. And to whom is the news of the Resurrection given first – the men or the women?
The point is that Jesus’s relationship to women mattered every bit as much as His relationship to men – but it was different, respecting each in their uniqueness, giftedness and complementarity. A Jesus who is unwilling to flout social convention but is prepared to die for His teachings is a Jesus who simply does not make sense.
In other words, the assumptions of a secularist 21st Century which so strongly shape and inform Sr Chittister’s dissent on the nature of the ministerial and sacramental priesthood (and pretty much everything else, it seems) may very well be those of our age. Yet the gospels of a secular age and of the Lord should not necessarily be confused – much less treated as interchangeable. When the Church tries to do that it can rapidly fall into conventionalism and succumb to the temptation of domination by secular approval or government or both. And that is the lesson that Georgetown University has, by now, well and truly learned.