The Pope just reaffirmed that women will never be Catholic priests.
Setting aside for another day the question of why women will never be Catholic priests, let’s address a question at least as bedeviling: let’s talk about why Catholics sound so weird when they talk about women in general.
“Strawberries on the cake.” That’s what Pope Francis, bless his blabbermouth, called women theologians a few years ago.
He was calling for a greater feminine presence in the Vatican, and for a new theology of women; but his unfortunate phasing illustrates the very problem he sincerely seeks to solve: Catholics don’t know how to talk about women.
Decorative as we indisputably are, most women seek to be more than a mere garnish.
As a Church, our conversations about the role of women always fall into one of two pitfalls: we can be impossibly vague, until our words are overgrown with a furze of jargon; or we can be impossibly specific, grievously offending perfectly good women who happen to be different from other perfectly good women.
Here’s the vague approach, epitomised by John Paul II, who had a special charism for expressing important and profound truths in a way that sounds nearly meaningless:
“Within Christianity, more than in any other religion, and since its very beginning, women have had a special dignity, of which the New Testament shows us many important aspects … It is evident that women are meant to form part of the living and working structure of Christianity in so prominent a manner that perhaps not all their potentialities have yet been made clear.”
The careful, motivated scholar can reap true inspiration, but the typical reader will wonder, “Do these people actually have anything to say?”
Mulieris Dignitatem is a groundbreaking work, but you can’t read an inch without stumbling over the word “special” – inscrutable, immutable specialness. It gets old.
But the specific approach is worse.
It’s a little too easy for Catholic misogynists to find ammunition among the saints and Church Fathers who took the specific approach, defining a women’s worth according to how docile, tender, or amiable she is, how many children she bears, how many men she leads to perdition, or how many inches of clavicle she reveals.
Origen, Augustine, and Josemaria Escriva blamed women for everything from original sin to “80% of infidelities of their husbands.”
Overly specific praise is not much better: many a childless woman has been cut to the core by Cardinal Mindszenty’s extravagant claim that “mothers are closer to God the Creator than any other creature … What on God’s good earth is more glorious than this: to be a mother?”
And the consolation prize of spiritual motherhood isn’t especially healing.
The 21st century Catholic woman is already besieged by vicious criticism from the secular world.
She doesn’t need to hear that Heaven is also dolefully shaking its head at her sorry attempts at femininity.
But that’s precisely what happens when we start a sentence with, “Woman are good at …” or “Women’s job is to …” or “The thing that women can offer is …”
It doesn’t matter if you’re a conservative or a progressive, and if your ideas of womanhood are millennia old or newly minted.
Always, when you get specific about women’s roles, there will be a good woman somewhere who is serving God with all her heart, soul, mind, and strength, and she will think, “But I’m not like that.”
I sympathise with anyone who tries to write about the role of women. It’s so tempting to just say, “Let’s keep it simple. Wives, obey your husbands. The end.”
I tried that myself, as newlywed – tried obeying the hell out of my poor husband. Later, I realised that what the poor guy really wanted was to live his life with the weird, cranky, specific woman he fell in love with.
He didn’t want The Catholic Wife; he wanted me.
And therein lies the truth about trying to nail down the role of women.
Think about your six favourite women. Think of the most influential, intelligent, self-possessed, talented women who have touched your life.
Are they all the same kind of person? Do they all have the same gifts and flaws? Would they even get along?
Or are they more like distant cousins? The same family traits pop up here and there, but no one has all the family traits, and some members have almost none.
That’s what it’s like to be in the family called “feminine.”
It’s odd even to have to say it, but women are not a monolith. We are not an undifferentiated mass with identical needs, concerns, strengths and weaknesses. And so it is almost impossible to talk about the role of women – in the Church, or in general – without getting something grievously wrong.
When we try to zero in on what makes a woman a woman, we forget that our audience includes not only the happily married and happily consecrated, but also unwilling celibates, women whose husbands aren’t faithful, infertile women, women who aren’t crazy about babies, women who aren’t crazy about math, women who really do find laundry fulfilling, women who are not especially tender-hearted, and women who are not especially ambitious.
We forget that, for some women, family really is the source and summit of their lives.
We forget that, for other women, their career really is their true vocation.
We forget that they are all real women, and to imply that they are anything less is an insult to God, who made them different from each other on purpose.
The only time I’ve ever been at peace – and the only time I’ve ever been helpful, loving and bearable to other people – is when I stop fretting about how I’m supposed to behave as a woman, and start concentrating on how I’m supposed to behave as myself.
I’m not supposed to fulfill a role. I’m supposed to be a specific person, with specific things that I need to get done every day, and specific people that I need to love, with their needs and problems and charms that I know better than anyone else.
Thinking about roles can be useful, up to a point. But roles are a tool to help us become ourselves. They are not a goal in themselves.
But still, women face misery and injustice every day. It’s all very well to say, “Be yourself,” but not all women have that luxury.
The Church has a responsibility to share its wealth of wisdom about women, even as its theology is still being developed.
So what would help? What should the Church do?
Allow women priests? Nah. That can’t and won’t and shouldn’t happen.
Start allowing contraception and abortion? Can’t, won’t, shouldn’t happen.
Make peace with female altar servers? I doubt it matters much.
Make more women advisors and administrators in Vatican affairs? That might expand the breadth of conversation, but the typical mum in the pew would still go unrepresented, because she has so little in common with a Vatican careerist.
The Church can speak out in favor of education and healthcare for girls and women, and can work against horrors like systemic rape and sex slavery.
But the Church has always done these things, long before they achieved any trendy political shine.
These are simple issues of justice, that men and women alike can easily recognise as urgent.
Will the plight of a Syrian war refugee improve if the Vatican hires more female consultants? That seems unlikely.
So if our goal is simply to make life easier and more just for women, I have three suggestions.
One, remind those in power to listen closely and humbly to the women already in their lives, and to bring what they hear with them when they come to work.
Two, remind those in power that authority doesn’t mean you’re more important than the people in your care; it means your job is to serve them while you serve God.
And three, remind them of what I learned when I was a young wife grappling with St Paul: women are people.
They are individuals who can legitimately be distinct from each other without spoiling some vast, eternal plan.
It’s not going to help very much. Just telling everyone, “Treat women like people, okay?” is not going to make everything just and equitable.
Men will always be tempted to treat women as inferiors; women will always be tempted to turn their backs on motherhood so they will taken seriously.
Some men will always use “feminine” as a pejorative; some women will always use “masculine” when they mean “strong.”
There will always be a messy, ugly, sometimes bewildering commotion as women rise and fall (and swim against) the tides of public esteem, and every age will get one thing right and three things wrong.
Somebody’s got to talk about women in the Church, if only to set the record straight.
But dialogue and more dialogue will only make our throats dry.
The only thing that will help is the constant, tiresome reminder that only needs to be repeated ten trillion more times before we will start to hear it: women are people.
Treat them like people — not like an issue, not like a problem, not like a symbol, not like a monolith — and you will be treating them well, and honouring God who made them who they are.