Are Women “Secondary” in Catholic Church?

We might not be surprised to learn that Canadian Roman Catholic cardinal Marc Ouellet, a leading candidate to fill the See of Saint Peter, sees the concerns of women in the church as “secondary.” In a recent interview with the CBC, Ouellet made clear that the second-class status of women in the Roman Church would not change were he to become pope.

“Obviously these questions [about the role of women in the church] are, have their importance,” he told the CBC, “but it is secondary, you know, and it has been always secondary.”

As International Women’s Day this year coincides with the gathering of cardinals in Rome to elect a leader of the oldest gender-biased religious tradition in the West, it seems worth considering how welcome women really are in Christian churches across the denominational spectrum. As mainline churches continue to decline in overall membership, Americans believe the Catholic Church is out of touch, and as the religiously unaffiliated continue to grow in number, how women—the majority of active church-goers—experience the church is hardly a secondary concern. Gendered church language seems as good a place to start as any.

The liturgies of most churches are lousy with sexist godtalk. This is the case well beyond the limited texts in which, arguably, tradition and aesthetics make make gender changes difficult. First on the list would be biblical texts, of course—especially perhaps the Epistles from the Apostle Paul, a historical person who, though he famously insisted that there was “no male nor female” in the Christian community, nonetheless addressed said community as though they were comprised of only one, normative gender. Alright. The language is historically gendered. Let’s give one to history and tradition, however sexist it might be.

However, other elements of the liturgy have been adapted over time to accommodate changes in language and culture. The “thy”s and “thou”s in even the most traditional and biblical of prayers—The Lord’s Prayer spoken by Jesus to the disciples—has been extensively adapted to contemporary language and usage. Who even knows what a “trespass” is these days? Or, as the common Sunday school joke goes, is “our father in heaven” named “Art”?

Now, all this said, it is certainly the case throughout the Christian tradition that many churches have embraced inclusive language to varying degrees and have integrated this liturgical move into other aspects of community life such as formation, social action, and evangelism. Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ (UCC/Disciples) denominations have all affirmed inclusive language and provided official resources for liturgies that reflect this commitment. But use of such liturgies has largely been optional, and in churches governed hierarchically (through a bishop) rather than congregationally, change has been particularly slow.

Many churches understand the theological implications of patriarchal bias in the language (and music) of worship and, further, grasp the practical effect of sexist theology—that, as Mary Daly taught us, “If God is male, then male is god.”—on the status of women and girls in relation to men and boys in the world. Even at the most banal level, the predominance of masculinist god-talk in religions of all stripes can be seen as contributing to the secondary status of women with dire educationalvocationalpoliticalsexual, and other consequences. That is—as Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM has argued powerfully—the problem of sexist godtalk is not primarily theological, but practical, anchored in the human capacity to image and, therefore, imagine equality and justice. 

Nearly thirty years ago, Schneiders offered a compelling plea that has largely fallen on deaf ears in her own Catholic tradition, but which hardly rings in the hearts of the many Mainline Protestants who regularly wonder why Catholic women would put up with such a sexist Church:

Important as correct ideas about God may be, it is the imagination which governs our experience of God because it is the imagination which creates our God-image and our self-image. Consequently, if the demonic influence of patriarchy on the religious imagination is to be exorcised, if the neurotic repression of the feminine dimension of divinity is to be overcome, the imagination must be healed. … The therapy of the imagination is an affair of language in the broad sense of the term, and it is crucial that we cease to trivialize this issue and begin the long process of conversion from the idolatry of maleness toward the worship of the true God in spirit and truth.

International Women’s Day and the coming papal conclave seem as fine a time as any for churches to start thinking (again) about the damage inflicted on the imaginations, self-identities, and spiritualities of both women and men, girls and boys, by sexist god-talk. And, not for nothing, on the practical, material harm caused throughout the world through these gendered imaginaries. A mountain of data tell us that patience across the denominational spectrum is wearing thin. 

Let the healing begin.