Indian Catholic Bishops Go Out on a Limb for Women’s Equality

On August 17, 2008, the Catholic Church in India will celebrate Justice Sunday with the theme: “The Empowerment of Women in Church and Society.” Just two words make this theme so radical—in Church. By adding those two words to their theme, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) are truly going out on a limb for women’s equality.

In his letter announcing the theme, Bishop Yvon Ambroise, Chairperson of CBCI Commission for Justice, Peace and Development, states, “May the observance of this Justice Sunday help us to heed the voice of God in the cries of women! And together with women, may we restore what was originally intended for all of humanity: equality and dignity! It is not only men but also women that have been created in God’s image and declared to be ‘very good’.” This may all seem fairly logical; however, in these few sentences, Bishop Ambroise is taking a clear side in the imago Dei v. imago Christi debate—and not the side of the Vatican.

The Catholic faith teaches us that, yes, we are all made in the image and likeness of God—imago Dei—as stated in Genesis. However, the Church goes on to teach that men, just by virtue of being male, have a one-up on women because they are also made in the image of Christ or imago Christi. That is, because Jesus was a man, men are made in his image and therefore they are “very good.” For years, the Catholic Church has used imago Christi to justify excluding women from leadership and decision-making roles in the Church.

The Indian Bishops are taking us back to basics—back to imago Dei. And in doing so, they are standing up to the institutional Church. Gaudium et Spes, the Vatican II Document, stated that, “Every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent.” However, in these documents and others that outline basic human rights, the Church neglects to look at the discrimination harbored within its own walls.

The Indian bishops are looking inward. In 1992, the CBCI General Assembly stated: “With a sense of sorrow we must admit that women feel discriminated against, even in the Church.” The Indian bishops recognize that no matter how much work is done on ending discrimination against women in the world, this work does not make much difference without ending discrimination in the Church itself. On August 17, the Indian bishops will again bring this discrimination to the attention of the Catholic Church. For they believe that “…the Church [needs to] work towards acknowledging the rightful place of women in its mission.”

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