It would be really strange had the new sensitivity of the Church concerning the woman question not been reflected – even in a paradigmatic way – within the Church herself. Of course, reflection does not mean purely and simply a mirror image. “Test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thes 5:21-22).
The woman question today is a vast and broad territory, the object of efforts for a deeper theoretical knowledge that deserve every attention, as well as of ideological attacks whose profile is embarrassingly intellectual. Not to speak of the fact that on the practical grounds of politics and morals, mention of the woman question is located in a somewhat confused manner between extremes: on the one hand, as a qualifying element of the civil struggle against penalizing differences, that is, those which point to a high level of marginalization and exclusion (the rights of the poor, of the disabled, of immigrants, of women); and, on the other, as an indicator of disparity in access due to differences in income or to the entrenchment at a higher and more exclusive level of professional élites (of leadership, of culture, of economics, of politics).
There is naturally truth in both these extremes. Making them serve as the focus of the woman question, however, also exposes them to insidious hijacking and unconscious reductions of the broader and deeper human issue that is involved. In any case there is enough to recommend that in the area of ecclesial reflection the topic should not be reduced to a mere matter of the discernment of good manners or “pink” quotas to sentimental or politically correct components. Indeed it is a matter, in this time of change, of a systematic subject. In other words, the subject now imposes a reconfiguration of the human question as such, and hence a crossroads for the destinies of those humans yet to come. The subject in any case, with its multiple implications and ramifications, is already inscribed among the fundamentals of the relationship between Christianity and humanism today, not as one subject of many, but rather as an epochal turning point for the general orientation of the collective ethos. The reasons for its rethinking, moreover, should not be seen merely from the outside. Christianity has reasons and questions of its own to raise regarding itself too within the horizon of this kairòs, whose hour is now and whose riches are already promising but still unknown. The Church must investigate this subject and take it to heart as a breath of the Spirit who indicates the time of a special maturation of the Gospel seed to which we must commit ourselves, from within Christianity itself, to knowing, thinking and experiencing. The fact that the Church has placed herself with determination within this horizon, not setting the woman question among topics for only a sporadic or fragmentary commitment of the authoritative Christian magisterium can escape no one. It does not in fact simply encourage a new exuberance of sentimental metaphors of what it means to be Christian.
It aims rather to provoke a process of creative intelligence, of good practices and of concrete exemplarity at the new level of integration demanded by the ecclesial form. It should not be forgotten that the Church, in this cultural situation that is so liquid, so confused and also so contradictory, remains the only institution of world importance to have put on her agenda a process of systematic research and propositive clarification on the subject. The Christian conscience is authoritatively solicited to accept loyally the fact that the intellectually honest examination of the issue involves recognition of its omissions and contradictions that may from now on be recognized as questions of truth and justice of evangelical coherence. The Church henceforth expresses herself with conviction on this point: a serious endeavour of rethinking and transformation of the status quo must be embarked on. And it must be embarked on now. “Above all the acknowledgment in theory of the active and responsible
presence of woman in the Church must be realized in practice”, the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles laici, published shortly after John Paul II’s Encyclical Mulieris dignitatem, said graphically, in order “tomove on from the theoretical recognition of the active and responsible presence of women in the Church to its practical realization” (n. 51). Today Pope Francis has taken up this point and is relaunching it. In the recent Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, he has reaffirmed the need to reconsider more rigorously in this perspective the fact that in the founding event of the Church, the Mother of the Lord includes the female in the actual constitution of her principle of grace. “Indeed, a woman, Mary, is more important than the bishops” (n. 104). Even in her original aspect as a “hierarchical” power, she is not defined by virtue of “a power understood as domination”, but rather as the “power to administer the sacrament of the Eucharist”, with all the implications of a minister-guide as such. “This presents a great challenge for pastors and theologians, who are in a position to recognize more fully what this entail
s with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life” (ibid.). In the discourse he addressed to more than 100 women taking part in the international study seminar organized by the Pontifical Council for the Laity on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Apostolic Letter Mulieris dignitatem, the Pope summed up in his direct way, to which we are becoming accustomed, the need for a global change in outlook, asking people to reflect deeply on the role of women in the Church, in (the Church not as an “it” but as a “she”), as a fertile path for the rehabilitation of a lofty profile of women in the Church. The intuition is of a continuity of the Marian-generative principle of the Church, revisited as a structural moment in the Church, in a fertile and ongoing co-relation with the Petrine-ministerial principle, which was already clearly formulated by Hans Urs von Balthasar. The institutional imbalance of this continuity, fostering a concretization of the hierarchical power of the male ministry in the Church which has no complement in the reality of the weight assigned to the feminine generation of the Church, seems to be indicated today as an issue that needs to be rethought more deeply. This obviously entails overcoming the idea that the Church should limit herself to treating as a “human case” the theological question of women’s emancipation, with a view to a simple formal recognition, politically correct, of their equal dignity. Nor is it merely a matter of equating the recognition of the importance of an emotional and affective role, subsidiary to the authority and rationality of male leadership. Not to speak of the confusion between the “service of woman” and the “woman of service”: the reduction of feminine complementarity to servidumbre, in other words to work and to the servile condition, which Pope Francis wisely (and bitterly) treated with irony in the circumstance just recalled. In Catholic dogma the ordained priestly ministry that presides over the institution is reserved to men. And the Catholic Church remains firmly convinced that she cannot disassociate herself from this link, in her close reference to the essential sacramental profile of the mandate consigned by the Lord in unequivocal words and acts, in accordance with the Sacred Scriptures of the apostolic tradition. Nevertheless, as the magisterial ecclesiology itself has defined it definitively. the ecclesial ministry as a whole, in which all the baptized are called to participate with equal dignity in accordance with their charism and for the benefit of the believing and missionary community of the Lord’s disciples, is necessarily broader and more variously structured. A more adequate recognition of the irreplaceable contribution of the “feminine genius” to the transversality of this structure of the ecclesial ministry overall cannot thus avoid being thought of in this correlation with the specification of a special “masculine genius – hence, in this sense, also involving limitations. Cardinal Walter Kasper grasped the meaning lucidly in a recent speech to the plenary assembly of the German bishops (Collaboration between men and women in the Church, 18-21 February 2013), whose title echoes that of the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the collaboration of men and women in the Church and in the world (published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith while Card
inal Joseph Ratzinger was President, 31 May 2004): “The fact that Mary Mother of God is the model of the Church… has a fundamental significance. This is the clearest relativization thinkable of a Church dominated unequivocally by a male hierarchy”. Is there consequently reason to think that if in the ordained ministry the vicarship of Christ as a rock-like guardian guiding the People of God through the waters is somehow fundamentally conformable with the “masculine genius”, then there should also be a “feminine genius” of the intimate gestation of the Body of the Lord, in accordance with the power of the Spirit, that awaits a more explicit institutional recognition at the level of the Church’s current historical maturation? This is precisely the question: where should the frame of reference be sought for a non-arbitrary and well-ordered elaboration of the link between feminine specificity, Christian institution and ecclesial ministry? The resolution of the problem, within the limits in which it is theologically practicable and humanly prudent will, however, be impossible to arrive at in a purely psychological key of attitudes or through a simple allocation of roles. If anything Christianity is responsible for moving effectively against the flow with regard both to the perilous inclination to see a solution in terms of a competition of powers and of indifference to the functional roles that bestow dignity to the difference between the sexes, and to the emphasis placed on a simple elimination of such difference which paves the way to a full entry into the stereotype of role-playing games. The path of a more satisfactory cooperation in the edification of the human and Christian quality of difference will thus – itself – pass through the effective involvement of both sexes in the process that must delineate the road to be taken. Isn’t it perhaps time to establish seriously the outlines of an authoritative attention to the authoritativeness of women in the Church? In other words, a mediation comprising examination and restitution of the ways in which – in the history of ecclesial tradition and of theological faith – the woman anticipates the ministerial assimilation of the Word (“Do whatever he tells you”, Jn 2:5) and shapes the communal generation of the Spirit (“Woman, behold your son”, Jn 19:26) for the benefit of the ecclesial mission. Is it not perhaps this authoritativeness of the obedience of faith, already in itself exercised in the field of good practices and reflective wisdom, through which women configure in many ways the dedication and intelligence of Mary’s “ye
s” to the gestation that anticipates the womb of the Church? Are not women perhaps already now authentically believers – and have they not always been so? – Have they not constituted a special facet in the building of the Church, in thinking and actions, contributing to the generation and regeneration of the Body of the Lord to such an extent that if their specific contribution were suddenly to be lacking, the Church in fact would not subsist and her motherhood would not be recognizable? “In the primitive Church women played an important role. They were the first witnesses of the Resurrection… and collaborators of the Apostles ( cf. Acts, 16, 14.40; 18, 2.26; Rom 16:1,3,6,12f)”. However “it was above all the prohibition of women from teaching (cf. 1 Tim 2:12) that subsequently determined the course of history” (Kasper). And what if the seeking which the Church points out to us today as a responsibility that can no longer be postponed were to take its first step precisely by overcoming this interdiction of the “word”? To start with, in short, would it be truly unthinkable for a specific theological-ecclesial institution of men and women to undertake a permanent mediation, who, working out a truly shared sensitivity on the topic would make it exemplarily available as an anticipation and leaven of the desired cooperation between the Marian and the Petrine principles of the Church, until now unexpressed?
Msgr Pierangelo Sequeri (Milano, 1944) is a theologian, writer and musician. A priest since 1968, he teaches fundamental theology
at the Theological Faculty
of Northern Italy and has a doctorate. He is also musicologist of the
Biblioteca Ambrosiana in
St. Peter’s Square
Jan. 18, 2020
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