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Feminism and clericalism

· ​For the healing of the Church ·

In his Letter to the People of God Pope Francis asked all believers, all those who feel part of the Church, to reflect on the crisis that she is living in the face of the accusationsof abuse and to do all they can to “heal” this institution, pointing out with particular vehemence clericalism as being among the evils that afflict her. Women have nothing to do with clericalism from the viewpoint of personal involvement because evenwomen religious are seenas secular, that is, unordained. Thus there are no women who may be considered as belonging to the clergy, but this is not a reason why they should automatically be considered immune from clericalism, which is something else.

 Elizabeth Cady Stanton in an illustration by Dyanne Di Salvo

To reflect on this problem we must take a step back and examine the commitment of women in the Church from the time when this meant an explicit or implicit confrontation with the feminism that was transforming Western society. The first claim, introduced at the end of the 19th century by the American Protestant Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was for the right to study and thus to comment on the sacred texts. In the milieu of the Catholic Church this result was achieved only after the Second Vatican Council – let us remember en passant that Teresa of Avila’s comment on the Song of Songs could not be published because officially Teresa did not have permission to access the text! –and bore a surprising abundance of fruit.

Albeit obviously in a discontinuous manner women’s contributions to the interpretation of the Bible, and of the New Testament in particular, have been rich, sometimes revolutionary, both in at last making recognized the plentifulpresence of women in the Gospel texts, as well as the free and important relationships that Jesus established with them, and in looking at the texts overall with new eyes, capable of seeing aspects hitherto overlooked. It is a pity that this long and felicitous work, which now constitutes a truly important whole, has not reached the priestly body nor does it haveany official part in the teaching at seminaries. How frequently will we still have to listen to homilies in which no attention is paid to the fact that the Samaritan is a woman?

If this contribution of women, although officially undervalued, may be considered an extraordinary gift for the life of the Church, the appraisal which we must make of the more “political” aspect of the “feminist” commitment of Catholic women is not so positive. Indeed if there is no doubt – and this analysis is shared by all the women who are committed in the Church, including women religious – that it is a rigidly patriarchal structure within which women are permitted only a very secondary contribution which is always submitted to the examination of the hierarchies and viewed with a certain suspicion or with self-importance, the strategies proposed and implemented to change this situation are at least in part, different.

Some of the Catholic women sensitive to this problem – and thereare many – have sought to transfer to within the Church the analyses and ways of struggling of feminists in the secular world, who in turn have beentransformed and often sustained by alliances withthe left. This obviously involvesa project for increasing theirpower within the institution: many people think in fact that their primary objective is the priesthood of women, that is, the power base as the only way to transform the institution. However, until the voices of women – whichare not heard, even on the problemsthat principally concernthem, such as the family and sexuality – acquire authoritativeness almost all these women propose that, even without the priesthood, women be placed in leadershippositions, such as the direction of congregations or departments.

In order to achieve these objectives, since the Church is obviously a patriarchal institution, a “good” pope must be elected who will at last open the doors to women. Essentially it is a matter of requests for cooptation in spheres of decision-making and power.

René Magritte, “The Central Story” (1928)

This is a position which also proves to be affected by clericalism: entering in order to take part, directly or indirectly, in the sphere of power held firmly in the hands of clerics. There is no doubt that this openness to women, if it existed, would not be negative because it would anyway mean an openness to lay people, a crack in the bastions ofclericalism. But it would be an opening still piloted by the clergy and could become a cultural clericalization of women – something that often happens.

In short, it is as if women, not feeling truly a part of the Church, had to wait for an invitation to enter her, possibly at high levels.

But the problem lies here: it is true that women – even the most obedient ones – do not feel that they truly belong to the Church but rather that they are at most her obedient daughters, which is something else. If they were to feel that they really belonged to the Church, by virtue of the priestly Baptism, they would fight for the Church’s life, for her adherence to Jesus’ words, wherever they might be even if they were employed as cleaning women, with all the weapons they have at their disposal, which are far from few. Instead of looking at the absence of women in senior posts they should look at what women at the lower levels can do, even at the cost of clashing with the hierarchies. This is certainly not easy but it makes an impressionwhen we see the silence of so many women in the face of abuse, women whom the transformations of civilian society have made strong, have culturally formed and have often also affirmed in their professions. In the face of flagrant injustices too many women have chosen to be silent, even complaining subsequently that the Church has not given them sufficient consideration.

They did not feel part of the Church but merely an anonymous flock standing outside the doors waiting to be chosen. This is clericalism and it is of this clericalism that Catholic feminists must be cured: for the condition of women in the Church will only change if women have the courage to begin to change it from below, if necessary with denunciations, with questions that have never been asked. How often is the absence of women on parish councils, on commissions and so forth due not to dogmas or canonical prescriptions but rather to a deeply rooted tradition, now completely obsolete?

Lucetta Scaraffia




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 21, 2019