· Vatican City ·

Open forum

“Does the clerical corporation have no need for women because they consider themselves

06 March 2021

Between Piglets, Wolves and Witches, it is known, there is not much trust. As the famous Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Woolf teaches us; a song which has almost taken on a life of its own, finding itself also in films, among witches’ exploits, family stories - with Virginia Woolf, who plays with the identity ‘woolf’ , but also with the name of the feminist novelist - and phobic scenarios of men in performance anxiety.

Regarding the issue that summons us here, one might say there is little to joke about, and even less room for fairy tales. Yet, the somewhat ironic and decidedly paradoxical form of this refrain seems to me to be the right way to deal with a problem that is too often formulated around the binomial women/Church, which, in my opinion, does not really hold up. Why? Because women are part of the Church, or rather, to put it more precisely, the Church does not exist at all without women. In fact, the imagery underlying phrases such as “the Church is afraid of women” is still the one that runs through the word Church with images of the Pope, who is sometimes pictured alone, sometimes surrounded by bishops and cardinals, or, in the case of a markedly democratic bent, with the addition of priests and friars. It is not difficult to understand that this imagery is reinforced by a full spectrum of the media, which, however, to their great though not total exculpation, find no reason to direct their cameras differently and formulate other headlines. All too often, it seems that whoever is speaking from the Vatican or from the curiae of the dioceses “is” the Church. Obviously not even bishops, on average at least, if specifically questioned would say that “the Church is them” and certainly not theologians and theologians would say such a thing, at least if they have been trained after the Council. Therefore, women are part of the Church, indeed, even a cursory glance and according to statistics, they are the numerically most conspicuously part of it.

So, perhaps it is the clergy?

One could then stand dwell on the distinction as indicated above and suggest that if the subject who is afraid cannot possibly be the Church, it could, however, be its ministerial structure, i.e. what in somewhat more understandable jargon can be defined as the clergy, etymologically, “the chosen part”.   From this point of view the binomial clergy and women can work, since the two groups are clearly distinct and mutually exclusive: if you are a woman, you are not part of the clergy and, respectively, if you are part of the clergy you are obviously not a woman. So the reflection stands and can extend in many directions: on women and formation of the clergy, on the collaboration of priests with women, on marriage even, if we talk about deacons or Catholic priests, but not of the Latin rite.

I would make a further distinction, however, because even this way of posing the problem ultimately works only in part. In fact, there are also many priests and bishops who are not at all afraid of women. There are also some, perhaps to a lesser degree, who, by collaborating with respect, have learned to speak “from within” and thus not to be “champions of women” - something I would certainly not ask for and which, on the contrary, appears more than anything else paternalistic - but to question their own male partiality. Not all, therefore. Not the “clergy”, just as there are many women who are not the Woman.

Is the clergy a clerical corporation? Yes

The problem, therefore, does not rest with individuals, but with the group, insofar as it acts as a sort of corporation, which rarely questions itself and possibly only from within, or on a spiritual or moralistic level. A group that, although residual from a numerical point of view and in great fatigue from many other points of view, cannot find the strength to rethink itself in a broader sense. This way of posing the question is not so far from what Pope Francis has repeatedly referred to as “clericalism”.  This is not a comparison between those who carry out an ordained ministry and those who do not, but a sick way of carrying it out and conceiving it. Even from this point of view, it would probably take more courage not to ‘window dress’ the periphery, but consider the whole, but here the discourse would go astray.

Is it, however, this “clerical corporation”, which often absorbs even the best of individuals’ efforts, who is afraid of witches, and sees women as a problem and a threat? Perhaps, it does.

In conclusion, if fear is accepted and pursued with honesty, it can however open the way to dialogue, just as the discomfort that is accepted and worked on can be fruitful. Certainly, this would always be better than indifference. Too often, in fact, I fear that the saddest aspect of this matter can be summed up in a much less noble horizon: the corporation is not afraid of women, it just does not need them, because they consider themselves “sufficient”.

by Cristina Simonelli
President of the Coordination of Italian Theologians,
professor of Christian Antiquity at the Theological Faculty of Northern Italy (Milan) and Verona.