Life in Christ — The Dignity of Women

Fr. Mike Tobin

When parish leaders need advice and good counsel, they will often speak with a woman. I have spoken to these women or corresponded by email with the following in the recent past: Dr. Karen Shadle, Director of the Office of Worship; Cecilia Price, Chief Communications Officer; Marnie McAllister, Editor The Record, Dr. Mary Beth Bowling, Superintendent of Catholic Schools; Lisa DeJaco Crutcher, Chief Executive Officer, Catholic Charities of Louisville; Melody Denson, Director of Major Gift and Planned Giving and Melissa Herberger, Coordinator for Annual Giving and Stewardship; Annette Turner, Executive Director of the Office of Multicultural Ministry; Eva Gonzalez, Director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry. These are just a sample of women serving in leadership positions at the Archdiocese. Moving to the individual parishes, every pastor relies heavily on his parish staff: secretary, business manager and bookkeeper, principal and teachers and cafeteria workers, music director and cantors and musicians, pastoral associate, director of formation, youth minister, minister of social responsibility, custodians and more. I would guess that the vast majority of these positions are filled with women. Bear in mind these are some of the paid positions in the church. A larger circle of women serves as parish volunteers like the catechists, lectors, volunteer cantors, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion to the homebound etc.

Is there room for machismo when bishops, priests and deacons depend upon women for the life of the Church? Practically speaking, clergy must collaborate to fulfill the mission of the Church. I beg to go beyond a practical reason for supporting the ministry of women in the church. Women are endowed with a mission by their baptism. All the baptized become priest, prophet and king sharing in the dignity and responsibility therein. Offering sacrifices, proclaiming the Gospel, and serving others summarizes the call. Scanning the titles above at the archdiocese and the parish, I see women fulfilling this call.

Machismo, or an exaggerated sense of manliness, stems from an attitude that men are entitled to dominate. Of course, we want to support boys and young men to become strong and decisive but understanding, tenderness and respect are also necessary qualities to become well-rounded men and women. In Saint John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter reaffirming the Church’s teaching on ordination for men alone, the Holy Father clarified that this teaching does not question the dignity nor competence of women. “The fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, received neither the mission proper to the apostles nor the ministerial priesthood clearly shows that the non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as a discrimination against them,” the Pope wrote. “Rather, it is to be seen as the faithful observance of a plan ascribed to the Wisdom of the Lord of the Universe.”

The church requires a respect for official teaching which involves first understanding the teaching and its origin and development and then an assent to it. It helps to correlate teachings to better form a proper understanding. What we have here is a both-and feature of Roman Catholicism. On the one hand, the church teaches that men alone are instituted as clergy. On the other hand, in interpreting sacred scripture, Saint John Paul II in his 1988 Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignatatem; On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, wrote women cannot become objects of dominion or possession of men. Briefly, please examine the Letter of Paul to the Ephesians 5. This letter may easily be interpreted as placing men in a dominant position. The Holy Father explicitly teaches that the Apostle Paul intended something new for his times. Rather than male domination, Paul taught mutual submission. In this light, both men and women are to submit to Christ. Elsewhere in his Letter to the Galatians, Paul declares that in Christ there is neither man nor woman, slave or free. Although society did not remove the stain of slavery for many centuries, great progress in promoting the freedom of all men and women has been seen in the modern era. Similarly, the stain of machismo or male domination too will fade with conscious effort and prayer.

Thus, the Church officially restricts ordination to men based on scripture and tradition, but in interpreting scripture, it seeks to promote the dignity of women and a mutual submission of men and women to Christ. We may see this mutuality or sharing of dignity and some duties, especially in marriage. Certainly, the Church fully supports couples who strive for a kind of equality that forbids machismo or domination. Beyond marriage, the church illustrates the mutual collaboration of men and women, of the baptized, in church service.

Father Michael Tobin is pastor at St. Rita and St. Luke parishes in Louisville, KY.

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