Women in the Catholic Church: An unresolved issue

“Suddenly we realized that we had our own thoughts, our own voice,” assures Colombian theologian Isabel Corpas de Posada. Interview by José Zepeda for democraciaAbierta.

José Zepeda Isabel Corpas de Posada
6 October 2020, 1.30pm
Pope Francis during of a weekly general audience in the San Damaso's courtyard in Vatican, Wednesday.September 30, 2020 | Photo by Stefano Spazian /DPA/ PA Images

This article emerges from two complementary thoughts. The first is essential when reading the pronouncement of some Mexican Catholic female theologians, published on March 9, 2020, in which they join the national women’s strike:

"To denounce the Kyriocentric hierarchical patriarchy that has appropriated the sacred, the spiritual and leadership under the pretext of a more ‘Christlike’ corporeality, and has denied women recognition of ordained ministries. Because the church has not been a safe place for women, and many have been victims of sexual predators, abuse, threats and harassment by leaders, priests, theologians, and laymen who have participated in these violations against women".

The second thought is present to correct an omission surely derived from sexist resonances. Over the years, the author has interviewed approximately 15 male theologians and zero female theologians. I hope that the recognition of this clumsiness is the beginning of a more just and balanced approach.

The whole patriarchal system is based on the conviction that the man is predestined to command and the woman to obey him. The questioning of this practice becomes relevant from the 20th century onwards, when the most backward sectors react with an increase of femicides, which, in its great majority still remain unpunished.

At the height of the struggle for women's rights, we spoke with Colombian Isabel Corpas de Posada, doctor of theology and author of the book ¿Ordenación de mujeres? Un aporte al debate desde la eclesiología de Vaticano II y la teología feminista latinoamericana. Available on Amazon.

José Zepeda: Let's start with a basic definition, what is the fundamental difference between Christian theologians and feminist Christian theologians?

Isabel Corpas: Traditionally, theology was genderless. The only people who engaged in theological reflections were men. They were what I usually call the churchmen. We have recently entered the world of theological work, despite the fact that there are a few historical examples in the Middle Ages, at the time of the Enlightenment. But, it is in the last seventy years that women are making their way in theology. We have become professors in the faculties of theology, something that was inconceivable in the past. We have managed to speak with our own voice.

Women, in theology but also philosophy, were thought of by men. Rousseau, in the Emile, wrote about how women should be educated and convinced of their role as caretakers for men. This is how we have functioned at a theological level and through the evidence of the Church, specifically the Catholic Church, to which I belong.

“Now a change is taking place in the second half of the 20th century, but in the church we are still disregarded, made invisible, silenced.”

Suddenly we realized that we had our own thoughts, our own voice. Our position in society and the Church makes us observe things in a different way from men.

JZ: How is that voice different?

IC: We have understood inequities that went unnoticed by men in the historical Church practices and in foundational texts, such as the Sacred Scriptures. Why? Because we started thinking that not all of this is fair. Men had not realized it, not because of genetics, but because of cultural experience, because of the way in which men and women relate to each other in society and within the Church. Now a change is taking place in the second half of the 20th century, but in the church, we are still disregarded, made invisible, silenced.

JZ: I’ve understood that, in the early days, during the first centuries of Christianity, it was a community organization where there was equality between men and women and, at some point, within a period of no more than 70 years, women were excluded from the Church indefinitely.

IC: Not from the Church, but from the organization, those who exercise the authority. In both the Jewish and Greek worlds, women had no place in the public sphere.

A radical change takes place when the movement of Jesus and his disciples arises. Probably in line with the very attitude of Jesus. Women in the Jewish world could not enter the temple in Jerusalem and did not participate in worship. There was a structure in which the central place was that of the high priest, then the priests, then the Jews, who were the only men who bore in their flesh the sign of belonging to the Jewish people. Finally, there was an atrium, whose purpose was to tell women how far they could go. It was forbidden for them to learn to read the Torah. Women could not be disciples of a rabbi, a master of the law. However, the Gospel shows us that there were female disciples of Jesus. The Gospel of Luke names seven women. They are the same ones that remain in the communities that emerged after death and resurrection, those who occupied positions of responsibility side by side with men in spreading the Gospel.

Saint Paul was a misogynist and a fierce enemy of women. Yet, I don't remember how many (Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 16, in the list of almost 30 active early Christians, at least nine are women), but he names the women who contributed to the spread of the Creed next to men. He mentions Phoebe, Perseus, Priscilla, Junia, and Gise.

And why is this? Because communities of believers met in domestic spaces, at homes. It was not an official religion, it was not public yet, it was absolutely private and women could have a voice in these home spaces. After Christianity became the official religion of the empire, it became public and replaced the Roman religion. And in that environment, women could no longer participate publicly.

So my conclusion was, there is nothing to be done here.

The moment coincides with the effort to interpret what Jesus had said, what the gospel picked up from his teaching. There were some groups who said that there was no continuity between the Old and New Testaments. In response, some of the church fathers began to show that there was continuity in the leader’s positions. In the Old Testament or in the Jewish world there was the high priest, the priests, and the Levites. In the New Testament, which represented the new Church, there were bishops, priests, and deacons, the three services, the three ministries. And then the women were outside.

In addition, there was a process of “priesthoodization” linked to worship. Keep in mind that women were considered impure. So the doors to the altar automatically closed for them. And the ministers, who were animators of the community, who presided over the Eucharistic meeting to convoke the presence of the Risen One, became a public cult to which women could not have access.

JZ: Two final things about this first chapter. It seems to me indispensable to quote Paul VI and his letter of November 1975. He says the following:

"It is not permissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for truly fundamental reasons. Such reasons include the example of Christ recorded in the Sacred Scriptures. He chose male Apostles only; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ, has only chosen men; and her living magisterium, which has consistently established that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in harmony with God's plan for His Church".

In other words, this text states that God's plan excludes women.

IC: It happened to me personally when I encountered this text. I was a professor in a theological faculty and taught the Sacrament of Holy Orders. So I studied all this history and I did it with a woman's look, because I have no other, because it is mine. It cannot be otherwise, that is very different from the outlook of churchmen that go saying: "Oh, how good, this is important. This is fundamental." My lectures also made my students question, and more than one of them even resented the fact that a woman was teaching about something that only belonged to churchmen.

When I came to this text from Paul VI, which is the Pope's letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury because the Anglican Church was ordaining women. These so-called truly fundamental reasons went into the document that was written by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, its prefect being Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and which Paul VI endorsed with his signature. When I got there, I said to myself, as in Don Quixote: "We have come across the Church, Sancho"

So my conclusion was, there is nothing to be done here. I am going to work more to participate in the ministerial diversity that Paul VI himself mentions, that same year in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi. It speaks of the diversity of services needed in the Church, in addition to the traditional three ordained ministries. I was content with that. When in 2017 the preparatory document prepared by the secretariat for the Regional Synod of Bishops on Panama's region came out, it spoke of making courageous proposals. Yet, the recognition was still in the air. I was thinking, not that they just give it to them, but that they recognize women and some ministries in the church, especially in the Amazonian region, where it is women who are doing the work of evangelization of the communities, where priests never arrive, or if they do, it is every three or four years. Those who maintain the life of a church community are the nuns.

At that moment, when I had stopped teaching in a theological faculty, I said to myself, this cannot stay like this. It was then when I collected my class notes and began to revise them to put together the courageous proposals that challenged us.

The synodal consultation held by the church network for the Amazon heard the voices of at least 23 thousand people, in eighty-seven forums in the Amazon and elsewhere. They called for reform in church ministries to recognize women's place of responsibility, because, in fact, they exercise it, but de facto.

“My lectures also made my students question, and more than one of them even resented the fact that a woman was teaching about something that only belonged to church men.”

What happened? At the Synod of Bishops, who think as men of the Church, they asked themselves, "But what do women ask? But if what they are doing, what do they finally want? It is absurd. ”

I say they didn't make enough theological noise. I say this because it was documented to me by my friends who were there at the Synod. They told me they lacked noise. They were happy just to participate. And it's true, please, being inside a Synod of Bishops is already quite an achievement for some women.

On the other hand, it was a time when Pope Francis' enemies were present because there was a group attacking him with all weapons. They call them hereje. Not only within the Church, from outside there are those who consider him to be dangerous. This is how he is seen, especially from the United States. There is a group that criticized the Pope, mainly because they asked how it was possible that objects coming from paganism were inside the Vatican St. Peter's Basilica. They were referring to the representatives of the Amazon world and their clothing. It seemed to them that they were improper disguises. The fact is that there were many others in disguise. The entire liturgical apparatus has some costumes that, let's not lie, are also disguises.

They even stole a statue of the Pachamama and threw it into the Tiber. It was a way to desacralize and offend.

I believe that all this was an environment that put the Pope in prevention. Although the final document that the bishops produced during the Synod more or less said, let's give some recognition to women's ministries, but never to ordination.

During the Synod and in the gossip spaces around it, many of the Brazilian bishops were clearly in favor of the ordination of women, but they were frightened and the Pope could not take a step further.

JZ: I was saying that there were two final things about this first chapter. The second has to do with Jesus Christ. I know, and it seems to be legitimate for every sector, for every scholar to resort to those elements that are most favorable to defending his position. I think it is a human trait. Beyond that, did Jesus Christ really have a particular relationship with women simply because it is women who first saw him rise from the dead?

IC: You said it. Let's say that among the many ruptures that Jesus of Nazareth makes with his environment, there is the fact of having allowed women to be disciples, which was not allowed in the world of the teachers of the law. He is a teacher of the law who interprets and teaches during the period when women could not sit at the feet of a rabbi and do so at the feet of Jesus.

Number one. Number two: Jesus breaks with many of the practices of the Jewish world. For example, the practices of ritual purity forbade a man to be touched by a woman and Jesus was touched by a woman. They could not enter the home of a foreigner. And Jesus goes to a stranger's house. They could not work on the Sabbath and Jesus says, the man was not made for the law, but the law was made for the man. The Gospel shows that debate that takes place between the defenders of the Jewish law and Jesus, which contradicts them.

It is very striking that, on the morning of the resurrection, fulfilling a rite that was typical of women, embalming a corpse and not having could do at the time. And they went to the tomb and didn't find him. There are several stories that are actually confessions of faith to say that Jesus rose from the dead and that he lives in a different reality, which is the life of the Risen One.

The disciples were hidden, dead from fear because if the Master had been killed, they would follow after. The women, on the other hand, were not afraid. But as it happens, the chapter becomes a story of the misogyny of the Fathers of the Church. The way in which they express themselves about women is frightening; they are all claimed as the personification of Eve, who is the cause of all evils.

Yes, it is very striking that this foundational fact is obscured and Mary Magdalene is going to be told a story that turns her into a prostitute. They put together several stories from the Gospel and turn her into a repentant prostitute. And the iconography exhibits her with sores and practically naked. They are two different characters in the tradition. Why? Let's not lie to each other to hide the main fact. I don't think they did it out of malice. It's the mentality that was there in between, in which the men were educated and the women contributed to that education, obviously, that prevented us from seeing these isolated facts, which are fundamental and foundational.

The word apostle means sent, the twelve were sent. But Mary Magdalene was also sent, the first one sent to tell the good news. That is why recently people have begun to talk about her in a process that seeks to restore her honor, in recognizing her as the first apostle.

What's going on? Women were in an inferior position to men. But it turns out that there has been a change. John XXIII spoke of the signs of the times. This new presence of women in society, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, building society, and exercising it everywhere. Not only positions as second servants.

I understand that these changes are difficult because changes in mentality are very difficult. They involve a conversion, a cultural transformation. But from there to say, as Paul's word leaves it open and then John Paul repeats it, that it is a wise decision of the Creator of the universe to exclude women, is to ignore that the facts occur around historical contexts. It is simply to ignore history.

JZ: I ask you the next question because you are a Latin American theologian. So, I am thinking about Puebla and Medellin, most specifically about the poor who are suffering the most from Covid-19. What does faith have to say to these people at this time?

IC: I think it's not so much saying as doing. It is being a companion to those who are experiencing grief for the losses of loved ones. We are going through a very painful, difficult time which affects the daily life of many families.

It seems to me that we can't just stay in personal care, but support the satisfaction of basic needs. There is something that has been very much in my mind, especially at the beginning of the pandemic and at the beginning of the confinement, when we were caught unaware by this deadly virus. I remember it as a process of understanding what was happening. I was very struck by the invitation to take care of yourself, and then to take care of others. That’s pure gospel. The gospel is to put the other person first before me. Obviously, I take care of myself, but above all, I take care of others and I do it for my responsibility. So there is an act of faith there.

I believe that it is a priority for those of us who believe in Jesus' invitation to recognize his presence in those who are on the edge of the road and in this case are the poor.

JZ: The crisis of the Church, which is very serious in Europe except in Latin America, is widely known. What should we do to overcome it?

IC: First, the Church is the mediation between the proposal of Jesus and the personal circumstances of the here and now. I firmly believe in the announcement that Jesus made that he would not leave us orphans, that the Spirit would be present and accompany us. Despite so many calamities, one says, but how has the Church been able to overcome these stormy chapters in her history? There is a crisis because I believe that there is a process of change, of transformation. I believe in Pope Francis and deeply in his willingness to introduce changes that are difficult to achieve. He is at the top of the power of this church, surrounded also by people who find it difficult to accept the transformations. The Pope speaks of ecclesial conversion, that is, he does not want to be left alone with a change in the Church, which has to modify the structures, he also aspires to a greater commitment to those who need our solidarity.

JZ: I am certain that it is not only the hierarchy that looks down on the work of women theologians. It is also a significant part, not all of them, of course, but of the peers, of the theologians who look with suspicion, to this day, at the work, the thought, the reflections of the women theologians. Is it possible, if not to foresee, to sponsor a different future?

IC: It's just that they have a hard time accepting a woman as a dialogue partner when they have been used to being what is usually called the teaching church and the obedient truth church. The fact that we can speak as equals alters them. They are not prepared for that. Now there are not only fears, misgivings, and even rejection among theologians, but also among female theologians, because there are some who feel that things are fine like that, that for which purpose is it necessary to change them. And changes only occur when one recognizes that things are not right as they are.

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