The Women’s Question: What do we want to promote?

The Women’s Question: What do we want to promote?

by Kochurani Abraham

While proposing to include ‘women’ among the Church’s priority in Asia, I think it is important to examine how the official Church sees women or understands their identity. How does the Church perceive women’s place and roles within its structures and mission and within the family? I must confess that always when I sit to write anything on women and the Church, what comes to my mind is one of the first lessons I learnt in the Logic class when I began my studies in Philosophy, that is, in order to get the right conclusion, your premise needs to be right. To be frank, I am not very sure if the Church has got its premise right on the women’s question, as its teachings on women continue within a very gendered framework. I shall explain it giving some data from the Church’s official teaching and praxis.

It is against the backdrop of the second wave of women’s movement that brought to surface women’s concerns at a global level in the 1960s that we see documents of the official Church on women emerging. In these documents, we can see mainly two trends in its positioning on women. On the one hand, the Church sees women’s entry into public life and their engagement in societal affairs as something positive and as a “sign of the times’.1) Alongside this stand the church has consistently articulated gendered perceptions of women whereby based on the biological differences, women and men are taken to be essentially different as persons.

In most of these documents, women’s “essential nature” is seen as being for others.2) Even the recent 2013 document Evangelii Gaudium, while being very progressive in many aspects, falls back on biological essentialism in its understanding of gender, as it considers sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skills as particular to women than men.3)

When we had a reading of this text in one of our feminist theological circles, we commented as unfortunate that the Pope cannot identify qualities like intellectual agency, theological expertise, organizing abilities and leadership skills in women. When women are seen with a gendered lens, the roles they are expected to play in the Church and in the family are also gendered. Women are needed, mainly for services that fit into the profile of the ‘feminine’, and they are excluded from policy making and leadership roles in the Church.

Women’s presence is desired to fill the pews but not on the platforms of theological knowledge production. We have a clear illustration of this if we make a gender audit of Synod on Family, held in Rome in 2014. Even when the Church has repeatedly insisted that women play a key role in sustaining the integrity of the family, for the Synod there was just a token representation of 24 women. The rest were male celibate clergy and bishops with the exception of some lay men who were among the 14 couples invited from the whole world to participate in the Synod.

And this is despite the call for the expansion of “possible roles (for) women in decision-making in areas of the Church’s life” in Evangeli Gaudium.4) The Church is certainly committed to women’s empowerment in terms of promoting women’s education, economic agency and in preventing the different forms of violence that afflict women. However, the difficulty is with the gendered notion of ‘complementarity’ which assigns different roles for women and men in the family and in the Church while observing that “difference between man and woman is not meant to stand in opposition, or to subordinate, b u t i s f o r t h e s a k e o f c o m m u n i o n a n d generation.” 5 ) Very many women who see themselves as persons with spiritual and intellectual agency, besides their capacity to care and nurture as any other human being, have difficulty with this notion of ‘complementarity’ in the Church’s teachings. In the light of this analysis, my question is: What are we really advocating when we say we want women, family and ecological sustainability to be the Church’s top priority in Asia? How do we envision the Church and its mission in the world?

R e f e r e n c e s :
1) See Pacem in Terris 1963;.the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity of Vat. II; the 1988 Apos?tolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem; the 2004 Letter of the Vatican congregation for the doctrine of Faith on Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in Society.
2) While Mulieris Dignitatem spells out motherhood and virginity as two particular dimensions of women’s vocation, the Letter of John Paul II to Women, on the occasion of the 1995 Beijing Conference addresses women by the customary gender stereotypes of wife, mother, daughter, sister and consecrated women/sister. The 2004 Letter of the Vatican congregation for the Doctrine of Faith on Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in Societyhas become most conspicuous in this regard as it falls back to biological essentialism and points to women’s ‘essential nature’ as being for ot hers.
3) Cf. Numbers 103 and 104 of Evan g e l i G a u d i u m , A p os t ol i c E x h or t a t i on of P op e F r a n c i s , V a t i c a n , Nov e m b e r 2 0 1 3 .
4 ) E v a n g e l i G a u d i u m , n o . 1 0 4 .
5) This is brought out even in a very recent statement by Pope Francis on the occasion of the Ad Limina visit of the Puerto Rican Bishops. According to the Pope, “the complementarity of man and woman, the vertex of the divine creation, is being questioned by gender ideology, in the name of a freer and more just society.” See CNAEWTN News,“Pope Francis: Men and women are different for a reason” Vatican City, Jun 8, 2015 on accessed on 12 July 2015.