How women are living the Gospel and creating equality in the Roman Catholic Church

written by  John Houk, Joan’s spouse

Change always comes from the bottom because that is where the Church meets the world.  This is where new information and new experiences take place.  This is where the “signs of the times” come to be acknowledged and understood.  This is where the Holy Spirit moves.  The Spirit acts in the margins of the world because God caresforthose at the bottom.

Change is always resisted at the top.  The top assigns itself the role of guardian of truth and unity.  Truth and unity are perceived as existing conditions to be defended.  This produces a mental paradigm that automatically excludes change.  Why change when what exists is the desired condition both collectively and personally?  Why change a good thing?  The top always wants to stop the movie at the part they like best.  This is human and institutional reality.

Building tension produces change.  Agents of change must be able to live in tension between vision and reality, and between bottom and top.  Not everyone can do this either at the top, or at the bottom.  Those at the top who cannot live in tension with change apply harsh rules and penalties.  Those at the bottom who cannot live in tension leave hoping to find a safe place.  (Unhappily, there is no safe place.)  Those who stay part of the Church carry the full load of tension building.

History is our best teacher.  The need for change is a universal and perpetual need.  Change is not a need unique to our time and place.  Institutions did not fall fully formed from the sky; they came into being step-by-sometimes difficult step, in response to the “signs of the times”.  History will not allow us to believe in a fully formed, fixed Church with all truth and perfect unity.  This condition has never existed, and never will.

History is also our hope.  History reminds us that when faced with new “signs” we eventually get it right, but it is always a struggle.  A perpetual and critical question has always been, who is included in God’s Kingdom?  The Gentiles?  Yes.  The Savages / Natives / Indians?  Yes.  The African-Americans?  Yes.  Women?  Not yet.  This “not yet” defines one critical sign of our times.  Women are not fully included, not fully human.  Not yet.  People at the bottom, speaking from the heart, are saying, “We are being ministered to by women, and we want their ministry officially recognized.”  Those at the top who cannot live with tension are saying, “no, No, NO and do not even discuss it under pain of being excluded yourselves.”  Harsh rules and penalties, and some people leave.

Not everyone leaves, but those who stay to build tension are not popular.  Those who leave say, “Why don’t you just leave like we did?”  Those at the top say, “Why don’t you just leave?”  Even those in the uninformed middle say, “Why don’t you just leave us in peace?”  But agents of change (prophets) will not leave because they have come face-to-face with the need to change, and they have been given the gift of being able to live with tension, and they begin to live out that gift.

This is what agents of change for the full inclusion of women have done, and are doing to build tension.  Women’s roles that have been suppressed and hidden are being brought into the light.  Academic women have done extensive research on the history of Church laws pertaining to women and found serious flaws including outright falsification, and they have published their work for all to see.  Other women have studied the early Church through archeology and found wide roles for early Christian women including ordination to deacons, priests and bishops.  Others have reinterpreted Holy Scripture to discover women’s roles obscured in the past and now made clear.  Others have written popular books and created informational web sites laying out women’s roles and asking key questions.  Vowed women religious are giving witness by living the Gospel and suffering persecution by their own Church.

Activists are raising awareness by interrupting ordinations, standing in front of cathedrals, holding prayer vigils to gain public attention to the exclusion of women.  They have publicly addressed the pope, protested and been arrested in St. Peter’s Square, and created local, national and international organizations.

Finally, women are breaking the law to change it.  Building on an honorable tradition of people like Ghandi, Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr. and even Rosa Parks, women found a way to be ordained by male Roman Catholic bishops, intentionally breaking the law (canon 1024) in order to change it.  This work has been widely reported, and an award-winning documentary, Pink Smoke Over the Vatican, produced to inform and continue to build tension for change.

Time is on the side of agents for change.  The modern academic work on women’s roles in the Roman Catholic Church began in the 1950’s with petitions asking for change presented to the Vatican during the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s.  Even before the academic work began, women began forming groups working for women’s equality in the Church.  The international St. Joan’s Alliance has NGO status, and last year celebrated its 100th anniversary.  In the U.S., the Women’s Ordination Conference came together in 1975, and continues its work.  Women’s Ordination Worldwide was founded in 1996, and the first contra legem ordinations took place in 2002.  Time is on the side of change, and agents of change accept that sometimes change takes a very long time.

What is to be done to endure and persist in this now century long work for women’s equality in the Roman Catholic Church?  Academics will continue their research, writers will continue to write, activists will demand attention, organizers will bring people together, religious sisters will give witness, and contra legem women priests and bishops will grow in numbers, and (a most important “and”) do what all good carriers of the Gospel message have done, which is to minister to those most in need.

Women priests will invite those who have been excluded, heal those who have been wounded and walk with those who are experiencing important life events.  They will be good priests and bishops, and in the process drive out the fear of women from high places.  They will do what women are good at including bringing small groups together.  There are new “House Churches” modeled on the early Church, but no new cathedrals.  Ecumenism will begin again from the bottom up with healing personal connections.  Change like this will take years, but in no way are these years being wasted.  People are being lifted up, healing is taking place and the Holy Spirit is acting, as always, from the bottom up.

Why go to all this trouble?  Why question the status quo?  Why disturb the peace?  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Spreading the Gospel message of equality and the all-inclusive love of God is the ministry and mission of the institutional Church.  Women are calling the Church back to its God-given ministry and mission.

The ordination of women will give them a place at the table where agendas are created and decisions are made.  Half the members of the Church are now excluded from this table.  By changing the status of women in the global Church, the global status of women will change.  For the goal of Church mission, ministry and the global status of women, there are prophets who will disturb the peace.

John Houk      August 4, 2012



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