One of the problems in dealing with underprivileged groups is that it’s pretty hard to say anything that doesn’t strike a chord of sensitivity. The valuing of the gifts of women in the Church is one of these third-rail issues that no man can handle quite delicately enough for every woman, sorry to say. That’s the cost of hegemony, I’m afraid, and hopefully one day bygones will be bygones.
In the meantime, recently two senior churchmen have said things that I think are somewhat unfair, on diametrically opposite sides of the same issue.
Pope Francis, who is actively promoting the legitimate rise of women in the Church, and who is eager to address a leadership imbalance that is really inexplicable on any reasonable criterion, nevertheless said something that I think is just a little problematic. In his characteristically colorful way, he spoke in positive terms about the outstanding women scholars who have recently been named to the International Theological Commission. Noting that there were more than before, and emphasizing that their presence was necessary, and also saying that there ought to be more, he nonetheless said that we are like “strawberries on the cake.” You can see that this was kindly meant–and if he had said that they were strawberry cake marbled in among the usual vanilla, no woman, I suppose, not the most sensitive woman, could possibly take offense. Different kinds of cake; feminine perspectives on reality; scholars among scholars. Not decorative, not adorning fruit, not necessarily more delightful than any other theologian, but real, true cake: this is what women are able to contribute to theology, I believe.
Given that understanding, I was baffled by the remarks of Cardinal Burke in a recent interview, particularly as the endless internet discussions surrounding the interview were crossed by the Adoremus Bulletin in an issue largely dedicated to the memory of one of the most powerful women of our times, Helen Hull Hitchcock. Here is a beautiful conceived and written article in her honor by a diocesan priest and co-worker in their hugely successful campaign to restore the sacral language of the Liturgy. No one I know of has had more influence over English-language liturgy than she has. Which is one more reason why the good Cardinal’s negative statement that the Liturgy has been “feminized” and under feminine influence is so bewildering and hurtful.
Personally I am in favor of an all-boy altar server corps, because there is a certain age at which the polarities and fears between the sexes is almost insurmountable. Twelve year olds, for example. However, those conditions of fear should not be in place at the time of entering the seminary, and to the extent that they are, is there truly no remedy? Certainly these fears and hesitations can and must be overcome. Certainly there is some hope that a man who is called by God to the priesthood of Jesus Christ can overcome small hesitations, particularly when these hesitations would eventually become barriers to collaboration.
Because at heart, I believe, the problem is not about justice for women. The problem is justice for the Holy Spirit. Gifts are given as God wills, not according to our comfort or conventions. One of the first apostles was a Samaritan, and a woman. The Church is meant to benefit from the gifts that are given, and when truly arbitrary customs prevent this, then the People of God are missing out on what God wants to give them. For this reason I am very thankful for Pope Francis’ efforts to initiate a balanced view, in which the best candidate for a position–cleric, lay, religious, whomever–is not artificially excluded from consideration.
The Liturgy itself is a feminine act of worship, an act of reception. As the final chapter of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church teaches, we are like the Blessed Mother, but on pilgrimage. She who prayed in the midst of the apostles prays among us now. Like the virgin martyrs and all the angels and saints, she is in our sanctuary.
The Church, as in the Song of Songs, is a “she”–and she has a Bridegroom.