The Elephant in the Church by Mary T. Malone, Theologian
Throughout Christian history it has always been recognised that the home is the place where Christianity is passed on, and that women, mothers and grandmothers, have been the prime evangelists. Now in the twenty-first century, homes may no longer function as centres of evangelisation. The old headship of the male husband and father is no longer a reality, and the male leaders of the churches are diminishing in numbers.
And yet the women are still there, and this is the problem. And what of the women down through the centuries? How were they ‘there’. As we have seen, they were there among the first and most faithful faithful disciples, as house-church leaders, apostles, teachers, prophets, and presiders at the agape meal, the initial form of Eucharist. They were there, to men’s great surprise as martyrs and virgins, not having been deemed capable of either role in male theology. They were there as abbesses and founders, writers and preachers, mystics and scholars, reformers and missionaries, not only at home on the continent of Europe, but in far distant lands, again demonstrating virtues of courage and ingenuity that they were not supposed to have. And in our own time women have been there as theological scholars and biblical exegetes, parish leaders and pastoral guides, chaplains in a huge variety of settings, and ministers of the gospel at bedsides and graves, birthing rooms and schools, publishing houses and universities. And all of this has been done entirely on their own initiative, without any official calling from the Church because the Catholic Church does not consider itself capable of calling women. And what have these women believed? How have they lived as Christians? What has been the focus of their spiritual lives? Have they seen themselves as the second to be created and the first to have sinned or as more prone to heresy? These women, both today and down through the centuries, right from the beginning, have built their lives around the following of Jesus, the living out of the imago dei, the public exercise of compassion and the unique sense of themselves as Godward and God-bearing people. They know that in the depths of their humanity, like Jesus, they discover the signs of divinity. They have learned, as Marguerite Porete, and Teresa of Avila have pointed out, that there is no telling where God ends and we begin, where we end and God begins. They know, as Julian of Norwich did, that there is ‘no wrath in God’, that God is ‘closer to us than our hands and feet’, and that God is as truly Mother as God is Father.
They know that the Spirit of God inhabits their lives as tides lurk in the sea, coming and going, rising and falling, but always present. And above all they know that love is the meaning of everything, It is quite extraordinary that Pope Benedict XVI, in his first encyclical on Christian love, never mentions the love of a mother or a father for their child, and never mentions the love that is the central focus of mysticism. It is obvious that Christianity has travelled through the centuries on two paths, one recognised, acclaimed and celebrated in word and liturgy, the other hidden, often reviled, unrecognised and uncelebrated. If there is to be a future church, these two paths will have to meet. It is not at all clear how this is to be done, but a necessary first step must surely be to attend to the voices of women throughout history and today. Four new women Doctors of the Church have taken their place with very little pomp and circumstance –on the Christian calendar. That might be a place to start at an official level.
But perhaps on an even more important level, the experience of the ordinary day-in, day-out women of Catholicism, can begin to be respected as among the primary bearers of the Faith, and respected, heard and treated as the significant theologians that they are. They can also be recognised and respected as the foundation stones of many a parish community, for without the presence and ministry of women, these communities would not exist. For women have always done theology, and ministry, in both word and deed. Their theology has not necessarily been expressed in tomes or lecture halls, but it is the daily living guide for more than half the Church. This is not to exclude lay men, but at least they can move freely in the male symbolic universe that is Catholicism. Women have had to create their own religious universe, and it is the uniting of these two universes, practically unknown to each other, that will save the Church of God in our time."