Mixed messages: What do women hear from the church?

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Strong, active women have stood tall throughout Catholic history. So why is the church’s language about women still so inadequate?

From her kindergarten class in her hometown of Mobile, Alabama to her current position teaching at the University of San Diego, Emily Reimer-Barry has been in Catholic schools all her life. She credits this immersion in Catholic education with giving her the freedom to ask the big questions.

“I was in an environment where I had the space to identify as Catholic,” she says, “even while I wrestled with questions like, ‘Who am I as a woman in the church?’ and ‘Am I satisfied with the kind of theology that is written about women in the church?’ ”

Reimer-Barry found the beginnings of her answers in the tradition of feminist scholarship from role models such as theologians Elizabeth Johnson and Sandra Schneiders. But even today, Reimer-Barry finds that her students continue to wrestle with many of the same basic questions about God, the church, and the role of women that feminist theologians have been asking for more than 50 years.

“I can help to provide an environment in their college years where my classroom and my office are safe spaces to ask deep questions,” she says. “To think about what authority figures they trust or don’t and why. About how God is calling them within the messiness of their own lives. I can continue to encourage and empower them. This is a huge gift, and something that I truly love about my job.”

What are some of the messages that girls and women receive from the church?

One thing I’m concerned about is that there is sometimes a silencing of women within the tradition, or a reluctance to recover difficult stories of women from the tradition.

We see this not only in sexual ethics, although that’s where we see it the most, but we also see it in issues like how many female saints there are and why we praise those saints. Are we focusing too much attention on women’s virginity in our theology of saints? What’s a better way to talk about devotions to saints—holy people within our religious tradition—in a way that empowers young girls and women today?

Sometimes—in devotions to saints and liturgical practices and even in the lectionary readings—the message is even stronger: an assertion that being a holy woman today requires accepting one’s place in the family and the church.

Too often, I think that place is seen as quite limited. There is a rich tradition of what it means to be a holy mother. That’s a good thing. I’m not trying to say that motherhood is not fulfilling. But women are more than mothers, and some women are not mothers at all. We need to find a language that is empowering and constructive for all women—not just women who are virgins, not just women who are mothers.

We need to be much more creative in how we do that. That could mean revising some prayers or developing new liturgical music or songs. It could also include something like rewriting pre-Cana books or youth group materials or curricula for religious education.

The important work that feminist theologians have been doing has not seeped into all of those kinds of everyday practices and devotions. So that’s an ongoing work, and there are a lot of people interested in it.

How does the church pass along those messages?

We need to encourage women to see themselves as equal to young men, girls as equal to boys. In working with young people, we’re hampered by the ways that we can encourage young women to be active and involved in the church. And I think this is one way where the exclusion of women from ordination works in a disempowering way for young women.

Now, it’s great that young women can be altar servers. It’s great that young women can be lectors, can lead service trips, can be pastoral associates or teachers of religious education. But young women, or even a female Bible study group, if they want to go to Mass together, then their religious experience and their access to the sacraments is always through the male priest.

The issue I see is that over time a woman might feel that the gifts that she has to give the church are not valuable. If she’s not able, in the theological argument, to “image” Christ, to be imago Christi in the way that the priest is, is she a second-class citizen within the church?

Sometimes we get this nuptial metaphor gone awry where men are told that they are to be Christ for the world, and women are told that they are to be brides of Christ. The language can be confusing for young women. So within youth groups, then, do we tell young women that they are to be Christ for the world, or do we tell young women they are to be brides of Christ?

I think youth groups could be a place of empowerment for young women. But I would like to see us continue to develop curricula that would help them to be even more empowering.

That might mean helping young women understand the tradition, to think critically about it, and have youth groups be a safe space for them to raise concerns about all of the messages that they are bombarded with in pop culture and to think about those questions in the light of faith.

If youth groups are safe spaces for them to ask those kinds of questions and discover the richness of the Catholic tradition, then that would be great. If youth groups become a new way for them to see the church as having a lot of rules they see as out of touch with their hopes and aspirations, then youth groups might end up being a turnoff for some young women, especially those who want to be seen as equal and don’t see the church’s own practices affirming them as equal.

Are there positive messages that women receive from the church?

Official church teaching honors women as equal in dignity to men. I think it’s very important for us to continue to say that. In terms of sexual relationships, official church teaching affirms the need for intimacy, mutuality, consent, and respect for the dignity of one’s partner.

I think these kinds of messages remain really important and valuable, and can help us understand that sexual relationships should be in a context of unitive love. That’s certainly a positive message from the church, and that helps to counteract some of these damaging messages that we’re exposed to in other parts of the culture.

If we continue to talk about how love and justice go together and that self-care is important within the tradition, what it means to be in a healthy relationship, then we can draw on these messages from the tradition about taking care of oneself, and seeing your body as a gift from God.

What does it mean to privilege principles like love, justice, mutuality, consent, mutual pleasure, long-term commitment? It means you’re valuable. It means having your partner commit to you before you make the decision to be sexually active.

You’ve been critical of “sacrifice” language. Why is that?

My concern is that sometimes the language of sacrifice is emphasized to the point that we lose sight of the importance of caring for oneself and of what it means to see oneself as a beloved child of God or to see oneself as having inherent dignity.

Without trying to say that sacrifice is, in and of itself, problematic, I think we need to talk about that tension. Giving of oneself is, of course, important. But in a gift exchange, there should be some mutuality. There should be a sense of feeling affirmed and valuable even as one is giving.

If you feel like you’re being told to give and give and give and not respect or not treasure yourself in the process or not feel loved by the other person, then that can clearly be damaging. Then we end up having a doormat theology, like, “I’ll let you walk all over me, there’s nothing of value here. Just stomp on me, I’m fine.”

That’s what I think is potentially problematic, especially for women. The reality of violence against women is something that is always in the background when I hear this kind of encouragement to sacrifice: violence against women within college hook-up culture, within rape culture, within patterns of domestic abuse.

A new study from the World Health Organization reports that 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or nonpartner sexual violence. Worldwide, 30 percent of all women who have been in a relationship have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner. In some regions, 38 percent of women have experienced intimate partner violence.

That’s the reality—when I give a lecture and look out into a room of women, I assume that 30 percent of them have this experience of trauma within their lives. So for me to tell them to continually give and give and give, or even to give until it hurts and then give some more—which is a message we sometimes hear—that could be confusing and could set them up for patterns of accepting abuse. That’s something I would see as quite problematic.

How can we change that language?

One way might be to say that Jesus accepted his death on the cross as a witness, in order to be consistent with his whole mission.

But Jesus’ death on the cross is still tragedy. It is still murder. It is still something that should not be glorified in and of itself. Jesus suffered and was brutally murdered, but that does not mean that in order for Christians—especially women—to follow Jesus, they need to accept abuse in intimate relationships.

It means we need to wrestle with a theology of the cross in light of the violence against women every day. Now if we continue to wrestle with these challenging questions in theology, there’s not one easy solution. But if we could see Jesus’ death on the cross as connected to his life before his crucifixion and the messages of his ministry, then that’s a good place to start.

But so often when we hear the call to sacrifice, we’re lifting up the cross, the end of Jesus’ life, without paying attention to everything that came before. Thinking about the kind of messages that we have in the gospels—about what justice requires, about what love requires, about service—would be another place to start.

Is that where feminism comes in?

If feminists can be part of the conversation, as they already implicitly are in so many disciplines, then that can only serve the church well, I think. But if feminists are dismissed as trying to be like men, or if feminists are dismissed for machismo and women aren’t a part of the inner conversation, then that’s going to perpetuate the misreading or misunderstanding of feminism instead of including women’s concerns within the conversation.

So we still need some structural changes, but I also think a lot of what feminists have been publishing and writing about is making a difference within Christian theology and Christian ethics. I think we need to go further.

Some examples would be: What kind of consultations are bishops doing before they write documents? How are they engaging with the data of social science and with the experiences of married couples before they write their documents on marriage?

If they’re going to write a document on sexting, or on HIV/AIDS, or on any kind of pressing concerns in sexual ethics, what kind of consultation are they going to do? What kinds of resources are they going to look at?

In the most recent marriage document from the U.S. bishops, there’s zero engagement with feminist theologians. No feminist theologians have been cited. And yet Thomas Aquinas is cited on the example of the difference between men and angels.

There are claims made within the document about “gender complementarity,” about family as domestic church, about the virtues one develops within marriage. There are some themes that have been given a lot of treatment in revisionist and feminist theology, but there’s absolutely no dialogue within that document and seemingly no consultation.

In a document on marriage today, I would expect to see the cited research of some contemporary Catholic theologians who have worked on these issues. I’d also expect greater attention to the sociological data available. There’s an attitude of, “We’re drawing on the tradition. We don’t need to talk to married people.” I think that’s where we need a lot more engagement.

Even if Pope Francis is not going to go so far as to rethink the theological arguments against the ordination of women, let’s think about women entering  the diaconate, or let’s think about women as cardinals.

Let’s think about how we can include the voices of women in all the processes of decision making and leadership. There could be some creative strategies for engaging women and women’s voices, but my fear is that we now have a shift in tone and a shift in themes without actually thinking about the structural issues that are under there, and I think clericalism remains a real structural problem.

What is gender complementarity, and what are the problems you see with it?

The idea here is that God created us male and female, and this understanding of our embodiment as human beings is seen as integral to God’s design. Male/female complementarity means that males and females literally fit together, but more figuratively, complement each other not only in terms of our sexual embodiment but also in terms of our personalities. This is the way official church documents employ the category of complementarity.

What may be perceived as a strength in one partner might be a weakness in the other, but they balance each other out, or they fit together and complement each other in a way that a male and female couple becomes whole together and becomes a unit together.

In what has come to be called the “theology of the body,” the role of the female is to be receptive. The role of the male is to be assertive. This theology sexualizes our personalities, because it draws on a description of male and female embodiment and then thinks about what kinds of personality traits are aligned with those descriptions of our embodiment.

So then we see in some descriptions that the role of the woman is to be nurturer, to be mother, to be receptive, to be bridal in the nuptial metaphor. Then the role of the husband is to be assertive, to be the leader. When we see these, they complement each other. They make each other whole.

Some people do continue to find this helpful, I should say. Some people see this as affirming their own place in life and the virtues they feel called to perfect in their own lives and relationships.

But the red flags for me are that there’s no understanding of the social construction of gender, and I think it’s difficult to say that my personality traits, the way I communicate, my desires for interacting, the way I parent, or the way I try to be a leader in my work environment, that these are particularly feminine because of my embodiment as a female. I learned so much from my mentors in graduate school who were experts on these topics in feminist theology—especially Susan Ross and Patricia Beattie Jung.

You have claimed that we need feminist husbands. What does that look like?

I think that we need to socialize not just women to accept their inherent dignity, but we also need to socialize men to think of women as their equals in families and in the church.

It’s consistent with the challenges of socialization in other parts of our culture, right? That men on the golf course or in the corporate boardroom have had to change their ways now that women are also at the table or also on the golf course. What does that mean in the church and what does that mean in Catholic families?

When I say I think we need more feminist husbands, it means we need more men who recognize their wives as equals, more men who are excited by the idea of mutual give-and-take in relationships and mutual responsibility for work inside and outside the home.

So a feminist husband will vacuum. A feminist husband will drop off the kids at day care and change diapers, and a feminist husband will listen to his wife’s concerns and will share the work. Likewise, a feminist wife will help to pay the bills. A feminist wife will be assertive and not just receptive. A feminist wife will set aside money in her 401(k) so that they can both have some financial stability as a family later. There’s fluidity, and when husbands and wives recognize each other as equal partners and share their roles and responsibilities in the home, there’s not just one way of being a wife and one way of being a husband.

How can we make that vision more of a reality?

We can ask, “What’s unique about my gifts? What do I bring into this marriage? What’s unique about my partner’s gifts? What does he bring into this marriage? And how are we going to figure out this relationship in a way that both of us are able to contribute our gifts, and both of us are going to share the workload and share the responsibility?”

That’s going to look a little different in every relationship, but the baggage of traditional gender roles is as unhelpful for contemporary men as it is for women. It’s something that we don’t talk about enough: the pressures on men even in the traditional understanding of gender roles.

We see in the nuptial blessing that the woman is responsible for caring for the home. If you choose the reading from Sirach, you’ll hear that a virtuous wife should keep a radiant home. But can’t we come up with a marriage blessing where we talk about men and women keeping a home together? Now, does it need to be radiant? I don’t know. Maybe they share the responsibilities for dusting every once in a while.

And can we talk about providing for the family in a more flexible way, so that it doesn’t have to be the father providing, the father bringing home the bread? That puts a lot of pressure on men in our culture and men in relationships, and maybe it would be better if we had more flexibility in talking about those roles.

For some families, it might look like one partner having a full-time job and the other not, but in the reality of the diversity of families today, we need more flexibility. We have a lot of two-income families, we have a lot of one-income families, we have a lot in between. And we need a flexible way to affirm gender roles rooted in equality and mutuality, and to talk about this as the couple’s responsibility for negotiating based on their own strengths and weaknesses and their own vocations.

Where do we go from here?

I think we need to pay attention to how human understanding shifts over time. The role of the theologian is to help us articulate the gospel in each new era. I think that can give us a lot of food for thought and questions.

What does it mean for us to talk about the Bible as God’s word as a reliable source of revelation for understanding God’s relationship to the world? We don’t want to throw that out, but we do need to interpret it in the light of other sources of knowledge from today or the questions of people of our era, which are different from questions people faced in the communities in which the Bible was first written. That’s a very difficult task.

That means understanding more about what was going on in the context when these texts were first written. Whose experience is accounted for in those texts? How is it interpreted? What did these texts mean for the people for whom they were first written?

The homily is a great place for that kind of interpretation of the message. When a text contains explicit sexism or when the message of the text, over time, seemed to explain over and over again that men are the actors in salvation and women don’t have a clear role, then I do think that’s problematic.

We need to think carefully. Maybe revising the lectionary would be a good first step. We could begin to recover some passages that aren’t in the lectionary that could be, and to think about letting go of some passages we currently have in the lectionary.

We also need to invite feminist voices to the table when we think about the language that we use for God and the language of prayer. Not just in the scriptural readings proclaimed, but throughout the liturgy.

There has been a real reluctance to even recover images or metaphors for God within the Bible and metaphors of God that use explicitly feminine images. We see not only within the lectionary, but also in the prayers, a reluctance to use any pronoun other than “he” or to use an image other than “father” or “Lord” which holds the baggage of a patriarchal tradition.

That’s something to be concerned about, because I do think there are so many different ways of talking about God even within scripture and the tradition. The liturgy doesn’t draw on those in the way that it could. Wouldn’t it be great if we could recover some of those as part of our communal prayer? To broaden the moral and religious imagination of the people who are worshipping. I think that would be very exciting to see.

It doesn’t mean letting go of everything. It means sifting through the tradition while always asking the question: “What kind of language will speak to people today in a way that would help them to relate to God and help to break open their imagination?”

This article appeared in the May 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 5, pages 28-32).

Read more from Emily Reimer-Barry as she discusses how hook-up culture is affecting college students.

Image: Flickr photo cc by Carlos Ramalhete