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Woman, Human and Ecclesial? by M. Nadine Foley from 'Women Priests'

Woman, Human and Ecclesial?

by M. Nadine Foley

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 53-59.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

M. Nadine Foley, OP, was at the time a member of the General Council of the Adrian Dominican Congregation. She holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Catholic University of America and an S.T.M. from Union Theological Seminary. She was the co-ordinator of the task force which organized the conference Women in Future Priesthood Now—A Call to Action in 1975.

The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith opens its Declaration by citing the authority of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical “Peace on Earth”(1) and the pastoral constitution “The Church in the Modern World”(2) from Vatican Council II. These are followed by an allusion to Pope Paul VI’s statement to the members of the Vatican Study Commission on the Role of Women in Society and in the Church present in an audience with members of the Committee for the International Women’s Year on April 18, 1975.(3) In this way the Declaration brings to the fore a sampling of current Church observations on women to set the tone for the exposition which follows. The selected texts respectively make three points which are typical of the allusions to women found in contemporary Vatican texts:

(1) the development and expansion of the social roles of women is a phenomenon of our times, stemming from women’s growing consciousness of their human dignity;
(2) discrimination according to sex, whether social or cultural, is contrary to God’s intent and must be overcome; and
(3) equality of rights must aim at that effective complementarity between men and women which will build an harmonious and unified world according to the design of thc Creator.

(1) The development and expansion of the social roles of women is a phenomenon of our times.

In “Peace on Earth” Pope John XXIII identified three characteristics of the contemporary world: the working classes have gradually gained ground in economic and public affairs; women are now taking a part in public life; in the modern world human society has taken on an entirely new appearance in the field of social and political life.(4) All three trends are embraced in one principle set forth by Pope John: “Thus in very many human beings the inferiority complex which endured for hundreds of thousands of years is disappearing, while in others there is an attenuation and gradual fading of the corresponding superiority complex which had its roots in social-economic privilege, sex or political standing.”(5) Thc importance of this principle lies in its acknowledgment that phenomena evident in social, economic and political life of people today are part of an evolution in human consciousness coextensive with the history of humankind. This insight is compatible with the emphasis that “The Church in the Modern World” places upon the task of the Church to scrutinize the signs of the times and to interpret them in the light of the Gospel. For, it continues, “. . . we can already speak of a true social and cultural transformation, one which has repercussion on man’s religious life as well."(6) If the position of women is subject to true social and cultural transformation, then it follows that that development has implications for the religious life of the Church, the people of God. This fact of cultural change, something which occurs in varying patterns and degrees in different societies, is set forth in the statement from “Peace on Earth” quoted in the Declaration. The part which women are now taking in public life “. . . is a development that is perhaps swifter among Christian nations, but it is happening extensively, if more slowly, among nations that are heirs to different traditions and imbued with a different culture.”(7) As quoted in the Declaration, this statement stands as an observation on the cultural phenomena of the times as social institutions outside the Church are being affected. In context, however, the statement expands upon one aspect of a growing development in human consciousness toward liberation from the superiority/inferiority complexes which have dominated human relationships throughout a long history.

The distinction is important. The tendency to observe changes in the social roles of women in isolation from other cultural phenomena is one of many ways in which women, and issues affecting women, continue to be marginated in the widely-based concern for human development which is a challenge and a responsibility for society and Church today. Human development, which is largely concerned with eliminating the superiority/inferiority relationships which have governed and controlled persons, races, societies and nations is the crying need of the present day. Its imperative makes serious claims upon the Church’s ministry.

Papal and synodal documents such as “On the Development of Peoples,”(8) “Peace on Earth,”(9) “A Call to Action,”(10) “Justice in the World,”(11) and “The Evangelization of the Modern World”(12)present to the people of God challenges in ministry unprecedented in the Church’s history. Merely to reflect upon the obstacles outside and within the Church which are listed as possible hindrances to evangelization in “The Evangelization of the Modern World”(13) is to realize the crises affecting the Church’s mission today.

It is also to call into question the adequacy of the prevailing structures of ministry in the Church to meet the demands of the present and the future. To have issued this Declaration at the present time and in separation from the wider concerns about ministry which the contemporary world poses to all the people of God, women and men, illustrates the continuing problem. Women are consistently treated in separation from the mainstream of ecciesial issues.(14) They are also categorized as a group and treated without respect for their individual gifts of nature and of grace.

Despite this Declaration the Church has still to address the implications of the development and expansion of the social roles of women for its own ministry in the world today. It must do so by situating women within the people of God as fully participating members of the ecclesial community by virtue of their Baptism. The development and expansion of the social roles of women is symbolic of their deeper realization of their personhood which calls the teaching Church to a re-examination of its theological anthropology. The reconsideration will not be adequate without women theologians participating in the endeavor. For women are the bearers of the experience which has implications for the Church today.

(2) Discrimination according to sex, whether social or cultural, is contrary to God’s intent and must be overcome.

The Declaration refers to the Second Vatican Council which, “enumerating in its Pastoral Constitution The Church in the Modern World the forms of discrimination touching upon the basic rights of the person which must be overcome and eliminated as being contrary to God’s plan, gives first place to discrimination based upon sex.(15) The text cited states, ”. . . with respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent."(16) The notion that “The Church in the Modern World” intended that “first place” belongs to sex among the possible bases for discrimination in society today is a curious claim. Later in the same document “first place” is given to race.(17) The emphasis of the Pastoral Constitution seems better placed upon the fact that the several forms of discrimination cited are contrary to God’s intent.

What is contrary to the divine plan must seemingly be eradicated not only from the economic and political fields, nationally and internationally, but also from the Church. In paragraph three the Declaration quotes the “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity” to the effect that women must assume more active roles in the Church. “Since in our time women have an ever more active share in the whole life of society, it is important that they participate more widely also in the various sectors of the Church’s apostolate.”(18) More recently the Synod of Bishops in their document “Justice in the World” have spoken similarly. “We also urge that women should have their own share of responsibility and participation in the community life of society and likewise of the Church.”(19)

The argument for promoting the participation of women in the life and work of the Church appears to be one of achieving a correspondence between developments in society at large and those within the Church. It is at the same time an apparent acknowledgment that social organization within the Church should follow upon and reflect what is happening outside its ranks in this respect.

The sources are weak in indicating why this should be so. The insurance of basic human rights is the reason offered for the Church’s concern that discrimination in all its forms should be eliminated in society. A firm commitment to such a project for itself might inspire the Church to become a paradigm of social organization in which the rights and responsibilities of women are reflected in their sharing fully and equally with men in the Church’s life and mission. Yet the Church agenda is tentative. Because women are becoming more active in society today, they should also begin to share more widely in the Church’s apostolate.

The argument has its positive value insofar as it respects the fact that the Church is enculturated as a human institution, that true social and cultural transformation has a repercussion within the Church. It is deficient, however, since as an operative principle it renders the Church a follower rather than a leader in proclaiming and manifesting the full equality of human persons achieved through the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ which the Church serves.

(3) Equality of rights must aim at that effective complementarity between men and women which will build an harmonious and unifed world according to the design of the Creator.

The Declaration cites the statement of Pope Paul VI to the Committee for the International Women’s Year and other women gathered with them on April 18, 1975. He spoke of equality among men and women.

. . . to speak of equalization of rights does not resolve the problem, which is much more profound: it is necessary to aim at an effective complementarity, so that men and women bring their proper riches and dynamism to the building of a world, not levelled and uniform, but harmonious and unified, according to the design of the Creator, or, to use the terms of the Holy Year, renewed and reconciled.(20)

This quotation neatly summarizes the prevailing official Church teaching on the fundamental relationships between women and men to be achieved and maintained. The key phrases are “effective complementarity,” “proper riches and dynamism,” and “according to the design of the Creator.” There is an abundance of contemporary material from Vatican sources to expand upon the meaning of these phrases, and the presuppositions upon which they are founded.

At the root lies the position that in the order of creation, especially as Genesis 2 recounts the origin of man and woman, the sexes have been established in a relationship of fundamental complementarity. Philosophically this means that males and females have their respective proper or specific natures. From the natural, divinely-established complementarity of male and female, or from their respective proper natures, flow certain necessary characteristics appropriate to each. Correspondingly certain social roles, especially in the family, must be guarded and defended by the Church.

Generally Vatican statements do not devote tracts to elucidating the special qualities and roles of men. But there are many devoted to the specific nature, characteristics and proper roles of women. In his “A Call to Action” Pope Paul Vl says,

We do not have in mind that false equality which would be in contradiction with woman’s proper role, which is of such capital importance, at the heart of the family, as well as within society. Developments in legislation should on the contrary be directed to protecting her proper vocation and at the same time recognizing her independence as a person, and her equal rights to participate in cultural, economic, social and political life.(21)

Again in 1972 the Holy Father said, “. . . women’s authentic liberation does not consist in a formalistic or materialistic equality with the other sex, but in recognizing what the female personality has that is essentially specific to it: woman’s vocation to be a mother”.(22) In his address on “Reconciliation/the Way to Peace,” delivered at Christmas time in 1974 the Holy Father spoke of the qualities of women.

We rejoice especially on the eve of International Women’s Year, proclaimed by the United Nations, at the ever wider participation of women in the life of society, to which they bring a specific contribution of great value, thanks to the qualities God has given them. These qualities of intuition, creativity, sensibility, a sense of piety and compassion, a profound capacity for understanding and love, enable women to be in a very particular way the creators of reconciliation in families and in society.(23)

The several kinds of statements about women typical of Church pronouncements today are derived from two kinds of evidence: that which ultimately has its source in the consciousness and experience of women and is reflected and observed in changing social roles; and that deduced from long standing principles of divine order and nature that have remained unchallenged throughout a considerable history. Recognizing the former, the Church attempts to accept it in terms of limitations imposed by the 1atter. The result is a consistent qualifying of women’s equality and rights according to what is perceived as “proper” to her nature. The data from experience is accordingly judged valid to the extent that it is compatible with the accepted principles. The principles themselves remain largely unexamined in terms of insights available from the human sciences and biblical studies as these disciplines have developed in the last century.

Many women and men today proceed differently with the same data. Given their experience, their aspirations away from the superiority/inferiority structures which have typified human interactions for centuries, they question the absolutism of principles which are incompatible with their experience. Experience shows that not every woman has gifts and traits complementary to those of a particular man. There is a growing awareness that individual persons are complementary to one another or not irrespective of sex differentiation, that to insist otherwise is to subject individuals to the oppression of sex role stereotyping. There is reason therefore to question a doctrine which would assign behavioral traits, especially nurturing qualities, to women as necessarily typical of all without differentiation. There is further reason to question that women can fill only those roles in society and Church which conform to their presumed natural competencies.

The problem seems to be that women are commonly treated in terms of their roles, especially that of motherhood, rather than in the light of their essential human personhood and variety of personal gifts. Paragraph three of the Declaration which speaks of the decisive roles played in the Church by women through their religious consecration or through their rearing of families is particularly telling in this respect.(24) The fact that there is no place for the single laywoman in this enumeration raises the key question. What value does the woman have in herself, apart from her association with a male Church or with a male partner in marriage? Until this question is answered in the only way it can be answered there seems little point in writing treatises on women in ministerial priesthood or in any other role. The needed ontology is missing.

And finally if the doctrine is presumably rooted in a divine order established in revelation there is reason to reexamine the biblical interpretation which seems to support an anthropology at variance with contemporary human experience.(25)

The texts cited in the first paragraph of the Declaration under the heading “The Role of Women in Modern Society and the Church” undoubtedly are intended by the authors to document the Church’s awareness and affirmation of the developments furthering the status of women today, as well as its commitment to the elimination of discrimination based upon sex. The negative position on the ordination of women to ministerial priesthood is then not to be construed as stemming from opposition to women’s advance toward social equality or from discrimination on the basis of sex within the Church. It derives from a view of what is proper to women in terms of maintaining an effective complementarity with men in the offices of the Church. Equality of rights based upon the effective complementarity flowing from the design of the Creator is then the principle providing the critical difference for the positions developed later in the Declaration. It is not, however, the completely adequate reason since the base of the discussion changes, and the special influx of the “light of revelation” is invoked. “The human sciences, however valuable their contribution in their own domain cannot suffice here, for they cannot grasp the realities of faith: the properly supernatural content of these realities is beyond their competence.”(26)

Women’s experience in moving from the superiority/inferiority dominances to which they have been subjected throughout history is a “new thing” emerging in the consciousness of peoples today. Pope John XXIII recognized it and saw its importance. He did not elaborate on it in “Peace on Earth” as he did on the implications of persons striving for economic and political liberation. That is unfortunate. But the reality persists and is the unique possession of women who strive to bring it to the life of the Church as a contribution to its own agenda of continuing reformation. The “new thing,” like new wine, cannot be put in old wineskins. Because it cannot, the context in which the Sacred Congregation attempts to establish a position on women in ministerial priesthood is inadequate.


1. “Pacem in Terris,” Acta Apostolicae Sedis 55(1963), pp 267-268 ; “Pacem in Terris” (Washington, D.C.: United Statcs Catholic Conference

2. “Gaudium et Spes, 29" (December 7, 1965); AAS 58 (1966), pp 1048-49; Gallagher (New York: The Guild Press, 1966), pp.227-228

3. AAS 67 (1975), p265; Women/Disciples and Co-Workers," Origins 4 (May 1, 1975) p.718

4. AAS 55 (1963), pp.267-268; NCWC text, pp. 11-12.

5. Ibid

6. AAS 58 (1966), pp. 1027-1028; The Documents of Vatican II.

7. AAS 55 (1963), pp.267-268; NCWC text p. 11

8. “Populorum Progressio,” AAS 59 (1967), 256 299 “On the Development of Peoples” (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference 1967).

9. See note 2.

10. “Octogesima Adveniens,” AAS 63 (1971), pp 400-444, “A Call to Action” (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1971)

11. “De Justitia in Mundo,” (November 30,1971), AAS 63 (197l), pp.923-94 . Synod of Bishops, “The Ministerial Priesthood” and “Justice in the World” (Washington, D.C.: National Conferencc of Catholic Bishops, 1971),pp.35-52

12. Synod of Bishops, “The Evangelization of the Modern World,” (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1973)

13. Ibid., pp. 3-4.

14. This is illustrated by the special document “The Role of Women in Evangelization” from the Pastoral Commission of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. See Origins 5 (April 22, 1976), pp. 702-707. The Synod of Bishops study document “The Evangelization of the Modern World” has six pages of guidelines and practical applications for promoting evangelization today (pp. 14-18). A wide range of issues is set forth, but there is no reference to women either as requiring special attention in evangelization or as having a particular role to play. The issuing of a separate treatise on women’s role in evangelization suggests that what is said in general of the Church’s responsibility cannot be addressed to women without distinctions. Yet the issues of evangelization are well known to women in ministry and they perceive their ability to respond in ways not now open to them This is the development in women’s consciousness which must be addressed within the Church.

15. Declaration, par. 1.

16. AAS (1966), pp. 1048-1049; The Documents of Vatican II, pp. 227 - 228.

17. Ibid., pp. 1080-1081; and p. 266. The latter reads “. . . discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, nationality, religious or social conditions."

18. “Apostolicam Actuositatem, 9" (November 18, 1965), AAS 58 (1966), p. 846; The Documents of Vatican II. p. 500.

19. “Justice in the World,” p. 933; and p. 44.

20. AAS 67 (1975), p. 265; “Women/Disciples and Co-Workers,” p. 718.

21. “A Call to Action,” pp. 410-411; and p. 8.

22. “The Right to Be Born,” An Address to the Italian Catholic Jurists, The Pope Speaks, Vol. XVII, No. 4 (1973), p. 335.

23. Origins 4 (December 26, 1974), 431. See also Pope Paul Vl, “Women/Disciples and Co-Workers,” Origins 4 (May, 1975), p. 719; “The Role of Women in Contemporary Society,” The Pope Speaks, Vol. XIX (December 8, 1974), 314; and especially “The Role of Women in Evangelization” from the Pastoral Commission of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Origins, 5 (April 22, 1976), pp. 703-704.

24. Origins 6 (February 3, 1977), pp. 519-520.

25. See Report of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, “Can Women Be Priests?” Origins 6 (July 1, 1976), pp. 92-96. “In Genesis 1 man and woman are called together to be the image of God (Gen. 1, 26f.) on equal terms and in a community of life. It is in common that they receive rule over the world. Their vocation gives a new meaning to the sexuality that man possesses as animals do” (p. 92). This kind of insight needs to be brought to bear upon the developing knowledge of human sexuality unknown before the present time.

26. Declaration, par. 34. This is a truth that involves much complexity. Pertinent to it are the kinds of issues raised by Avery Dulles, S.J. in his address to the Catholic Theological Society of America, June 12. 1976. Cf. “What Is Magisterium?” Origins 6 (July 1, 1976), pp. 82-88.

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