The Invisible Woman, or, Why We Should Take Pope Francis’ Call for a Theology of Women Seriously – Petra Turner

Catholic Social Ethics

In August 2013, on his way back to Rome after the World Youth Day in Brazil, Pope Francis famously told a reporter:

 We talk about whether [women] can do this or that: Can they be altar boys? Can they be lectors? About a woman as president of Caritas, but we don’t have a deep theology of women in the Church.

In one sense, he’s obviously right. The Roman Catholic Church does not have a theology of women, it has roles for women. And as Pope Francis recognized, discussion of women in the church is often limited to debate about those roles. These roles define the character of womanly virtue, and the limits of it. And these roles are usually roles of service. Of course, I would be the last person to say that women should not serve. Everyone should serve, truly serve the church, local and universal, that they are called to inhabit. But, again, if I may quote Pope Francis:

 I suffer — I speak truly — when I see in the church or in some ecclesial organizations that the role of service — which we all have and should have — that woman’s role of service slips into a role of servitude. (Pontifical Council for the Laity Seminar, October 10-12 2013)

Service becomes servitude. Performance of one’s role frames the limits of virtue. This is a problem, and one that lies at the heart of women’s current status within the church.

Let me be clear: This is not an essay calling for women’s ordination. So, before you flip to the next blog, site, or twitter feed, and dismiss this post as either a well-worn feminist inquiry or an angry left-wing rant—of which it is neither—pause for a moment. Think about the structure of your home church: Who does what?

In most American Roman Catholic churches, the majority of the “domestic” labor—the running of the day-to-day functions of the church—falls to women. These tasks range from secretarial work, to early religious education (RE), to arranging the worship schedules, the altar cloths and priestly vestments, to serving as lectors, extraordinary Eucharistic ministers, and so on. In fact, a priest once jokingly remarked to me that his life is “run by women.” And it is, in many ways, true: without these services, performed by women, the church would not function. The Sunday mass-goer would be confused as to why the altar wasn’t dressed in the right colors, the priest would wonder where his chasuble and attendant vestments were, there would be a scramble to get lectors for the readings, and the schedule of extraordinary ministers would be in disarray. This is not even mentioning children’s religious education—a monumental task—or the secretarial work that women do to keep the priests’ schedules in order, making the necessary adjustments to those schedules on a day-to-day, hour-by hour basis.

But the fact is, women in these churchly activities are invisible. Or rather, they are taking up the roles that they are expected of them, and if these roles are not fulfilled, only the ensuing gap or void is noticed. I am not saying that women should not take up these roles. Women do so for a variety of reasons: flexibility of hours, desire to serve the church they love, extra cash for what would otherwise be a one-income family, and so on. These are all good things. Nor am I arguing that they should seek greater recognition in the work they do. No one, male or female, should work in and for their place of worship in order to be recognized.

But I am calling attention to a particular mentality, akin to that of a 1950’s American household, where the activities of women—necessary, crucial activities—remain unnoticed until they do not happen. Like a husband of the 1950s suddenly wondering why his suit is not pressed or where his morning omelet is, so churchgoers (male and female) notice the gap when the domestic elements of the local church falter.

As if holding the photo negative but missing the picture itself, we notice the absence of women’s virtue in the church but are blind to its presence. In the same way that many individuals—male and female—are taken aback by the presence of a male nurse (and may even perceive him as a slacker), we accord individuals their proper place and reinforce this status through silent acceptance or noisy rejection. And, like a cantor’s sour note, we notice when people’s activities do not conform to the norms to which we unconsciously ascribe.

We do not really think about this out of tune note; it is a pre-reflective perception, a gut feeling that draws upon how we have been socialized and instructed. But this gut feeling, which occurs within both sexes, indicates much about how the average layperson conceives of women’s virtue. And, under this rubric, womanly virtue is primarily conceived in terms of role-fulfillment, which the following query highlights: why is a man (and particularly a priest) doing the dishes after a church event perceived by both sexes to be more virtuous than a woman’s performance of the same task, which barely registers notice? Conversely, if a woman does not wash the dishes, or at least does not offer to, why is she considered less virtuous? Why does one hear a sour note in the latter, and the bright timbre of a bell in the former?

Of course, this query extends beyond the washing-up, but in my opinion, this invisibility of women in the daily tasks of the church, the “domestication” of their service, points to a severe lack in our theology of women. I say it gestures toward this lack because it is not the performance of the jobs themselves, but rather the perception of women in these roles—and women’s self-perception in their doing of them—where this lack most makes itself felt. We see the activity of the role, and this should be an expression of a rich understanding of the interior, but instead, we are faced with the unsettling truth that the role is theologically hollow. Perhaps more accurately, the roles that are assigned to women—either by virtue of their bodily nature or by virtue of social norms—form the substance of how we characterize women theologically. In an almost tautological sense, the role is the interior and the interior is the role.

And this is unsustainable.

This is a monumental task, and it seems to me that Francis has pointed out a particularly salient theological wrinkle, a fold in the map where the terrain is as yet unseen. If we are to actually have an adequate understanding of human beings as a whole, we must come to terms with the fact that Catholicism has not yet developed the theological resources for discussing women in all their wondrous complexity. Redressing this lack not only has import for the theology of women, but also the nature of complementarity itself, which we have not yet adequately explored. Yet complementarity lies at the heart of the Catholic teaching on the sexes. It is a fundamental sign of the divine communion we are called to image in this world, but if we do not have a theology of women, then we ultimately do not have a true theology of complementarity. Eia, Domine Deus.

Petra Elaine Turner is a Doctoral Candidate in Philosophical Theology in the Program of Theology Ethics and Culture at the University of Virginia’s Religious Studies Department. She is currently completing her dissertation, which employs contemporary French phenomenology to raise up the experiential aspects of Augustine’s understanding of faith.

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