The Pope’s eagerly awaited post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia was released on 12 February, and responds to the 6-26 October 2019 Synod on the Amazon. Dr. Annemarie Paulin-Campbell notes the general theme of inclusivity but notes that the document continues to exclude women from sacramental ministry.
I have been asked to specifically reflect on the document in relation to what it says about women. In fact the document says very little about women, as this is not its focus. The section on the strength and gift of women accounts for only five paragraphs of the one hundred and eleven paragraph document.
However, much of what it does say in those five paragraphs, in my view, reveals a theological stance and an attitude towards women which is harmful to women, (and ultimately therefore also to men,) and which does not sit well with much of the rest of the document which is inclusive, sees the tradition as not static but unfolding, and which advocates respect for the human dignity of all.
Interconnectedness of natural and human ecology
In his Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis exhorts us to protect the endangered Amazonian forests and the cultural heritage of the indigenous people of the region. He slates consumerism, individualism and greed and highlights the destructive impact on the region and its peoples. The document commends the treasures of cultural wisdom passed on through the oral tradition of the indigenous people and advocates sharing, dialogue and the building of bridges.
Welcome emphasis is placed on the interconnectedness of natural and human ecology and the vital duty we have to care for and respect Creation. The document states clearly in relation to inculturation that the Tradition of the church is not static and that the Gospel must be preached in a way that “rejects nothing of the goodness that already exists in Amazonian cultures” (66) – a quote from Gaudium et Spes. Yet, it seems that when it comes to issues of women and ministry, the tradition is seen as static.
Many, including Pope Francis himself, have expressed frustration that key ecological issues are being overshadowed by the media’s focus on priestly celibacy and role of women in the church – which are clearly not the intended focus of the document. The issues of the environment are undoubtedly the most pressing and require us to heed the document’s call to a deep conversion in this area, not only with regard to the policies we support, but also a recognition that our own day-to-day decisions as to how we use and steward the earth’s resources have an impact far beyond ourselves as everything is connected.
Theology around women tainted by patriarchy
In addition, I believe it is legitimate to also look at what the document is saying about women. Firstly, because the document itself affirms, everything is interconnected. The document rightly stresses the need for care of the creation and a recognition of the dignity of the indigenous people of the region and a genuine respect and willingness to learn from them. This deep stance cannot be separated from how women are treated in the church.
We have had to shift from an incorrect reading of Genesis through which we believed we had been given ‘dominion’ over creation to a recognition of all of us as part of an interconnected web. In a similar way our theology around women is still tainted by a patriarchal way of understanding the relationship between men and women which also needs to shift.
Secondly, issues of ecclesiology and access to the sacraments were also clearly significant topics at the Synod itself. If issues of priestly celibacy and the role of women in ministry are naturally evoking much discussion perhaps it is because they are issues which are currently emerging strongly within the church and therefore also merit engagement.
Thirdly, the document reveals the most recent current hierarchical/official church perspective on women and it is one which is deeply concerning to many women as it does not resonate with their experience of self and God. So, it is not surprising that women want to raise this, despite the fact that they recognise it is not the main theme of the document.
It is true that the exhortation does not close the door to further discernment on women and their ministry (or to the possibility of married priests). It may well be that given the current levels of polarisation on the issue, Pope Francis may be wanting to allow the process of discernment to continue to unfold.
Paragraph 103 of the final Synod document, which was voted on at the very end of the Synod in late October 2019, which was passed by 137 votes to 30 read:
“In the many consultations carried out in the Amazon, the fundamental role of religious and lay women in the church of the Amazon and its communities was recognised and emphasised, given the multiple services they provide. In a large number of these consultations the permanent deaconate for women was requested. For this reason the theme was important during the Synod.”
It goes on to request that their experiences be shared with the “Study Commission on the Deaconate of Women” set up by Pope Francis in 2016. Earlier last year, the Pope had said that the findings of that commission were partial but that he would reconvene it to continue its work – something that has not yet happened.
Many were hopeful that having heard the strong calls for women to be ordained to the deaconate in the Amazon (where women currently run over 70 percent of the parishes), which emerged during the Synod, a further step might be taken by the Pope in his Apostolic Exhortation. Instead it seems as though we have retreated further from any movement in this area.
Romanticised image of women
However disappointing this may be for some, the view of women expressed in the document, is of even greater concern. This view romanticises and idealises women, at the same time as saying that they cannot fully image Christ. Paragraph 101 says:
Jesus Christ appears as the Spouse of the community that celebrates the Eucharist through the figure of a man who presides as a sign of the one Priest.
Here we see an allusion to the iconic argument that only a man can act as a sign of Christ in the Eucharist – whereas the Incarnation is not primarily an issue of gender but of God becoming human. The paragraph further goes on to say:
The Lord chose to reveal his power and love through two human faces: the face of his divine Son made man and the face of a creature, a woman Mary. Women make their contribution to the church in a way that is properly theirs, by making present the tender strength of Mary, the mother. (101).
There seems to be a linking here of men with Jesus and women with Mary. There are problems with this. Jesus was both human and divine. Mary was human. Are we saying yet again that women, unlike men, cannot image the divine? There is also a resonance of a particular idea of Mary which perhaps does not do justice to the gutsy, revolutionary woman that she also was.
The document cautions that we must not restrict our understanding of the Church to her functional structures as
“such a reductionism would lead us to believe that women would be granted a greater status and participation in the Church only if they were admitted to Holy Orders But that approach would In fact narrow our vision: it would lead us to clericalize women, diminish the great value of what they have already accomplished and subtly make their indispensable contribution less effective.” (100).
This places women in a toxic double bind. In effect it says you cannot image Christ because you do not anatomically resemble Jesus who was male, but at the same time women are so spiritual that they should not be part of the functional structures of the church as we cannot risk them being clericalised.
The problem with clericalisation is fundamentally a problem with power and a sense of superiority. Both men and women can be tempted in this way. If we want to ensure that we eliminate clerical culture then perhaps we should not be ordaining men or women.
But to see the possibility of Holy Orders undermining the pastoral work of women, does not allow for the fact that many women feel called by God to serve in this way; that they would bring complementary gifts to sacramental ministry and that their current ministries could potentially bear even greater fruit because they could also minister to the Sacramental needs of the people.
If our church is one where the sacraments are at the heart of our experience the desire for Holy Orders is not about greater status and participation in the church but about the ability to respond fully to pastoral need – this was beautifully expressed by some the women ministering in the Amazon who have devoted their lives to the church.
Listening to female theologians
Over the past 50 years substantial work has been done by eminent feminist theologians including Rosemary Radford Ruether; Elizabeth Johnson, Sandra Schneiders, Mercy Oduyoye and Mary Catherine Hilkert and many others. Will we as church read their work and take it on board?
In our own African context, since 1989 important theological work has been done by the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians. And yet, the hierarchical church still seems to be shaped by a deeply paternalistic attitude towards women and an understanding which neither draws on nor resonate with the theological perspectives of the majority of women who have given their lives to serious theological study and reflection.
For so many centuries our theology was written and the scriptures were interpreted almost exclusively from a male perspective. It was only around the time of Vatican II that women were allowed to study theology at University. Since then ground-breaking work has been done but it has still too often been side-lined.
Can we listen to these women theologians from around the world? Can we develop and deepen theological understandings of women that are healthy and liberating: which neither put women on a pedestal and idealise them, nor fail to see that we too are made in the image and likeness of God and are equally called to image Christ – and to minister to God’s people.