I’ve heard it a million times: “Catholics don’t think women can have authority.” I’ve heard it from Catholics and non-Catholics, people who agree with this supposed position and those who don’t. There are a million variations on the same theme. And I get it–Catholics often don’t do a great job of explaining why the priesthood is reserved for men, and it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the Church just doesn’t want women to be leaders.
When you stop and think about it, though, this doesn’t add up. Take Pope St. John Paul II’s words in his Letter to Women:
“…I cannot fail to express my admiration for those women of good will who have devoted their lives to defending the dignity of womanhood by fighting for their basic social, economic and political rights, demonstrating courageous initiative at a time when this was considered extremely inappropriate, the sign of a lack of femininity, a manifestation of exhibitionism, and even a sin!”
This is hardly the statement of a man who wants to relegate women to the back seat! Not to mention all the holy women throughout history who have shown remarkable leadership skills and still ended up being canonized saints. And Pope Francis’ recent comments calling for more women in Curial leadership. And the fact that Catholics honor Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth, the highest authority next to God himself (yes, even above the Pope!) So obviously the Church is fine with women having authority.
You might be thinking, “Ok, that sounds great, but then why can’t we have a female Pope? Doesn’t that mean the Church doesn’t treat men and women as equals?” While I know it can be tempting to think that, there are two problems with this line of reasoning. First of all, being in a position of authority doesn’t make you better or more important. We live in a culture that tells us our value lies in how much power we have, but for Christians, authority isn’t about power. It’s about service. According to John Paul II,
“The Church sees in Mary the highest expression of the “feminine genius” and she finds in her a source of constant inspiration..Putting herself at God’s service, she also put herself at the service of others: a service of love. Precisely through this service Mary was able to experience in her life a mysterious, but authentic “reign”. It is not by chance that she is invoked as “Queen of heaven and earth”. The entire community of believers thus invokes her; many nations and peoples call upon her as their “Queen”. For her, “to reign” is to serve! Her service is “to reign”! This is the way in which authority needs to be understood, both in the family and in society and the Church.”
Ok, so far so good? For the Church, authority isn’t about power. It isn’t about being better than everyone else. It’s “a service of love.” Christian authority isn’t merit-based; after all, Jesus made Peter the first Pope, and he denied Him three times! So, it doesn’t make much sense to say that women can’t be equal unless they are priests, since having authority doesn’t have anything to do with your worth as a person.
Of course, as we saw earlier, the Church DOES teach that women can have authority. This is the second problem with our hypothetical objection; it assumes that the only kind of authority that counts is the priesthood! Reserving the priesthood for women for some arbitrary reason would be wrong. But as John Paul II explains, it’s not arbitrary:
“In this perspective of “service”-which, when it is carried out with freedom, reciprocity and love, expresses the truly “royal” nature of mankind-one can also appreciate that the presence of a certain diversity of roles is in no way prejudicial to women, provided that this diversity is not the result of an arbitrary imposition, but is rather an expression of what is specific to being male and female. This issue also has a particular application within the Church. If Christ-by his free and sovereign choice, clearly attested to by the Gospel and by the Church’s constant Tradition-entrusted only to men the task of being an “icon” of his countenance as “shepherd” and “bridegroom” of the Church through the exercise of the ministerial priesthood, this in no way detracts from the role of women, or for that matter from the role of the other members of the Church who are not ordained to the sacred ministry, since all share equally in the dignity proper to the “common priesthood” based on Baptism. These role distinctions should not be viewed in accordance with the criteria of functionality typical in human societies. Rather they must be understood according to the particular criteria of the sacramental economy, i.e. the economy of “signs” which God freely chooses in order to become present in the midst of humanity.”
Phew, I know that was long, but it was worth it, right? The fact that the ministerial priesthood is reserved to men doesn’t mean that women can’t have authority; it just means they can’t have that particular kind of authority, since, God, in His infinite Wisdom, calls men to represent him as the “bridegroom” of the Church, His bride. This imagery wouldn’t make much sense if priests were women.
There are lots of other ways for women to have authority, though, both in the Church and in the world at large. If you’re a Catholic woman with great leadership skills and you feel like God is calling you to use them, go for it! Know that you have the full Magisterial authority of the Church behind you. Remember, though, that Christian leadership is always about service, never about advancing your own interests or seeking power for its own sake. Also, remember these words of Dr. Pia de Solenni: “Everything she does, she does as a woman, not as a genderless creature.” You don’t need to imitate men to be a good leader. In my next post, I’ll explore what true feminine leadership looks like through the examples of some incredible women (think Joan of Arc, Catherine of Siena….) For now, just remember: in all that you do, let your feminine genius shine!