Heaven’s asunder

The priest roared, she walked. KAREN KISSANE tells why she left the Catholic Church 17 years ago and why she continues to feel excluded.

ONCE A Catholic, always a Catholic, the nuns used to tell us. Up to a point, sisters. For me that point first came at a Sunday Mass when I was 17. Come sermon time, the priest roared at me from the pulpit.Good Catholic women, he thundered, looked to their duties as mothers and wives and stayed home to perform them. Good Catholic women did not seek careers, challenge husbands, query the dictates of the church.

Good Catholic women who sought liberation or the pill were doing the devil’s work for him. Part-way through the tirade, this Catholic girl mustered all her courage, stood up and walked down the long, long aisle to the exit. There was no place for me here. Seventeen years later, it seems that nothing has changed and everything has changed for women in the Catholic Church.

Then I could see only a choice between abandoning the faith or losing my sense of self, between my Catholicism and my soul. Now I look back on that priest’s outburst with amusement; only the winds of change could have blown up such a storm in this man. So it seems good news indeed that conservative Catholics this month felt forced to pamphleteer schools and churches on why there will never be women priests. Could it be that at last the issue is being taken seriously? The document, published in Melbourne by Mr Joe Santamaria’s Thomas More Centre, was written by Bishop George Pell, Anna Krohn and Mary Helen Woods, and claimed to put the official church view. It contained such unsubstantiated jewels as the assertion that “many, perhaps most Catholic women throughout the world support the church’s teaching”, and took a patronising swipe at Anglicans for their different views on women’s ordination.

The document also said it was not unjust that women could not become Catholic priests because no person has a right to be a priest, as the priesthood is a vocation or calling from God. One does not choose, one is chosen. If it is true that there is no human element in such decision-making, how does one account for terrible mistakes such as the many Catholic clergy in America accused of sexually abusing children? How does such a tragedy sit with the notion of perfection in the current selection criteria? The document argued that Christ did not ordain women to celebrate the Eucharist (he did not ordain men either, but told all his followers to do this in his name), and listed several different kinds of feminists, making clear that the only ones who can truly call themselves Catholic are those who accept the status quo. Others range from revolutionaries to pagans who want to destroy Christianity.

And then last week came the news that the Pope is about to launch another encyclical condemning artificial birth control. The bottom line with both moves is that Catholicism is still failing women, but both have been responses to enormous pressure for change that shows no sign of abating. The Catholic Church is big, is controlled from the centre, and can be unbending in its views, but it is becoming increasingly clear that it is not a monolith and that there is room for dissent on certain issues.

Why should I care? Because there is so much that is precious and good about Catholicism: its schools and hospitals, its emphasis on cherishing the family and valuing every human life, its commitment to social justice and the willingness of so many of its members to get
their hands dirty working for it. In a world obsessed with material struggle, it holds fast to the importance of inner values.

I treasure the beauty of its rites of passage. As a bride I wanted my marriage blessed, not merely registered. As a mother I glowed through the christenings that formally welcomed my children to the world. And when loved ones were lost long before their time, Requiem Masses gave unexpected comfort and a sense of continuum; it was an Irish Catholic community that gathered like neighbors in a village around my grieving family. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.

Religious identity often becomes more important with motherhood. An Anglican friend who stormed out in the ’70s has surged back into her local parish; a Jewish friend is searching out the right congregation for her growing sons; a Muslim friend who grew up with no connection to her faith is sad that she has no heritage for herself and her child. Although values begin at home, many would like them reinforced by their communities. But if women need churches more as they raise families, so do the churches need women; it is mothers who are the keepers of the faith, who decide whether children will go to Mass, or attend a Catholic school.

My children, I hope, will grow up in a community where not everyone toes the party line on the status of women in general, and the issue of their ordination in particular. There are many traditionalists who point out that Jesus was male, no apostles were women, and that parts of the New Testament forbade women to teach or to tell men what to do _ ergo, women should not be ordained. But other Catholic theologians and Biblical scholars, including many men, point out that it was a woman, Mary Magdalen, who first saw the risen Christ and was sent to spread the good news _ not a bad definition of an apostle. A group of women accompanied Jesus and the 12 on their missionary journeys, and many followed him to the foot of the cross. Other passages in the New Testament challenge not only patriarchy but colonialism, racism and slavery, proclaiming “no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus”.

What would such iconoclasts have made of today’s debates? In Catholic scholarship there also is a growing understanding of how women were written out of the records. One Bible passage describes the woman who anointed the feet of Christ just before the passion narrative, saying that wherever the gospel would be told, her act would be recorded. Her name wasn’t. Another woman who was greeted by Paul with the title “apostle”, Junia, lost her gender in the translation of the text from Greek to English; the translator assumed that if she was an apostle, she must be a man.

But when opposing sides in the ordination debate are reduced to hurling verses at each other like school debaters trying to score points, the real point is lost. Such decisions should be made not in an adversarial tussle but against the backdrop of the spirit of the gospel. To argue, as the More Centre document did, that the church cannot ordain women because it never has is nonsense. Theology is not handed down from on high and set in stone tablets. It is a man-made construct, a human endeavor; the classic definition is “faith seeking understanding”. It develops and changes as human consciousness evolves; up until the 19th Century, for example, Christians used a text about slaves obeying their masters to justify slavery.

That the Catholic Church has not yet grappled with outdated views that leave so many of its women feeling hurt, devalued and excluded is a failure of courage or insight or both. American author M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist and committed Christian, writes about the nexus between psychological development and spiritual growth. He sees the two greatest sins of Christianity as its exclusion of so many (the divorced, homosexuals, women) and its traditional intolerance of doubt and doubters. It is a duty to question and to wrestle with the big ones, Dr Peck argues, as any individual or group on a path of spiritual growth must pass through periods of doubt to move forward.

Such winds of change may not have reached the Vatican yet, but there are growing pockets of Catholicism where the cobwebs are in tatters. A Melbourne priest recently asked his startled congregation to refer to God as “she” throughout one Mass, as a reminder that God is beyond gender. Perhaps there is room for women like me now. And, you know, once a Catholic, always a Catholic.

First published in The Age.