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viewpoint

The Church would not exist without women

| Tuesday, January 21, 2020

No Christian denomination — I dare say, no Abrahamic religion or subset thereof — has been influenced by women to the same extent as Catholicism. Arguably, and in a similar vein, it could be said that of the world’s major religions (by number of adherents: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Judaism), no other tradition venerates women to the same extent as the Roman Catholic faith.

First and foremost, we give thanks to and for the most famous woman in all of history, known by many names including Blessed Mother, Queen of Heaven, Cause of Our Joy and, most simply, Our Lady. Mary, the Mother of God and namesake of this University, is no small figure, nor is the role she plays in Catholicism and Christianity more broadly to be taken for granted. Especially in more Protestant circles, Catholics invoke Mary at their own peril; after all, the close bond between Catholics and Our Lady is among the most common criticisms we face from our fellow Christians. Nevertheless, we persist.  

Beyond Mary, the Church has been blessed by the lives, work and service of women, such as Saints Felicity and Perpetua, Catherine of Siena, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Edith Stein and Teresa of Calcutta, as well as the likes of Sister Thea Bowman, Dorothy Day and Sister Norma Pimentel. For every word comprising this article, I could list, even limited to the United States, a person, religious community or institution embodying the contributions of Catholic women.

In a society that primarily uses numerical data to gauge equality and opportunity — for example, the number of female CEOs, the male-to-female ratio in STEM, the number of women in the legal profession and the number of female presidents — it is easy to see the Church as an antiquated, even oppressive, institution, given its lack (indeed, its doctrinal rejection) of female priests, bishops and popes. A qualitative review of reality, however, reveals that Catholic women, lay and religious, have been trailblazers since the time of Christ.

The politically charged issues of particular concern for women in our society (e.g., abortion, contraception and divorce) tend to dominate the conversation when it comes to the relationship between Catholicism and women. While these things are important, and not easy topics, they’re by no means the whole conversation. Moreover, there has been no shortage of misguided clerics failing to acknowledge the significant role of women, both within the Church as an institution and in the life of the Church more broadly (especially, it’s worth adding, outside of the home). Nevertheless, Catholic women — thankfully — persist.

Last week, a fellow law student submitted to The Observer a letter to the editor in which she stated, “The Catholic Church is a men’s institution where women can worship, even in 2020.” As Allison Lantero points out, Notre Dame’s own history of having women on its campus as full-fledged members of the student body, faculty and staff is short, but she fails to recognize the pivotal role of Catholic women in this country, dating back well before the founding of Notre Dame — in schools, hospitals, social services and more. As Dr. Timothy Matovina from Notre Dame’s department of theology puts it, today’s American Catholics stand on the shoulders of the women religious who came before us.

I agree with Lantero when she says there remains work to be done. There remains much more veneration, praise and acknowledgement to do, but we cannot focus on things like statues — and for the reasons stated above, we cannot undermine the importance of those statues portraying a certain Virgin. (I would like to point out that, when constructing Sacred Heart Church — now known as the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and the mother church of the Congregation of Holy Cross in the United States — Fr. Edward Sorin insisted men and women be represented equally in the church’s stained-glass windows and paintings; albeit, there exists a lack of racial and ethnic diversity in those depictions, rectifying which is a particular interest of mine.)

Last summer, while working in our nation’s capital, I volunteered weekly at the Jeanne Jugan Residence, a nursing home operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor. If you’re ever interested in seeing just how kick a– women religious are (forgive me, but only a bit of profanity is strong enough to do them justice), observe them in their natural habitat: at work in one of their apostolates, leveraging members of Congress on behalf of our society’s most vulnerable or even staring down members of law enforcement as they’re threatened with arrest in order to advance their cause.

I know what you’re thinking: David, all of that is great, but they’re not in charge. They’re just a bunch of women working for free, subservient to men wearing dresses and funny hats. (For the record, they’re called cassocks and zucchettos.) But that, dear readers, is where the greatest misunderstanding exists. If not entirely, this perception is predominantly fueled by the perversion that is clericalism, that the clergy are the Church and the Church is the clergy. This belief has been embraced by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and, most regrettably, by members of the clergy itself, but nothing could be further from the truth. One only has to dig a little into — and open one’s mind to the reality that is — the Church’s history as well as its present reality. When credit is given where credit is due, women religious, combined with lay men and women, even as a matter of numerically quantified achievements, have done more for our Church than all the men who have made up the clergy over the years, especially in the United States. For this reason, perhaps these timely discussions about the role of women in the Church would be more fruitful and constructive if, rather than talking about what women are not or cannot be, we talk about what they are and finally start giving them long-deserved recognition for what they have done and what they continue to do.

The Catholic Church, at its heart, does not depend on its more institutional elements, such as the College of Cardinals, bishops’ conferences or even the ominous and “all-powerful” Magisterium. Certainly, all of those things play key roles, but they are not, alone, what give life and purpose to the Church. The Eucharist is, first and foremost, “the source and summit of the Christian life,” but beyond that, the Church’s strength — its very existence — lies in its universality, its diversity and, yes, its faithful, devout, inspiring and courageous women on the frontlines, living as mothers, wives, daughters, sisters and leaders in their own right.

So, I now speak directly to the women currently reading this. Undoubtedly, many of you are Catholic, and perhaps you’ve thought about life in service of the Church. To you especially, I convey the infamous words of Pope Saint John Paul II, “Be not afraid!” 

Our world needs you. Our Church needs you. And neither would be the same — in fact, neither would exist — without you. 

Thanks be to God for Catholic women — past, present and future.

David Spicer

law school class of 2020

Jan. 20

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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