WOMEN GIVE LIFE TO THE CHURCH
In the eyes of the state and society, the equality
of women automatically forms an inherent element of all laws and regulations,
and - with varying degrees of success - their purpose is to constantly
ensure that this basic principle is 'translated' into daily life. And yet
it is precisely that community which claims to base itself on Jesus Christ
and His message, the 'rock' of equality for all mankind, and thus for men
and women (Gal. 3,28), which ignores that evangeli-cal source, and within
its own confines has still not brought the equality of women to fruition,
despite all kinds of formal verbal assurances.
It is also hardly to be expected that the European
Bishops Synod will focus intensive attention on the question of how to
ensure true equality for women in the Roman Catholic church. It is all
the more important, therefore, that European women bring to the discussion
platform exactly what this church means to them, what concerns them and
causes them sorrow and pain in it, and what gives them reason for hope.
In the autumn of 1999, the Austrian Platform 'Wir
sind Kirche' (= 'We Are Church') will publish a new pastoral letter ‘from
the flock of the faithful’ under the title of WOMEN GIVE LIFE TO THE CHURCH
- it is the result of an intensive process of dialogue together with, and
As an initial pulse to setting the discussion
'wheels' in motion, we present here some of the principal statements contained
in this pastoral letter and we invite women (and men) to expand on it and
give it, as it were, a truly European dimension. We realise, of course,
that a letter from Austrian women will inevitably reflect largely Austrian
desires and hopes. We fully expect, however, that the experiences of women
in other countries will help to broaden our collective horizons and give
us greater diversity - our aim is, in this way, to clarify the hopes and
emotions of European Christian women for the benefit of the members of
the European Bishops Synod.
We gladly invite you, therefore, to participate
in the EUROPEAN CHRISTIAN FORUM via the Internet, by mailing to us your
contribution, or to lay your joy and hope, your sorrow and anxiety, at
the 'wailing wall' - in the steadfast trust that God, at least, will hear
Excerpts from "WOMEN GIVE LIFE TO THE CHURCH"
An initial impulse, to set 'the ball rolling'
On the path to change towards greater justice and
improved opportunities for women, the women's movement within the Church
has already made good progress. Expressions of solidarity have also come
from men, as also from some quarters of the Church leaders-hip. The further
development of the church which will do justice to both men and women,
does not depend, however, on a hierarchy bringing those wishes to fruition
- that process has been in progress for a long time already.
There has been a fundamental change in the day-to-day
life of women, and the way in which women are perceived. What it means
to be a woman has never been formulated in concise and clear terms, nor
too have the often extremely specific expectations in respect of women
ever been stated in either society or the church. All groups within the
women's movement have shared the same struggle against the limiting and
thus life-blocking stereotypes. In particular, time has shown, and will
continue to show, that the roles of women and their behaviour patterns
do not spring inexorably from the innate nature of women, their inner selves
or their specific calling. They are not laws of nature, and nor do they
have a godly source - but they can be changed. It is human effort alone
that can, and must, give them shape.
It is the common desire of many women and men to
work together in building a society which will provide good living conditions
for both sexes, and which will also stimulate a renewal of the Roman Catholic
church able to do justice to them both. Despite growing solidarity between
men and women, a number of structural inequalities and unjust power relations
The women's movement of this century has been borne
on the wings of the realisation that many difficulties and deprivations,
which so many women have endured in the belief that they were alone, were
in fact the lot of many others like them. This feeling of 'community sharing'
has also been repeatedly and painfully penetrated by the experience that
women ultimately have extremely diverse thinking patterns and interests.
In terms of the church too, women compete from the point of view of their
individual mentalities, origins and life styles, or are played out against
All statements about 'women in the church' or 'the
position and calling of women' suggest a 'same-ness', whereas it is in
fact the wide contrasts that dominate the picture. The call for generally
valid statements about women, reduce and limit the reality. The Roman Catholic
church accommodates women with all kinds of mentalities and life styles.
When encounters and discussions are successfully sought, and the conflicts
which arise from them are openly discussed, the chances of enrichment for
For thousands of years, the Bible has been a source
of strength and solace for women, but for the same period of time it has
also been used to justify the oppression of women. Feminist exegesis has
clearly shown that both women and men were presented as examples of faith
in the New Testament. Historical and Biblical falsifications have also
been discovered and corrected. Efforts to bring an end to the use of women-unfriendly
tendencies in a number of Bible texts, and the interpretations carried
through history especially, have also reached official committees. This
development will undoubtedly continue. Women themselves will take the Bible
into their own hands, will not allow it to be taken from them, will call
it a liberating book, will read it together, and will explain it in creative
terms on the basis of their own lives.
Women's dissatisfaction with a one-sided masculine
image of God, has resulted in creative attempts to speak of a female deity.
Until now, very few female Bible figures have been 'brought to life', as
it were. This vigorous development is made extremely difficult by the fact
that the official language of the Church, the liturgical language in particular,
continues to cling to the exclusivity of traditional male concepts. The
crucial question is : to what extent are the essentially funda-mental elements
of the Christian faith still based on the concept of male superiori-ty?
When women (and men) go in search of new godly images
and concepts, and allow themselves to be led by the rejection of a male
domi-nant image of God, it will be a sign of hope and an expression of
spiritual vitality which will not always allow itself to fall into the
mould of the eternal Catholic tradition, but which at best will have a
'fertile' effect on the language of the Church, as a whole.
Mary of Nazareth, as 'Mother of God', was said for
centuries to be the refuge of Catholic female Christianity. The devotion
to Mary has had a divisive effect on women in the church - many of the
self-assured and critical among them, have turned away from Catholic piety
towards the Virgin Mary, and in opposition to it have (re-)discovered another
Mary, namely the Mary of the New Testament. In her, many have found a new
friend, a sister in faith. They see her as someone who, in the same way
as they, searched for her own path in faith, saw the reality for what it
was, did not understand it all, and repeatedly fought for trust.
Liturgical celebrations to which women with, for,
and among each other, give shape are known over a wide area. Central to
them is the immediate merging of spirituality and daily life. Although
many of them can only be practised in small groups, parish communities
will offer enough opportunities to celebrate liturgies that are both more
lively and closer to life, and which especially do greater justice to women.
They fail, on the other hand, to fully reflect the actual experien-ces
of women (and men), and life-as-it-is-actually-lived is too often excluded.
A language acceptable to both men and women, in addition to a female image
of God, are hardly ever a part of 'normal' Sunday masses.
Women are currently active in all working areas of
the Roman Catholic church and are shouldering all kinds of responsibilities.
They fulfil both professional and honorary ministries, which would never
have been entrusted to them in the past. And in ever-widening circles,
the demand of Catholic women to be admitted to the ordained ministry is
becoming more and more audible. This demand has concen-trated in recent
years primarily on admission to the deaconate, bearing in mind that evidence
has shown that in the early church this ministry was exerci-sed by women,
and because the discussion on this issue has not been limited by Papal
restrictions. There is, nonetheless, a good deal of scepticism within the
women's movement in today's churches, with regard to women gaining access
to the various ministries within the Roman Catholic church.
The decision to exclude women from the ordained ministries
of the Roman Catholic church remains unchanged, despite the fact that the
exegetic and theolo-gical presumptions on which it has been based, have
long been subject to on-going examina-tion and revision. In the final analysis,
it is the age-old Church tradition of the teaching as 'true to the Lord's
example', which counts, rather than an under-standing based on scientific
Bible studies of what Jesus did and meant. The Church's official 'teaching'
also carries more weight than the pastoral engagement of very many women
which, in fact, differs only slightly from the type of service provided
by the ordained priest. The argument of 'bearing the ecumenical side of
the issue in mind' is also used in a one-sided fashion. Some Christian
churches have ultimately opened their doors to women's ordination to the
ministry. In this connection, however, the practice of the orthodox Church
weighs more heavily than that of all those other churches - which, on the
other hand, is not the case in praxis, for instance, for those who
are divorced and re-marry.
The work of people in honorary ministries is absolutely
vital in the church. Without the unpaid cooperation of women, important
pastoral activities would stop. Nor should we ignore the fact that a fair
number of women choose to give their time and efforts to the church, rather
than take paid employment. The question of what kind of tangible acknowledgement,
as well as the kind of social safeguards which should be attached to such
work, is one which should also be addressed to the Church. In view of the
fact that the work of people fulfilling honorary ministries constitutes
a valuable part of the Church's work, the Church will need to cooperate
with the appropriate authorities in order to develop a structure whereby
such work can be honoured in financial terms, so that for those women who
give their time and energies unpaid, suffer no disadvantages in terms of
social security and old age provisions.
Church practice is - to a large extent - women's
practice. Many church groups are composed largely - if not entirely - of
women. The women's movement has become very aware of this and has begun
to see itself more consciously as 'church' and to act accordingly. Women's
Church is evident in many local groups and is a movement cutting right
across the confessional churches as a whole - for many, it offers a new
framework for identification and a sense of solidarity. Women's Church
is also a design - albeit utopian - for the renewal of the Church as a
whole, that is not exclusive in itself, but is rather a church focused
on doing justice to both women and men. Whether or not the women's church
will become for the Roman Catholic church - in which women are also in
the majority - a strong renewal movement or will slowly disintegrate, remains
very much an open question. Whether or not it will be easier or more difficult
for women to feel themselves to be part of the women's church, and to identify
themselves at the same time with the Roman Catholic church and feel a sense
of 'engagement' with it, is also far from certain.
The structural decision-making power in the Roman
Catholic church remains unchanged in the hands of a few, pro-celibacy,
men. The developments actually taking place, are given shape by women and
men who on the basis of their individual life styles, opinions and attitudes
reflect, at least in part, the various shades and nuances which make up
our society. Communication and cooperation within the church community,
and between that church community and the church leadership, constitute
the challenges for the time ahead. Whether or not the church develops further
in a positive way, will depend on the willingness to be open to one another,
to take each other seriously and also, despite differences in substance,
to work together and to pray together.
(Translation by Sylvia Dierks-Mallett)