International Movement
We Are Church / European Network



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 between, women.

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 us.

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 still exist.
  • 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 each other.
  • 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 everyone improve.
  • 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)

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    Webpage Editor: Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
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    Posted 20 July 1999
    Last revised 17 September 1999
    Electronic text Copyright © 1999 Ingrid H. Shafer