Women for a Franciscan World by Dawn Morais Webster

Dawn Morais Webster, the Pope off to his summer palace, Castel Gandolfo. He tells the world he will now become just a “humble pilgrim.”Women: Architects and Engineers of a Franciscan World

This New Year’s Eve I find myself attending Mass at St. Austin’s Church in Austin, Texas. A long way from Hawaii and en route to Argentina which gave us Pope Francis. This Mass is also a celebration of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

This crossing of many currents is perhaps as eloquent a statement as any on where women have traditionally found themselves in the church—up on a pedestal or totally in service to others. Both exalted and silenced. Tradition has not served women in the church as well as women have themselves served the church and the community through many ministries. The male leaders of the church have been happy to raise their eyes heavenward and sing the praises of Mary and the many female saints while consigning the women around them to positions of pure service, if not servitude.

Petri Dishes and Patron Saints

Women have been seen primarily as little more than petri dishes, vessels for the development of fertilized eggs and the perpetuation of the human race. The refusal to accord to women the right men enjoy of making their own decisions about their lives is the basic dehumanizing affront that underlies the tradition of male dominion over women.

Women who still see themselves as part of the church, look to the New Year, and to Pope Francis, for concrete action that acknowledges the full equality in the church that they have attained in politics, business and civil society. Their patience with men without wombs telling women who have them what they should or should not be doing with “the fruit” therein is frayed to the point of exhaustion. They wait to be consulted, to be accepted as full participants in all aspects of the life of the church; to be acknowledged as equals and be listened to as much as they have been pressed into silent service through the ages.

If anyone can remake the church and promote a more Christ-like spirit, it is a pope who takes his name from the saint who heard and responded joyously to Christ’s call to “rebuild my house.” Leonardo Boff, one of the founding fathers of Liberation Theology expresses just that hope in a comment that Paul Vallely quotes in his excellent book, Pope Francis: Untying the Knots: “Francis is more than a name—it’s a plan. It’s a plan for a poor Church, one that is close to the people, gospel-centered, loving and protective towards nature which is being devastated today.”

More than once Vallely quotes a former long-time aide who describes Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s irritation with the high-handed advice of Rome. He had no patience, we are told, for “Italians with emptying churches telling bishops in countries with growing congregations what they should and should not be doing.” This pope should be able to understand that women who bring life into the world are done with being patronized by men who have no ability to bear the burden and the privilege of doing the same.

St Austin NY Eve 2014Pope Francis’ attitude towards the meddlesome Curia offers hope to women who have long had to deal with the men of the church telling them what they should or should not be doing with their bodies. Vallely makes the argument repeatedly that this is a Pope who has undergone a personal change: from a charismatic leader who was “unyielding and domineering with the Jesuits in his charge” during his time as Provincial of the order in Argentina to a pontiff who has sent several signals that he intends to bring back the spirit of Vatican II. The man who was once the “hammer” to Liberation Theology with its active solidarity with the poor has taken many steps to usher in its revival. In word and deed, he has embraced “a new model of leadership, one which involved consultation, participation, collegiality, and listening.”

Pope Francis is a pope for our times and for our hurting planet. It is the prayer of millions of people in the pews who have grown weary of the politics of the Church, that he may he continue to be guided by the spirit of the saint who in his time, threw off tradition in favor of the tough truth of the Gospel. And women, given their due, could be this Pope’s most effective engineers and architects for the much needed, long overdue makeover of a church that is in terrible disrepair.

Dawn Morais Webster was born in Kerala. She is the mother of two young adults, and wife of a man with Quaker and Episcopalian roots. She was raised Catholic in largely Muslim, cosmopolitan Malaysia and had her schooling with Franciscan nuns who remain an inspiration. Her blog at http://freecatholic808 is a small voice–but she believes she is part of a much larger community of faith-filled dissenters. Hawaii has been her home for more than a decade. The islands’ mindfulness of its past and the wisdom of those who have gone before, as well as its attention to place and people, help the soul to sing.

Categories: Catholic Church, Feminism, General, Mariology, Women in the Church

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24 replies

  1. As Mary Hunt has pointed out, it does not seem that this pope has read any feminist theology or that he has any idea what it might mean to move from the women on the pedestal and women with separate roles ideology of his church. Do you see any signs that he knows or listens to any women who do not accept the church’s teachings on women? If so I would love to hear of it. I am not just saying this, I really would. My hope is that he would listen to just one of us. That could be enough to change his heart. Shall we take up a collection to send Elizabeth Johnson to Rome? And not for an inquisition?


  2. A stirring post. I share the hope of so many for a humane, responsive pope. I was very disappointed when, as I understand it, Pope Francis refused even to open dialogue on women’s ordination. I would gladly fund Elizabeth Johnson’s trip to Rome or a whole delegation of lay women, nuns, and feminist theologians.


  3. I would be happy to hear about any of these men in skirts promoting feminism in the Roman Catholic Church. Francis may be doing well in some areas, but he has yet to consider ordaining women or even promoting them from handmaidens. As I guess everyone knows, it’s the women who do most of the real, physical work in the churches. Your blog is somewhat hopeful. Brava!


  4. Many Congregations of Women Religious have an office in Rome. They could just invite him for supper. :-) Wonder if he’d go.


  5. Just because he seems to be softening on the issue of homosexuality does not make him a liberal. I know how much women hope and want the church to change. I grew up Catholic. I see so many of my friends getting their hopes up about this pope and everything I have read shows that he is no different on women’s issues than his predecessors. I wish that he was different. It would be so wonderful to see all of my female friends and relatives find what they need from the church. Unfortunately I think it is a pipe dream. That institution is not interested in equality. They never have been. The Catholic church and the men who run it will never willingly give up half of their power. They have no reason to as long as women keep going to church. Nothing would make me happier than to have Francis prove me wrong! I will throw a party if he does. Blessed be.


    • Sometimes I wonder if the status of women in the Catholic church today is exactly what most Catholic women want. i suspect its connected to apathy towards their faith in general. It seems its much easier for most women to just “feel safe and saved” if they follow the “rules of the men”.
      Having lived my life as a single woman once in the convent, I suspect that the need I have for the Church to become more an expression of Divine Love is in the minority.
      When as a single woman, one has put their entire life in their Faith, it’s almost impossible to accept the wrath of the Elders should one express their insights,spiritual needs and
      passionate desire for equality.
      I think it will take the majority of women to “wake-up” come out of their slumber and have the courage to make our Church become truly an expression of God’s love.


  6. I once attended a talk by the well-known peace activist Sr. Anne Montgomery, where she was asked why she was not protesting just as avidly the lack of ordination of women in the Church. She said she thought the whole institution of the priesthood was misconceived, and that ordaining women was simply the wrong way round: she wanted the priesthood to become something the community participated in and maintained for themselves, with nobody on a pedestal. That made sense to me and more truly feminist.


    • I also do not support women’s ordination. A hierarchy is still a hierarchy, whether led by a male or a female. It’s “new wine into old wineskins”. I think a totally new structure is needed, based on the Gospels and not on the Roman Empire. Glad to know there are others of like mind!


      • Interesting, what would the structure be, based on the Gospels, maybe feeding the 5,000?


      • following Sarah’s question at 4:51…
        If we believe the Church is the Community of Disciples of Jesus, perhaps a circle would be a more accurate image and functional structure than a hierarchical order based on image of ladder or triangle. All the people would then have responsibilities within the community and all the gifts would be called forth for service. It would also be total chaos! – tho the Quakers have been doing it for a very long time. I’m not sure about the “priest” function which seems a hold-over from the Jerusalem Temple. Jesus didn’t seem to envision a new Church, but a community of Jewish followers who worshipped as Jews. The Christian Church as separate developed later for various historical reasons.

        Other than physical structure, I would envision a church with “doctrine” that embodied the ideals of Jesus teaching, while leaving theological study open and flexible. We would acknowledge that we do not have all the truth about God and were in an ongoing process of discovery. Some of our arrogance about “being human” could be set aside in learning to respect and value other creatures and creation itself. Discussion, study, change, would be positive instead of being labelled “heresy”, and yes, this also would be messy. Could we learn how to dialog with love and handle the mess?

        I do think that the present structure of Church (I’m relating to the Roman Church btw) fulfilled a purpose for it’s time. I believe that we build on what went before and preserve what is healthy and useful. But we now have printing presses and computers, a lot (most?) people can read and write, information is more than available, people have better education opportunities, women and children are no longer the property of men, Monarchs are largely symbolic figures while people vote for those who govern. Most religions no longer sacrifice animals and if we don’t learn how to get along better with each other and respect our environment, we will be extinct.

        What would it be like if the church substituted the sermon on the mount (or plain) for canon law?


      • Barbara, who did a hierarchical and misogynist church “serve at the time”? Certainly not women burned as witches, Jews expelled from Spain, so-called heretics burned at the stake, or the indigenous peoples of Europe and then the colonies forced to convert or lose their lives or livlihoods. I don’t think it serves any good purpose to sugarcoat history by calling domination and violence “appropriate for their times.” Domination and violence are not and never were appropriate in any time.


      • Barbara, what an important statement this is: “Other than physical structure, I would envision a church with “doctrine” that embodied the ideals of Jesus teaching, while leaving theological study open and flexible. We would acknowledge that we do not have all the truth about God and were in an ongoing process of discovery.” Yes, and surely always will be.

        Only recently, string theory in science dramatically changed the universe into something we probably know nothing about. From the news stories, we learn that: “Over a century ago the pioneers of quantum theory dismantled the common-sense notion that the world ‘out there’ consists of hard, solid, tangible things. As one of the greatest of these pioneers, Werner Heisenberg, noted, ‘The atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.'”

        Have a look at this story by Deepak Chopra, and see what you think:

        The article ends by saying: “God will rest comfortably that creation’s greatest mysteries haven’t been revealed. At some point, perhaps in the near future, science will finally accept, and awards will soon follow, that the mind cannot be left out of the picture that the mind studies.”


  7. I agree with so much of what is said here and would simply like to add the reminder that I give myself daily: if we remove myself from the orbit of the church we give up the opportunity to keep saying the things that need to be said from within. The men who control the church may not have evolved sufficiently–Pope Francis included–to recognize that we are there and we are speaking, acting, listening and responding. But my regular presence at church is a constant challenge and a question that demands to be answered –and will be answered, perhaps not as quickly as all of us would like. But it will be answered–as every other question of social justice has been answered and continues to be negotiated by the sheer presence and persistence of those touched by it,whether they are protagonists or bit players. I may be consigned to the margins by my church but I will not willingly take myself to the margins and make it easier to be ignored. I hope my dissenting presence–and the presence of other dissenters– make the establishment uncomfortable enough to change. Eventually. My continuing inspiration is Sr. Simone Campbell of Network Lobby. http://www.networklobby.org/ See you in church!!!


  8. to Carol (I can’t find a reply button at the post)
    “Barbara, who did a hierarchical and misogynist church “serve at the time”?”

    Carol, there were some good things going on as well. I think whatever is positive should be remembered. I don’t see this as “sugarcoating” unless it denies the evil.

    Medieval Monasteries preserved learning and Women’s Monasteries were a refuge for some women and a place where women could learn to read and write along with other skills that gave them some security and independence. Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, the desert mothers, people like Dorothy Day, Jean Vanier (L’Arche), numerous people who have given their lives for justice and peace. Reformers like Francis and Clare of Assisi and Dominic de Guzman.

    This is some of the Church. It is human and so not perfect. The men of Rome are a very small part. We just give them too much power.


  9. I guess I would make a distinction b/w the hierarchical structure of the church and the church as a whole. I don’t think the hierarchical male dominant structure itself ever was a good thing. But I am really glad that women have always found a way around the structure.


    • It’s hard to remember sometimes, and limit “church” to a body of men, many of whom seem to have gone crazy on testosterone, a lopsided opinion of their own importance, and funny outdated fashion.


  10. Thank you for the article Sarah. I find the language of science confusing sometimes, but words like “Mystery” and “experience” make sense to my experience of the Mystery that we call “God”. As I struggle through a different vocabulary, I find it seems to confirm this. Some theologians are now speaking of the Incarnation as including all of Creation, which makes sense to me. I think it’s Thomas Aquinas who wrote: “Where God is not, nothing is”. So all of creation is animated by the Mystery – God didn’t sit around waiting for Jesus to be born to become enfleshed. Nor is the Holy One limited to being enfleshed in humans.

    “objective” science must one day come to grips with subjectivity” – perhaps we are learning the necessity of integrating both sides of our brains and personalities.

    Do you ever wonder what Christianity might look like if Jesus hadn’t been killed so early in his life? If he had had more time to educate and form his followers?


    • Barbara, I am moved by your insights, throughout this discussion, your questions, especially, are wonderfully mysterious. It must be that Jesus died exactly when he was called to, because his teaching survived, splendidly, and made it’s way into the hearts of people all over the world. His outreach to the poor was heard. Maybe not the hierarchy of the churches necessarily, but the Gospel teaching has always opened itself directly to the poor. Ironically the slaves in America, for instance, found in the religion of their oppressors an amazing refuge of love. Very recently in terms of science, I was reading that various businesses are beginning to take quite seriously the problem of global warming in their decision making process. Caring for the planet itself, in that way, is no different than Jesus’s passion for the poor, who had been ignored by the religious leaders of his time, and thus left without any help at all. I think Jesus would surely be an environmentalist today, and support the environmental science which is greatly needed to save not just human life, but all life in our world.


  11. Barbara, I much refer your plain-speaking to what sounds to me like Deepak Chopra’s sleight-of-mouth with science and theology. He has always been way too slippery –and celebrity consumer-oriented–for my taste. Perhaps I am being unkind. But it seems to me we need to pay more attention to the needs of people around us and quit splitting hairs –or atoms–to get in touch with the Divine.She is all around us. I like very much the idea of the Incarnation in all of Creation. I have never wondered (strangely perhaps) how different Christianity might have been if Jesus not been killed so early. I think his early death gives the Gospels a timeless urgency–it has always seemed to me that it makes it even more imperative that we continue what he started. Unfortunately that impulse has translated into the building of an institution with (decaying) power structures rather than into the communities of sharing and mutual care that Jesus talked about so much. As you point out, we need to embrace the sermon on the plain. me ke aloha.


    • Even tho I have difficulty understanding scientific language, it has helped me through others who do understand it and has expanded my concept of the Divine. I didn’t mean to give the impression that Deepak Chopra was superficial or not helpful. I believe that science has much to teach us about God and is worth the effort to understand as much as is possible.


  12. Reading “art department” Sarah, I looked at your web page and it’s fascinating. Can’t wait to explore!

    Arts and Science and all that is, reveal something of the Creator. We are surrounded with riches!


  13. Thanks for pointing me to Sarah’s website, Barbara. I just visited and will go back again. Wonderful riches to explore.


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