In my class yesterday (a survey of Christian thought and practices), I was lecturing about monastic life in the Middle Ages. Among other points, I mentioned that medieval religious orders provided settings where women could be educated and assume leadership roles (primarily among other women), thinking of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) who was the Abbess of a monastic community in Rupertsberg. Other women medieval writers who developed influential writings, like Mechtild of Magdeburg (ca. 1210-1282) and Catherine of Siena (1347-80), belonged to tertiaries or third orders, which were monastic community for laypersons. This part of the lesson emphasized that monastic reforms around the 12th century opened religious orders more extensively to women and laity.
Still speaking of medieval reforms, I displayed a picture of Francis of Assisi on the screen at the front of the room. I mentioned that Francis was concerned about the poor and the animals and that he has inspired some contemporary Christians, including the current pope who took Francis as his name. We talked about how both St. Francis and Pope Francis are seen as reformers.
Because earlier in my lesson I’d made a point of speaking of women’s experience, when I spoke about the Pope’s name as a possible sign of renewal or reform, Gina Messina-Dysert’s question “What about the women?” came to mind. In her recent post, she responded to the Pope’s exclusion of many issues that concern women in his address to the US Catholic Bishops. Like Gina, I applaud many of the Pope’s reforms but I am confused about how rarely he is criticized for maintaining the long-held Catholic view that disallows women to be ordained as priests.
Let me provide an example: During the Pope’s visit to the US, one of my students described Pope Francis as “very liberal.” When I interjected that he has not supported the ordination of women, the student laughed and said the pope would be accused of heresy for supporting that! While that may be true, my more immediate concern was that in a classroom of students who are mostly supportive of women in ministry, the Catholic restrictions on the priesthood were seen as a part of the tradition not worth challenging. Why is it that preserving male leadership is excused as a part of the tradition while preserving exclusive marriage practices is something to be challenged? They are interrelated.
As we know from blogs and social media sites, many people who support LGBTQ rights were upset over news stories about the Pope meeting with Kim Davis, the county clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Certainly such a meeting is disturbing to same-sex marriage advocates. But is it surprising? At least one womanist ethicist I know, Eboni Marshall Turman, pointed out in a Facebook discussion that the church has long since been public in its support of male privilege and heteronormativity. My intent is not to single out Catholicism for sexist practices. When recently asked about women’s ordination and leadership in Baptist churches in my own town of Waco Texas, I had to admit that even though ordination of women is permissible and practiced in many of the churches, the number of churches that have called women to the position of senior pastor is shockingly few.
My point is this: When we find teachings in particular religious traditions that justify the exclusion of one group, we should expect to find justifications for excluding other groups, too. In the same discussion I referenced above, Eboni Marshall Turman said, ”Oppressions are compounded and intersectional. If they come for me, it is just a matter of time before they come for you. This is basic theological ethics.”
The experiences of varied groups are not the same; our oppressions and marginalizations also differ. But practices of exclusion are constructed on the same logic that values some persons (the in-group) more than others (the outsiders). Therefore, feminists have a responsibility to advance the well-being and interests of other groups (besides women) who are being marginalized.
Another reason for this advocacy is that many women are included in other marginalized groups. To ignore the intersectionality of oppression is to deny its pervasiveness and the realities of women’s lives. This is why feminists of color are often critical of white feminism. (The recent debate over the photo shoot for the movie Suffragette is a new instance of a persistent critique of white or mainstream feminism. See Rebecca Carroll’s piece on “Suffragette’s Publicity Campaign and the Politics of Erasure”).
To counter the limitations of our own experiences and be consistent in our pursuit of equality, feminists should intentionally cultivate practices of solidarity and coalition-building in our work. I, like everyone else, am often unable to see the inconsistencies in my own practices and teachings without others’ experiences to expand my view. This is one reason I value this Feminism and Religion community. Thank you for the wisdom and practices you offer from your own religious traditions and your own experiences of marginalization. You make me a better feminist through your writings and comments.
Perhaps working together, we can bring about religious reforms that our descendants will recognize in the centuries to come.
Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.
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