Reform? Progress? By Elise M. Edwards

Elise EdwardsIn 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

Author: Elise M. Edwards

I am a Lecturer at Baylor University and a registered architect in the State of Florida. My academic and professional career is interdisciplinary. I work between the fields of theology, ethics, and aesthetics, examining how they inform and shape each other and express various commitments of their communities.

12 thoughts on “Reform? Progress? By Elise M. Edwards”

  1. What a lovely piece, Elise. I especially like your assertion that we “are often unable to see the inconsistencies in [our] own practices and teaching without others’ experiences that expand [our] view.” It’s one of the things I value about community, including the community of FAR readers and contributors. Thank you for posting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for putting into such erudite words my feelings about Pope Francis’ glaring shortcoming in not addressing bring women to the table and acknowledging that they are equal in the eyes of God and should be treated equally in the eyes of the Catholic Church.


    1. Thank you! If you have not read Gina Messina-Dysert’s posts on the topic, I encourage you to do so! It’s a topic that comes up fairly often around here.


  3. Eboni Marshall Turman’s comment reminded me of Martin Neimöller’s “First they came…” poem. The poem was initially included in a speech Niemöller gave in 1946. Research by Harold Marcuse indicates the original groups mentioned in the poem were Communists, the incurably sick, Jews, and people in occupied countries. Through the years, Niemöller came up with different versions, depending on the year and context. One version I give below:

    Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten,
    habe ich geschwiegen;
    ich war ja kein Kommunist.

    Als sie die Sozialdemokraten einsperrten,
    habe ich geschwiegen;
    ich war ja kein Sozialdemokrat.

    Als sie die Gewerkschafter holten,
    habe ich nicht protestiert;
    ich war ja kein Gewerkschafter.

    Als sie die Juden holten,
    habe ich geschwiegen;
    ich war ja kein Jude.

    Als sie mich holten,
    gab es keinen mehr,
    der protestieren konnte.

    When the Nazis came for the communists,
    I did not speak out;
    As I was not a communist.

    When they locked up the social democrats,
    I did not speak out;
    I was not a social democrat.

    When they came for the trade unionists,
    I did not speak out;
    As I was not a trade unionist.

    When they came for the Jews,
    I did not speak out;
    As I was not a Jew.

    When they came for me,
    there was no one left to speak out.

    What are the “out-groups” of today? Do we speak out to ensure they will not be silenced?


    1. This poem is so powerful, and I agree, it is the sentiment Eboni Marshall Turman was conveying. I takes incredible courage to speak out when there are consequences to doing so, but there are consequences to inaction, as well, namely that the injustice continues and expands.


  4. Elise, thanks for writing this thoughtful blog. Remember the song, “Give Me That Old-time Religion”? A lot of Pagans think that song actually means us, at least in our imaginations and imaginary histories and traditions. Unlike the standard-brand religions that you know so well, we have a long tradition of High Priestesses. In its growth, Christianity “borrowed” a lot from pre-Christian religions and practices. Like in holidays and holiday celebrations. Is there any hope at all that the modern church might turn to us and our High Priestesses? Sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I would hope that sincere, modern Christians would realize that we do not have a monopoly on truth and would learn from traditions that pre-date our existence.


  5. When our churches start
    -asking slave and indigenous moms to describe the moment they were wrenched from their children
    -asking the spouses of the victims of the Church’s paedophiles what their marital and family life was like
    -wondering what the Pope’s thoughts were when he saw the Argentine grammas protesting the abduction of their grandchildren and murder of their daughters
    -arguing with Paul instead of explaining him
    THEN woman will be encouraged, not just allowed, to follow their spiritual mandate.


    1. Profound words! You remind us that the inclusion of women is not about demographics or image alone–it is fundamentally about including the experiences of those on the margins and developing a sincere response to them.


  6. Thank you so much for all your insights in this post. I was especially struck by what you had to say about the importance of marginalized groups standing together. This is so important – as you have expressed so well, we may not all have the same life experiences or challenges to overcome, but when we stand together we are all stronger and better able to move forward to a world where all are respected and valued. Among the aspects of FAR that I admire most is that this is a place where dialogue among marginalized groups takes place – when we talk together with honesty and the willingness to truly listen to one another, we understand each other’s lives better, and this is immensely powerful as we all work towards our own but definitely related goals.


  7. Ho-hum, such a “good man,” and yet how good can he be if he does not recognize 1/2 the human race as fully human? And yes we come in all colors and from every ethnic and economic group, and yes some of us are also gay. So sad that your students don’t feel it is worth challenging long-held traditions in the church. Siggghhhh


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