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A woman's place? The problem of gender equality in the church is not going to just solve itself.

NEWS THAT THE FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH OF WATERTOWN, New York fired an 81-year-old Sunday school teacher in August "for being a woman," ignited the expected indignations. Answering criticism, Pastor Tim LaBouf issued a letter explaining that, though there were other factors that led to Mary Lambert's dismissal, First Timothy's admonition concerning female teachers applied: "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent" (2:12).

LaBouf is not the first Baptist to invoke such proscriptions against the ministry of women, certainly. Though we Catholics might scoff at such a fundamentalist reading of scripture, another piece of wisdom, somewhat better known than Timothy's, applies: Those who live in (stained) glass houses shouldn't throw stones. For all the progress women have made in the Catholic Church, we Catholics still have what might be termed "female problems"

It might be tempting to cut right to ordination here, but we're really nowhere near the issue Pope John Paul II closed for discussion in 1994. Just last June, when the Vatican named expert advisers to the curial office charged with overseeing religious life, it chose only one woman. Sister Jolanta Olech, president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Poland, alone stands in for the world's nearly 800,000 women religious, while the other eight members (one bishop and seven priests) represent religious men, who number less than 200,000 worldwide. Also, it wasn't until 2004, 26 years into his papacy, that Pope John Paul II appointed any women to the prestigious International Theological Commission when he named two to the group of 32. To this day not one woman sits on the 22-member Pontifical Biblical Commission.

The question of just where a woman's place is in the church extends well beyond the Vatican. Parish life in the United States is now largely directed by women, who make up nearly 80 percent of the paid pastoral workforce. A study by Georgetown's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that of the more than 16,000 laypeople studying in graduate school ministry programs, a whopping two thirds were women. It's hard to nail down statistics for unpaid parish volunteers, but there is little doubt that the lion's share of the work is being done by women.

Pope Benedict XVI seems aware of this reality. When asked in a television interview broadcast in August about the place of women in the church, he noted with approval the influence of women in Catholic history but drew attention to a "juridical problem: according to canon law the power to take legally binding decisions is limited to sacred orders." What he did not mention, however, was that he could solve that problem with the stroke of a pen.

Canon law is invoked, of course, when it comes time to deal with women who transgress the boundaries set by church discipline. The illicit ordinations of 12 women on a river near Pittsburgh were not surprisingly met with strong condemnation by local bishops--the word excommunication appeared not a few times. Many agreed with the bishops' judgment, and it's unlikely that such guerrilla ordinations will achieve their intended goal. Yet there was not a single acknowledgment from the hierarchy that many Catholic women feel like second- or third-class citizens in God's household. Instead we get responses that make about as much sense as First Timothy: "Rome has spoken, so why keep going back to this?" said the Catholic University of America's Msgr. Kevin Irwin. I've no doubt there are many women who could give him an answer.

EVEN TAKING THE QUESTION OF ORDINATION OFF THE table, we simply can no longer afford the wait-and-see attitude to our "female problem" Pope Benedict seems to encourage. Instead we need a proactive approach that takes women seriously as equal members of the people of God and begins to clear away the canonical stumbling blocks to their full participation, in whatever form that may come. In his interview Benedict gives cause for hope, however: "I believe that women themselves, with their energy and strength, with their superiority, with what I'd call their spiritual power, will know how to make their own space. And we will have to try and listen to God so as not to stand in their way."

Women are answering that call. Let us hope the pope is serious--and move forward presuming that he is.

By BRYAN CONES, associate editor of U.S. CATHOLIC.
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Author:Cones, Bryan
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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