Pope Francis over the weekend became the first pontiff to hold a private meeting with a transgender person. It’s one of many firsts for Pope Francis that have been seen as promoting greater inclusiveness in the church.
But what about women in the church? According to a Georgetown University study, 72 percent of nuns in the U.S. have left the church in the last five decades, compared with 35 percent of priests.
Just six years ago, the Vatican’s launch of an investigation into American nuns sparked outrage, but the release of the report in December was more warmly received.
Building on our previous interview following the release of that report, today’s guest explains this change in climate, as well as her hopes for more gender equality in the church.
Interview Highlights: Joan Chittister
On women in the church today, and how they’re viewed
“I would not deny that in every dimension of the church there is great respect for the sisters, but, since Vatican II sisters have grown up too, just like women everywhere and they’re basically highly educated and very committed people. So, when they began to function with confidence as full adults, that threatened an old church. The image the of women religious by churchmen themselves was the eternal silent servant. So, now you have a body of intelligent, educated, adult women and you’re facing a new climate in the church with a pope who is apparently not afraid of difficult topics.”
On whether the institutions nuns have established undermine the church
“If what we’re doing now is subversive, then what we did 500 years ago was even more subversive. When Mother McAuley when out into the streets of Ireland and picked up little girls and brought them into a house and began to teach little girls to read and to write, there was nothing more subversive in society. So, what we’re doing now is certainly a natural derivative of that. For instance, I myself began a prison fund because we now know who is making up the population of prisons. They are the poorest of the poor. We have begun halfway houses for women in domestic battery, for instance.”
On whether being outspoken is still considered a threat to the church
“Oh, I think there is no doubt. They have a word for it that’s embarrassing. They call it ‘radical feminism,’ which means they don’t even know what radical feminism is. What they mean is a thinking, articulate woman who has an agenda and attempts to pursue it for the sake of women everywhere, as well as the families and the children we serve.”
On women not being able to becomes priests
“This anti-female attitude — they don’t want to call it that, they’ll never call it that. ‘We respect you, we love you. Look at how we put you on a pedestal,’ meaning as long as you’re on a pedestal, you yourself can’t move any place. This is very, very ingrained in churches in general and in the Catholic church certainly. Now this pope has said ‘feminism is about allowing every member of the human race to become a fully functioning human adult.’ He has made those statements and he has talked about the fact that until we really look at the feminist issue, he says we have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the church.”
“You have to remember too that as much as we don’t want to admit it, churches also taught racism, anti semitism and slavery just as well as they teach sexism yet today. If this pope with what I see as a powerful, and graced openness to the questions in our society, really pursues this questions then we will all have a new consciousness of what it means to be human, to be female as well as male and to be a church that’s really a church.”
On the hope she holds for the future
“I take it for granted, I’m not even sure it’s hope anymore because we’re on the wrong side of history. Every single thing that we have dealt with this way has fallen and we know it… This will fall too because it is so wrong. It’s theologically untenable. It’s psychologically ridiculous and it’s scientifically bizarre and bankrupt.”
- Joan Chittister, author, speaker and member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania. Her forthcoming book is “Between the Dark and the Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of Life.”
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