Does the Church need to renew its relationship with women?

Hot on the heels of the initiative which allows Catholic women to pledge their support for Catholic doctrine (the aim of which is to present Pope Francis with a significant number of signatures as well as present a forum for Catholic women and apologetics), Catherine Lafferty has written a piece for the New Statesman’s version of Comment is Free, which suggests ten ways in which Pope Francis can renew the Catholic Church’s relationship with women.

It is no secret that I have personal issues with Lafferty. Many people witnessed her behaviour towards me last year when I was pregnant, with alarm and dismay. The episode caused considerable distress and much prayer is needed because I still struggle with forgiveness and coming to terms with it all.

This should be borne in mind when reading my critique of Lafferty’s piece – this isn’t about ad hom or personal attack, I wish to lay my animosity to one side and engage with and critique what was written, but it should be noted that perhaps understandably, I find it extremely hard to be objective towards someone, who I believe caused actual harm to my health and that of my unborn baby with a campaign of unfounded and malicious allegations and whose repeated presence in my timeline has been an occasion of sin at the start of the Triduum.

The article’s premise is that the Church needs to renew its approach to its female followers with regards to sex and reproduction. This would seem to be a little misleading, not least because it implies that the Catholic Church somehow needs to change its doctrine, something which is impossible. Secondly, it buys into the myth that most Catholic women are unhappy with the Church, especially in relation to the doctrine on sex and reproduction. This is a myth that I’m looking to disprove.

If women are unhappy with Church doctrine on these issues, the blame can largely be laid at the door of poor or inadequate catechesis. This would certainly be an area that one could argue is in need of renewal, but the Emeritus Pope Benedict did much in terms of sowing the seeds in this regard. The growing Juventum movement is packed with young women as well as men. A newer, younger generation of orthodox faithful Catholic women is emerging. Before claiming that the Church needs to take action to renew its relationship with women, some evidence as to this fractured relationship needs to be provided. A more accurate assessment would be to say that the Church needs to engage with lapsed Catholic women and evangelise better. It needs to send positive and joyful messages of female sexuality as well as remind everyone of the beautiful teachings of John Paul II, in Theology of the Body and Mulieris Dignitatem.

Here’s my take on the some of the suggestions:

  • Use the reform of the Curia to promote female excellence in the corridors of power. Hard to argue with this one, it’s a point that I have argued and would do much for the Vatican in terms of its perception. With that it mind, it should be remembered that the pursuit of power is not a goal that should be encouraged, for any Catholic in good conscience. Secondly, whilst female excellence should be encouraged, the Vatican needs to be extremely careful to ensure that it does not engage with secular identity politics that are contrary to Catholic teaching which teaches that our identity lies in our dignity as created beings in the image of God. If women are promoted it needs to be because they possess requisite competence and fulfil the criteria of any given position, not solely because of their sex. Woman quotas should be avoided because they are a form of unfair discrimination and buy into the idea that the Catholic Church is somehow oppressive or patriarchal as demonstrated by the priesthood. Whilst it would be good to see more women in the Curia, this should not be for the sake of political correctness. The Catholic Church is not a political party or democratically elected institution.
  • This bureaucratic reform should be extended downwards to Bishop’s Conferences and diocesan offices, which should also become more efficient and productive with professional staff and dragged out of ‘sleepy backwaters’ with a similar drive for female excellence. This seems primarily a comment on the Catholic Church in the UK. I’m not sure that the same could be said of other countries, such as America for example, and who knows what the situation is in the far-flung corners of the globe. We need to be wary of accusing hardworking diocesan staff of ‘complacency’ or not doing their jobs properly. Many dioceses, such as Portsmouth have in fact, recently undergone restructuring, the Catholic Church works on a model of subsidiarity to which diocesan bishops are key. Where failures are identified, it should be up to the individual bishop to take appropriate action, rather than for centralised guidelines – every diocese will have different requirements. Furthermore some of the staff working in and supervising diocesan offices are stipendiary priests who are unpaid. Many parish secretaries, admin and finance staff are also unpaid volunteers. Instead of replacing them with a professional bureaucracy, which will prove costly, additional training would seem to be the answer in areas where there are gaps in knowledge or experience. There are admittedly diocesan roles that require paid professionals, standards matter and dioceses do conform to employment laws and norms, so I think we need to be careful before making sweeping statements or wholesale accusations of inefficiency. The same sentiment as above would apply when it comes to promoting female excellence. Replacing priests and unpaid volunteers with a professional bureaucracy would cost a considerable amount of money at a time when we know that many dioceses are running a deficit. In any event most diocesan offices are filled with the laity.
  • Turn all Catholic workplaces into centres of excellence for family-friendly employment. How do we know that this is not already the case? I can think of several positions in my diocese which are staffed by women and are part-time or job-share. As employers, Bishops are subject to UK laws with regards to unjust discrimination when it comes to employment and would legally need to demonstrate that they have the relevant policies in place, which means amongst other things, that women returning from maternity leave will already have the right to request family-friendly hours and parental leave. When it comes to building creches, that is entirely dependent on the size of the plant that a diocesan office may occupy as well as number of staff. There doesn’t tend to be a high staff turnover in diocesan offices, so a creche could quickly become obsolete.
  • Take a lead in providing affordable childcare. The Catholic Church teaches that couples should be open to the gift of life, a principle which is made harder to live up to by women’s economic needs. Lovely idea in theory. Pie in the sky in real life. The Catholic Church does teach that couples should be open to the gift of life, but she also teaches that parents should be the primary educators of their children. A mother’s economic needs revolve around providing food and housing for her children. Ideally speaking a woman should have the choice as to whether or not she wishes to work, countless surveys demonstrate that most mothers yearn to be at home with their children. Jonas Himmelstrand, a Swedish sociologist, is reporting that psychological disorders in children have trebled in Sweden, widely held up as being a childcare utopia, where over 90% of children under 3 attend full time nurseries. Having children in full-time childcare should not be encouraged. It is not in the common good to encourage or promote a system whereby mothers have little choice other than to become wage slaves. That mothers have always worked is undeniable, but traditionally women needing extra income did this inside the home, whether it be by a bit of extra farming, being a nursemaid, taking in ironing, sewing, craftwork etc. Whilst that is admittedly out of step for today’s era, the rise of the mumpreneur, or woman who works from home, whether that’s freelance writing, running a business on ebay, or whatever, shows that this is still seen as an ideal. Women should be their own bosses, as they always have been, working on their own terms, providing for themselves and their families in a way that fits around family commitments, and not wage slaves to outside employers, trying to split themselves between two masters. Ultimately, it tends to be the children who suffer, when mum has to put them in wraparound care 5 days a week, in order to keep working for an implacable inflexible boss who pays the wages.
  • Aside from the fact that the Catholic Church lacks the resources to provide free or cheap Catholic nurseries and ignoring the fact that such a practice would inevitably fall foul of laws regarding discrimination, there would bound to be some vexatious litigation surrounding the nature of such provision, encouraging mothers to put their children in nurseries would not renew the relationship with women, but could cause alienation and resentment. The Church would be sending a very definite message as to the desirability of work, and no nursery, no matter how wonderful or gleaming the equipment or activities on offer, can replace a mother’s unique love and care. Children aren’t objects, they should not be viewed as barriers or commodities to financial or economic success and to put one’s own self-fulfilment on the same level as their welfare, is directly contrary to church teaching. Whilst the Church recognises and argues that women should have equal access to public functions and roles, speaking in Familiaris Consortio, John Paul said this

While it must be recognized that women have the same right as men to perform various public functions, society must be structured in such a way that wives and mothers are not in practice compelled to work outside the home, and that their families can live and prosper in a dignified way even when they themselves devote their full time to their own family.

Furthermore, the mentality which honours women more for their work outside the home than for their work within the family must be overcome. This requires that men should truly esteem and love women with total respect for their personal dignity, and that society should create and develop conditions favoriung work in the home.

  • The Catholic Church can plough funding for research into fertility management which complements rather than compromises its core principles. No need for this. The technology, already exists, NFP methods such as Creighton are 99% effective. Pope John Paul II singled out the Pope Paul VI Institute, who are world leaders in terms of reproductive technology for special praise and worthy of support. Catholics have to accept however, that no method of contraception is 99% effective, and whilst couples may have serious reasons not to add to their families, they must also tread a fine line in terms of not falling into a contraceptive mentality. Where the Church needs to do better is at communicating its message on human sexuality to young men and women, which really needs to start at grassroots level. The technology exists, it’s just not promoted heavily enough and neither do many priests do a great job in terms of preaching about contraception or promoting the alternatives. Likewise NaPro technology, has success rates far and above those of IVF, treating the underlying cause of which infertility is just a symptom. A fertile married couple has to regularly think and pray when it comes to the issue of whether or not to add to their family, and not simply use NFP as an alternative form of contraception. It involves a wholly different mindset.
  • Put women and their needs at the heart of its Pro Life activism. This is what happens now. Organisations such as the Good Counsel Network and LIFE Charity do just that in terms of their activism, campaigning and actual pro-life work. A creaking Pro Life lobby is ill-equipped to consider why women opt to have abortions and what they need to continue their pregnancies willingly. The pro-life lobby in the UK may be creaking, but there are certainly signs of healthy rejuvenation, such as in the recent foundation of the Alliance of Pro-life students and the success of the 40 days for Life movement. Speaking at the launch of APS, Eve Farron their founder, explained how they made common cause with feminists on campus and forced campaigning and provision for pregnant students at certain universities to be drastically overhauled, so that students with a crisis pregnancy were presented with actual realistic options enabling them to keep their baby and continue studying. Again the Good Counsel Network help women on a day to day basis, they are well versed in the multitude of reasons why a woman may find herself at the door of an abortion clinic and provide help accordingly. A pro-life movement that lacks cohesiveness will find it hard to gain political traction, but that doesn’t mean that it is unable to discern why women may abort. Pro-life work does need to consist of a political element, not simply in terms of legislation surrounding abortion laws, but legislation to enact a society that is open to life and the needs of pregnant women, but this is not its only role. For Catholics, pro-life work consists of prayer, politics, practical action and PR. The pro-life movement is at its strongest when we recognise and hammer home the message that a life is a stake here and the injustice of abortion, to mother and child. Politicians will respond to the will of the people and even SPUC, an organisation of which I am highly critical, is extremely effective at marshalling and consolidating grass-roots support. This is vital.
  • as tough on the causes of abortion as abortion itself. Good soundbite, albeit a modified version of William Hague. But we need to very careful here. Whilst society must clamp down on those factors that contribute to a woman’s feeling that she has little other ‘choice’, the causes of abortion are very often complex, there is not one single factor. Women who abort their babies are not two dimensional creatures simply exercising a choice because they can, or because they see it as a form of contraception and not the taking of a life. Whilst some women undoubtedly do view abortion as a trivial matter, many don’t and abortion is arrived at via a contribution of factors, not least a society that advocates and promotes abortion as being ‘no biggie’ and certainly not something that one should feel guilty about. Whilst we have to work to bring about an elimination of those factors that conspire to make a woman have an abortion, human history shows us that there will always be women who feel they have reasons to abort. We cannot concede that a reason to abort is a justification and neither should we be giving any fuel to the notion that until reasons to abort are demolished, then abortion itself can be tackled. When we consider the causes of abortion, we have to be extremely careful not to play into the hands of pro-choicers, who will argue that abortion has always existed, there will always be a good reason to abort and so abortion must be safe and legal. People will always want to engage in destructive behaviour, sadly there will always be those who are compelled to hurt their fellow human beings and themselves, but that does not mean that society should legislate, normalise and accept harm, on the premise that it is a lesser evil. Whilst we must be tough on the cause of abortion, we must not lose sight of the fact that abortion is, to use the hated words, a moral evil. That does not mean that women who have abortions are morally evil, or of dubious character, but in our compassion, we must not forget what abortion is. We must continue to be tough on it and not fall into the hands of well-meaning pro-choicers who attempt to justify abortion. Being tough on various causes of abortion includes getting tough on lifestyles of sexual impropriety as well as on repeated abortions, and accepting that a woman’s judgement is not always sound or prudent, by virtue of her gender or reproductive organs. This is a always a flashpoint or bone of contention, no-one likes to be seen as finger-pointing or interfering in others’ sex lives, it plays into the Christian fundie fiddling with ovaries stereotype, but ultimately as Christians we are compelled to make moral judgements with regards to certain courses of action, including abortion.

The other points with regards to population control, education and women’s rights are fairly sound. But as I said at the beginning, the Catholic Church needs to be very wary about succumbing to identity politics. Women are signing up thick and fast at CatholicwomenRising to pledge their support for Church doctrine. To state that the Church needs to renew its relationship with women, implies that there is a schism, one that is only evident in the minds of the media. What the Church does need to do is continue to win souls of all ages, be they the elderly, middle-aged, or young. Part of this must involve evangelisation. But Church renewal is a question that each subsequent generation has to face – we have to enthuse our children and young people to lives of Christian witness and holiness. This is why identity politics is so irrelevant, because Catholic doctrine reflects that men and women were created equal but with different vital roles to play. Our strengths and weaknesses are disparate, we are not all one homogenous mass. The way we go about renewal is in two ways – firstly by how we live our lives and the examples we set to others, Pope Francis is leading the way here, and secondly by implementing decent catechesis and instruction at a local level.

That the Catholic Church in the Western world needs to find ways of countering the rising tide of secularism, atheism and the prevailing zeitgeist of individualism and renew itself is indisputable. But it has to start at catechesis and finding effective ways of educating its laity, be they male or female. Women friendly policies may make for fluffy soundbites in left-wing publications and make a convenient flag for Catholics to wave to show off their progressive credentials. But the New Evangelisation requires action that goes infinitely deeper.

2 thoughts on “Does the Church need to renew its relationship with women?

  1. Same old same old from her and those like her – the Church should be more like the world, forgetting that the mission of the Church is to call the world to repentance.

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