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Is the Church/theology too masculine?

  • December 21, 2023

In a recent meeting in Rome with the International Theological Commission, Pope Francis spoke in an impromptu fashion, stating that “one of the great sins we have witnessed is ‘masculinizing’ of the Church... The Church is woman, and if we cannot understand what a woman is… we will never understand the Church... This is the job I ask of you, please: demasculinize the Church.”

As someone who struggled for years to understand my identity, role and place in the Catholic Church as a woman, I listen carefully to any such words as these. I know that many men are eager to right any wrongs done to women in an official capacity throughout Church history, and, going forward, to honour women, but I do hope it’s never being done at the expense of somehow downgrading men and their God-given identity, role and place in the Church, as well as their unique gifts and accomplishments from which we have all benefited.

I’m not a theologian, but I’d like to weigh in with my (feminine) thoughts on the above statements. Since the Holy Father didn’t elaborate on when or how the Church was “masculinized,” it’s a bit difficult to respond appropriately. I think he means a lack of reflection on the feminine/Marian dimension of the Church (also indicated later in his address). He refers to the Church as “spouse” and “woman,” but doesn’t use the term “mother,” which is curious, but may have been an oversight due to the informal nature of his speech. If he’s calling this neglect of focus on the feminine principle of the Church a “great sin,” I find that a bit strong. If he’s referring to the outright ignoring or abuse of women in the Church, then, no, it’s not too strong.

I have always maintained that since men will always be in the key decision-making positions in the Church, in order to enrich themselves and their entire ministry the hierarchy must go out of its way to listen to women, and, yes, “understand what a woman is.” If these men don’t do this, they will impoverish themselves and the whole Church. One great way for them to do this — and all Catholic men, really — is to grow closer to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and our mother. I have found “Marian priests” to be the most “priestly priests,” and, to use a cliché, secure enough in their manhood that they are neither intimidated by nor pandering towards women; neither do they dominate the opposite sex, but are open to input from women of God.

It’s always difficult to truly comprehend “the other,” the one who is not like me, and further, to incorporate their ideas. However, it’s important to understand that men are not called to be more feminine themselves, in their thinking, feeling and doing. There’s a reason God made the hierarchy male. Women need to exercise women’s specific power, authority, gifts and mission in their own spheres of influence within the Church.

Pope Francis echoes a little-known quote from Pope John Paul II. On one of his visits to the USA, during a meeting with the bishops, one of them asked: “How can we make the Church’s teachings on sexuality more comprehensible and appealing to people?” JPII didn’t miss a beat and said: “It is necessary to understand the heart of a woman.” That was his answer, short and profound. And Papa Wojtyla walked the talk in this regard. Not only did he write extensively on marriage and the family, he also issued a rather lengthy Apostolic Letter, “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women.” Where did he get all this wisdom? Partly, from his many extensive friendships with women, whom he kept in touch with throughout his life (mostly through the lost art of correspondence).

Is it really necessary to “demasculinize the Church” in order to focus on the feminine? Wouldn’t the pendulum then swing and we’d have to “defeminize” the Church at a future date? Depending on which hemisphere of the world we live in, we might even say the Church is overfeminized and not masculine enough. However, if we look to the true, indefectible nature of the Church, and the true nature of man and woman, these natures are immutable and consist of both patriarchal and matriarchal dimensions. We first need understanding, before we can live out our essence. And in the Church’s divine constitution? The masculine/feminine balance is perfect. Or, as Goldilocks would say: “Just right.”

(Sr. Helena Raphael Burns, fsp, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She holds a Masters in Media Literacy Education and studied screenwriting at UCLA. Twitter: @srhelenaburns  #medianuns)

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