If, as Pope Francis says, every Feminism is “Machismo with a skirt” then I’m off to buy myself a new wardrobe I couldn’t bear anyone questioning my feminist credentials.
From the time I was a toddler (in a jumpsuit), I knew there was an Elephant in the Church.
I just didn’t have the language to name it.
One of my earliest memories is of me protesting outside our parish church.
My mother was trying to fix a hat on my head by tying a ribbon under my chin.
I kept pulling away from her because the ribbon was pinching my skin.
My two older brothers had gone into the church with their heads uncovered and I wanted to do the same. My mother said women had to cover their heads in church because Our Lady always covered hers.
I may have been 5 years old but I didn’t buy it. Intuitively, I knew the imposition of the hat was a tug on my freedom as a girl.
Just like I knew the absence of women priests from the altar meant the church thought women were less important than men.
Eight years later I had an encounter with a monk in Mount Melleray who told me - in a dead-pan, matter of fact way - that I couldn’t join my father and three brothers on a tour on the monastery - because I was a daughter of Eve and Eve was the one who brought sin into the world. I laughed, thinking the man was being funny - but one look at his face told me he wasn’t.
It would be years later before I realised that all these experiences were examples of an entrenched sexism rooted in the church from its earliest days.
The monk in Mount Melleray was simply continuing what a powerful, all-male elite had been doing to women for centuries: systematically excluding, silencing, demonising and vilifying us - using the image of Eve.
Growing up in a world where all the authority figures were male and MEN were the only ones allowed to interpret the Bible, formulate doctrine and conduct acts of worship, it was easy to buy into the illusion that Patriarchy was the natural way of things.
The rebellious little 5-year-old in me never did. She instinctively knew it wasn’t right, but what she didn’t know, was WHY it wasn’t right.
Every time she’d stomp her foot and say:
“it’s not fair that only men can be priests” the church’s stock answer was: “Jesus picked 12 male apostles. He didn’t pick any women. If he wanted to pick women he could have. He didn’t, get over it”.
My inner 5-year-old self never got over it.
So, you can imagine how happy she was to discover that scholars, investigating the origins of the church, had burst a big hole in the church’s theory that its hierarchical order and exclusive male ministry is the way it is because, that’s how Jesus organised it.
Amazingly, many Catholic women still don’t know this. They have no idea that over the last 40 years the history of women in the early church has been significantly revised. They have yet to hear the good news.
They don’t know that new evidence about the role of women has emerged contradicting everything the institutional church ever taught us.
They don’t know that Jesus never “ordained” anyone in his life; that he had lots of apostles, not just 12 and they included many women; that the hierarchical church didn’t emerge until hundreds of years after Jesus’s death and that the word “priest” wasn’t used until the middle of the second century.
These are explosive new findings that have yet to be fully appreciated by the majority of Catholics. Their discovery is due to painstaking scholarship carried out by historians and feminist theologians such as Mary T. Malone.
It was academics like Mary who tunnelled deep into the caves of ancient Christianity and exposed layer upon layer of new facts about the role played by women; Facts that had been ignored by men.
Like a detective forensically re-examining a crime scene, Mary and others discovered that women in the early church were disciples, apostles, martyrs, house church leaders, ecclesiastical scholars, diplomats, missionaries and teachers, just like the men.
And “crime scene” is the appropriate way to describe the examination of the origins of our faith tradition. Reading Mary’s work, it becomes clear that in later centuries women were robbed of their religious heritage and unjustly relegated to a subordinated status by men.
Mary goes further to argue that Mary Magdalene and her companions could be said to be the true founders of the Christian Church because they were the first witnesses to the Resurrection and the first proclaimers of the Christian message.
For women, the benefits of this privilege were short-lived. Soon afterwards, they were elbowed off the stage and the rules rigged against them. Men decided that only men could be ordained priests and only ordained people could hold office. It was a double-lock that ensured the hierarchy would be a woman free zone.
The perniciousness of this is felt today by every woman who learns that a global organisation like the Roman Catholic Church, purporting to represent God’s people on earth, excludes half its membership from leadership positions, because they are female.
Can you imagine any other organisation in the Western world getting away with such a practice?
Isn’t it astonishing we have to remind ourselves that women are half the human race?!
Their invisibility in the church and the hierarchy’s failure to see women as full human beings is the Elephant in the Church that motivated Mary to write several books about it.
“They are not addressed, their lives are not considered, they are subsumed under the male persona” she says.
In the new edition of her book, Mary tells us she has left the “men’s church” (as she calls the Catholic Church) and describes herself as a member of women’s Christianity, a loose association of women groups who celebrate their Christian faith outside the Catholic Church.
Writing in the foreword of the book, Mary McAleese says Mary’s departure sends a stark message to the Catholic Church.
If someone of the calibre of Mary T Malone - historian, theologian, nun, Catholic and committed Christian is walking away, then it
“should be a warning to the Catholic Church’s all male magisterium that their clericalised citadel is increasingly of zero interest to many Christian women who grow up in the Catholic tradition. Why? Because the game is up”.
In the new edition, Mary T Malone says she’s given up hope that the official institutional Church will ever treat women and men as equals.
If Mary T Malone has given up hope, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Indeed, what hope is there when only last week during the Vatican’s Summit on Abuse, Pope Francis went out of his way to have a go at the women’s movement saying:
“Every feminism is a machismo with a skirt”.
The crudity of the Pope’s language was stunning. The fact that his comments came immediately after the first of only three women to speak at the vastly male audience of 190 Catholic leaders, made it worse.
Like so many other Catholics, I placed great hope in Pope Francis when he was elected in 2013.
I praised his actions on the environment and immigration and defended him as a reformer who was being frustrated by the ultra right. But honestly, some of his utterances and actions, particularly on women have been bizarre.
To say, as he said, that: “every feminism ends up a machismo with a skirt” is like saying the black civil rights movement is just white rape culture with a black face. “Machismo” describes the worst faults in men, so to say “every feminism ends up a machismo in a skirt” is to equate the worst behaviour of the oppressor (men) to the oppressed (women) who are struggling for equality.
Catholic women have been oppressed far too long by a small, unaccountable male elite running the hierarchical church to have to put up with such comments from their Pope.
Thanks to scholars like Mary T Malone, some Catholics are more aware of the important role played by women in the early church; but the vast majority of the church’s 1.3bn members have no knowledge of it; they’ve never heard of Mary T Malone.
Ignorance, inertia, spiritual uncertainty, death and funerals are the forces that keep the hierarchical church in existence.
In the last census, 76% of people identified as Catholic.
While many Catholics are disaffected, they are also sufficiently indifferent to cutting the umbilical chord. Others, who would like to push for change in the church, feel helpless.
They quickly discover the Vatican is a law unto itself and has no mechanism for lay Catholics to air grievances. Many too do not feel theologically literate to challenge the church and end up passively acquiescing with their second-class citizenship.
While more women are leaving the church, like Mary T Malone, and joining women’s groups, lots remain to do the same jobs they always did that keep the show on the road; parish office work, cleaning the churches and making hosts for Mass.
I believe Education is the tool that will shift attitudes.
Educating the Catholic laity in feminist theology and church history has the power to bring about a revolution in social consciousness and even mobilise mass action.
Getting the names of Mary T Malone and other feminist theologians onto the lips of every women and man in the Irish church and copies of their books into every home, could change everything.
Imagine, if all the women making the hosts, cleaning the churches and doing the parish work were to go on strike?
Imagine, if enough Catholics were to stop contributing financially to the church?
Imagine, if a significant number of gay priests, bishops, cardinals were to “come-out” publicly?
Until indifference and apathy are transformed into a desire for justice and transparency, nothing will change.
Mary T Malone has given us a stick of dynamite to shake up the institutional church but only a mass movement of educated Catholic women and men rowing in behind her, will light the fuse.
Women in the Catholic Church, unite.
We have nothing to lose but our dusters, our laundries and our machismo filled skirts!
International Women's Day
8. March 2019
"The Elephant in the Church" - Mary T. Malone