A few points from a talk given by Soline Humbert at the 28th Humbert Summer School in Ballina, Co. Mayo, 7th September 2014
General Humbert in Ireland was once on board a ship named “Les Droits de l’Homme” (The Rights of Man)…Of course this was a reference to the major achievement of the French Revolution a few years earlier, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (26th August 1789), which followed on the declaration of the Abolition of Privileges….But there was one privilege which definitely was NOT abolished: the privilege of being born a man, a male. And the Rights of Man was just that, the rights of the male. Women were not included, they were considered “passive citizens”. The Revolution had cancelled the old order, but patriarchy had survived intact. Olympe Degouges who tried to have equal rights for women was guillotined and it took over 150 years for French women to get the right to vote, after world war II. This was the reality for women behind the French Republic motto : Liberty, EQUALITY, Fraternity.
The Roman Catholic Church is in a similar situation. While loudly proclaiming that women are equal women are in fact very much second class citizens in the church. There is a long history of considering women as inferior and subordinate. As late as 1994 the archbishop of Dublin could write in a pastoral letter that wives were subordinate to their husbands. Jesus in his life, death and resurrection subverted all forms of domination, including patriarchal ones, but the church has not followed his example. When Jesus washed his disciples feet and told them to do the same, he was doing what was considered not just a servant’s task, but a female task. Women washed men’s feet. That was their role, reflecting their low status in life. The only person who washed feet in the Gospels, besides Jesus, was a woman, who washed his feet. The supreme irony is that nowadays you need to be a male to symbolically wash feet in church on Holy Thursday, in the name of Jesus. A gesture which subverted the patriarchal role divisions has been re-appropriated to exclude women.
Pope Francis is now 18 months in office. In connection with the place of women in the church I see no change. In fact it seems to me, from his statements and actions (or lack of), that the issue is one in which he has done very little personal reflection. But then, women appear peripheral to his life and ministry. Certainly he has not said anything new which would constitute a breakthrough. Generally his few statements just repeat what his predecessors have said. While he has spoken about opening church doors, there is one door he has abruptly reaffirmed as closed: the door to women’s ordination. A recent interview is very revealing. This was the first interview pope Francis gave to a woman journalist. It covered a large number of topics. The section on women is given below (in an English translation).
Pope Francis To Franca Giansoldati Il Messaggero 30th June 2014
Will you allow me a criticism...
You perhaps seldom speak about women, and when you speak, you address the issue only from the perspective of mothering, woman as bride, woman as mother, etc. And yet women are now leading states, multi-national corporations, armies. In your opinion, what place do women occupy in the Church?
Women are the most beautiful thing God has made. The Church is a woman. Church is a feminine word. We cannot do theology without this femininity. You are right, we don’t talk about this enough. I agree that we have to work more on the theology of woman. I said it and we are working on it.
You don’t see a certain underlying misogyny?
The fact is that woman was taken from a rib... (he laughs heartily). It’s a joke, I’m joking. I agree that we have to study the feminine question more deeply, otherwise we cannot understand the Church herself.
May we expect historic decisions from you, such as a woman as the head of a dicastery, I’m not saying [the Congregation] for Clergy ...
(He laughs) “Beh, many times priests end up under the authority of their housekeepers.
That’s it. The serious issue of misogyny in the church dismissed as a joke. Does Pope Francis have any awareness of the pain and suffering of so many women in the church because of it?
And when Pope Francis affirms that the church is a feminine word (in Italian), it is no more than grasping at straws….The grammatical feminine gender of a word in a given language has nothing to do with women, femaleness or femininity. For that matter the Curia is also feminine…and countless other everyday words. It is an absolutely irrelevant, meaningless statement . All it tells me is that the pope does not know what to say, how to answer the question….
Similarly with his last, rather puzzling answer: The question about women being at the head of dicasteries evokes for him women as housekeepers holding sway over priests… Are we back to Eve the temptress seducing poor Adam into sinning? What is the pope afraid of? Female dominance? Is that why men have the exclusive governance in the church?
And as for ”Women are the most beautiful thing God has made”….Well first of all women are not a thing. And what is the basis for this affirmation? Is this in comparison with men? If women are the most beautiful, what are men? The most intelligent? Is that why all the decisions and rules in the church are made by men? for women? I don’t see in the Gospels Jesus telling women they are the most beautiful things on earth. But I see him treating women as intelligent persons with whom he can discuss theological matters. To my ears “women as the most beautiful things on earth” is male fantasy and empty flattery. And I don’t believe it is the truth. As a woman I don’t want to be considered as the most beautiful. I want to be treated as an equal.
Pope Francis mentions again the need for a theology of women. Whose need is it? Do we have a theology of men? Nobody mentions the need for one….. Of course it is perfectly obvious why God created men (to rule, to govern, to make the decisions, to be ministers of the sacraments and of the Word), and their place in the church is obviously central …but women? What are they for?....
There is a “feminine question “….and no “masculine question”!....
I regret very much to have to conclude by saying that there is nothing in what Pope Francis has done or said in his pontificate so far which leads me to believe he is in tune with the beliefs, lives, experiences and aspirations of so many women in the church. No deep awareness of the deep seated misoginy and sexism in church teaching, structures and culture going back centuries. That situation has been variously described as institutional violence, spiritual abuse and gender-apartheid. Women may be the elephant in the church (in the words of theologian Mary T. Malone), but for Pope Francis women appear to be a side issue. Certainly they will be a drop in the male ocean of the forthcoming Synod on the family. “The Church is a woman”…. ruled by men or, as Mary Mc Aleese would say “by an old boys’ club”. Now, is that what Jesus had in mind for his disciples?
Soline Humbert speaking at the 28th Humbert School