Review of Mary T. Malone's new book by Gina Menzies

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“The Elephant in the Room: A tract for women in our time” is Mary T. Malone’s recent book where she excavates the hidden history of women in the Catholic tradition. And Mary T. does this with the forensic skill of an historian, demonstrating that there were always women in the Catholic Church who found alternative ways to live the Gospel imperatives of love, justice, peace, forgiveness and kindness.

The elephant in the title is a reference to how Mary T.,(and other women) often feel in an all male Catholic Church where women’s exclusion has been the norm for centuries in the formulation of theology and the practice of liturgy. As we know elephants are hard to miss. They are large animals whose deliberate movement exudes confidence and calm in all aspects of their lives. They are highly intelligent, lead by influence rather than aggression and are very mild until disturbed!

Be obedient, be silent: better still, be invisible has been the message that women have often heard in church and society. In Western democratic societies, women have claimed their place alongside men in almost all areas of life. It often seems as if the Christian Church which proclaims a discipleship of equals has the most difficulty in acknowledging the full participation of women in its midst. Yet, when we look around our communities we find women sustaining our communities through their service to humanity, especially humanity in need. Exactly what the religious in the US today are doing now, living the Gospel, at the same time being castigated by the Vatican representatives for doing so!

What is very reassuring is to know that there were always women in the Jesus story. At the beginning, middle and end! They were present at all the significant events in the Jesus narrative. At Pentecost, The Holy Spirit appeared to all present, women and men. At the Cross, the women remained, while the men, as Mary told us in the original Greek Φεύγω fled. Women were the first messengers of the Resurrection. When have we ever heard a homily in Easter Sunday which alludes to this? These women were Jesus’ disciples and companions and Mary of Magdala was a leader. So how did we ever arrive at the interpretation that Mary Magdala was a prostitute, a fallen woman with consequences for young pregnant women incarcerated in laundries named after this extraordinary companion of Jesus?

Mary T. cites many of the other women disciples of Jesus - the bent woman in Luke, the Syrophoenician woman in Mark, the woman at the well in John, to mention but a few. An interpretation of the account of the woman at the well in John’s Gospel by theologian Sandra Schneiders is utterly different from the traditional interpretation that the woman’s five husbands at the centre of this story. Schneiders’ insights indicate this is the most detailed theological conversation attributed to Jesus in the whole of the New Testament!

The most significant part of Mary T’s thesis is her contention, backed up by the historical facts that women, throughout the Christian story, were living authentic but different Gospel lives. She cites the medieval female mystics who called God She, lay preachers such as The Beguines, a group of lay women who lived a simple Gospel life of contemplation and activity on behalf of those in need outside any organised canonical structures. Hildegarde of Bingen, is the most outstanding example of a woman who lived outside the rigid strictures of the Church of her time.

These women lived authentic Christian lives in contrast to the lives they were often told to lead by Church authorities. They were uninhibited in their direct relationship with God and believed it was open to every human being. Their emphasis on Original grace rather than Original sin was indeed prophetic. These women had no sense of the traditional dualistic division of body and soul but saw the spirit body unity as precisely the locus of God’s presence, an insight that resonates with many women and men today.

One would dearly like to have seen these women in dialogue with Augustine and his dark misogynistic attitude towards women. We could have been spared the guilt and anxiety of a distorted and misleading theology of human relationships had anyone thought to include women’s experience in the construction of a theology of human sexuality. Augustine’s interpretation of the second Genesis story plunged the church into an attitude towards women defined by their position as the second in creation and the first to sin. This legacy continues to be an obstacle to a meaningful positive theology of human sexuality a gaping lacuna in the theological canon!

Mary T. concludes that this disservice to Christian women in history has implications for women and men and the future of the Church. She calls for renewal and reform in a Church that is no longer “a woman free zone”.

“Unless attention is paid to women’s contribution to Christianity, then Christianity will practically disappear. The fading of the men’s church is already well underway”.

Catherine of Siena, one of the courageous women referred to in the book, said:

“We have had enough of exhortations to be silent. Cry out with a thousand tongues. I see the world is rotten because of silence”