Elisabeth Frink’s Walking Madonna outside Salisbury Cathedral is a statue of a life-sized woman with her back to the cathedral, dwarfed by the medieval edifice behind her but striding resolutely towards the open spaces ahead. At a time when we are acutely aware of the communicative power of statues, that figure expresses where I find myself today, and I know that many Catholic women feel the same. Throughout the pandemic, we have been using social media to share our experiences, insights and stories from around the world. I have recorded a series of interviews with Catholic women from different cultures and contexts, and the same themes have emerged repeatedly.
While priests continue to say Mass in empty churches and ecclesial hierarchies have receded into the background, a vibrant sense of lay renewal has been taking place in the midst of solitude, struggle and grief, often led by women. Some have longed for the reopening of churches and a return to the sacraments, but others have been ambivalent. The domestic church has come into its own as women have found creative ways of maintaining liturgical and devotional rituals in their families or religious communities. Those who live alone or who, like me, are the only Catholics in their households, have had to search deeply within ourselves for the resources to nurture our faith without sacraments or community to sustain us.
Confined to our homes, we were unable to do anything but pray for our wounded world and our suffering neighbors, and this gave prayer a new intensity and focus. The Black Lives Matter movement created a volcanic eruption in an already volatile social environment, laying bare the ruptures in our broken societies and heightening awareness of the gross injustices that fester beneath the self-congratulatory banalities of modern liberalism. We became aware of how the family home is a torture chamber for those trapped in abusive or violent relationships with no escape during lockdown. Migrant workers and refugees became the poorest of the poor, as wealthy nations afflicted by the pandemic turned in on themselves and those on the margins were abandoned. These issues will become increasingly important as the world emerges from the pandemic to face an era of profound instability and risk.
But many women have also described the joy they felt with the cessation of human activity and the healing of the natural world. In our newfound leisure, we were able to cultivate a sense of attentiveness to nature and to appreciate anew the beauty of God’s creation. This too was part of an awakening and a call to renewal and transformation. The vision of Laudato Si’ has become not only possible, but essential, if we are to build a new world on the ruins of the old—a world in which the Catholic faith might offer inspiration, hope and freedom for those who want to work for the healing of the earth and the dignity and rights of our neighbors in need. From this perspective, to practice our faith would in future mean to stand in solidarity with all who are determined to resist the powers of destruction and exploitation and to use this opportunity to reimagine and recreate our relationships within our communities and in our natural and social environments. The Catholic Church is perhaps the only global institution with enough influence to lead such a movement for change, embracing the whole human family and all of creation in its vision—as Laudato Si’ does.
All this is to explain why I felt such dismay when I read the new Instruction issued by the Congregation for the Clergy, with the wordy title, “The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community in the Service of the Evangelizing Mission of the Church.” This is a set of rules for the reorganization of parish life necessitated by changing cultural norms and a shortage of priests. It is an iron fist in a velvet glove. Its florid rhetoric of evangelization masks a ruthless grab for clerical power and the establishment of a rigid line of demarcation between priests and the rest of us. Not all men are ordained but all the ordained are men, and therefore this is also a reassertion of male authority and female subordination. I don’t want to hear manipulative platitudes about priesthood not being about power but about service. I know too many women whose sense of belonging within a parish or Catholic institution has been destroyed by priestly abuses of power, and I know too many priests who will seize upon this document to wrest leadership roles away from women and to reinforce their sense of entitlement, privilege and superiority. Consider, for example, paragraph 96:
[I]t is the responsibility, first of all, of the diocesan Bishop and, as far as it pertains to him, the Parish Priest, to see that the appointments of deacons, religious and laity that have roles of responsibility in the Parish, are not designated as “pastor,” “co-pastor,” “chaplain,” “moderator,” “coordinator,” “Parish manager,” or other similar terms reserved by law to priests, inasmuch as they have a direct correlation to the ministerial profile of priests.
Pope Francis approved this document, but I doubt if he studied it; for it turns back the tide in the struggle against clericalism that has been a hallmark of his papacy.
I am writing this on the Feast Day of Mary of Magdala, the Apostle to the Apostles—a title finally given liturgical recognition in 2016 when Pope Francis elevated her memorial to a Feast Day on a par with the male apostles. If a woman can be called an apostle, why not a chaplain, pastor, coordinator —or even, priest?
When those clerics in the Vatican look up from their power games, they may discover that there is nobody left to lord it over except themselves. Like the Walking Madonna, like Mary of Magdala, sometimes a woman must turn her back on the institutions and structures, stop clinging to the past and stride with courage and determination towards a future that opens before us in all its unknowability, risk and opportunity, knowing that the risen Christ dances ahead of us along the precipitous path of faith.
Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London.