The nation doesn’t simply need
what we (women) have.
It needs what we are.
~St. Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein)
In this blog space, I have written about the apparent dangers of a sector of American lay Catholicism to the moral and spiritual health of the Church and to the wider community of Catholics. In some corners of the country, contemporary Catholicism seems more akin to a heterodox Jansenism or a white evangelical Christian nationalism than to modern Christianity framed by the moral and social justice teachings of Vatican II. As evidence, one need only look to language of the (majority Catholic) justices of the U.S. Supreme Court in the recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade: embedded in the prosaic legalese was the patronizing discourse of disdain, condescension, and even insensitivity about what is obviously a complicated and fraught matter for women about human dignity and moral autonomy.
So, yes, American lay Catholicism has much for which it must answer. However, it is also true that many lay Catholics, both public leaders and private citizens, have taken/ take cues or “inspiration” from the authoritative narrative of the Church, and so it only seems appropriate to look to that constituency and “speak truth to” its rhetorical turn, specifically in its public responses to the Dobbs decision, responses which are dismaying in their moral insufficiency and compel two essential questions: does the Church have any real understanding of or even concern about the fact that it continues to fail women? Does the Church have any real understanding of or even concern about the pervasive patriarchy that continues to undergird the culture of Catholicism, especially in the U.S., and that has so undermined the moral agency of the Church that significant numbers of women are leaving the Church and younger women are rejecting the Church as being irrelevant—if not actually pernicious—to their lives?
Space will not permit the inclusion of the many publicized remarks of Church leaders (some can be found online) and indeed, upon first reading, the statements seem measured and pastoral, in some cases even compassionate, with regard to the life choices women in most of the country must now make. However, a closer reading of the statements exposes the disturbing depth of patriarchy rife through the hierarchy, for in every statement, not a single word was said about men and male accountability.
It is well documented that the most patriarchal cultures can be identified by two primary proclivities: on one hand, placing the burden of displaying and sustaining the culture’s honor and morality (as defined by men) on women, while on the other hand, privileging male behavior and ideation to such a consequential degree that, on occasions of ethical lapses or moral impropriety, men (unless compelled) are not held accountable in any meaningful way or their actions are folded into the prevailing culture as normal and acceptable. Thus, as several bishops (and other clergy) revealed in their statements, the entire onus of pregnancy—its fact, its intimations and its significance—falls entirely on the shoulders of women (and girls) without a word said about male responsibility or obligation. The patriarchal mindset provides men (and, admittedly, some women) with the intellectual contrivances to shield men from liability and deflect blame to others, usually women. Patriarchal rationalization has allowed (lay and clerical) men to diminish the worth and significance of women (and girls) qua feminae much as it seeded the sexual abuse crisis.
Qui tacet consentire videtur ubi loqui debuit ac potuit.
~ St. Thomas More
It is also worth noting that the Dobbs decision did not merely overturn Roe v. Wade. It also granted the states full license to decide on the degree to which they may criminalize the actions of women (never men) simply seeking reproductive health care and, again, the Church (and lay Catholic) leaders, who have made proud claims about the need for compassion for (pregnant) women, have remained silent before such misogynistic machinations, suggesting, per More, that they are in agreement…or are simply too cowardly to challenge political authority.
There can be no ‘rebuilding’ of the Church without women, and without women, there will be no Church. As other contributors to this blog have testified, young people, but especially young women, are either leaving the church or rejecting membership altogether. However, many of those women are not abandoning religion altogether; rather, they are seeking religious spaces in which their lives and their perspectives are validated and respected. It is not up to women any more to make “the situation work”: it is the responsibility of the clergy to become self-aware and assess its patriarchy and find the moral will to effect authentic change for a more just and equitable Church.
June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.