Indian Catholic News

Women remain on the church's periphery

A change in the composition of the church hierarchy to include women does not look a possibility any time soon.

Filipino laywomen raise their hands in prayer during the Philippine Conference on New Evangelization in Manila in 2016. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
By Prof. Bonifacio Tago Jr

By the end of the second century, the Christian Church presents itself as an institution with a clearly defined system of authority mainly based on its scriptures, its creed, and its hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons.

A monarchical episcopate is already clearly enunciated at the end of the first century in the letters of Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch. For him the bishop is the focal point of the congregation (Christian community). All important functions are vested in him. He alone has the right to lead public worship and administer the sacraments.

The bishop's authority is without limits, but it is completely at the service of the community. The monarchical authority of the bishop as guarantor of the oral tradition was based on the claim that he stood in legitimate succession in a line reaching back to the apostles.

Eventually, Rome became the preeminent example of a church whose fidelity to the original deposit of faith was guaranteed by the fact that its bishops were the direct successors of Peter and Paul. In fact, the Bishop of Rome later on was recognized to be supreme bishop among other bishops in Christian churches.

The complete hierarchy of the church: pope, bishop, priest, and deacon occupied by men was the logical and historical consequence of a Christendom living in a cultural reality where patriarchy is the predominant social system. The women, whether religious or lay, were relegated to minor roles and functions, and never included in the actual governance of the people of God.

The different councils that defined the creed and doctrines to be observed by Catholics throughout the centuries were participated by men. The celebration of the Eucharist, the worship that defines the very identity of the church is presided by bishops and priests who can never be women according to the teaching of the church.

Women have been working on the periphery of the church. Throughout history, there were women religious who were serving the needs of the priests and bishops. And in the parishes, the lay women likewise do similar services, like beautifying the altars and organizing fund-raising activities for the projects of priests and bishops.

There are organizations and movements of women in the church that are spiritual in their orientation but they are mandated to serve as extensions of the spiritual and pastoral functions of priests and bishops. In short, before Vatican II, the women as baptized Christians did not have a very clear role and function within the life of the church.

With Vatican II, the diversity of ministry within the church is recognized. Every member, including the laity, has their own share in the mission of the whole people of God in the church and in the world. "They exercise the apostolate in fact by their activity directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel," read the Apostolicam Actuositatem.

The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity clearly states that the lay peoples' right and duty to the apostolate is derived from their union with Christ. "Being incorporated into Christ's Mystical Body through Baptism and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through Confirmation, they are assigned to the apostolate by the Lord Himself."

By virtue of their baptismal right, the lay people, including women, are commissioned by Christ himself to bear witness to the Gospel and to spreading the Kingdom of God throughout the earth. In short, the role and functions of lay people, and that of women in the church, are not mere extensions of the priests and bishops' pastoral activities.

If religious women are called to become prophetic signs of the Kingdom of God in the world today, laywomen are called to become the salt of the earth and light of the world.

In their respective communities, women religious are to give witness to the primacy of God as the central element of their life of communion and unity among diversity (of cultures and personalities). Laywomen on the other hand, are called to give witness to the values of the Gospel, not inside the church, but in their particular workplaces, families, and communities and wherever they are in the world.

Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world is truly a constitutive dimension of the apostolate of women, both lay and religious. Their apostolic role and functions are not confined within the "four walls of the church" understood in its minimalist perspective, much less, extensions of the pastoral activities of the hierarchy.

The baptized women in the church have their own identity and dignity as followers and disciples of Christ. Vatican II is telling the hierarchy that "the laity [hence, also, laywomen] must not be deprived of the possibility of acting on their own accord ... especially as regards works and institutions in the temporal order."

On the other hand, the church would go back to its hierarchical structure when defining apostolate whether they are properly called Catholic. The same Vatican II document says that "no project, however, may claim the name 'Catholic' unless it has obtained the consent of the lawful church's authority."

The tension between the church hierarchy and the common call of all baptized to a life of holiness and mission to evangelize the world will always be a part of the church's dynamics.

While laywomen and women religious will continue to work on the peripheries of the church trying to become the salt of the earth and light of the world, the church hierarchy will continue to have the role to define what is their proper mission.

While these dedicated women of God try to make sense of Christ's mandate "to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and new sight to the blind, to free the oppressed and announce the Lord's year of mercy" through their life and works, the ordained ministers will continue to govern the church, enjoy her moral powers and privileges over the faithful, sanction and approve what is "authentically" God's message for all believers.

Meanwhile, no matter how academically and professionally prepared and spiritually mature they are, women cannot participate actively in the making of vital church documents governing the life and mission of the church. Neither can they be allowed to preside the celebrations of the most important church sacraments that signal the person's entrance into the community of God's people.

The role of these women religious and laypeople working with and for the least, lost, and last in society will remain on the periphery of the church. Will the Holy Spirit spread its wings and change the composition of the church hierarchy to include women in the near future? We hope and pray.

Bonifacio Tago Jr. is vice president for academic programs and professor of philosophy at Good Samaritan Colleges in Cabanatuan City, Philippines. He is currently taking up a doctorate degree in Theology in Consecrated Life at the Institute for Consecrated Life in Asia.

Source: UCAN

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