Schubart: Women As Spiritual Leaders

Sep 24, 2018

I’ve been trying to picture the Catholic Church - the Mother Church if you will – as a matriarchy instead of a patriarchy, in which the first pope had been Christ’s friend and apostle, Mary Magdalene, instead of Peter, the wayward apostle who thrice denied him.

Credit Bill Schubart

It’s commonly accepted among Biblical scholars that in Christianity’s earliest years, women were, in fact, spiritual leaders. But in his 23rd homily, Pope Gregory the Great portrayed Mary as a repentant harlot. He may have confused her with Mary of Bethany - or as many biblical scholars believe, may have intended to suppress women’s roles in the Church.

It’s also known that priests routinely married for the Church’s first thousand years, until the Second Lateran Council in 1139 forbade marriage in order to stop priests from leaving their worldly holdings to their sons instead of the Church.

Especially in medieval times, Church hierarchy typically interpreted Christ’s teachings in a way that ensured the subservience of religious and secular women. Not until 1962 did the Church fully recognize twelfth century writer, composer, and scientist Hildegard of Bingen, the same year that the Second Vatican Council removed the word “obey” from the marriage vows.

In 2012, the Vatican sent a papal delegation to America to rebuke American nuns for supporting a national health care system opposed by American bishops – and scold them for focusing too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage.

So today, with Catholic hierarchy embroiled in international child physical and sexual abuse scandals dating back centuries and leaving many Catholics in spiritual limbo, I wonder how different things might have been if women’s ministry in Catholic communities had been equal to that of men - many of whom either abused children or abetted the abusers.

If women had long ago been embraced not just as “altar servers” but as priests, bishops, cardinals, and even popes, perhaps the faithful might have better heeded Christ’s call to alleviate suffering among the poor and oppressed, to care for children, minister to the sick, and fight for social and economic justice. And perhaps Vermont might not now be investigating a child physical and sexual abuse scandal of its own.