The role of women in the Catholic Church has been a controversial matter inside and outside the Church for an extended time, and on April 2 four members of the BC community came together as a part of a Campus Ministry event titled “Women in the Church” to further discuss the matter.
M. Shawn Copeland, a professor in the theology department; Kelly Hughes, program director of Appalachia Volunteers; Emily Egan, a campus minister; and Ejuma Adoga, a graduate student in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development united to discuss broadly the issues regarding female representation and depiction within the Church, as well as female sexuality in Catholic education.
All four panelists spoke about women who, despite lacking positions in Church hierarchy, served as strong role models for women in the Church.
They also drew attention to the efforts by some in the Church hierarchy to erase the role of women in early Catholicism. Copeland listed several examples, including women’s roles as messengers, deaconesses, and financial supporters of Jesus.
“Luke writes that the 12 were with him, as well as some women, who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, and he names these women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources,” she said. “So it is almost from the beginning that women are funding the Jesus movement.”
Copeland went on to point out that women played key roles as witnesses to the resurrection—testimony that proved essential to the whole of Christianity.
“The witnesses to the resurrection really were women, and it’s women that made that proclamation,” Copeland said. “It’s Mary Magdalene in particular who can not be separated from the resurrection no matter which gospel you are reading.”
Audience members volunteered then their own questions, many of which related to the lack of women in Catholic leadership.
One audience member’s question about why the Church won’t ordain women as priests was met with a long, awkward silence—ultimately broken by a quip from Copeland.
“Because we have been doing it this way for a long time,” she said.
Copeland supplemented her response with a brief discussion with Sister Carlotta Gilarde of the Sisters of St. Joseph, who was in attendance, about the lack of scriptural law stating women cannot be priests. Copeland and Gilarde both confirmed that the absence of women priests isn’t justified through biblical teachings, but rather circular historical precedent.
Panelists went on to decry the “glacial” speed at which the Church has responded to pressing social issues, which they viewed as an instinctual deference to tradition. One social issue discussed at length was the Church’s handling of sexual education.
Adoga recounted her own experience with sexual education in Catholic school as a critique of how the Church handles female sexuality.
“I have gone to Catholic schools from age 3 until graduate school, and I remember we had sexual education in eighth grade,” Adoga said. “It was primarily abstinence-based, which is fine, but it was tailored more towards the women in the room.”
In her recollection, the teacher had each girl chew a piece of gum and the offer it to a male classmate, all of whom rejected the offerings.
“The woman then said ‘losing your virginity before you’re married is like offering your husband a used piece of gum on your wedding night,’” she said. “I think for 13-year-olds that is a lot to handle, and it creates an unhealthy view of sexuality.”
Hughes said that she believes the Church is not ready to address problems of sexuality because problems with sexuality exist within the church—and the church has failed to engage them in a real and meaningful way.
“In March 2019, Women Church World, the women’s magazine of the Vatican, released a story about sisters being abused by priests,” Hughes said. “It was an all women-led magazine, and after the story broke, a male representative from the Vatican came and tried to start controlling edits within the magazine, and the entire editorial board resigned. I think that the Church, in some ways, isn’t recognizing their own problems.”
The audience members in attendance strongly expressed the sentiment that there needs to be drastic change in order to protect women and children and to push for feminist values within the church. One topic that was brought up was how young people can begin to fight clericalism and change Catholic values from the ground up.
“What can I actively do instead of just waiting around for some old bishop to decide to finally be on our side?” one female student asked the panel.
“I would not feel good sending my own daughter to Catholic school, and that feels painful for me,” another added. “How do we support our peers and protect our children?”
Copeland responded that speaking out is an important part in calling attention to abuses, especially in making the church hierarchy listen.
“They are going to have to hear it over and over and over again until they do something,” she said.
Copeland also told the audience to “be a sister to someone.” She said that this may sound passive, but there are many ways to do so.
“If your roommate is assaulted you can go with her to the hospital, you can go with her to the authorities, you can be proactive and helpful in a concrete way,” she said.
Copeland said that the other part of the issue was figuring out how to prevent sexual assault, explaining that some young men have to start thinking about themselves in a different way.
“You don’t have to go around assaulting people—it’s your own free will,” she said. “It is not women’s fault that people assault us. That’s not women’s fault.”
Copeland also touched upon a need for change at BC and recognized many female students’ concerns about women are treated at the Jesuit university, referencing an internal study that showed how female graduates at BC leave with less self-confidence than they had at matriculation.
“What are we saying about women at BC?” she said. “You come here highly successful, self-confident and by senior year you are not. … We are letting you down in some way. You need to hold us accountable. You have to make your teachers be accountable for treating you in the very best possible way they can.”
Featured Image by Jess Rivilis / Heights Staff