Magazine 2012
Gender Concerns In The Mission  
Of The Catholic Church  
Ms. Margaret F. Joseph  
S.N.D.T. College Of Arts & S.C.B. College Of  
Commerce And Science For Women, Mumbai.  
The organizational structure of the Catholic Church has been patriarchal and women, both among the religious  
and the laity have been marginalized and at the bottom of the church hierarchy. In the twentieth century the  
Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) initiated by Pope John XXIII, was a landmark in the history of the Catholic  
Church as it interrogated the marginalization of womenb s contribution in the church and acknowledged the  
need to respect the dignity and equality of women as Godb s people. Post Vatican II, the church has been  
involved in a closer scrutiny of traditions and the scriptures. There have been serious attempts to deconstruct  
the dominant patriarchal paradigm of biblical interpretation and reconstruct a new paradigm in keeping with  
the needs of the changing times so that feminine perspectives can be authenticated  
The b feminizationb  of the church was a response to the trends in society at large and women and men feminist  
theologians sought to unearth dimensions of theology that had elements of liberation and asserted the centrality  
of women in the church. This led to the reassertion of full humanity to woman as persons created along with  
men in the image of the Divine, while exposing the patriarchal relations of domination and exploitation as far  
from being the Word of God, to be the work of men.  
In the light of the above developments, I have briefly attempted to trace the conscious contributions made by  
the church hierarchy, theologians, male and female religious congregations and laity to liberate the church  
from its patriarchal orientation and move towards a more inclusive and egalitarian structure.  
God created humankind in His image, in the image of God he created them,  
male and female He created themb  Genesis1:28  
The great Catholic theologian , Thomas Aquinas believed that women were defective men, imperfect in  
both body and soul. The Roman Catholic Church has moved and changed since that time and in theory  
accepted the contrary evidence that is found in the scriptures and Jesus ministry.  
The church after becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4 century organized itself  
according to Roman socio-political structures and laws and thus evolved from a charismatic family church  
which had women leaders to an institutional church which was patriarchal and hierarchal in organization.  
As the Roman Catholic church is controlled by male hierarchy, the articulation of canon law and scriptures  
is androcentric in language and interpretation and discriminating and oppressive towards women. The authors  
of the Bible were submerged in their own anti-feminist culture as were its traditional interpreters, this resulted in  
oppressive attitudes and practices against women by the church. With in the church male priests seem to  
be the favoured class and claim divine sanction for their actions and hence womenb s voices and concerns were  
largely unheard until now. Simone de Beauvoir summed up the situation very accurately in b The Second Sexb   
She says: b  Godb s representatives on earth: the Pope, the bishop, the priest who says Mass, he who preaches,  
he before whom one kneels in the secrecy of the confessional- all these are menb &The Catholic religion among  
others exerts a most confused influence upon the young girl.b  Excluded from positions of decision making,  
women did not have any influence in shaping either the Churchb s mission, doctrine, theology, biblical  
interpretations, or spirituality. In the 20 century, The Second Vatican Council(1962-1965) initiated by Pope  
John Paul XXIII was a landmark in the history of the Roman Catholic church, as the church at this point  
responded to the need to interrogate its perception of the role and place of woman in the church. The Council  
was the beginning of a new epoch of pluralism and signaled the opening of the church to the world and the  
needs of Godb s people. This gave impetus to a new gender policy which focused on a new theology of the  
human person where man and woman are seen as images of God in their distinct identity and share an equal  
stewardship in creation. Thus there could be no grading in the hierarchy of dignity. Religious and cultural  
traditions began to be reinterpreted to bring about gender justice in the church.  
In 1995, at the Beijing Conference, Pope John Paul II, in his letter to the women at the conference admitted  
that the church had faltered in not adequately acknowledging the dignity and place of women in the church.  
He says: b b & and if objective blame , especially in particular historical contexts has belonged to not just a few  
members of the church ; for this I am truly sorry. May this regret be transformed on the part of the whole church  
into a renewed commitment of fidelity to the Gospel vision. When it comes to setting women free from every  
kind of exploitation and domination the Gospel contains an ever relevant message which goes back to the  
attitude of Jesus Christ himself. Transcending established norms of his culture, Jesus treated women with  
openness, respect, acceptance and tendernessb &b  The Pope concluded the letter by saying that the life of the  
church in the third millennium will not be lacking in new and surprising manifestations of the b feminine genius.b   
He also set up a special commission for the study of the contemporary problems concerning the b effective  
promotion of the dignity and the responsibility of women.b 2  
In April 2002, thirty eight women religious representing twenty one congregations came together at  
Ishvani Kendra,Pune, for a seminar on b Awakening the Feminine Dimensions of Religious Lifeb , organized by  
Streevani and voiced the need to acknowledge Sophia, the Divine Spirit as the feminine energy of God  
empowering them and inviting them to a deeper consciousness of living their religious consecration on the  
basis of their identity as women. They spoke of the need for a critical re-reading of the biblical texts and  
writings of the Fathers of the Church for a true image of women according to the Gospel. They questioned the  
long tradition of spiritual formation from the b male opticb  and felt the need to redefine spirituality from a womanb s  
perspective with a positive and integrated attitude towards the body, nature and sexuality. They urged women  
to contribute with greater boldness through writings and other forms of expressing their knowledge of God,  
thus releasing untapped energies of feminine wisdom. There was a call to building forums of womenb s solidarity  
and joining hands with women and men who shared this vision so that women could fulfil their commitment as  
prophetic signs of the Reign of Godb  In August, 2010, twenty four men and women responded to the call of  
Streevani,Pune and reflected on the main themes of the Gender Policy of the church and made some  
recommendation to overcome the lacunae that they had identified. Apart from reiterating the need for a  
discipleship of equals and the need to engage in an ongoing critical discussion on the Gender Policy from the  
perspective of women and promote a policy that empowers women, it made a commitment to hold the  
bishops to their commitment to the implementation of the Gender Policy. The advocacy of zero tolerance  
towards sexual abuse of women and children in the Church and the need for putting in place of processes and  
structures for reporting sexual abuse, that are sensitive and confidential , and include women was an important  
statement made at the National Consultation of Streevani.  
At the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) Womenb s Conference, in July  
006, women spoke of the need to deal with theology b from our particularity as women b the otherb , b the  
marginalb , b the outsider.b  They felt the need to assume this positionality as an impetus towards an alternative  
reality. While acknowledging that the Bible was an important resource for theology, they felt the need to look  
at it with critical eyes and reclaim biblical imaginary of b a new heaven and a new earthb  (Isaiah 65:17) as we  
claim another world and a new theology.  
In May, 2007, at the Fifth General Assembly of the Conference of Bishops of Latin America, Pope  
Benedict XVI addressed the issues relating to the movement for participation of laity especially women in the  
churchb s mission. b b &how women can come into their own in the church so that the feminine charisms make the  
churches wholesome, vibrant and truly localb   
The Church is an agency of socialization and through the liturgy and homilies at mass shapes the values and  
ideals, norms and conscience of its disciples. The patriarchal slant in biblical interpretation has, in the past,  
denied women full humanity as persons created along with men in the image of the Divine. Thus, the re-  
readings of the biblical texts by feminist theologians like Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Gabriele Dietrich,  
Rosemary Radford Ruether are extremely important in reshaping perceptions and interpretations of existing  
biblical texts from a womanb s perspective and making theology more inclusive and redemptive.  
For too long woman was condemned as Eve, the temptress, today, the Church focuses on the positive  
images of biblical women. Mary Magdalene is no longer condemned as the weak, sinful prostitute in need of  
repentance and forgiveness but as a courageous woman who boldly gate-crashed into a house full of men to  
meet Jesus, in a society where such actions were unheard of. The earlier tradition failed to notice that she was  
the first woman to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah through the symbolic gesture of anointing him with  
perfume when the other apostles, including Peter, on whom Jesus conferred the title of b rock b  on which the  
church was founded, were in doubt about the nature of his messiahship. Jesus paid Mary Magdalene the  
greatest compliment he could give any disciple when he said,b Wherever the gospel is proclaimed b & you will  
always be remembered.b  She is the primary witness to both the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Mary, the  
mother of Jesus, a symbol of Christian piety, humility and virginity, often used and abused to keep women in  
their b proper placeb  and to shape Christian notions of sexuality, is today, projected as a liberated and liberating  
woman , a figure of independence and courage participating in Jesus ministry. Thus feminist scholarship has  
recovered new symbols and archetypes of women which the church now poses before the laity. Women  
associated with Jesus were empowered women because they participated in His public ministry, not only  
preaching the Gospel but also establishing house churches. Christianity attracted women because it enabled  
them to overcome the entrenched patriarchal taboos, judgemental attitudes and biases of the Jewish religion  
and society. The re-reading of the lives of biblical women by feminist theologians has influenced interpretation  
of the scriptures especially during the homilies at mass, thereby prompting the laity to look at stereotypical  
images with a critical eye.  
Dr. Rekha Chennattu who teaches scripture in Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pune, in a paper highlights the  
lives of biblical women who took decisive steps in their lives as a result of an encounter with the word of God  
and presents them as models of a new paradigm for theologizing from womenb s perspective. Theology is  
seen as b a transformative, political and critical reflection, in a continuing dialectic with liberative action in the  
worldb  The midwives of the Hebrews, Shiphrah and Puah (Exodus1:15-22), who were commissioned by the  
king of Egypt to annihilate all male babies of Hebrew women disobeyed the royal command to save the lives  
of the babies. We are told in the scriptures that they did so because they b fearedb  God. According to the  
biblical tradition, to fear God means to walk in Godb s ways by loving and serving God(Deut 10:12). Their  
courage was rewarded by God and he saved them from the wrath of the king. They refused to be part of the  
cycle of violence. When the Jewish widow, Judith (Judith8-16) learns that the leaders of her community have  
decided to give up their faith if God does not save them in five days, she rebukes them for their lack of  
commitment to the covenant relationship with God and reminds them of what God has done for the people of  
Israel. Judith is absolutely certain that God will deliver her people and after a long prayer, with the help of her  
maidservant entices Holofernes with her beauty. She tricks him into believing that she has deserted her people  
and joined the enemy. At the opportune moment, when she is alone in the tent with Holofernes, she cuts off his  
head. Thus through Judith God delivers the Israelites from the oppressive hands of the Assyrians, she becomes  
an agent of Godb s mighty work in saving Israel from her enemies. Judith receives the title of b blessed among all  
the women of the earthb  (Jdt 13:18) The Canaanite Woman (Matthew 15:21-28), a Gentile who begs Jesus to  
heal her daughter who is possessed by a demon, ( Canaanites were ancient enemies of Israel) transcends the  
traditional norms and conventions concerning the role of women in public by courageously making a request  
to Jesus in public, b Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of Davidb . In the language of the Jewish lamentation psalms,  
a lament psalm is understood as an act of hope and trust in Godb s faithfulness to the covenant promises of life  
and peace. Matthew portrays the woman as an active partner in dialogue with Jesus. When Jesus says to her,  
I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israelb  (Mt 15:24) and b It is not fair to take the childrenb s food  
and throw it to the dogsb  (Mt 1:26), she challenges Jesus with a powerful argument saying, b Yes, Lord, yet even  
the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masterb s table. b  Her faith is rewarded and her daughter healed. She  
challenges Jesus with her faith and convinces Him that His divine power is for all, Jews and Gentiles, men and  
women and in so doing opens the way for Jesusb  mission and the mission of the Church to go beyond the  
Jewish community. She is an agent of socio-religious change as she wins over Jesus in the theological  
consideration regarding the boundaries of his mission. The parable of the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-42) who  
interacts with Jesus, the Jew, and breaks tradition also poses a creative reinterpretation of religious traditions.  
Her change from unbelief to belief in Jesus reflects the faith-journey of a committed believer. Her recognition of  
Jesus as the Messiah and her zeal to spread the good news of her encounter with Jesus is a sign of her  
apostolic stature. Thus, we see how these stories in the Bible when re-read give us new insights into the role  
played by women in shaping tradition. They are stories that give us a glimpse of the creative power and  
wisdom of women as theologians who are not only personally transformed but bring about social transformation  
There have also been several attempts in 1983, 1985 , 1990, 1991, 1994 to eliminate the b sexistb  language  
in the bible and substitute it with gender-neutral language. For example in Colossians 3:18 and Ephesians  
:22, women are advised to b put their husbands firstb  rather than the traditional b submit to your husbands.b   
The Catholic Bishopsb  Conference of India (CBCI) in 2008 deliberated on the theme of b Empowerment of  
Women in the Church and Society.b  The womenb s commissions, desks and councils set up by the bishops are  
entrusted with the task of keeping the question of women alive. Some of the important issues that the CBCIb s  
gender policy emphasized at this conference was to encourage family oriented movements like b Marriage  
Encounterb  to promote the fundamental equality of husband and wife as both a gift and a right deriving from  
God, the Creator. This was in keeping with the new meaning and purposes of marriage that emerged in Vatican  
II ( Gaudium et Specs, 1965) and in the encyclical b Humanae Vitaeb  (1968) where love and procreation were  
equally the purposes of marriage and not the act of procreation alone as was emphasized in the traditional  
Catholic understanding of the conjugal rite before this. This shift, raising love to a level with procreation  
represented the influence of philosophical b personalismb  and the emergent awareness of womenb s equality.  
The commitment made by the bishops to offer at least 35% (moving towards an ideal of 50%)  
representation of women as office-bearers and members on parish and diosesan pastoral councils and finance  
committees and in ecclesial bodies at local and national levels was a very positive move. Besides this they  
reiterated the commitment to take forward the policy of gender justice in all Church.  
The effect of these policies is visible with the appointment of more women leaders in the church councils but  
whether these women are truly sensitive to the ideally visualized aspirations of a gender-just church, only time  
will tell.  
Priesthood still remains elusive to Roman Catholic women. Though Vatican II in its Pastoral Constitution  
Gaudium et Specs condemned any form of discrimination on basis of sex, the discussion of Roman Catholic  
womenb s ordination has been officially forbidden by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in 1995.As a  
reaction to this b Womenb s Ordination Worldwideb  was founded in1996 with the primary mission of fighting for  
the admission of Roman Catholic women to all ordained ministries. It is committed to bringing about a model  
of collaborative non-hierarchical leadership in the church.  
The Feminist Movement has been the catalyst for the attitudinal change in the perception of the role and  
place of women in the Roman Catholic Church and has prompted the Church to strive towards gender justice  
in its organizational structure. Though, I must add that perhaps the issues discussed in the article are of a far  
more complex nature and require a more exhaustive and comprehensive analysis than this article provides.  
.Beauvoir de Simone, The Second Sex, trans. By H.M. Parshley (New York: A.H. Knopf; 1953)  
.Vidyajyoti Journal of Theological Reflection (VJTR) August,1995, Vol.59, No.8, pg. 492.  
.Document, VJTR, June,2002,Vol.66, No.6, pg.436-437.  
.Document, Statement of a National Consultation-Gender Relations in the Church: A Call to Integrity and  
Justice, VJTR, October,2010, Vol.74,No.10, pg.57.  
.Document, VJTR, March,2009, Vol.71, No.3, pg. 226  
. Chennattu, M Rekha RA, Biblical Women as Models of Theologizing, VJTR, September2009, Vol.73, No. 9,