The Roman Catholic Church certainly has a patriarchal institutional structure, but beneath that is an exquisite reality: men inhabit those corridors and negotiate from perceived positions of power, but women are the conduits of faith and presence, the ones who make faith a living entity. And for some women, this does not occur from a position of oppression or subservience, but from a place of freedom from the strictures of that structure. Counterintuitive or not, evidence abounds.
For example, women’s religious communities operate in a world where purpose, vision, leadership and change are imagined, initiated, articulated and lead by women. There is the factor of official recognition and sometimes affiliation with male communities, but women have operated in this sphere with remarkable integrity and success for centuries. There was Clare of Assisi whose 13th century vision of community lives of simplicity and poverty resulted in the birth of a worldwide organization of monastic contemplatives that has adapted through cultures and over centuries and still endures. There are “Poor Clare” monasteries nestled in suburbs and cities and rural areas all over the world. It is the practical wisdom of the women who committed themselves to this radical lifestyle that has generated a legacy worth investigating.
Anecdotal evidence abounds. Gathered from conversations and narratives of the Clares themselves, it is clear that a vowed life of poverty and enclosure did not diminish either the grasp of power dynamics within institutional structure or inherent intellectual strengths, curiosity and skepticism. For instance, the abbess of a monastery in New York in the 1990’s shared the sisters’ perception about the complicated male power structure: like sociologist Erving Goffman, she detailed the idea that the structure works to preserve itself and that demands both personal relationships and actions within specific roles. That generates an atmosphere where corruption and injustice can flourish. It does not highlight the ideals of prayer or the practice of faith. In a sense, political jockeying for power is an inevitable consequence of the structure itself. Better leave that to the men, they would say, and let us get on with the real work.
That same sentiment existed within the apostolic religious women’s communities that proliferated in the late 20th century. Some were worldwide apostolic groups and others were locally based. They began with fortitude and with the understanding that centuries had demonstrated 100 year life spans for communities like these, devoted to a locale or service. When the mission was satisfied, the community had achieved its purpose. Often, these disappeared. Well educated and conscientious, in pursuing a mission, these women became the architects of their own demise by educating, healing and empowering others.
Rhetoric, then, belonged to the ordained; the actual work was in the domain of the women who were founding hospitals and schools, parish centers and social service centers. They grappled with finances and government regulations, design and staff development, building whole new communities and maintaining fidelity to a vision while meeting the needs for educated professionals to better serve the needs of people. In other words, they were women who learned and sacrificed and put serving others ahead of self. They had the enormous luxury of living out faith and call with energy and enthusiasm and, in many cases, only loosely affiliated with that hierarchy and its weaknesses.
These women also recognized the realities of human failure, mental illness and the complicated terrain of personal emotional and psychological lives. Living it community, manifestation of all this was inevitable. Like the contemplative women, they were conscious that religious interest or commitment does not preclude the possibility of greed, arrogance, corruption, self-gratification or abuse of power or others. That acknowledgment is not in any way an endorsement of those behaviors; instead, it is a recognition that the mission of the Catholic Church in the world is complicated by the brokenness of human beings.
The palpable tension between ideal and real is an inevitable consequence of embracing what it is to be a Catholic. For these women, the exclusion from the realms of power actually opened the doorways to freely practice the faith that allures and motivates, inspires and instructs. Called and committed, these women stemmed the tide of poverty and injustice, and they also reflected on the errors and flaws in methods as they navigated the way between different historical contexts decades apart.
Some women, then, might argue that there is a real pathway to freedom within the church; others seek the ordination of women as both a symbol of equality and an affirmation of existence. Neither can argue that women have not been part of the life-blood of the church since its inception, and that in many centuries, women have been the beacons of faith in times overwhelmed by the darkness of institutional scandal. That role may change as time evolves, and ordination and empowerment may come, but that cannot negate the contributions and the preservation of faith that has endured thanks to the women who took the risk of faith without positions of power in the institutional structure.