The Last Word: Counting Out the Laity

Within the Catholic Church, especially in the United States, feminism is a hot topic. I have only recently realized that it can also be a hot property; there’s serious money to be made in the feminism business.

Back in early October, a group called Time Consultants, Inc. held a conference at the elegant Shoreham Hotel, in Washington, D.C., on “Women in the Church.” Time Consultants ran the show as a business venture; participants paid a hefty registration fee of $95. Of course, many participants probably paid much more for airfare to Washington. Then there were hotel expenses; the Shoreham normally charges $140 a night for a single room, although the conference presumably wangled a discount. Restaurants around the Shoreham aren’t cheap, either. A typical paying customer from out of town, then, could easily have dropped over $500 for the three-day conference. Yet somehow Time Consultants attracted nearly 2,500 participants. Nearly all were female; a substantial majority were nuns.

Someday, I would like to know how so many women, vows of poverty notwithstanding, can afford to attend such a conference. But that is not the point of this column. Nor do I intend to focus on the shocking episodes that took place at this conference, such as the feminist “liturgy” which parodied the Holy Eucharist, or the public calls for women to secede from the Catholic Church. Instead, I want to focus on two of the relatively sober lectures that highlighted the conference. My question is simple. Are these women getting their money’s worth?

On October 30, Origins (the documentary service of the National Catholic News syndicate) published two lectures from the conference. First came Rev. Richard McBrien, chairman of the Theology Department at Notre Dame. He was followed by Sister Joan Chittester, O.S.B., the head of the International Conference of Benedictine Women.

Father McBrien spoke about “ecclesiological Nestorianism.” An impressive title, followed by a bewildering argument. If I understood correctly (which is unlikely), McBrien saw a great similarity between the contemporary “patriarchal” Church, with its exclusively male hierarchy, and the old Nestorian heresy, with its insistence that Jesus had two separate natures — one human, one divine. To me, frankly, the argument makes no sense whatsoever. But let’s assume that I simply missed the point.

Still, in the course of his lecture McBrien made what appeared, to me, as an outrageous assertion. “The only members of the Church who really count,” he told the audience, “are men: the pope, the bishops, the priests, alas, even the deacons.” Thus, twenty years after the Vatican Council proclaimed the “age of the laity,” a prominent Catholic theologian claims that the only Catholics who “really count” are those who wear Roman collars, preferably with mitres. The overwhelming majority of Catholics, then, don’t “really count.” And of course women, by definition, don’t count. Mother Teresa doesn’t count, apparently. Jacques Maritain didn’t count. The Virgin Mary doesn’t count.

To me, McBrien’s image of the Church seems downright bizarre. But Sister Joan Chittester took the same point, and developed it still further. She wistfully reflected that the Lord died for women as well as men, “though sadly it is also said that women may not be carriers of grace . . . ” This, too, will come as a surprise to the fathers of Vatican II, who extolled the Virgin Mary as the “mediatrix of all grace.” Like McBrien, Chittester advanced a clericalist’s image of the Church, in which grace can flow only through the ministry of those who are ordained.

Naturally, if you believe that only clergymen (and only living clergymen, at that; forget what you heard about the communion of saints) can be first-class members of the Church, it follows logically that women are second-class citizens. This point was not lost on participants in the Women in the Church conference. But nobody seemed to notice the corollary: if women are second-class citizens, so are unordained Catholic men. Virtually all of us should be offended by the clericalists’ model of Catholicism. Which is one reason to reject that model. That, plus the fact that the model is wrong.

When feminism is on the agenda, however, other concerns seem to disappear. As she rolled toward her peroration, Sister Chittester reminded her audience, “It was two women and one non-violent male who went all the way to the foot of the cross professing truth publicly.” Absolutely right. And didn’t the women at the foot of the cross “really count”? Weren’t they “carriers of grace”? Aren’t they still?

But even here, Chittester seems overwhelmed by the imperialistic demands of feminist logic. When she characterizes St. John as a non-violent male, she is undoubtedly right; he was certainly not a violent man. Still, in the context of her talk, it seems clear that she was applauding St. John specifically for his feminine qualities. Sorry, but I’m not buying. St. Mark never did explain why the Lord nicknamed John a “son of thunder.” So I’m just guessing. But I don’t think the “son of thunder” was a particularly feminine man.


Philip F. Lawler, a former editor of Crisis Magazine, is the author most recently, of Contagious Faith: Why the Church Must Spread Hope, Not Fear, in a Pandemic.

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