Why is it more realistic for a young girl to aspire to be the President of the United States than to be a priest in her local Catholic church?
Despite progress towards gender equality and egalitarianism in many countries (Norris and Inglehart), the Catholic Church remains conservative in its practices regarding women’s rights. Women are still not allowed to hold positions of authority within the Church: according to canon law 1024, they cannot be priests, pastors, bishops, cardinals, or the pope. In a world where gender equality has become a prevailing standard — or at least an important goal — many of the patriarchal practices of the Catholic church no longer resonate with its members.
Society is changing, but the Church as an institution has not adequately kept up. However, Catholicism is not composed only of top-down decisions made by the Pope and the Vatican. There are many people at the grassroots level making decisions and choices about how to weave Catholicism into their modern lives. Catholic studies scholar Robert A. Orsi asserts that there is “no religion that people have not taken up in their [own] hands.” Correspondingly, various Catholic groups have taken religion into their own hands to reconcile their religious practices with gender equality.
One way to accomplish this goal is to remain affiliated with the Church and work within its existing structure. Mary Katzenstein, in Faithful and Fearless: Moving Feminist Protest Inside the Church and Military (1999), studies feminist Catholics who bring gender equality to Catholicism. Instead of directly struggling against the Vatican’s overarching patriarchal power, feminist Catholics are creating alternative discourses. They hold conferences, workshops, liturgy groups, and form women’s renewal organizations to reframe and refocus Catholic ideas. The women that Katzenstein studied have succeeded in bringing kinds of feminist Catholicism into their daily lives, as they hope for gradual change at the institutional level.
An alternative way to reconcile Catholicism with gender equality is to break away from the institution itself. One church that successfully broke away from the Roman Catholic Church was Corpus Christi Church, in Rochester, NY. Corpus Christi was dedicated to including all people: specifically women, non–Catholics, and those who identify as members of the LGBTQ community. The church’s inclusiveness was reflected in its religious practices: women were allowed to lead services from the altar, marriage-preparation programs were available to gay and lesbian couples, and the Eucharist was open to anyone who wished to have it. These controversial practices led the Vatican to excommunicate Corpus Christi and all of its members in 1998. Since then, the church (which changed its name to Spiritus Christi) has thrived.
Members of Spiritus Christi still consider themselves Catholic, and understand their commitment to inclusivity as a direct manifestation of their Catholic beliefs*. Spiritus Christi’s system of inclusion accommodates traditional Catholic ideologies as well as contemporary social needs. This combination allows the church to appeal to many demographics that the Roman Catholic Church has alienated. Currently, Spiritus Christi has the most Catholic members in all of Rochester. In The Sacred Canopy (1967), Peter Berger helps to explain the church’s success: he argues that churches and religions tend to be more appealing when they correspond to current social structures and mainstream cultural norms.
In a rapidly modernizing, pluralistic society, should a conservative institution like the Catholic Church attempt to keep up with major societal changes? What does it stand to lose if it doesn’t?
*Reverend Jim Callan, the radical pastor who led the church through its transformation, interpreted the gospel as a divine sanction for the inclusion of all people. Callan explained, “Jesus was the most inclusive person who ever walked the face of the earth. He deserves to have His Church reflect His welcoming attitude” (from “Feminism in a Radical Catholic Renewal Community”).