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Accepting Mary Magdalene's Challenge

Let's admit it: Many Catholics prefer honoring dead women saints over listening to current women followers of Jesus.

During the Sequence for Mass on Easter Sunday, the Church prays: “Speak, Mary, declaring/What you saw, wayfaring./‘The tomb of Christ, who is living,/The glory of Jesus’ resurrection;/ Bright angels attesting,/The shroud and napkin resting./Yes, Christ my hope is risen;/To Galilee he goes before you.’”

The apostles did not initially believe Mary Magdalene’s report of the empty tomb and that she received a message from angels (Mark 16:11 and Luke 24:11).

Although biblical scholars and theologians are calling new attention to Mary Magdalene (see Cracking The Da Vinci Code: Theolgian Elizabeth Johnson on Mary Magdalene), the Church has a pretty spotty record about listening to its women disciples. Where it has listened most, it has allowed women to establish new religious communities, which have ultimately been under the control of ordained men.

Perhaps this mixed record partially explains the intense recent interest in Mary Magdalene, reflected in The Da Vinci Code’s great popularity, plus many other books, articles and TV programs. Those most enthusiastic seem to feel that some long-suppressed secret is finally revealed. Even though that is not the case, righteous anger is growing because of the difficulty of women’s voices being heard.

Recent, Limited Progress

In the last 40 years, women have been official auditors (listeners!) at Vatican II and at world Synods of Bishops.

According to the 2003 Official Catholic Directory, among the 177 U.S. Latin-rite archdioceses and dioceses, 48 had a woman as chancellor and two had women as co-chancellors. Another 20 had laymen or deacons as chancellors.

In 1970, Pope Paul VI recognized Sts. Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila as Doctors of the Church. In 1997, John Paul II added St. Thérèse of Lisieux to this list of the Church’s preeminent teachers.

Last March the pope appointed Sister Sarah Butler, M.S.B.T., a teacher of dogmatic theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, and laywoman Barbara Hallensleben, a teacher of dogmatic theology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, as members of the Church’s International Theological Commission. A few days later he named Mary Ann Glendon, a professor of law at Harvard University, as president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.

In April the pope appointed Suzanne Cory, professor of medical biology at the University of Melbourne, Australia, as a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. That same month he named Salesian Sister Enrica Rosanna as undersecretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. That makes her the highest-ranked woman in the Holy See’s 23 main offices.

The Church's 'Glass Ceiling'

Sister Rosanna’s position at that Congregation (#3) is the highest position that a woman can have in any of those offices because the head of each office and its secretary must be ordained men.

Isn’t it odd that women comprise most of the Catholic Church’s vowed religious, yet the office relating to them must be headed by a man? That women provide most of the health care at Catholic hospitals and clinics around the world, but the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers must be headed by a man?

There are Pontifical Councils for the Laity and for Families, but according to current rules, all such councils are to be headed by archbishops.

When U.S. archdioceses and dioceses reduce diocesan staffs (as many are now doing), women are often among the first to go because they have less seniority.

Dangers of Clericalism

Last February 29, the National Review Board (NRB) released A Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States. On the same day, the John Jay College of Law released its “nature and scope” clergy sex-abuse report, commissioned by the NRB.

Section IV.B.3.c of the NRB’s own report addresses the role that clericalism played in responding to this crisis. The NRB noted that in the Archdiocese of Boston a woman religious interviewed those reporting abuse and found them credible. The priest who questioned accused priests, on the other hand, accepted their explanations. The religious sister “played no role in deciding whether to return a priest to ministry,” says the report.

The 25th and final recommendation of the NRB’s report reads, “The bishops and other Church leaders must listen to and be responsive to the concerns of the laity. To accomplish this, the hierarchy must act with less secrecy, more transparency, and a greater openness to the gifts that all members of the Church bring to her.”

That means we all must listen to the Church’s laywomen and laymen. How likely is that if Christ’s Church continues to see ordination as necessary for serving in the top posts at every Vatican office?

One of the Church’s early titles for Mary Magdalene was “apostle to the apostles.” Are women’s voices being heard in your parish? In your diocese? Can’t we as a Church do something about the contradictory practice of praising Mary Magdalene in the Easter Sequence while listening poorly to Catholic women alive today?—P.M.

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