CathBlog - Are there any female lay Catholic role models?

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Recently, the editor of CathBlog wrote to the Office for the Participation of Women (OPW) remarking that most of the writers for CathBlog are clergy and lay men. I too had noticed this, and have also noticed the same trend in other publications that I read with gusto.

I wondered why that was, being that I could readily think of hundreds of women who write as intellectually and beautifully as any men that I know. Are we not brave enough to contribute? Is it busy-ness? There could be a myriad of reasons. This request also made me reflect on the sheer volume of women I see more or less running parishes, in roles as pastoral associates; special ministers; readers; musicians; liturgists; running youth groups, prayer groups, service groups, social justice groups.....and volunteering in so many ways.

Indeed these women have responded to the call for “all the baptized and confirmed to be aware of their active responsibility in the Church’s life (Novo Millennio Ineunte, no. 46).   They have responded to the call for collaborative ministry, “the way that mature Christians express their unity in Christ and work together to accomplish his mission in the world” (From Words to Deeds, US Bishops Conference).The National Church Life Survey of 2007 reported that 61 percent of Catholic mass attendees are women. So I have much cause to wonder about women in the Church.

As a young, single lay feminist, it is not lost on me the irony that most of my saintly/Catholic role models are religious women or men. Will young Catholic women in 50 years feel the same way? Will we have to wrack our brains to find female role models that not only managed to change the world, lived fulfilling lives of radical service to the gospel, but also that had a family? And what about the world?

In Australia on Saturday, we may just elect democratically our first female Prime Minister. To many, this might signal a triumph – a sign that women are finally equal in status and power to men. But...let’s look at some statistics. “According to the AMP/NATSEM Income and Wealth Report, a 25-year-old man is likely to earn a total of $2.4 million over the next 40 years, more than one-and-a-half times the $1.5 million prospective earnings of a woman. Women are less likely to be in leadership positions within organisations and only 10.7 per cent of executive managers are women.” (ABS data). So these are the Australian stats.

Most women who desire marriage and family accept that at some point in their lives, their capacity to earn may be lessened, depending on the number of children they have, and indeed, the circumstances. But must this acceptance mean that women renounce their goals and ambitions, even to the point where they perhaps deny their own vocations?

I have just returned from six weeks in Paraguay. In my time there, I was introduced to numerous newborn babies. In Paraguay, the poorer the women are, the more likely they are to be expected to take on traditional roles. In the barrio where I spent most of my time  not only were the mothers the primary-care givers, nappy changers, breast feeders, cooks and cleaners, quite often they had been abandoned by the father of the child even before the end of the first trimester. Like women in most countries – they are of mixed minds about their “ascribed roles”, but unlike in Australia, they generally had little hope of any other opportunities apart from being mothers, and probably single ones.

Many of them enjoy nurturing, nesting, cooking, making house, just as many Australian women (and men) enjoy these things to varying degrees. For argument’s sake, I know for sure that I enjoy cooking more than my father – which is a good thing for anyone who might choose to eat at our house.

My time in Paraguay did however, make me ask if it is possible for me to have a fulfilling career as well as a family without working doubly hard for half the pay, that is, as they say, to have it all.

John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Women in 1995:

“In this vast domain of service, the Church’s two-thousand-year history, for all its historical conditioning, has truly experienced the “genius of woman”; from the heart of the Church there have emerged women of the highest calibre who have left an impressive and beneficial mark in history. I think of the great line of woman martyrs, saints and famous mystics. In a particular way I think of Saint Catherine of Siena and of Saint Teresa of Avila, whom Pope Paul VI of happy memory granted the title of Doctors of the Church. And how can we overlook the many women, inspired by faith, who were responsible for initiatives of extraordinary social importance, especially in serving the poorest of the poor? The life of the Church in the Third Millennium will certainly not be lacking in new and surprising manifestations of “the feminine genius”.

The informal slogan of the Decade of Women became “Women do two-thirds of the world’s work, receive 10 percent of the world’s income and own one percent of the means of production.”  

I agree with John Paul II as he writes about the many female role models in our Church’s history, but, I lament, there are not as many as I would like to see. Missing in this letter is mention of lay saints, lay women, mothers, workers like Dorothy Day and others. Is it that by choosing marriage and family, the most popular vocation, that we lose our capacity to be saints or role models? Or is it, and I suspect that this might be closer to the truth, that we are just too damn busy?

Beth Doherty is media officer for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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