The Church, the poor - and a woman’s place

Donella Johnston

How might Pope Francis' 'Church for the Poor' have meaning for the place of women in the world and in our Church?

- By Donella Johnston

What a big year 2013 was for women and girls! A number of events involving women and girls over the last year or so have given us cause to reflect on the role of women in society, politics and religion.

Time magazine’s 2013 Person of the Year, Pope Francis, has told us that we need to be a 'Church for the poor'.  Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is thus a timely challenge for us to consider who 'the poor' in our midst might be. 

In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis writes about the need for the ever-watchful 'scrutiny of the signs of the times' (p.43), 'recognising and discerning spirits' (p. 44) and 'saying no to an economy of exclusion' (p.45).  He challenges us to ask the question 'who are the excluded, the exploited and the oppressed?' and he reminds us that 'demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded' (p.83).

At a gathering last year of religion scholars, teachers and clergy in Baltimore USA, Benedictine Sr Joan Chittister pointed out that 'if Pope Francis wants to speak genuinely about his concern for the world's poor, he must also address stark issues of inequality faced by women globally.'  Citing figures that indicate women represent approximately two-thirds of the world's illiterate population and two-thirds of those suffering from hunger, Chittister said, 'Someone, somewhere has decided that women need less, women deserve less and women are worthy of less than men.

'Pope Francis has won the heart of the world by being humble, simple and pastoral - a warm and caring face of this church, a man like Jesus who is a man of the poor,' she said. 'But no one can say that they are for the poor as Jesus was and do nothing, nothing, nothing for the equality of women.'

According to UN Women, '70% of the global poor are women.  Although women perform 2/3 of the world's work, they earn less than 10% of the world's wages.  Women are far more likely than men to live in poverty because of discrimination and lack of access to education, employment and financial services.'

Here in Australia, the St Vincent de Paul Society reports that women now make up 50% of the homeless.

The 'signs of the times' are also reflected in the recent plethora of documentaries about the plight of women and girls such as I am a Girl , Girl Rising, It’s a Girl and Half the Sky .

If our Church wants to be a Church of justice and integrity - and indeed relevance and credibility - it needs to look at its-self and think very carefully about who the 'poor' are in its own rank and file.  We cannot hope to have an authentic voice in the secular world if we can’t address issues of inequality and injustice in our own structures and practices.

Maybe it’s time to dust off seminal and prophetic documents like Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus Report on the Participation of Catholic Church in Australia (1999) and look at them again.

How far have we come?  How deeply did we listen to the recommendations of reports such as this?  How dutifully and earnestly did we action these recommendations?  Did we ignore them?  Did we give up?  Did we choose to focus around the issues rather than on the actual issues themselves? Did we buy into wrong thinking in order to keep power where we thought it should be kept rather than to empower the excluded and marginalised? These are all questions I think we must examine if we want to work for the Reign of God; if we genuinely want to create a 'Heaven on Earth' as we as Christians have been called to do.

While, for now, the door might be closed on the issue of the ordination of women, Pope Francis has certainly opened many windows to the aggiornamento or 'bringing up to date' of our thinking around the role of women in decision-making and leadership in our Church.

My dream is for a Church that is a genuine sign of the Reign of God on Earth.  I want to be a member of a community of faith that exemplifies in its practices and structures the Gospel values that I hold dear – values such as unconditional love, social justice, inclusivity, diversity, equality, forgiveness and hope. I want a Church that I can point to and say, 'That is where I learnt to be who I am.' 


- Donella Johnston is Director for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference's (ACBC) Office for the Participation of Women (OPW)

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