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A Time For Reforms

A Time For Reforms

Developing the feminine ethos both in priests and nuns is essential to grow in spirituality. Preserving and nurturing the feminine ethos will not only empower the consecrated women in the Church but also help the bishops and priests to develop more mature and dignified relationship with them. Analytical study of the sacred scripture and contemplation on the life and teachings of Christ will enable us to understand the divinity of the feminine ethos which will in turn help us to renew the religious life and restructure the church laws and structure.

The first chapter of the Holy Bible begins with a bold statement, “God created human beings making them to be like Himself. He created them male and female” (Gen 1:27). It shows the feminine image of God. But the male dominated patriarchal societies ignored the female dimension of God and imposed a male God. Women were presented as an inferior creation of God and blamed for all evils in the society.

Saints and thinkers who were educated in masculine system continuously degraded women. The great philosopher Socrates said, “Woman is half way between a man and an animal”. After him Aristotle had this to say, “The most virtuous woman is crass in comparison to the basest male.”

The Christian thinkers and saints also had their negative attitudes towards women. Tertullian said, “Woman is devil’s gateway”. St. Augustine who had an immoral past and fathered a child before marriage said, “Marriage is a covenant with death.” St. Thomas Aquinas, who is known as angelic theologian, also spoke negatively about women, “Woman is defective and misbegotten.”

None of these theologians and saints was punished though they were speaking against the divine image of woman presented in the first chapter of the Holy Bible. Even the revolutionary Martin Luther who challenged the Catholic Church and supported married clergy did not have positive things to speak on women. According to him, “Women and men were equal before the fall. After the fall women are forever subordinate because Eve sinned first.”

Pope John Paul II banned all discussions about women’s ordination. His argument against the ordination of women was, “Women cannot be priests because they do not bear physical resemblance to Christ.”

Despite the fact that the authors of various books in the Holy Bible were men, several texts highlight feminine dimensions of God: “Just as a bird hovers over its nest to protect its young, so I, the Lord Almighty will protect Jerusalem and defend it” (Is. 31:5)

The motherly quality of God is highlighted in Is. 49: 15-16: “Can a woman forget her own baby and not love the child she bore? Even if a mother should forget her child, I will never forget you!  Jer. 31: 20 also highlights the same motherly quality of God, “Israel, you are my dearest son, the child I love best. Whenever I remember your name, I think of you with love. My heart goes out to you.”

In Ez 34:16 we read, “I will look for those that were lost, bring back those that wander off, bandage those that are hurt, and heal those that are sick.” Prophet Hosea also highlights the maternal qualities of God, “when Israel was a child.... I was one who taught Israel to walk, I took my people in my arms,... I picked them up and held them to my cheek“ (Hos 11:1-3)

The life of Jesus Christ was full of manifestation of feminine ethos. He manifested maternal qualities of God, such as, unconditional love, sensitivity, patience, forgiveness and courage. He defended women and gave them an honourable place in the society. While confronting the Samaritan woman, he did it with great respect. With great compassion and understanding he defended the woman caught in adultery from stoning to death. He had very close friendship with Martha and Mary, sisters of Lazarus. When Jesus was abandoned by his male disciples during His passion, it was women who stood by him. It was to Mary Magdalene and a group of women Jesus appeared first after His resurrection.

Women seldom realize that God has entrusted them His creative power of giving life. She is also blessed with the divine stamina to bear any amount of suffering. Women are more courageous than men in facing adverse situations. Unfortunately these divine qualities are suppressed by the patriarchal society and institutional religion, controlled by men. The society and the Church suffer great loss by not nurturing and making use of feminine power.

When the Church came under the patronage and influence of emperors and kings, the disciples of Christ adopted the imperial ways which were based on masculine ethos. The ways of Good Shepherd was replaced by imperial ways of luxury. The values, laws and structures were adopted from the way the earthly kings were ruling their people. Power, position, status, rank and wealth became the major concerns. The disciples of Christ drifted away from His way of life. Church and religious congregations adopted the Roman administrative system which was based on masculine ethos. Rituals, devotions, dogma and canon law were brought to defend the priestly domination and authority over the laity and nuns.

The vast majority of the Congregations were founded by priests and bishops who made the rules and system from a male perspective. Even if there was a woman as co-foundress she usually toed the line laid down by the male founder. The entire religious life for women was structured after a masculine system. They were given such clothes to hide their God-given beauty and womanhood in the name of modesty and protection of chastity. The superiors of women congregations developed male qualities which gave them status and recognition. The masculine qualities of efficiency, order, discipline, achievement in terms of expansion, accumulation of wealth, infrastructure, etc became the measurement of success. The nuns became patriarchal in exercising authority in masculine way.

The 24 hours of commitment, hard work with minimum facilities and blind loyalty of consecrated women all over the world make Catholic Church enjoy public admiration. The dedicated service of nuns is behind all the recognition the Church gets for the well managed hospitals, educational institutions and social work programmes. Nuns take care of orphans, destitute women and men, the mentally challenged, children who suffer multiple disabilities, caring the unwed mothers, the HIV affected and all who are abandoned by the near and dear ones. Priests who are heads of these programmes can never manage them without the ‘selfless and cheap labour’ of nuns. Yet they who do all the hard work will have no say in decision making and policy matters. Even the maintenance of the churches, taking care of the sacristy and decoration of the churches for various festivals are done by nuns. Yet they are ignorant about the finances of the Church. It is managed solely by the priests. In every diocese, maximum grassroots level work and pastoral care of the families are done by the nuns, yet they will not be part of the decision making bodies or consultation. It is a pity that many dioceses and institutions cannot manage their mess and housekeeping without the help of nuns. Even after the prophetic Pope Francis publicly lambasted for using ‘nuns as cheap labour,’ things have not changed.

Many dioceses which make use of the dedicated service of the nuns do not pay them a decent remuneration for their livelihood. They are brainwashed to ‘serve the local church’. Some of the communities in the missions are not able to manage their daily living with the limited allowance they get from the diocese. They depend on their provinces to meet the deficit. However, they provide the best food whenever the priests and bishop visit them. The priests and bishop do not bother to find out if they have the means to offer the hospitality they enjoy always. Even to get the minimum allowance, many nuns have to travel by public transport for hours to the finance officer in the bishop’s house. If the priest is in a ‘meeting’, she has to wait for a long time or come again another day. The nuns who work under the priests do not get due respect and dignity, instead they are often harassed and insulted. The nuns ‘suffer silently for God’. The superiors of nuns do not stand up with these suffering nuns because they do not want to displease the priests and bishops. Some of them helplessly say, “We have told these matters to bishop also, but no positive action is taken”. The Church lacks prophetic leaders who assert and call a spade a spade.

The whole formation of the religious is rooted in religiosity of rituals, dogma and laws. All these rituals and laws are made by the clergy, based on masculine perspective. Blind obedience has no room for critical thinking and questioning. The increasing devotions, rituals, dogma and laws made by the all-male clergy, who have the sole authority to exercise and interpret the laws and scripture, further enslave the nuns and common people. In case intelligent and empowered nuns question or resist, they are then deprived of the Holy Mass and other services. There are several cases where bishops and priests refused Mass and other services because the nuns did not agree to give land from their property or share part of the income from their schools. Even appeals to the higher authorities of the Church did not help the nuns to resolve the conflicts. They had to wait until the particular bishop retired or the priest was transferred after months.

The nuns suffer all these injustices and discriminations because they do not want to get into trouble. They feel it is better to ‘suffer for Christ’ than fight and spoil the name. In many cases the simple nuns do not get the support of their superiors also because they are taught to respect priests, who are ‘ alter Christus’. They are ignorant of the purpose of vocation to be prophets (Jer 1:4). They are not aware of the words of the first Pope St. Peter, “We must obey God more than man.”

The irony is that a large number of nuns, especially those in leadership positions support the clergy and the bishops blindly. Th ey do not understand the feminine ethos because they had been nurtured by the masculine system and enjoy its benefits. This becomes worse if they happen to be those who studied theology and canon law in seminaries where priests are trained. They are conditioned by the masculine theology and masculine perspectives of the Church. The ordinary nuns have to travel in ordinary sleeper class even in the summer heat, while the priests will fly. The ordinary nuns in many congregations are not allowed to have a mobile phone, personal email and decent pocket money because of the austerity rules made by the traditional masculine system maintained by the superiors who are masculine and with self-righteous mindset. I am afraid that I will be perhaps more criticised by nuns than priests for writing this article. Their argument will be, “Why do you expose our vulnerability? You are exaggerating. It is not happening in our Congregation.” This is masculine way of women oppressing women without knowing the difficulties many helpless nuns face in different Congregations.

The slavery of women religious is such that they keep themselves away from the constructive programmes organized by prophetic priests and nuns who challenge the unjust and unchristian ways within the Church. They deprive themselves from ventures which are beneficial for their community and members for fear of the priests and bishops. They continue their stagnant and routine life to suffer silently. In such situation many talented nuns suffer suffocation in a death culture within the convents. The age factor and social stigma of quitting the religious life force them to go with the crowd helplessly spending life by singing, decorating churches and doing daily chores . I wonder if they ever read what the prophetic Pope strongly spoke about the ‘cheap labour of nuns in the Church’.

Developing feminine ethos is important for the spiritual maturity both for women and men in the Church. By this, men can become more compassionate, patient, understanding and forgiving. Women will be empowered by drawing out the feminine within them. They need not follow the authoritarian masculine ways to empower themselves. Feminine is divine.

SOME PRACTICAL TIPS FOR EMPOWERING WOMEN RELIGIOUS AND RESTORE THE FEMININE ETHOS IN THE CHURCH:

·               Educate to create awareness of feminine ethos and ways of playing more constructive role in Church affairs.

·               Make conscious effort of developing maternal qualities.

·               Entrust women religious with more responsibility with power to make decisions and execute the programmes independently in diocesan activities.

·               Include women religious in all decision making bodies in the diocese. Representation should be in proportion to the number of women religious working in the diocese.

·               Where women religious are given the responsibility to manage the schools they should not be controlled by the priests. There should be clear job description and independence in doing the work without getting permission for everything all the time.

·               Policies and decisions regarding the schools should be taken together with the sisters who work there.

·               The institutions which are meant for girls and women shall be totally managed by the nuns. Priests shall not interfere in their working.

·               Women religious shall have full authority to invite speakers for their programmes without any prior permission from priests and bishops.

·               All nuns who work in the church institutions shall be paid salary and other benefits as per the government rules

·               There shall be no direct or indirect way of harassment or negative publicity by the priests against nuns.

·               Priests and bishops shall not misuse sacraments (Holy Mass and other rituals) as a weapon to react against nuns. If such incidents happen nuns shall prefer to live without their service.

·               Develop spirituality of values instead of religiosity of rituals. Reduce outdated and unproductive rules and practices.

·               Make communities a place of communion in fellowship, freedom and friendship.

·               Provide sufficient comfort to facilitate creative activities to develop human resources of nuns.

·               Nuns also shall confront the priests and bishops with feminine qualities instead of reacting in masculine ways. Aggressive reaction and blocking communication is not feminine.

·               Superiors of the women congregations shall adopt more feminine ways in dealing with their members. Masculine system and ways of behaviour shall be abandoned.

·              In every situation the criteria of decisions making shall be this: What would Jesus do if he were here? What is the mind of Christ? What is the heart of Christ?

(Published on 13th August 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 33)