In the run-up to Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States, there was a tremendous display of unseriousness at the National Press Club, followed by a sacrilege at a nearby Washington, D.C., church. A misguided group called the Women's Ordination Conference held a protest -- a press conference and an all-woman "mass" at a local Methodist church. The group, as the name suggests, wants to see "the ordination of women as priests, deacons and bishops." Sadly, the group doesn't understand women or the Catholic Church.
In a statement, WOC executive director Aisha Taylor declared: "The failure to ordain women is a blatant manifestation of sexism in the church that has wider repercussions in the world.
"In the three years of his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI has made a few encouraging statements about women, but he has done nothing that suggests willingness to open the discussion on women's ordination. That's why for his 81st birthday, we are offering the pope a present: the gift of women, their leadership, talents, experiences and unique perspectives." The group trailed the pope mobile to papal events with a billboard truck that asked: "Pope Benedict, How long must women wait for equality? Ordain Catholic Women."
As they are stuck on their version of "equality," the fundamental problem with the group and its message is that whatever Benedict says or does will not be enough for them. They are not open to listening, but to dictating an unworkable agenda. If they were open to it, they would hear and see the Roman Catholic Church's embrace and celebration of women. Women will not be priests, but they will always be an essential part of the Church.
Pope John Paul II may have been best in articulating the Catholic perspective on women -- with great love, appreciation and, to use a popular word, empowerment. He wrote in his 1995 encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" ("The Gospel of Life"): "In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a 'new feminism' which rejects the temptation of imitating models of 'male domination,' in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation."
During a speech in Rome this February, Benedict reiterated John Paul's message: "In the face of cultural and political currents that attempt to eliminate, or at least to obfuscate and confuse, the sexual differences written into human nature, considering them to be cultural constructions, it is necessary to recall the design of God that created the human being male and female, with a unity and at the same time an original and complementary difference. Human nature and the cultural dimension are integrated in an ample and complex process that constitutes the formation of the identity of each, where both dimensions -- the feminine and the masculine -- correspond to and complete each other."
John Paul the Great and the former Cardinal Ratzinger have not been reinventing a women-hating church. They have been reiterating what Christ taught and what's at the very heart of the Catholic Church. The Gospel tells us that the people left standing at the foot of Christ's crucifixion were women -- no weaker sex, but stalwart supports. Women are building the foundation, which is carved into the walls of the Church. When I recently toured St. Peter's Basilica for the first time, my group of traveling American female commentators noticed the overwhelming presence of women in the home of St. Peter and his papal successors. Female saints and virtues portrayed as women: Charity, Truth, Prudence and Justice. Charity is presented as a mother nursing a baby, with additional children at her feet. I thought of the many stay-at-home moms doing the grassroots work of civilization-building. Perhaps the most famous work of art in St. Peter's is the "Piet," a moving tribute to a mother's sacrificial devotion and love, depicting the Mother of God with her dying child in her arms.
To take the conventional feminist view of the Catholic Church in relation to how it views women is to miss the real message of new feminism it offers: a prayerful ode to the important differences between men and women, the obscuring of which has gotten our broader culture into loads of trouble over the last few decades. To state that "In the face of one closed door after another, Catholic women have been innovative, courageous and faithful to the church," as the women of the Women's Ordination Conference do, suggests they've never been to St. Peter's, where the doors are open and full of celebration for an essential part of God's creation: women.