Don’t Make The Church A Stepford Wife

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Image licensed “free to share and use” by Bing Images.

Fr. Dwight Longnecker set me up for one of my soapboxes this morning. He published a piece, “Men At Church”, touching on how the Roman Catholic liturgy draws men. I have no quibbles with men being attracted to the Church and her liturgy, in fact I wish more were. My concern lies in his derogative use of the word “feminization.”

For example –

This is why the feminization of the liturgy is so unattractive to men. When well-meaning liturgists and priests feel they have to make everything in the liturgy emotionally relevant and “meaningful” to everyone, many men switch off. When Father Fabulous insists on being emotionally entertaining in the liturgy he is likely to please the women while the fellas roll their eyes. When Sister Sandals develops new age liturgies that attempt to connect with our emotions, or when Pastor Hipster tries to push the emotional hot buttons with his sermon, most men are not only ready to switch off, they’re ready to head for the door.

And –

Traditional Catholic worship, on the other hand, is by the book and objective. Men perceive it as being dependable and rock solid—not emotional, subjective, and flighty.

He sets women up as being “emotional, subjective, and flighty.” Hmm…sounds more like a deadbeat dad or, at best, a Stepford wife.

And for what it’s worth, many women think and feel similarly about such liturgies.

As I posted on Facebook, both on my wall and Fr. Dwight’s –

I get where you’re coming from, but as a woman who deeply loves (heart & mind = each are the same – “lev”- in Hebrew), and one who continues to study the role of women in the Church, I think you need to be careful with the word “feminization” and other similar words. Anything related to woman or female ends up being deficient, almost a dirty/bad word. Mary the Mother of God prefigures the Church. The Church is feminine, the Bride of Christ. What’s wrong with a feminine presence in the Church and her liturgy? Why is the Roman liturgy so-called “masculine”? I just don’t buy it. Again, I think I get where you’re coming from, but I don’t think it’s an intellectually tight argument as presented here.

To his credit, Fr. Dwight replied that he was in agreement that a different word would be appropriate. He offered “effete” and commented, “The ‘effete’ is what C.S.Lewis called ‘Christianity and water.’ They have watered down the wine and tried to tame the lion.”

Now we’re talking. (In Italian – Adesso parla bene.)

The only problem is that Lewis, Fr. Dwight and myself are using an older and now secondary meaning of the word. Unfortunately today, it’s become a tacit synonym for “gay” (the newer definition, not “happy”).

From Oxford Dictionaries –

  1. (of a person) affected, overrefined, and ineffectual: “effete trendies from art college” synonyms: affected · pretentious · precious · mannered
  2. no longer capable of effective action: “the authority of an effete aristocracy began to dwindle”
    synonyms: weak · enfeebled · enervated · worn out

A friend of mine noted that what we’re really talking about is something more like sentimentality. I would add “saccharine.” The point is that it has nothing to do with true femininity or feminization, which brings me back to my theme of the Stepford Wife model of the Church.

In fact, if we’re actually going to follow Catholic doctrine, feminization and femininity are good things. After all, we are all – women and men – called to imitate Mary the Mother of God who prefigures the Church and in many ways is the first rendering of the Church in so far as she becomes the living tabernacle (cf. Ark of the Covenant) for the Word made flesh.

In January, I taught an intensive course “Women and the Body of Christ” at the Augustine Institute in Denver. I’m now teaching it as a semester course at our satellite campus in Orange County. In both cases, I’ve had an amazing group of students. Just this past week, we spent three hours doing a seminar on St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women).

Let me share some highlights with you, just a few –

N. 3 “When the time had fully come, God sent forth his son, born of woman”. (Galatians 4,4) …. It is significant that Saint Paul does not call the Mother of Christ by her own name “Mary”, but calls her “woman”: this coincides with the words of the Proto-evangelium in the Book of Genesis (cf. 3:15). She is that “woman” who is present in the central salvific event which marks the “fullness of time”: this event is realized in her and through her. [Emphasis mine.]

It’s also interesting to compare the use of “woman” by St. Paul to Jesus’s use at the wedding in Cana, John 2,4:  “[And] Jesus said to her, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” This is fulfilled in John 19,26-67: “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.”

Put simply, the fact that Mary was a woman is an essential part of the central salvific event of all times. It is not an accident. She is not unessential. She is not some sort of divine incubator. If you want that, there are other Christian denominations which offer it. It’s not Catholic. A woman was essential for the incarnation, redemption, and the Church, to name a few.

Back to Mulieris Dignitatem:

N. 22 “Moreover, contemplating Mary’s mysterious sanctity, imitating her charity, and faithfully fulfilling the Father’s will, the Church herself becomes a mother by accepting God’s word in faith. For by her preaching and by baptism she brings forth to a new and immortal life children who are conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of God” [cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 64]….The Council has confirmed that, unless one looks to the Mother of God, it is impossible to understand the mystery of the Church, her reality, her essential vitality. Indirectly we find here a reference to the biblical exemplar of the “woman” which is already clearly outlined in the description of the “beginning” (cf. Gen 3:15) and which procedes from creation, through sin to the Redemption. In this way there is a confirmation of the profound union between what is human and what constitutes the divine economy of salvation in human history. The Bible convinces us of the fact that one can have no adequate hermeneutic of man, or of what is “human”, without appropriate reference to what is “feminine”. There is an analogy in God’s salvific economy: if we wish to understand it fully in relation to the whole of human history, we cannot omit, in the perspective of our faith, the mystery of “woman”: virgin-mother-spouse.”[Emphasis mine.]

Throughout our three-hour discussion, even though I’ve read, written on, and taught this document many times, my mind was spinning at the profundity, not just of St. John Paul II, but of our Catholic Church – our tradition, Sacred Scripture, and our Magisterium.

I’m glad Fr. Dwight walked back his position, but I hear a lot of this type of thought. For example, Leon Podels’, The Church Impotent: The Feminization Of Christianity. There may be many things wrong with the practice of Christianity, but the uncorrupt understanding of the feminine element is essential for an integral understanding of the Church, the Body of Christ.

Even the liturgy is not masculine strictly speaking. Yes, it’s about the sacrifice of Christ made real again in every Mass. But that sacrifice would not have been possible without a woman – at least in so far as God ordained it. And the liturgy is also the Church’s response to and participation in the sacrifice, a particularly unique feminine response to which both women and men are called insofar are they make up the Church. (Think of Mary at the foot of the Cross…)

Some may choose to insist on Stepford wife type caricatures of woman and everything related to her, but they miss the reality of all things essential to humanity. Until we have a profound and authentic understanding of woman, we won’t understand fully the significance of salvation, humanity, the Church, or even Christ.

And the same goes for a profound and authentic understanding of man, which of its very nature would not make caricatures of women.

 

 

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