What is she trying to say?

What is she trying to say? March 2, 2012

In my reading of the Catechism for my diaconate formation program, I came across a passage that has set me thinking.  In the discussion of the resurrection, it says:

Mary Magdalene and the holy women who came to finish anointing the body of Jesus, which had been buried in haste because the Sabbath began on the evening of Good Friday, were the first to encounter the Risen One. Thus the women were the first messengers of Christ’s Resurrection for the apostles themselves. (CCC 641)

This event is pithily summarized in the long conclusion to the Gospel of Mark:

When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene,out of whom he had driven seven demons.She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it. (Mark 16:9-11)

I was always struck by the fact that even though Mary Magdalene was the first to believe in the Resurrection and to bring the good news to the apostles, they refused to believe.  I can almost imagine them saying to one another, in their incomprehension:  “What is she trying to say?”  Yet, in the end they listened, at least to the extent of going to see the empty tomb for themselves.  Ultimately, this event was woven into the gospel narratives, and the Church has called her “the Apostle to the Apostles” since at least the Middle Ages.

But in reading this passage in the Catechism, what struck me most was its juxtaposition with a nearby passage on the Last Supper:

The Eucharist that Christ institutes at that moment will be the memorial of his sacrifice. Jesus includes the apostles in his own offering and bids them perpetuate it. By doing so, the Lord institutes his apostles as priests of the New Covenant. (CCC 611)

As Catholics we understand that at the Last Supper Jesus instituted two sacraments:  the Eucharist and Holy Orders.  But it is also clear that this is a back reading onto the text itself.  Jesus does not explicitly say in these passages that this is what he is doing.  Rather it is our Tradition (with a capital “T”) that invests this historical moment with this transcendent meaning.  And what struck me is that while this passage is so interpreted, the story of Mary Magdalene is not read as having meaning beyond the event itself.

One could imagine, counter-factually but plausibly, a Tradition having arisen in the Church of an order of “Apostles to the Apostles”:  women selected from the community whose mission was to speak to the (male) apostles words they may not want to hear or believe.  Women whose mission was to remind them that Christ is Risen: that they should look for Him where they least expect to find Him, and to hear His voice whenever He speaks.  In a word, they would have been there to speak truth to power, to be a living embodiment of what St. Paul described:

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. (1 Cor 1:27)

I am not going to push this fantasy any further: our tradition is what it is.  (Though recent feminist scholarship has hinted at some interesting things in the early apostolic period, I don’t know enough to comment on them meaningfully.)  But here and now, I wonder:  do we need such a ministry?  Do we need, formally  or informally, someone who brings us—particularly the male “us” both lay and ordained—up short and makes us ask ourselves, “What is she trying to say?”  Or to put it another way: do we as a Church listen to the voices of women as we ought to?

When I first raised this question in class, the discussion got side-tracked because it was suggested that I was arguing that the Church hates women.  To be clear:  no, I don’t think the Church hates women.  But I sometimes think that even as it claims to love and respect them, it doesn’t always listen to them.    The argument in response to this is that of course the Church listens to women:  there are women who are Doctors of the Church.  Yes, but you can number them on the fingers of one hand:  Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Therese of Lisieux, Hildegard of Bingen.  They may simply be the exceptions that prove the rule.

Now there is nothing original in this question; indeed, as the debate swirls around the HHS mandate it has been a fairly common refrain in commboxes across the blogosphere.  But I am moved to ask it because of a chance discovery of a series of posts at the Women in Theology blog.  (Hat tip to the readers of Vox Nova who sent us email about it.)   The series is entitled “Women speak about Natural Family Planning” and is intended to record first person narratives by women about their experiences with NFP.   The stories told are moving and insightful and I recommend them to everyone, whether or not you agree with the conclusions that the anonymous authors reach.

But coming across these posts as I was reflecting on Mary Magdalene, what I noticed above all was the feeling all the posters seemed to share:  that the Church (whether it is right or wrong about NFP) does not listen to the voices of women or take their lived experiences into account.  Closer to home, my wife has made it plain that she believes that women often go unheard in the Church.  Women in the modern era are raising their voices and speaking out as never before.  But many of them seem to feel that, like Mary Magdalene, the successors of the Apostles respond with disbelief:  “What is she trying to say?”

Once there was an institutional attempt to listen.  Thirty years ago the USCCB attempted to write a pastoral letter on women’s concerns to accompany their historic letters on peace and the economy.  What was noteworthy about the process that led to the initial draft was the effort they made to listen to women before writing it.  And this also seemed to be the source of much of the opposition to the pastoral.  Conservatives rejected the initial drafts as being subservient to a feminist minority in the Church.  And, as one press report at the time said, the Vatican criticized the second draft for being “too heavily influenced by women and insufficiently instructive to them.”  Ultimately, after three successive drafts, the document failed to win approval and the project was shelved.

Let me close with an honest question to the women readers of this blog:  what do you think?  Do you believe you are heard or unheard?  Or is your answer a messier “yes” and “no”, “sometimes, but not always”?  As someone who aspires to become a deacon, I need to follow the advice of Eli to the young Samuel and say, “Speak, your servant is listening.”  I can’t promise to agree with you, but I will promise to think before responding.

Editorial note:  I usually allow pretty open comments to my posts, but in this case I am going to exercise closer control.  Snarky or belittling comments will go straight into the trash.

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