An increasing number of Catholic women have a love-hate relationship with their church. They love the church tradition, the lessons of Jesus and the sense of community that church fosters. But the hypocrisy and sexism they experience is difficult for them to reconcile. “Too often, power, oppression and hypocrisy drive educated and uneducated women from the church. … There are valid reasons to leave the church, but there are more reasons to stay,” said Gail Buckley, an author and panelist at Fordham’s third annual Russo Lecture titled “Why Do Educated Catholic Women Stay in the Church?”
For the last 30 years, tension has mounted between American Catholic women and church authorities over the roles and treatment of women. The panelists at the March 27 forum – Buckley; Deidre Cornell, a Catholic feminist; and Megan Doyle, a Fordham graduate who works for the New York City Board of Education – pointed to biblical references depicting Jesus’ equal treatment of women. They then contrasted those examples with the resistance faced by women pursuing church leadership positions. Today, 80 percent of ministry leaders, who oversee Sunday-school classes and other ministries, are women.
However, they still cannot be ordained as priests and are often excluded from high-level administrative posts such as chancellor, according to Sister Janet Ruffing, RSM, Ph.D., a professor in Fordham’s Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education. Last year, Pope John Paul II apologized to women, among other groups, for the church’s wrongdoing in the past. However, no church policy has been adopted to right the wrongs. “Women are feeling a great deal of pain in the church these days,” Ruffing said. “There is a continuous resistance of the church to make changes. The Vatican insists that [the ordination of women]cannot even be talked about.”
Forty percent of women studying for ordination in U.S. seminaries are former Roman Catholics, Ruffing said. More and more women are choosing to leave the church or are refusing to pass the church tradition along to their children. In college, Cornell became so disillusioned by the sexist language of the psalms and practices of the church, that she would slip into services at the beginning of the Eucharist and then sneak out. This is somewhat ironic, she said, considering that the only group that stood by Christ throughout his crucifixion and resurrection was a small band of women, according to the book of Mark. “I may leave the church, but the church will not leave me,” Cornell said. “During times of [stress]and grieving, there is nothing like the psalms and Eucharist. Their symbolic language speaks to me like nothing else.” The annual Russo Lecture is hosted by Fordham’s Archbishop Hughes Institute on Religion and Culture.