Participation of Women in the Catholic Church in Australia: an update

Participation of Women in the Catholic Church in Australia: an update

Michael Gilchrist

Detailed materials from Australia-wide hearings of the Participation of Women in the Catholic Church (PWCC) continue to reach this office, further underlining the analysis in last month's AD2000 report: that common to every hearing and its presentations was a clear division between two major groups of women, with numbers varying' in different centres, but reflecting the polarised nature of the Church itself.

The first group consists largely of nuns and other persons employed in the Catholic system who uphold a feminist philosophy - at a time when the original 1970s feminists are complaining that the new generation has largely lost interest in feminism.

The second group offers what one would call an 'orthodox' view, supportive of Church teachings, and is generally satisfied with the present level of involvement of women in the Church. This group seems to be composed exclusively of lay people, mothers of families, including a number of professional women.

The hearings continue to provide forums for the expression of variously dissenting views on the Catholic faith. The mass media - and even some Catholic papers - have tended to focus attention on those speakers most critical of the status quo, as if these were representative views worthy of support. The Australian Bishops may well have created a monster for themselves by the time the paperwork is completed and a report has to be compiled.

What follows is a chronological survey of most of the hearings and presentations in Australia's major population centres up to the time of writing.


In Sydney, the hearings were held over three days (15-17 May) at St Mary's Cathedral in the city centre. Twenty-eight women out of 50 applicants (another report suggested 84) gave papers over the three days. The list of names of those speaking is interesting more for those not included as for those listed to appear. Mrs K. Harrigan, the highest ranking female recipient of a papal award in Australia, did not get an opportunity to speak, nor did Dr Veronica O'Connell, representing teachers of the Billings natural family planning method, nor did Katrina Lee, a high profile journalist and a Catholic convert. However, Bernice Moore of WATAC (see July AD2000) and Phillipa O'Dowd and Barbara Campbell of Ordination for Catholic Women were more fortunate.

In all, of the 28 speakers, it appears according to observers that about six were clearly orthodox, with the remainder ranging between 'neutral' and radical feminist.

One of the orthodox presenters in her response to Question 4 "What are some ways in which women's participation in the Church can be increased?" rejected as a way forward an application of "feminist theory to the Church and making the consequent adjustments to the Church." She argued that devoting "our efforts towards implementing the social teachings of the Church" could "create a society far more amenable to women" relieving them of "the enormous social pressures they currently operate under" and "thus make it far easier for them to live out their Catholic faith."


In Melbourne, thirty-two individuals or groups made presentations during the three days of hearings (29-31 May) at the St Francis' Pastoral Centre. However, the Archdiocesan newspaper Kairos focused attention in two successive editions on a solitary presentation by Sr Margaret Cassidy CSB, representing the leaders of religious congregations in Victoria.

In the first report (15-22 June), Sr Cassidy was pictured on the Kairos front cover and her feminist views occupied much of a one-page report on the hearings. A fortnight later (29 June-6 July) Kairos devoted 2 pages to an abridged version of Sr Cassidy's presentation, conveying the impression that Sr Cassidy's views were not only worthy of Catholic support, but were representative of Catholic women in general, and of the 32 Melbourne presentations as a whole.

Sr Cassidy's comments were fairly typical of those expressed by other female religious who figured prominently in the various hearings around Australia. She declared, for example, that "sexism finds its roots in patriarchy, which is but one of the sinful dimensions which pervades the human condition. Moreover patriarchy has been religiously legitimated in Christianity by an overwhelming bias in favour of masculine imagery for God. It is further exemplified in the conspicuous absence of women in major areas of decision-making in the Church." She targeted, in particular, the continued use of "man" in the liturgy when "intended to include all people", for example in the Creed's "for us men and for our salvation" – when "we believe that Jesus is not just Saviour for half the human race." She called the turning down of the request for "inclusive language" in the new Catechism "unbelievable" and queried the use of masculine images for God, describing as "perhaps one of the major obstacles to full participation [by women] today" the "canonical alignment of ministerial roles and governance."

Sr Cassidy's difficulties with standard English usage were highlighted by her remark: "Another example of this anomaly is that Pope John Paul has firmly stated that the differences between men and women are so fundamental that women can't be priests. At the same time it is considered acceptable to call them "men"!

Not all the Melbourne presenters followed Sr Cassidy's line. Mary Ann Glendon, for example, provided a very different perspective on the role and goals of women in the Church: "As for the priesthood, it is not a job, but a calling from God. It is not about power, but service. To be sure this kind of calling is reserved to men, but the call to holiness is universal. Who would claim that Mother Teresa's call to holiness is inferior to, because it is different from, that of the Archbishop of Calcutta? Understanding of the ordination question has been further clouded, moreover, by a widespread failure to distinguish between the sacramental roles that are reserved to priests and the vastly broader range of pastoral and ministerial roles that can be performed by non-ordained persons. Pastoral and ministerial roles today are more open than ever to women ...".

SALE (Vic)

The Victorian Diocese of Sale's 28 May hearing featured eight speakers, of whom the last three, according to an observer, clearly upheld orthodox doctrinal positions. Among the earlier presentations, the familiar feminist litany was delivered by two nuns from the Catholic Education Office: "Women make up most of the Church but in serving capacity. Inclusive language in Scripture and liturgy is essential to stop women feeling inferior and God not reflecting female consciousness."

The Queensland leg of the PWCC hearings took place during the first half of June, in Brisbane, Toowoomba, Rockhampton and Townsville.


During three days of hearings in Brisbane (5-7 June), which included 35 presentations, proponents of women's ordination again were able to state their views and have them publicised via the media. The Courier Mail reported the comments of Cecily Clayton, convenor of the Ordination of Women South Queensland branch, who declared that "the Church's current structure should be changed to give women called to ordination by God the opportunity to become priests."

As occurred in Canberra and Melbourne, the Brisbane archdiocesan newspaper, The Catholic Leader, gave prominence to feminist demands, this time under a front page headline "Women throw down the gauntlet" (15.6.97). According to the report: "Most women speaking on the first day shared the view that they were pushing their involvement in the Church beyond the present limited boundaries ... The Circle of Queens-land men and Women [a group of seven male and female employees of the Brisbane Catholic Education Office] ... criticised the format of the PWCC questionnaire from the Bishops' Committee for Justice, Development and Peace ... They said the format 'did not encourage expression of the genuine concerns of women and men who are searching for equity and inclusion' ...". About one-quarter of the presentations were clearly orthodox - the rest varied between indeterminate and radical feminist.

All the presenters in their introductory remarks spoke about their participation in activities at parish or other levels of the Church, and many of them held employment functions, paid or voluntary, required for passing on the Faith to young Catholics, or for informing non-Catholics of it, as with RCIA courses. Yet a good number went on in the body of their presentations to make clear their disbelief in certain aspects of faith such as the ordination of women or reference to God as "Father."


In Toowoomba (11 June), as earlier in Ballarat (see last month's AD2000 report), defenders of Catholic orthodoxy were well represented, providing eleven of the 19 presentations. These speakers were variously critical of unsuitable sex education programs and inadequate catechetics in Catholic schools and spoke out against inclusive language or talk of women priests. They emphasised the role of women as mothers and nurturers and on the need for strong Church leadership and the effective teaching of the Faith, and were broadly satisfied with present opportunities for women in the Church. Among critics of the status duo were two nuns in the employ of the Toowoomba Diocese. The situation here (as in Ballarat) was not typical of most of the hearings analysed to date, where the 'dissenters' or critics tended to predominate.


Of the twelve submissions in Rockhampton on 12 June, five included feminist views and demands and four were clearly orthodox, with the others somewhere in between. The 'liberals' included a number of Catholic school teachers, one of them working at the Catholic Education Office, and a woman representing the Rockhampton Social Justice Action Group.


In Townsville on 14 June, a similar mix of presentations took place. Of eleven submissions, six were variously dissenting and feminist in orientation, three were clearly orthodox and the rest 'neutral'. The former group included two women from the Catholic Education Office, the State President of the CWL, a member of the Grail (with a group of other women), a nun from the Pastoral Planning Group and a representative of the Women's Wisdom Spirituality Group, who has previously spoken out publicly against the Pope's teaching on women priests.


The hearings in Adelaide took place over three days (18-20 June), with 54 speakers involved. Those offering feminist or dissenting positions in their presentations were overwhelmingly people in the pay of the Church.

Among these were a nun prison "chaplain", Fr Maurice Shinnick, chaplain to the homosexual and lesbian Acceptance organisation in Adelaide, Margaret O'Toole (ex-Dominican nun) and previously co-head of the Catholic Teachers' College, a couple of Josephite nuns, another couple of Dominican nuns representing the Sophia Community within the Cabra Dominican Community, a Dominican Congregational Head, Helen O'Brien from the Catholic Education Office, a religious education co-ordinator in a Catholic parish school, Sr Jo Armour of WATAC and a group of pastoral associates. All 13 identified among the speakers as female religious during the three days of hearings in Adelaide gave voice to an 'opposition' position, as did a couple of priests.

There were routine calls for inclusive language in the Mass and Scriptures, more female leadership roles and power-sharing, women hearing confessions, preaching, etc, changed teachings on divorce, contraception and homosexuality, and feminist liturgies.

The orthodox side - consisting exclusively of lay people - was nevertheless well organised, and was represented in just under half the total presentations ballotted.

At the time of writing, the hearings are in their final phase, covering centres in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, where the PWCC process concludes on 22 July in Bunbury. But enough material has been already examined from most major centres to indicate that the Australian Bishops and their helpers may find it an uphill task to produce an intelligible, digestible report, of practical value.

There are, of course, many areas of Church life and decision-making where women can and should play increasingly active roles without compromising doctrines or traditions. But the trend is already in this direction. The views of feminists in the Church are already well known and hardly needed vast expenditure and a host of convenient Australia-wide forums to broadcast their demands via a friendly media.

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