Gender discrimination in the Church

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By Arnold Van Vugt

The Living Spirit

Monday, April 8, 2013


GENDER discrimination has been a problem in the Catholic Church ever since in its beginning. Even St. Paul, in one of his letters, says that the woman in the Church must be silent. The woman is inferior to man; the wife should be subject to the will of her husband. This gender discrimination in the Church is felt also on the level of spiritual life, of prayer-life, and especially on the level of contemplation.

The Carmelite mystic St. Teresa of Avila in her time was also very much affected by this gender discrimination in the Church. A Dutch Carmelite theologian made an in-depth study of her life. Teresa of Avila lived in the 16th century, during the time of the Reformation but also during the time of the Spanish Inquisition.

Teresa of Avila wanted to introduce the much-needed reforms in the Order of the Carmelite Nuns. She wanted to go back in her Order to a life of total contemplation. For that purpose she traveled all over Spain to organize the foundation of new monasteries. The official Church hierarchy with great suspicion looked upon all these activities of Teresa.

The prevalent opinion in the 16th century society was: the place of the woman is in the kitchen. The official Church was dominated by male theologians and clerics and they were suspicious of women who involved themselves with spirituality and interior prayer-life. Teresa of Avila experienced during her prayers very often visions and ecstasies. She talked about this to her confessor but he reacted almost violently: that is the work of the devil; you must drive these away; they are hallucinations; you are possessed by the devil!

During her time lived also the Abbess of Cordoba. The Spanish Inquisition as being possessed by the devil unmasked this abbess and she was condemned to death. This caused a lot of consternation throughout Spain but people seemed to take this for granted.

Another thing was that women were forbidden to read the Bible in the vernacular. Bibles, which were written in the vernacular were banished.

These didn’t get an imprimatur of the Church. The reason was that ordinary people, especially women, could not properly understand the Bible. Only the clergy could give the right explanation and interpretation of what is said in the Bible. Teresa, who could not understand Latin, could not read the Bible anymore. She rebelled against this but since she hardly knew how to read and write, she couldn’t openly protest against this.

One document of hers was found later after her death and this was made unreadable and full of erasures done by theologians. Teresa herself said: “I am more afraid for those who are so fearful of the devil than for the devil himself.”

Teresa then discovered Jesus himself as the “living book,” in which she found so many things for reflection and discernment6, so that she hardly felt any need anymore for books.

Also that traveling around of Teresa to make new foundations was a big eyesore for the Church leaders and theologians. Some of them even said, that such kind of going around is characteristic for prostitutes and it is better that she stays at home praying. For women the Our Father and the Hail Mary are sufficient; interior prayer and contemplation is the work of theologians and not of women.

In 2015, we celebrate the 500th birthday of this Spanish mystic. In her honor should we not shout from the rooftops: the voice of the women must be heard in the Church, their deeds do count and must be seen? Their work in the Church is more than being a servant of the priest. Why can’t we have women priests in the Church, or at least, ordained deaconesses, like the early Church had?

(For your comments email: nolvanvugt@gmail.com)

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on April 08, 2013.

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