We should be grateful to Anne-Marie Pelletier for her recent book L’Église, des femmes avec des hommes, which collects and develops several lines of reflection on the relationship between women and men in the Church that she had already initiated in previous writings.[1]

This issue is topical and of crucial importance. After all, the popes have been talking about it for decades, and John XXIII had rightly identified the new awareness of the dignity and responsibility of women among the main “signs of the times” in his famous encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963). There has been no lack of interventions and very important documents. Above all, John Paul II repeatedly turned his attention to women during his long pontificate (think, for example, of the apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem, 1988, or the Letter to Women, 1995).

Without denying all this, Pelletier rightly observes that declarations are one thing, their reception in the life of the Church is something completely different. Numerous, beautiful words of homage to women by popes have often been met with suspicion by those engaged in movements for their promotion and emancipation on the grounds they appear to confirm stereotypical visions of women instead of questioning any possible ambiguities.[2] It is therefore necessary to continue to approach women without fear and distrust as they make their arduous historical journey toward the full recognition of their equal dignity and their rights.

Pelletier – and only a woman could do this credibly! – helps us to understand the plausible reasons underlying a feminist criticism that is sometimes marked with a certain aggressiveness, and so in turn causes defensive reactions in the ecclesial sphere. In retracing the history of relations between the Church and women over past decades and in the context of today’s great social and anthropological transformations, the author highlights the distance and misunderstandings that have been created and that we must try to overcome.

There are in particular two thematic nuclei on which she dwells: contraception and the ministerial priesthood. On the first, Pelletier cannot but observe “the strange situation” in the context of which the reflections that appeared in Humanae Vitae were “conducted without using the experience and the personal testimony of women (apart from some inserted sparingly, attributed to “ a couple” in one of the commissions appointed by the pope).” The author notes in very strong terms: “Continued censorship of the feminine voice and her intimate knowledge of the flesh and life necessarily go to the heart of the subject. It is also a censorship of the history of generations of women, overwhelmed by incessant pregnancies lived as a destiny, and dangerous experiences associated with theological suffering in a perverse way.[3] It is, therefore, censorship of their pain and desire” (p. 20).

Pelletier is fully aware of the seriousness of the problems addressed by the encyclical, as well as of the risks of dehumanization inherent in the growing separation between sexuality and procreation, and points out that they need to be re-contextualized today. This “will imply finally listening to women on this subject, at least on an equal footing with men” (p. 39) with discernment and responsibility. In 1968, in fact, an encounter between women and the Church “was missed,” and the magisterial discourse – on the life of couples, on contraception, on the pluralistic vision of sexuality – was perceived by many women as too insistent and even “indiscreet.” In this perspective, the current approach of Pope Francis appears innovative.

The other great theme Pelletier focuses on is the problematic situation of women in the Catholic Church where the ministerial priesthood is reserved for men. Pelletier has no intention of arguing for the priesthood of women.  Her work focuses on the meaning of the baptismal priesthood lived “in the feminine.” What she points out, however, is that the series of magisterial documents on the subject, in their evident concern to avoid all sorts of uncertainties and discussions, has aroused in many women – including among those Catholics who are not inclined to argue polemically – an unease and a growing sense “of an insurmountable divorce between them and the ecclesial institution” (p. 43), perceived as closed in a sort of self-defense of male authority.

Read and re-read the Scriptures

Courageously delineating the status quaestionis with these two very strong and hardly questionable facts, Pelletier moves on to a “constructive” discourse, appropriately dedicating a beautiful and ample part of her work to reading or re-reading Scripture from the point of view of women. Her view is that it is from the Word of God that one must always set out again to find the right path. “The overcoming of an exclusively masculine point of view and the acceptance of readings conducted through the prism of sensitivity, of commitments, and of feminine concerns will ensure that through contemporary reading new perspectives arise, and an abundance of ignored details emerge to increase the sense of biblical reading and manifest, for the benefit of all, its anthropological and spiritual intelligence” (p. 57). All those who have practiced making these perspectives their own – men and women, both in the area of biblical studies and in the more pastorally oriented disciplines – cannot but enthusiastically share these words.

Pelletier re-reads synthetically the texts of the first chapters of Genesis on man and woman in a relational key, retraces the long history of conflicts and hostility between the sexes in the Bible, highlights the patriarchal order and the condition of inferiority of the women who characterize it and whose profound inadequacy must be felt. But then she also highlights the presence and splendid wealth of female figures throughout the Old Testament: the heroines of Israel and their place in the history of salvation, the prophetesses, the feminine traits with which God’s Wisdom is described or with which God’s tenderness, faithfulness and mercy are revealed, up to the fascinating and mysterious covenant dialogue of the Song of Songs, in which the female voice dominates. It is not a question of denying that the masculine references in Scripture are more abundant than the feminine ones, “whatever certain feminist readings may say,” but “the decisive point is that it is necessary to weave together both references in order to get a little closer to the knowledge of God, of which the Jewish tradition recalls the unknowability, rejecting the nonchalant use of His Name” (p. 95).

Even the New Testament, in particular the Gospels, re-read with true attention to “female episodes,” becomes a repository of surprises, beginning with the questions posed by the presence of Galilean women in the itinerant company of Jesus (cf. Luke 8:2-3). It is right that we dwell on it, marveling at how little we had paid attention to it in the past: “Beyond a tradition of holy women who followed Jesus to the cross, the text imposes the much more shocking reality of a group of women following a rabbi, therefore a man, in this case Jesus, in his public ministry. Itinerant women, walking in his wake through Galilee, evidently free from the family and conjugal ties inherent in their female condition. The questions multiply: how did they, within a group of men, take on this transgressive role, and how were they perceived? What reputation could a woman like Joanna, who left her husband and the court of Herod Antipas to accompany Jesus have? What was the nature of the service these unexpected disciples performed for Jesus? Did it go beyond a merely material and financial dimension? And again, what about the insistence of the text in describing several of them as people who had been ill or possessed? The fact is that, unlike the men around Jesus, they were not the object of a call: they presented themselves, and Jesus accepted their assiduous presence. He ratified it; he even reserved to them the first announcement of the resurrection (p. 100). There is the freedom and boldness of this female companion of the Lord, with Mary Magdalene playing a clear role as human and spiritual leader, so effectively highlighted by Pope Francis: the “apostle of the apostles”!

But the female figures that we meet in the Gospels are many and they enter the story of Jesus with a greater weight than we have often thought. Suffice it to recall the Canaanite woman (cf. Matt 15:21-28), a pagan and a mother grieving for her daughter’s fate, who in her humility touches Jesus to the heart and induces him to broaden the horizon of his mission to the Gentiles. One cannot minimize the fact that the Gospel text clearly says that it was the woman who “changed” Jesus’ attitude.[4] Pelletier reports the delicate commentary on this episode by a woman exegete, Dolores Aleixandre, who imagines the reflections of the daughter of the Canaanite woman on the mystery of her healing and the audacity of her mother before Jesus: “She challenged him to cross the border that still remained for him and called him to the other side, where we were still like a lost flock in the bush. He had to hear in her voice an echo of his Father’s and he decided to cross that border” (p. 220).

Of course, the New Testament also reflects its cultural context and poses a series of challenges for women’s reading or a reading attentive to women. One must therefore know how to approach it with confidence, but aware of its complexity. It is striking, for example, that in the enumeration of the apparitions of the Risen One made by Paul in chapter 15 of the First Letter to the Corinthians, those to women are totally ignored, which is not the case in the Johannine tradition, for which the first apparition of the Risen One is to Mary Magdalene. But even the Pauline discourse culminates in a definitive overcoming of the “enmity between man and woman”: “Men and women are touched by a recreation that allows them to exist face to face free from the disfigurements of sin.” This is what is manifested in the famous and almost shocking formula of the letter to the Galatians: “Now in Christ there is neither man nor woman” (Gal 3:28) (cf. pp. 106f).

Women ‘leaven of an ecclesiological conversion’

Pelletier’s discourse then moves on to the current question of women in the Church. The author is determined not to limit herself to the issue of retouching the organs of the institution, focusing – as most people do – on a problem of distribution of roles and “power.” Although this, too, should not be denied, for Pelletier it is more important to try to go deeper, to the level of the theological realities on which the Church is founded, to the central point of the Christian vocation. The author therefore concentrates on the articulation of the baptismal priesthood and the priestly ministry, looking in the face, without fear, at the fact that – the latter being denied them – women, unlike men, must live their Christian vocation in an “asymmetrical” relationship with the priestly hierarchy of the Church. This condition has assumed and often assumes a connotation of inferiority and humiliation and risks “making their identity fragile.” Precisely for this reason it becomes urgent to deepen our understanding of what it means – beyond all differences in power, state of life or function – to belong to Christ, to be called, by baptism, to give body and presence to the realities of the Kingdom (cf. p. 121).

It was the Second Vatican Council – after a long history in which the ministerial priesthood had concentrated in itself knowledge and authority in a strongly hierarchical Church – that brought back to the center of the ecclesial reality the baptismal priesthood, common to all the faithful, within and at whose service the presbyterate exists as an expressive and effective sacrament of Christ’s presence, through the proclamation of the Word, the Eucharist and Reconciliation. In this perspective, every form of exercise of the ministerial priesthood as power and not as service, every temptation to live the priesthood as belonging to a privileged caste must be definitively and decisively overcome. Here we understand the insistent and strong call of Pope Francis against “clericalism” and in favor of the co-responsible journey of God’s people, animated by the anointing of the Spirit.

At this point one cannot but mention the situation of crisis and trial in which the ministerial priesthood has been led today by the scandal of sexual abuse and which makes particularly urgent its radical purification from all forms of undue exercise of power (“of abuse of power, of conscience and sexual abuse,” as Pope Francis repeats).

Of course, the common priesthood concerns men and women in the same way. But the author’s thesis is that women, precisely because the ministerial priesthood is denied them, “are available to carry high and strong the affirmation of the insuperable dignity of the baptismal priesthood” (p. 158), “they are like the leaven of ecclesiological conversion,” which entails the revision of the role of the ministerial priesthood. Pelletier speaks in this context of a “sign of woman” within the ecclesial Body and of an “inverse hierarchy” of the two priesthoods: “If the ministerial priesthood has a function of decentralization [toward Christ and his gift of grace] essential to the life of the Church, in the very mystery of the Church women without this priesthood have a function that is no less essential: this time a function of centering / refocusing that reminds everyone (clerics included) of the center of gravity of every evangelical life, beyond the roles, distinctions and hierarchies that structure the ecclesial institution at present” (p. 161). At this point it is Pelletier herself who observes that this value of a woman’s “sign” – on which she insists so much – would disappear if the claim to the ministerial priesthood of women were fulfilled.

The Council’s discourse on the “universal vocation to holiness” in the Church, in evident continuity with that on the common baptismal priesthood, also receives a very strong light from women’s lives. It is no coincidence that the very beautiful pages of the apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis Gaudete et Exsultate (on holiness in ordinary life) make many references to the living conditions and activities of women (wives, mothers, grandmothers, educators, nurses…). Even in the growing number of canonizations of women in the twentieth century – though always with a large majority of consecrated women – Pelletier recognizes “the attention paid to a feminine holiness whose greatness lies in sanctifying the ordinary, that is, the flesh of the real” (p. 169).

Speaking of women in the Church, Pelletier evidently welcomes the fact that several of them are entrusted with tasks of greater responsibility in the Roman Curia or in the ecclesial institution. However, it is not so much a matter of limiting oneself to a redistribution of powers as of “stimulating the ecclesial body with baptismal femininity” (p. 174), rediscovering the Church as life, community and communion.

Decisive in this perspective is diakonia, the service of charity, and the service of the Word. As for the first, thinking of the experience already offered by many women in assistance in hospitals or prisons, or in other situations of suffering, or in religious or ecclesial communities, it is right to mention not only their extraordinary service to those suffering bodily, but also the irreplaceable service of listening, of consolation, of spiritual accompaniment, which becomes an integral part of a journey of encounter with God, even if it does not reach the properly sacramental act. We observe in passing that those who listen to and accompany victims of abuse know very well that in this field the role of women is not only precious, but absolutely necessary and indispensable,[5] and that even in this context the value of a female contribution to priestly formation is becoming increasingly evident.

As for the diakonia of the Word and, more widely, the intelligence of faith and its expression, fortunately the horizon is widening. Who today could really think that “a male discourse would be capable of taking charge, alone, of the whole of the Christian experience and the mysteries of faith” (p. 182)? How can one not be surprised at the fact that Marian theology has been developed for centuries essentially by men?[6] Of course men can say very correct and profound things about Mary, but cannot women do so too? And if we do not have the contribution of women, is it not likely that we will lack extra wealth and depth?[7]

Pelletier’s volume concludes with a “small inventory” of the “woman’s sign”, a series of figures for our time who help us to understand that there are ways to go through the experiences of life and faith characteristic of women, but whose value and preciousness we all feel. It will be the way Armenian Zabel Essayan takes on and shares the tears of all mothers who mourn their lost children, refusing to escape the depths of the mystery and scandal of evil in the world. Or the way Etty Hillesum approaches death in a world dominated by the ever-increasing darkness of Nazi oppression, reaffirming her faith in God with a sublime and disconcerting unitive depth: “One thing is becoming clearer and clearer to me: it is not you who can help us, but we who can help you.” Or the feminine way of patiently living time, experiencing in it the mystery of motherhood, with its dimensions of expectation and fidelity, so precious yet forgotten today because of the haste, activism and acceleration of every aspect of life. Or the teaching “of the radicality of life in love,” which is so characteristic of Saint Teresa and other women proclaimed as “doctors of the Church.”

Finally, we cannot fail to reflect deeply on Mary, who was targeted in so many feminist battles as an instrument to preserve the condition of the passive woman who is alienated from the path of history. This is the Mary of whom the Gospels speak to us, the Virgin who holds in her heart the mystery of which she is a witness, the Virgin who in the Magnificat reads history in the light of God, the Virgin who resists in hope until Calvary, a woman in solidarity with women of every place and time.

In conclusion, we note that in the course of its pages – thanks to her broad historical, ecclesial, biblical and theological culture, and her sincere attention to the condition of women – Pelletier succeeds in making her male readers, especially those involved in ecclesial realities, understand a great series of questions and even discomforts that concern women in the Church, and of which they are often not sufficiently aware. This is very important. It would be tragic for the Church if the problems were not felt in their depth and urgency. But Pelletier manages to do this without ever going in the direction of an opposition or a division between women and men. Her discourse avoids a simplified vision of the “complementarity” of men and women, and yet manages to make people understand that in the experience of the journey toward God and his knowledge, as well as in the witness of Christian life in all its wonderful richness, one cannot afford to do without the contribution of women. To recognize and live it in the concreteness of ecclesial life in its various aspects, there is a long way to go. Pelletier helps us all – women and men – to walk together in the right direction.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 03 art. 6, 0320: 10.32009/22072446.0320.6

[1] A.-M. Pelletier, L’Église, des femmes avec des hommes, Paris, Cerf, 2019. Anne-Marie Pelletier has taught Linguistics and Comparative Literature at several universities. She obtained her doctorate in the Science of Religions with a thesis on the Song of Songs, published by the Pontifical Biblical Institute of Rome. She taught Scripture and Hermeneutics at the Faculty of the Collège des Bernardins in Paris. She has published several articles and books on women in the Church, including Le christianisme et les femmes (2001) and Le signe de la femme (2008). In 2014 she was the first woman to receive the Ratzinger Prize. In 2017 she was invited to write the texts of the meditations on the Way of the Cross presided over by the pope on Good Friday at the Colosseum.

[2] Well known, for example, is the critical examination made by Lucetta Scaraffia of the category of “female genius,” used by John Paul II in Mulieris Dignitatem.

[3] Pelletier evidently alludes to the “painful birth” of Gen 3:16 and its unacceptable interpretations today.

[4] In this episode the woman’s argument about the “crumbs falling from the table” is so delicately attentive to everyday life, so typically feminine, that it cannot be the invention of a man, albeit an evangelist.

[5] A woman abused by a man, or even worse by a priest, will evidently experience a largely insuperable resistance to open up to a man and thus begin a path of healing.

[6] Pelletier notes that a text as beautiful and important as the encyclical Redemptoris Mater, of 1987, makes references to male authors from top to bottom, in a practically exclusive way.

[7] Fortunately, it is now common experience that in community Scripture readings the contribution of women is an extraordinary and necessary enrichment. Who, if not women, can comment with true participation and existential understanding on Gospel episodes that see women as protagonists in their spiritual or physical femininity, such as the anointing of Jesus or healing from the flow of blood (Luke 8:43-48)? Or bring to light female figures often left in the shadows, but actually more relevant in the biblical story than you think? For example, Nuccia Resegotti Palmas wrote an interesting and well-documented book, Le ragioni di Sara, on the events of Israel’s origins experienced from the perspective of Abraham’s wife (cf. Oss. Rom., July 10, 2017).