Let me explain the title for you. Hidden Figures is an Oscar nominated film that revolves around three African-American women working at NASA in the early 1960s. This was during the Space Race between the US and Russia. These three women played an important role in putting the first American astronaut, John Glenn into orbit.
Katherine Johnson is a brilliant mathematician who calculates the flight trajectories.
Mary Jackson, an engineer, is asked to help design the space capsule.
Dorothy Vaughan becomes the first Afro-American supervisor to head the IBM computational department and be at the forefront of new programming language.
This was a time of racial segregation and gender bias in America. They had two things working against them—colour and gender. However, they were accepted as equals.
The presence of these three women in an all-male bastion brought to my mind the second part of the title. There is a kind of false image sustained even today that women are considered inferior in the Church. Those who bring this critique, point to the all-male priesthood and the fact that key-decision making roles are often reserved to the ordained. Young teenage girls in Confirmation classes have often asked me, “Why doesn’t the Church allow women to be ordained?”
The Church has explained in great depth, the reasons why the priesthood is reserved for men. I want to address a different point, which is that power in the Church is connected to those who are ordained, and that women are just second-class citizens in the Church. Both these statements are horribly wrong. Let me tell why I think so.
Why only Men?
The priesthood developed as a male institution based on Jesus’ choice of men as apostles. This is not something the Church has ordered. Why did God select Israel from among all the nations of the world? Why did God choose for me to be born in this country and not that? To these parents and not others? There are some things that are not decided by human beings. This does not mean that Jesus gave them an all-encompassing authority in the Church.
Not Power but Service
Priests have two basic powers – the power to celebrate the sacraments and the power to govern, but they do this in a way very different from the secular world. As he mandated on Maundy Thursday, Jesus called his priests to lead with service, humility, open-heartedness, sacrifice and self-emptying. Priesthood does not equal leadership though it is a part of his calling.
No Church without Women
Now coming to women in the Church. I will speak about my own perceptions here. In the last 12 years since I joined the seminary and began serving in different parishes, I noticed that more often than not, it is the women who lead the life of the parish community. Count the number of women to men serving in different Church ministries and associations and you will get what I am saying. Women have usually played a pre-dominant role in Catholic families and decision-making. Women are the ones who more often than not, transmit the faith to the next generation. I unabashedly tell people that the women are the engine and driving force of the Church.
Throughout her history, the Church had female stalwarts who guided the life of the Church. Though they were not ordained, they had tremendous influence in the Church. They were proclaimed Saints and Doctors of the Church. I can think of St Catherine of Siena, St Edith Stein, St Teresa of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen. Catherine of Siena even went and admonished the Pope, personally, at Avignon and convinced him to come back to Rome. Now, who is the powerful one here!
Women studied side by side with men in the ancient Church and wielded tremendous influence. Ordination did not come in their way. Let’s talk about Mother Teresa. Wasn’t she the most famous and influential Catholic in India, hands down? Didn’t Pope John Paul II go to Kolkata to see her? Can anyone name the Archbishop of Kolkata for me?
Let’s not forget that Jesus himself went against the social norms of his day and empowered women. There are numerous examples in the Gospels. He appeared first to a woman after the Resurrection and then to the disciples whom he had ordained a few days prior.
The priesthood is one of the roles in the Church, which certain people are called to perform. It is certainly not a judgement on the capabilities or leadership abilities of women. Don’t we still refer to the man as the head of the home today? Even the President is the Constitutional head of the country. However, the Prime Minister runs the show.
So, my basic point is this: let’s not equate priesthood with power. Let’s not perpetuate this myth that women can only be powerful in the Church when they are ordained. They are already far more powerful and influential. Finally, a word of caution. The situation is not yet ideal. The clerical hierarchy of the Church can still do a lot more in bringing women into greater leadership roles within the Church. Many offices within the Church do not necessarily have to be run by priests. They can be opened to qualified and capable lay people, including women. Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken about this, and has said on one occasion that he wants women to take on a role that is “more capillary and incisive” in the Church.