Friday, May 23, 2008

Affirming the "Feminine Genius"

As the global church marks the 20th anniversary of Mulieris dignitatem -- John Paul II's letter on the dignity of women -- the regional conference of the Asian bishops recently devoted a meeting to consider the church's outreach to its better half, and how to improve it:
"Dear God. Are boys better than girls? I know you are one, but try to be fair."

This appeal from a little girl named Sylvia, included in the book Children's Letters to God, expresses what Maryknoll Sister Antoinette Gutzler identified as "the core" of the recent Asian bishops' meeting on women, held in Thailand.

"Sylvia's poignant phrase -- 'but try to be fair' -- points to the difficulty of enabling women to take their rightful place in the Church, a difficulty and lack acknowledged in many documents of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC)," the woman theologian said in her presentation.

Sister Gutzler, a missioner serving in Taiwan, spoke on Gender in the Context of Church Documents when she addressed the gathering on May 15....

According to Archbishop Maria Calist Soosa Pakiam of Trivandrum, OLF chairperson, the meeting had two main objectives besides reviewing the status of women's movements in the Church in Asia. It was also aimed at helping bishops be more appreciative of women's and women theologians' contributions to the life and mission of the Church, and helping the Church in Asia uphold women's dignity by encouraging their role in the life of the Church, including its intellectual life, the Indian prelate told UCA News.

Filipina Sister Anicia Co, who spoke on Discerning the Voices from Women's Experiences on May 14, told UCA News Church documents' sensitivity toward women's issues and concerns is encouraging. The Religious of the Virgin Mary nun cited Ecclesia in Asia (Church in Asia), Pope John Paul's 1999 papal apostolic exhortation based on the 1998 Synod for Asia. This "appealed to the Christian community to be an ally of women in their fight against all forms of injustice and oppression," said the president of St. Mary's College in Quezon City, next to Manila.

Sister Gutzler, however, is not as pleased with documents of the Asian bishops. The nun, who holds a doctorate in theology and has served as a lecturer at Fu Jen Catholic University outside Taipei, said the FABC paper The Spirit at Work in Asia Today (1997) considers men as privileged in the Bible.

"There is no mention of women as rulers, judges, prophets, disciples, apostles and house-church leaders, even though women were there," she stressed during her presentation.

Virginia Saldanha, who heads the OLF Women's Desk, similarly told UCA News, "Women contribute to the Church, but we do not see them."

Noting that only 10 bishops from three countries attended the meeting, she said the "feminist character" of the meeting could have put off potential participants. Bishop Luis Tagle of Imus, the Philippines, told UCA News he shares this view....

Sister Co suggested, "In Asia we still need to find a common term that would appropriately name our efforts and activities to realize our vision of fullness of life of women."

Terminology aside, Sister Gutzler stressed in her presentation that women expect significant responsibilities in the ministries and decision-making process of the Church.
The FABC meeting followed quickly on the heels of February's plenary of the Indian bishops-- the first time an episcopal conference substantively discussed the role of women in the church.