Women religious have ceased to be just kindergarten teachers, cooks, cleaning ladies or women sextons, Notre Dame Sr. Beatrix Mayrhofer, the president of the Association of Austrian Women Religious, underlined at a book presentation May 20 in Vienna, Austria.
"We must break out of these clerical mid-level positions and say, 'Dear men colleagues, your image of women religious is a relic of the old seminary times. Today you must clear up the sacristy yourselves,' " she said. "This traditional image [is] still deeply entrenched within the church itself."
As long as women religious continue to play their old roles, they are "to a certain extent, themselves to blame," she said.
Women religious can rely on the support of Pope Francis, Mayrhofer said, recalling that at the meeting of the International Union of Superiors General May 12 in Rome, Francis spoke of "differentiating between the service and the servant" and asked the heads of women's orders "not to employ women religious as servants any longer."
Women religious are "virtually ignored" in doctrinal documents, Mayrhofer criticized. The exact opposite was the case in medieval literature, she said. In the meantime, however, as a result of the controversies with Protestantism, the Holy Family had -- "without alternative" become the ideal. "There is only one correct lifestyle for women and that is one which leads to marriage and motherhood," she said.
This "normative approach," which is even found in the pope's recent apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, is something young theologians and theology students simply cannot understand as "it is no longer in accordance with what the church thinks or writes."
This shortcoming is, however, coming to an end as "more and more women are beginning to have a say, even in Vatican institutions." It will finally end when the church recognizes that "it cannot do without us and until then we will simply go on doing what we have to do," Mayrhofer said.
The historical-critical exegesis of the Bible has been decisive in developing today's new image of women religious. It shows how, from the beginning, women's influence in the history of Christianity is something that must be taken seriously. The intensification of women's studies in recent decades has removed the "opaque veil that lay over the influence women had had in the church from the beginning," she said.
Research on this subject is slowly catching up, however, "and thus the dynamics of the history of Christian women has not yet been written nor are people sufficiently aware of it as yet," Mayrhofer observed.