The inevitable question for women: To stay or go?

by Heidi Schlumpf

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The question inevitably comes up at any gathering about women and the church: To stay or go? The theme at a recent two-day conference at Loyola University Chicago on women and the church since Vatican II put the question front and center. Are women "Still Guests in Our Own House?" And if so, should we pack our bags to find a more welcoming home?

One of the more provocative presentations at the conference, held Nov. 6-7, asked, "Is active membership in the Catholic church an example of morally serious cooperation with the evil of gender injustice?"

Posed by presenter Barbara Hilkert Andolsen, professor of applied Christian ethics at Fordham University, the question was prompted by the U.S. bishops maintaining that the inclusion of birth control in the Affordable Care Act results in material cooperation with evil, despite attempts by the Obama administration to distance employers from directly contracting or paying for those services.

It struck Andolsen as ironic, given the remoteness of the contact in the Affordable Care Act, compared with active participation in a sexist church. She first established that the "benevolent sexism" of the church is indeed sinful, even evil. Benevolent sexism differs from the "hostile sexism" of the past, which overtly made women less than men, pointing out their spiritual weakness or propensity toward sin.

Instead, benevolent sexism, seen in the church's teaching of complementarity, asserts that women are only different from men, often using positive language, praising their roles as mothers or identifying them as more nurturing than men. Women are the "strawberry on the cake," if you will.

"The benevolent sexism of the church is not harmless," Andolsen said. "It is detrimental to women and undermines the ability of women and their allies to mobilize and improve the situation of women."

Which leads Andolsen to wonder: "What moral responsibility do I have as a woman who remains active in the church?" More pointedly: "Are we morally responsible, because remaining active in the church constitutes complicity with evil?"

She left the question unanswered, but it has haunted me. There are times in my life that I've felt that remaining in the church was either spiritually harmful, personally, or even sinful, in that I was somehow cooperating with sexism and other sins.

Yet most of the participants at the conference have stayed, in some capacity. Not so with younger women, as we were reminded by the keynote responder, Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.

Cummings noted the alarming trend of millennial Catholic women being less religiously devout and engaged than their male counterparts, despite a long history of women's greater religiosity within Christianity. Even more disturbing: A similar trend has not been observed among Protestant women.

"It's an emergency situation," she said. "I'm not sure we have that much time when it comes to the future of the church."

According to the General Social Survey data cited by Cummings, young women also are significantly more likely to disagree with church teaching on things such as the infallibility of the pope, the reservation of ordination to men, and the sinfulness of homosexuality or premarital sex.

It seems to me that, despite high interest in spirituality, these young women are choosing not to "materially cooperate" with an institution they see as, if not "evil," at least less than perfect in its stances on issues that matter to them, namely inclusion.

As I watch the young students at the University of Missouri fight for racial justice and remember my own fervor of my 20s and 30s, it makes sense. In the minds of idealistic young adults, becoming a bona fide member of an organization with abhorrent values would be wrong. We've taught them well.

However, with the experience of age comes the wisdom that no human institution is perfect. And so we are faced with the question: At what point does the bad outweigh the good, or vice versa? For many of us at the conference, access to the sacraments, respect for the history and traditions of Catholicism, and the desire to work for change from the inside keep us in the institution -- and attending conferences on women and the church.

Yet I also respect those who decide that the church's gender injustice or other injustice prevents them from staying. We can't expect that they'll return someday, nor should we resign ourselves to their loss. The answer is simple: The church must become an institution more committed to justice, including for women. It may not be too late.

[Heidi Schlumpf teaches communications at Aurora University, outside Chicago.]

A version of this story appeared in the Dec 4-17, 2015 print issue under the headline: The inevitable question for women: To stay or go?.

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