Nearly forty years ago, Sister Theresa Kane of the Sisters of Mercy caused a bit of a stir in the Catholic rank and file when she addressed Pope John Paul II on his first trip to the United States, imploring him to “be open to, and respond to, the voices coming from the women of this country.”

Sister Kane went on to say, “The Roman Catholic Church must recognize and acknowledge the serious social injustices by which its very system is imposed upon women of the Roman Catholic Church . . . Until the institutional Church undertakes a serious, critical examination of its mode of acting toward women, it cannot, it will not, give witness to justice in the world.”

We know now that even as Sister Theresa Kane was making this plea, a grave injustice was being perpetrated by the male hierarchy of the Catholic Church, an injustice that would shake the foundations of our institutions and our faith – the clergy abuse scandal. 

No Christian needs to be convinced of the moral error of discrimination. We hold at the center of our faith the conviction that every human life is of equal value. And yet, the institutional Church continues to elevate the male over the female, to bar more than half its members from full participation in the sacraments by barring women, for reasons of gender alone, from Holy Orders. The moral consequence of this antiquated rule becomes abundantly clear when we follow the inevitable logic of discrimination: if one life, one person, is of more worth than another, then “the other,” the lesser, is dispensable. The lives of women, and the lives of children, become secondary to the concerns of the more valued – in this case, the male hierarchy. You might call it Cardinal Law logic.

For the past few years, I’ve been researching the histories of religious orders of Catholic women in the United States and in the world. The accomplishments of these women – in founding hospitals, schools and universities, in serving the poor, the destitute, the forgotten – is absolutely astonishing. It is another injustice that the Church and the broader culture have so thoroughly failed to acknowledge the work these women have done.

And more impressive still is what these women were able to accomplish despite the strictures of a male-centered Church. 
One example speaks volumes: In 1925, an Austrian-born physician, Anna Dengel, founded with another doctor and two nuns The Medical Mission Sisters. Dr. Dengel had discovered through her missionary work that Muslim women were not permitted to be examined by male doctors, and so she understood the importance of the ministry of women physicians. And yet, at the time, the Vatican prohibited women religious from practicing obstetrics or surgery.

Less than a century ago, the Vatican prohibited women religious from practicing obstetrics.

In 1936, Dr. Dengel, with the enlightened help of Philadelphia’s Cardinal Dougherty, convinced the Vatican to lift this silly, cruel, unreasonable, antiquated, male-centered rule. As a result, religious women in Catholic hospitals and nursing schools were able to make full use of their education and their God-given skills to alleviate suffering.

So – what do you know? – The Church can change. The Church can act to rescind outdated prohibitions. For its own good. For the good of us all.

In Matthew 15, a gentile woman persistently calls to Jesus. The apostles rebuke her, tell her to go away, to stop making so much noise. Jesus tells the woman he has been sent only for the people of Israel. Nevertheless, she persists. And Jesus relents, changes the rules, lifts the silly, narrow, discriminatory prohibition on his mercy. “You are a woman of great faith,” he tells her. “What you want will be done for you.”

We are women of great faith. We persist. We have hope. The God of Mercy compels us to seek justice.