Is it wrong for women religious to serve priests and bishops?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 01, 2018

I don’t know about you, but I’m both bemused and confused by the denunciation of women religious serving bishops in a recent edition of L’Osservatore Romano’s insert devoted to women. The magazine insert is a rather predictable creation of the current pontificate, edited by a feminist professor at Rome’s La Sapienza University. So now we have this fresh outcry against sisters serving as cleaners, cooks and housekeepers for those in Holy Orders.

Given our carefully-honed modern Western sensibilities, I understand the instinctive outrage. In the article in question, it almost seems that this is a new form of human trafficking.

But really?

Is there something evil about communities of women religious devoted to performing menial service for those who have good reason to need such service? Is there some reason that such communities would not want to provide this service to the households of priests, bishops, cardinals and even the Pope, when doing so would reduce costs to the relevant Catholic community and make the essentials of priestly ministry easier to perform? Would there be anything wrong in having new recruits, no matter what their order’s charism, perform such services during their novitiates? Might there be some advantage in learning humility?

More broadly, is there any good reason to presume that all those called to religious life are intellectually gifted and suited to highly-skilled professions such as medicine and education and (to mention what is surely the noblest of all charisms) seeking government grants? Or again, is there something undignified about serving as a housekeeper or a cook? Since these are fairly light-duty physical occupations, would we expect that they will be undertaken most commonly by men?

I might also mention that women typically have stronger nurturing instincts than men and that, despite wide variations, women are typically more interested in cooking than men, and even that—as I am sure we can all agree—women are typically far, far more interested in cleanliness and household order than men!

Is it not just barely possible that some women called to religious life would be attracted to an order which devotes itself to providing direct support to the households of the clergy?

Is there a problem here?

I don’t know the detailed research (if any) on which this story is based. Perhaps doctors and nurses and teachers in religious life really are being redirected routinely to lick the episcopal boots. But I doubt it. I also don’t know whether many talented women are joining religious communities devoted to this kind of service against their will, or are being prevented from progressing to other roles for which they are highly qualified. But I doubt it.

Before the Second Vatican Council, religious orders often reflected the older conventions of Europe in that they tended to have multiple class levels. This is understandable, for the internal structure arose from the stratification of the culture out of which these orders grew. One of the reforms in Vatican II’s Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis) was to eliminate such gradations as much as possible, especially among women religious, where there is no normal ecclesiastical distinction similar to that in male orders between priest and brother.

It goes without saying that there could be abuses. There may well be high-ranking clergy who regard women as their natural servants and claim the right to direct any random religious community to send whomever they need whenever they need her—or, far more likely, lesser degrees of a similar attitude. But I suspect what is lost in this charming exposé is the common sense, humility and Christian perspective to recognize that menial service is not intrinsically demeaning to anyone, and that women should be allowed to be devoted to the work of the Church in such ways without being pressured by feminist editors to feel “abused”.

Perhaps it is relevant here that I have recently been reading a biography of St. Faustina Kowalska, the twentieth-century mystic to whom God revealed our devotion to the Divine Mercy. How often was she sent to serve as a housekeeper or to work in a kitchen or a garden! But the mere thought of Sister Faustina and Divine mercy, which implies lowliness, is enough to chill a feminist’s heart.

Of course feminists denigrate mothers, too, since so much of their work involves nurturing children and serving husbands (mutually, I hope) while, among other things, cleaning, cooking and ordering the household. Nonetheless, it remains a fundamental truth of human existence that not all forms of service involve rigorous intellectual training and advanced degrees, neither for women nor for men. In fact, most of them do not.

No kind of service is supposed to increase our status in this world. Every kind of service is supposed to unite us to Christ. Get over it.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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