I am not going to spend a lot of time on details about the Women's Ordination Worldwide gathering in Philadelphia last weekend around the theme "Gender, Gospel, and Global Justice." The National Catholic Reporter was there and has provided glowing gavel to gavel coverage of the meeting in a special WOW2015 section. Instead, I'm going to offer some general observations...and a more critical perspective.
1. The WOW Conference was an excellent opportunity to hear some of the big North American and European names in feminist theology -- Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Mary Hunt, Tina Beattie, Teresa Forcades, among others. Each of these women offered eloquent, well-researched presentations on their designated topics. However, voices from the southern hemisphere were essentially absent. Indian theologian Astrid Lobo Gajiwala offered one general session on the Church's gender policy in her country, a session scheduled early on the last day and thus not well attended. Some representatives of Mexico's Catolicas por el Derecho a Decidir did a workshop on that group's efforts on behalf of a change in the Church's teaching on reproductive rights. But the major Latin American and African women's theological voices were conspicuously absent. "Worldwide" it was not.
2. The demographic of the conference was overwhelmingly female, white, older, and middle class. In many ways, WOW 2015 was the female mirror image of the male hierarchy we so love to criticize. After the conference, as I was chatting with the organizers, we took a guess and estimated that no more than 10% of the participants were male (ironically, men were regularly called upon to debug computers and sound systems for the women). The men were represented by one plenary session with Dr. Gary Macy on the history of women's ordination, and a panel of priests and former priests who have supported the women's ordination movement: Roy Bourgeois, Fr. Tony Flannery, Fr. Jack McClure, and Paul Collins. Fr. McClure's presence was a bit mysterious to many listeners since his input was so cautious, it was as if he were afraid to say anything on camera that might later get him in trouble. He needn't have bothered with subtlety since, after his conference participation, he was informed by the Archdiocese of San Francisco that his services would no longer be needed at Most Holy Redeemer where he had previously celebrated Mass.
Even fewer participants came from diverse racial backgrounds. Certainly the prohibitively expensive cost of the conference and housing were contributing factors, as well as air fares and the United States' unfortunate visa policies. I contrast this with the annual conferences of the Asociación de Teólogos y Teólogas Juan XXIII, the progressive Spanish theologians, where costs are kept low by leasing an inexpensive venue in Madrid and "no frills" programming, and where efforts are made to bring speakers from Africa and Latin America, the continents from which Spain draws most of its immigrant population.
Parenthetically, WOW 2015 might have enjoyed the presence of some of Colombia's growing women priests movement had the ordination of Colombia's first woman bishop, Rev. Olga Lucia Alvarez Benjumea, been held during the conference. Instead, the bishops' (three women will be ordained) ordination ceremony was deferred to a later date and a different venue. I believe this was a major strategic error on the part of both the WOW/WOC organizers and the ARCWP leadership. The ordination will now be held the same day as Pope Francis will be addressing Congress in Washington, DC. Guess where the media focus will be. And WOW 2015 participants have been deprived of the chance to witness this historic ordination unless they choose to return to the Philadelphia area for the ceremony. A small group of women's ordination activists is planning to bring attention to the cause tomorrow when the pope is meeting with the U.S. bishops.
3. In addition to a resounding critique of the sin of sexism in general and heterosexism in particular in the Roman Catholic Church, some effort was made to acknowledge other problems of gender justice. A broad panel on "Survivor Justice and Ending Violence Against Women" drew considerable attention and audience participation. We heard from Barbara Blaine, the founder of SNAP who is herself a survivor of sexual abuse by a priest, from Mari Steed, adopted as a child from Ireland's infamous Magdalene Laundries, Virginia Saldanha, an Indian theologian who spoke about the abuse of nuns in that country, and Dr. Shannen Dee Williams, an African American historian who presented her research into the discrimination suffered by African American women in religious life.
One point made by Dr. Williams deserves to be highlighted in view of the Pope's visit to our shores. She noted that while Pope Francis on his Latin American trip, apologized for the Church's historical role in the abuse and exploitation of native peoples on the continent, he has said nothing about the Church's involvement in the slave trade. Perhaps Pope Francis can rectify this discrepancy at some point during his visit here and also apologize for the Church's history of discrimination against people of color in the priesthood and religious life. We also need to hear the pope say publicly and clearly that he takes the allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation of women religious such as those raised by Saldanha at this conference and earlier this year by Congolese Sr. Rita Mboshu at the women's meeting in Rome very seriously, and that the Vatican will be taking steps to investigate these claims and deal with the abusers in its ranks. He has taken a commendable public stance against sex trafficking but the time has come for a more concerted effort to clean up our own home.
But it's not enough for the Pope to speak out. We need to apologize for our own silence and complicity too. What was missing at WOW 2015 was a strong public expression of indignation at what is happening to sisters in the Third World. We had plenty of outrage about the apostolic visitation and doctrinal assessment of LCWR but, when it comes to the sexual abuse of nuns in India and Africa, just silence. One participant even shrugged and told me that such actions were commonplace because clergy in "those countries" routinely violate their celibacy vows. I replied that we aren't talking about consensual sex here but the abuse of women who have given their lives and bodies to God.
Also missing was any sense of responsibility for the discriminatory treatment of African American women by religious orders. Many conference participants were women religious and yet nobody went up to the microphone and said, "I'm a member of [Congregation X] and I want to acknowledge and apologize for any discrimination by my order." The silence was deafening. We are happy to heap criticism on the male religious but not so happy when the blame lies squarely at our door.
In the end, WOW 2015 was an entertaining but largely academic exercise and a somewhat expensive celebration of the women's ordination movement. There were lovely liturgies showcasing women's spirituality and the gifts of the participating women priests. It was gratifying, in particular, to see so many of the first generation of women priests all together at one time and be able to thank them for their pioneering efforts. There was even cake for all.
However, at 40, we need to grow up and growing up means less self-celebration and more self-examination, less narcissism and more solidarity with those who can't afford expensive celebratory bashes. Another contrast: The Juan XXIII theologians, who are a bit younger than WOC, always use the collection at their closing liturgy for solidarity with an NGO doing work with the poor. WOW/WOC's collection went towards their own expenses.
When the time came for concrete action, most of the 500 or so participants had begun their journey home, leaving around 50 or so to rally at the cathedral for women's ordination. Imagine if that action had taken place in the middle of the conference with full participation instead of as an afterthought...