The picture of the Virgin Mary on the cover of Newsweek is good marketing since Mary resonates at a deep, almost visceral level with Catholics and even those beyond the Catholic Church. If you want a cover to stop people in their tracks at the airport or drug store, featuring Mary is a smart move.
People relate to her, like they relate to their mother, someone always there, who, in the case of an Irish mother, may even think her son comes close to being God. When you feel sorrow, you know Mary’s been there too. When you want the silent supporter, you recall her at the foot of the cross, steadfast when even that band of brothers, the apostles, had scattered. She gets the human experience.
Lisa Miller’s accompanying cover essay about women in the church doesn’t go in this direction, however. In fact, it is somewhat off-base, like facile cocktail party conversation. Observations get tossed about without scrutiny. For example, she states, wrongly, that “few women retain high-profile management jobs, such as chancellor, within dioceses.” Fact-checking proves that wrong. If you take the requirement for ordination off the table, data shows that the number of women in leadership positions in Catholic dioceses is comparable to that of the women in the U.S. workforce as a whole. One quarter of diocesan positions at the highest level, such as chancellor or chief financial officer, are held by women. You don’t find similar numbers among U.S. corporations.
Influence in the church does not depend upon ordination, though there is no doubt that it helps. The greatest impact of the Catholic Church in the United States arguably has been through its education and hospital systems, where women have taken the lead from the start. Church women also have had an impact beyond the church. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, for example, touched hearts everywhere and educated us to the extent of abject global poverty. Historically, some women even have overshadowed popes. Most educated people have heard of Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena. Does anyone, even the highly educated, know who the popes were when these women lived?
Lisa Miller’s article sinks into male-bashing, church-style. She notes that not everyone in the church is bad, and suggests some hope for the church, thanks to women. She scoffs churchmen just as women when alone will dis men as hopeless and helpless, etc. (and no doubt as men similarly dis women when men gather by themselves) This is good for laughs, but not to be taken seriously.
The topic de jour for media now is sexual abuse of minors by clergy. Lisa Miller’s article seems to reduce the problem to one that could be resolved by breaking open the all-male, celibate priesthood. You can’t get a more simplistic analysis than that. Statistics show that 30-40 percent of sexual abuse occurs in the home, and that’s a conservative estimate.
Thankfully the Catholic Church has not bought this quick solution line but has instead pursued serious study into the why of sexual abuse. By year’s end the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops expects to release the results of a causes and context study that it commissioned the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice to do.
So Newsweek asks: What would Mary do? The question is worth pondering. We don’t know a lot about her. We know she slipped off to Egypt with Joseph to protect her child from a threatening Herod. We know that with a comment, “They have no wine,” she saved the wedding feast of Cana. We know that when the bereft apostles gathered in an upper room after Jesus’ death she stood with them. She protected the innocent child, no matter the cost. She heard another’s pain and acted. She stood in solidarity. These were not grandiose displays but they were selfless acts which had a profound impact for centuries afterwards. And they got her on the cover of Newsweek too.