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Written by Sherry   
Tuesday, 12 May 2009 09:53
Just to get people's dander up a bit, I'm going to post a comment I made over at Catholic Sensibility this past weekend. Which has turned into a bit of a rant.

The topic of conversation was one that has made it's way about the Catholic blogosphere a number of times in recent years, the "feminization" of the Church.

It is surprising, amusing, and very illuminating in the course of my research to stumble across Popes and other Catholic leaders in the 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries complaining about the same things we complain about: "feminization" of the Church or the crisis of priestly vocations; the utter corruption of the culture and of morals, the collapse of the faith in historically Christian Europe, crisis here, crisis there. Crisis, crisis everywhere.

All real and all before the Second Vatican Council was a twinkle in Pope John XXIII's eye.

Is the Pope a prisoner of the French and in exile from Rome? Oh, that's right. Pope Benedict is currently on a highly publicized visit to the Middle East right now and is meeting with Jewish and Muslim religious leaders at the highest levels. He will fly freely to and from Rome on the Vatican's own private jet accompanied by media from all over the world.

Are thousands of priests being executed or exiled? Is the Goddess of Reason being worshipped at Notre Dame? Are vast numbers of hungry children working 12 hour days in inhuman conditions for pennies? Are millions of Europeans dying in the most vicious of religious civil wars? And the galley slaves - how are they faring? Are the vast majority of people illiterate? Is institutionalized racism still the law of the land? Is revolution after revolution convulsing the west?

Yes, abortion was illegal then but many millions of abortions were procured anyway. Because many of the poor didn't bother to get married and the consequences of unwed pregnancy for a woman was unimaginably more severe than today. Think of ">Fantine, the most tragic character in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. For her crime of being seduced as a young woman and getting pregnant, she loses her minimal factory job and is reduced to selling her hair, her front teeth and finally herself, to try and support her baby and eventually dies of starvation anyway. No Nurturing Network to ensure that she can finish her college education or continue her career while having the baby.

Wait. That's right. Women like Fantine used to receive no education at all.

Life in the good old post-Tridentine, pre-Vatican II days when all the Masses was in Latin and everything was just fine. Compared to the unspeakable horror this weekend of the President speaking to thousands of highly educated and well heeled Notre Dame Catholics who are perfectly free to organize and mount their own well publicized alternate gathering in protest. With no negative consequences at all.

I'm not saying that we don't face real crisis today. We do. I'm not saying that Catholics didn't face real crisis in the past. They did.

What is laughable is our assumption that things used to be so much better in some golden era in the past. That the crisis we face are unprecedented and con only be explained by a spiritual calamity the like of which no generation before us has endured.

We are so pampered. We have got to get a grip. And a brief dip into real history away from hyperbole of St. Blog's is a salutary slap in the face.

Anyway, here's what I wrote over at Catholic Sensibility:

There was tremendous lamenting about the “feminization” of the Church in 19th century France – when all priests and seminarians wore cassocks and Masses were all Latin and all Tridentine all the time.

Part of it was the consequences of the Revolution. 10,000 French and Belgium priests were killed or forced into exile. Liberty, equality, fraternity was inextricably bound up with anti-Catholicism and anti-clericalism in most people’s minds.

The French working class male left the Church after the first French Revolution and never really came back. There was a lot of Catholic renewal and missionary energy – but mostly among the middle classes. And of course, the 19th century was the century of repeated revolution and counter-revolution (France went through 4 such cycles in 80 years) and the constant change in how the Church and State related.

Another factor was that, simultaneously, after 450 years of insisting that true women religious must be enclosed, the Pope issued a ruling in response to a request from the Archbishop of Munich in 1749 which meant that women religious could engage in what we now call “active” work.

This absolutely transformed religious life as women, after the revolution, established dozens of new “active” orders and for the first time in the Church’s history, women religious made up the majority. Catholics tend to think of this state of things as immemorial but it is actually less than 200 years old.

So you have the simultaneous emergence of a whole new, widely accepted role for women in leadership and a large proportion of the male population who associated freedom and dignity with anti-Catholicism and have left the Church as a result.

The two dynamics together resulted in a Church that must indeed have seemed more “feminine” than it had been in the past.

The fascinating thing about all this research is coming across public laments by Pope Pius XII about the “crisis of priestly vocations” in the 1950’s. And to find that seminarian numbers in France dropped 50% between 1905 and 1919. When Church and State were rigorously separated in 1905, seminarians lost some of their distinctive perks. The result: Lots of men chose to do other things.

There apparently have been numerous “vocation crisis” throughout the Church’s history – and the causes are many and none of them that I’ve encountered so far have been liturgical. It varies tremendously from culture to culture and era to era.


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