Amanda Ikard / Gavel Media

Professor Mary Catherine Hilkert Explores the Voices of Women in the Church

The Lowell Humanities Series hosted its ninth speaker of the year on Feb. 8, welcoming Mary Catherine Hilkert, O.P., a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, to Gasson Hall at 7:30 p.m. to discuss the voices of women in the Church.

Hilkert, the author of two books and the first recipient of the Washington Theological Union’s Sophia Award for Theological Excellence, thanked the attendants for battling the snow this year (after her scheduled lecture last winter was canceled due to blizzard conditions) before opening her lecture with a verse from the Gospel of Luke: “And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord;…”

That “purification,” Hilkert explained, was an intensely immersive process meant to cleanse a woman after she had given birth. “One might read it as a kind of maternal leave policy,” she joked, before explaining the serious implications that this association of womanhood and unholiness has had on shaping the role of women in the faith.

Though these purification rituals were dropped after the second Vatican council, replaced with an optional process, women’s voices have historically been quieted in the Church. “It’s women’s absence, rather than women’s presence, in any official proclamation of the gospel – especially in a liturgical context – which is troubling to so many,” said Hilkert, pointing to the irony of women being marginalized despite being the first witnesses of the resurrection.

Mary Magdalene “is not the only woman whose voice has been muted, silenced, or, at best, considered to be optional in modern tradition.” Hilkert referred to several readings from the Bible that included “optional” verses mentioning female preachers that are often omitted from masses.

Despite biblical and historical evidence of women being instrumental in the formation of the Catholic Church, their role in the church they had helped form became more and more marginalized as Christianity made its way throughout the Greco-Roman world between the first and fourth centuries. Men began to write about the necessity of women wearing veils as they prayed, claiming that God sent forth men to spread the gospel as disciples while women were left out for a reason – even going so far as to blatantly call women “inferior members.” Women were banned from preaching roles due to worries of their supposed inherent sexuality making men unable to listen to what they were saying.

Hilkert focused on this legacy as the most damaging to the Church as a whole, with women’s service never referred to as a ministry and the careful labeling of women’s reflections post-Gospel as “speaking” rather than “preaching.” Despite the Word of God having been entrusted to the entire Church, Hilkert explained, women have been shut out of leadership roles in interpreting these words, a fact reflective of the sexist history of Christianity and the patriarchal attitudes of the ones who shaped it.

She called for a reformation of Church practices to be more inclusive to women and the benefits that diverse views and conversation would have on the understanding of the Bible. 

Opponents of this modernization, however, are staunch in their views. Hilkert quoted one male traditionalist about the precedent of Eve: “She taught once and wrecked the whole world.”

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Kate Rogers