Many Catholics will not miss the sad and appropriate fact that during the month of September, we remember the seven sorrows of Mary, Jesus’ mother. The seven scenes from her life remind us that the world’s sins could only be forgiven if she lost her son. She and all the women in today’s Catholic church mourn the loss of innocence and growth of corruption evident in the most recent abuse scandal.
But despite what many critics of the church may claim, Catholic women are not powerless, downtrodden, or ignored. In recent weeks, several groups of Catholic women have made public calls for answers and change in the church following the evidence of abuse, cover up, and claims that Pope Francis is not ridding the church of abusers as he has said he would.
A beautifully written letter to the pontiff has already been signed by more than 42,000 women. The letter, written by the Catholic Women’s Forum, asks Pope Francis to respond to a list of specific questions about the scandal and to stand up and act as the church’s shepherd, as he is called to do. The letter is slated to be sent to Pope Francis this week. Whether it will change anything is (almost) beside the point. Tens of thousands of women coming together to express outrage, disappointment, and to call for change in such a respectful way is unusual.
The letter, shared via social media, proves the power and desire of Catholic women to make changes in the church.
“Please do not turn from us,” the authors write. “…We are faithful daughters of the church who need the truth so we can help rebuild. We are not second-class Catholics to be brushed off while bishops and cardinals handle matters privately. We have a right to know.”
These are not the words of a forgotten sector of the faith. These are the words of powerful, hurting women who will do anything to bring justice and true faith where it has been lost. Indeed, signatures on the letter bear witness to the wide array of Catholic women seeking change on behalf of those hurt and the church they love. They are teachers, mothers, lawyers, businesswomen, writers — public figures and private ones — all daughters of the same faith, all women seeking to restitch the ripped fabric of our church.
Obviously, women are not the only ones willing and able to change the culture of abuse and corruption in the church. A similar letter for men is being circulated online by Catholic Men United and as of publication had gathered more than 8,000 signatures. But since the scandal was perpetrated and covered up by men, many women may feel that they are the ones to make change. They, like Mary, have seen evil and will lead seek to protect the innocent in the future. This letter is a big first step.
Another online movement calls on Catholic women to participate in atonement for sin in the church. The “Sackcloth and Ashes” movement was created by several well-known Catholic bloggers and writers, including Kendra Tierney, Bonnie Engstrom, Haley Stewart, and others, and has spread through social media with the hashtag #sackclothandashes. Announced in late August, the 40-day effort, named after what sinners in the Bible donned to pay penance for their sins, proves that no one who believes in Jesus Christ is too good to apologize or to repent for his or her sins.
Did the women involved in this demonstration of repentance commit these crimes? No. But that doesn’t mean they can’t mourn, pray, and seek to change their own hearts. After all, it is the example of the mournful Mary, whom Catholics honor during the month of September.
By setting an example of prayer and repentance, others may decide to follow. Some of the greatest leaders have changed hearts and minds not with powerful words, but with powerful examples. These women (and men, the movement is not limited to one gender) seek change through changing themselves, and that is sharp tool.
In his 2013 letter “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel), which the Catholic Women’s Forum letter quotes back to him, Pope Francis wrote:
The Church acknowledges the indispensable contribution which women make to society through the sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets which they, more than men, tend to possess. I think, for example, of the special concern which women show to others, which finds a particular, even if not exclusive, expression in motherhood. I readily acknowledge that many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families and groups and offering new contributions to theological reflection.
Indeed, women throughout history have changed the church for the better. St. Catherine of Siena famously convinced Pope Gregory XI to move the seat of the church back to Rome from Avignon, France, where popes had fled due to scandal. If one woman (granted, a saint and doctor of the church) can convince the pope of something like that, there’s hope for a letter 35,000-women strong to move Pope Francis to action.
The women who signed the letter to Francis and the countless others participating in the #sackcothandashes movement are doing what so few official church “leaders” have done as this crisis spins out of control. Some priests and bishops have made statements calling for change and their efforts should not be ignored, particularly that of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.
But these women humbly ask for answers. They don’t make accusations, they repent of their own sins, and they pray for those who are suffering. Their actions may not be noticed by much of the public, but their effect is no less important.