LOPEZ: And you did this of your own free will? Chose to be subservient in a patriarchal church?
SISTER PRUDENCE: The first part of this question is important. A simple answer is: “Yes.” I asked to be received into the Catholic Church while I was studying for my Ph.D. in philosophy, and later asked to enter the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma as a postulant, asked to be received as a novice, asked to make first vows, asked to renew my vows, and then asked to make perpetual vows — each request from the depths with which I was capable of exercising my own free will. The Catechism (#1733) has a wonderful description of how freedom increases within us: “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes.” Through the years, I experience myself making devotional renewals of my vows (at Easter and after retreats) with an ever greater sense of freedom to give myself to the Lord and to my neighbor.
In religious life, we practice our vow of obedience in simple acts to one another, to our religious sisters who are either local superiors or our general superiors, and to the Holy Father, who is the superior general of all religious. These acts are always out of a reverence and obedience to Jesus Christ, who was obedient unto death to His Father. This is not the subservience of someone without a free will, but it consists in many free acts of self-gift. Through these repeated acts, we hope to become ever more capable of total, rather than partial, self-gift, so that at the moment of our death we will make the ultimate gift to Jesus Christ, whom we will then see face to face.
The second part of this question is framed within a feminist political ideology. As we say in Catholic philosophy, the mind receives according to the mode of the receiver. If the mode of the receiver is a political feminist ideology, then that is how he or she will perceive the Catholic Church. The word “subservient” as used in your question seems to imply serving in an inferior way, which is not what we do. We serve as Christ, who came “not to be served but to serve.”
The reality of the Church, however, is very different. The Church is the mystical Body of Christ. In the Second Vatican Council, inLumen Gentium, the Church described itself from within: “The Church, in Christ, is in the nature of a sacrament — a sign and instrument of communion with God and of unity among all men.”
The Church is also a communio of three paradigm and complementary vocations, and others derived from them. If we consider the spousal mystery, then the ordained priestly vocation represents the place of the bridegroom, the lay married vocation represents the love between the bride and the bridegroom, and the religious vocation, the response of the bride to the love of the bridegroom. These are spiritual realities that permeate our faith from beginning to end. (See Foundations of Religious Life, Chapter 2, pp. 61-77.)
The difficulty is that, throughout history, there has been a struggle between basically three different positions about the relation between women and men: 1) traditional gender polarity, which viewed men as naturally superior to women, and its modern counterpart, reverse gender polarity, which views women as naturally superior to men; 2) unisex positions, which claim that there are no significant differences between women and men; and 3) complementary positions, which argue for the simultaneous fundamental equality and worth of women and men and their significant differentiation. Some complementary positions can be called “fractional,” because they claim that a man and a woman each provide some fraction of a characteristic, which when added up make one single person. Others — and this is the one that I defend — can be called “integral,” because they claim that a man or a woman is an integral or whole human person, and when together, they generate something more than two.
Over different periods in history, one of the paradigm vocations has assumed a de facto cultural superiority over the others. Thus, in medieval times, abbesses and abbots in the monastic religious vocation often were considered superior; in modern times, the clerical priestly vocation held a culturally superior position until the 20th century, when the lay vocation with its sacrament of marriage seemed to be considered culturally superior. As mentioned before, the Second Vatican Council laid the groundwork for a true communio of vocations in which each one is a gift of self to the others.
When a person is called into the Catholic Church and becomes specified in a particular vocation, he or she is always called to serve others in the Church and the world in complementary ways to others. This mutuality of self-gift in service in the Church fulfills the definition of “solidarity” in the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes, #32): Jesus Christ founded the Church after His death and resurrection as an institution in which “everyone, as members one or the other, would render mutual service according to the different gifts bestowed on each. This solidarity must be constantly increased until that day on which it will be brought to perfection” at the end of time in Heaven. The goal of our vocation is mutual service in total self-gift. When this is practiced, the Church continues to spread throughout the world.