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Clericalism a Key Cause of Women’s Exclusion, Korean Nun Says

By Elise Harris

Religious women participating in the Synod of Bishops on young people, faith and vocational discernment hold a press conference Oct. 15, 2018. Sister Mina Kwon is second in from the right. (Photo: Elise Harris/Crux.)

ROME (Crux) – Sister Mina Kwon, a South Korean nun taking part in this month’s summit of bishops in Rome, has said that as the Church ponders how to better include women in decision-making roles, clericalism must be exposed as an underlying reason they’re not often seen in leadership.

A member of the Congregation of Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres, Sister Mina is director of the Juniorate in her convent and also director of the Counseling Center in the School of Medicine in the Catholic University of Daegu.

In an interview with Crux, Sister Mina, participating as a delegate of the International Union of Superiors General in the Oct. 3-28 Synod of Bishops on young people, faith and vocational discernment, said that while the situation for women in the Church has improved, there is still a long way to go – including in synods themselves, where women still are unable to vote or be elected to the drafting committee charged with writing the final document.

“Women religious want greater participation in the Church in the places of decision-making, including the synods,” Sister Mina said, and faulted clericalism as a reason why women still struggle to make their voices heard in some sectors of the Church.

“Clericalism is linked to the authority of clergy over their duty of divine service. The main key words about clericalism would be: hierarchy, authoritarianism, a sense of entitlement, superiority and demand for excessive respect,” she said.

All “are against Jesus Christ and his evangelical values,” Sister Mina said, noting that clergy often “feel they are superior,” taking them farther away from their people. Clericalism, she said, “goes against the way of Jesus’ teaching and it needs to be overcome before it is too late.”

However, in her view, Sister Mina said this year’s synod has brought hope “that the situation of the Church and the role of women is improving. This is because we are present and at the table,” she said, but ceded that some challenges still exist, as “the voting question still remains.”

Excerpts of Crux’s interview with Sister Mina Kwon are below, which was conducted  by email.

Crux: In your view, what role do women, and women religious in particular, play in the Church? How important are their contributions?

Sister Mina: (Young people) say that they need spiritual companions who are able to give their time and energies for discerning their values, careers, sexual issues, and spiritual wisdom. They said, however, “there are few people who come to quench our thirst for life and spiritual yearning or listen to the deepest wishes.” This is why respectful teamwork between priests and women religious is important. It is a good influence on them and (it) facilitates effective collaboration to increase the ‘biblical apostolate’ for the youth. I have also been working on teams, but not all women religious work in such a condition.

From the standpoint of women’s role, the young generation asks women religious to contribute their spiritual richness. Many young people testify that they were strongly affected from the presence of women religious, their prayers and their spiritual accompaniments. Some people confess that the sound of vespers in women’s religious monastery gave them a refreshing jolt. Women religious are the main and direct vocational promoters for the youth. I asked many of the young who chose the consecrated life of late years: ‘What triggered you to make this decision?’ Surprisingly most of them said that the influence from the presence of their women religious had a big impact on their life. They were fascinated with sisters’ way to live with the virtues of chastity, poverty, simple lives and spiritual vitality. The presence of women religious and spiritual accompaniments help youth to find the most personal way to respond to God’s call.

In your speech inside the synod, you said the People of God must be protected from every form of exclusion and authoritarianism, and you mentioned clericalism in particular…

I mentioned the word ‘clericalism’ at the synod. Some people might ask me to prove it. Then I will ask back: ‘So there is no clericalism in the Church?’ Clericalism is linked to the authority of clergy over their duty of divine service. The main key-words about clericalism would be: hierarchy, authoritarianism, a sense of entitlement, superiority and demand for excessive respect. All key words are against Jesus Christ and his evangelical values. Pope Francis has often put his finger on clericalism, saying, “Clerics feel they are superior, (and they feel this when) they are far from the people.” Obviously, clericalism goes against the way of Jesus’ teaching and it needs to be overcome before it is too late.

You also mentioned that women are not treated equally and excluded from leadership and decision-making positions due to both clericalism and “outdated traditions.” What traditions do you believe are outdated? How can the Church address them?

‘Outdated traditions’ [means customs] closely connected with Korean culture, which is largely derived from Confucianism. One of the traditional etiquettes in human interactions is ‘elders first’. It means that younger people should give precedence to the elders. People grow up with a way to behave with respect to elders and social stature.

It is true that Koreans used to be seen as courteous people owing to this cultural tradition… Old and young siblings have an order, even between twins. It is a very rude attitude when younger one calls directly the name of his elder brother. Naturally the concept of ‘friend’ is only someone born in his/her birth year. This kind of hierarchy is found even in the school as the concept of ‘senior’ and ‘junior’.

We could imagine how the tradition of ‘elders first’ was adapted in the Korean Catholic Church. Two hundred years ago, during the massive anti-Catholic persecutions, Catholicism spread quickly, because some people including scholars living in a rigidly ordered society were fascinated by Catholicism. Especially they were attracted by the ‘equality’ based on the principle: ‘all human beings are children of God.’ Sadly, when religious freedom was allowed by government, a new medieval hierarchy was fostered by not only clergy but also laity. Clergy were treated as ‘elder’, and people expressed excessive deference toward them.

In the feminine viewpoint, there is another tradition that was the main cause of male-dominated society. It is called ‘Nam-jon-yeo-bi’ which is the idea of predominance of men over women. During the period of persecution as the initial stage of Korean Church, Catholicism brought new opportunities for women to become leaders and teachers in the initial stage of the Korean Church. It was a new and revolutionary thing in the feudal times.

After religious freedom [arrived], the Church began to revitalize education for women. Despite such efforts, the Church system and clergy’s individual mentality seems to hinder going beyond the boundary of the outdated tradition. Sometimes it brings the absence of women religious in leadership or decision-making. In local communities, some young religious are excluded from pastoral care for the youth. It is a serious contradiction: preaching about equality and unity in diversity but living with an attitude of superiority over women.

How can this be overcome? It should begin with the ‘reform of attitudes and mentalities,’ as Pope Francis said. Clergy and laity are equal Christians, since the word of Catholicism contains equality and universality. It means that all of us are People of God. We could rediscover more stories of laity in the Old Testament through our lives and experiences.

At the same time, the Church can give greater sharing of responsibility to laypeople. For the women religious, their voices should be heard more in the Church and our society. Women need to be treated with respect as men. The importance of the interior life and the community life should add more values in the Korean Church. Also, Korean women religious should have greater participation in the Church and in the place of decision-making.

How can women press for more inclusion and equality in the Church without it turning into a battle or competition with priests or bishops?

This question reminds me of the words of St. Oscar Romero: “I do not want to be anti-anybody, against anyone. I simply want to be the builder of a great affirmation: the affirmation of God, who loves us and who wants to save us.”

The Church often speaks about a “feminine genius” to refer to the specific contribution women can make in different situations, yet there’s no woman on the commission drafting the final document. Do you think it could have benefited from a female voice?

My companion Sister Sally Hodgdon, who is one of auditors of the synod, also stressed that women religious want greater participation in the Church in the places of decision-making, including the synods. My impression from this synod is hopeful that the situation of the Church and the role of women is improving. This is because we are present and we are at the table. Nevertheless, there are some challenges. The voting question still remains a matter to deal with. The voice of women should be heard, and the question of the presence of the sisters also should be raised.

What would Jesus do? We need to hold it firmly as our compass so that we can be transformed to Christ who is poor and humble. Living in a more authentic Church in harmony is what young people are longing for.

Crux’s Inés San Martín contributed to this report.

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