Woman's Hour this week lets two 'good cops' talk about women in the Church

Catholic women are in the news again. Yesterday’s Woman’s Hour with Jane Garvey included an interview with two Catholics: Rosamund Urwin, a columnist on the London Evening Standard, and Madeleine Teahan, associate editor of the Herald. Garvey’s challenge was “Why would a woman be a Catholic in Britain today?”

Rosamund Urwin admitted wryly that she was the “bad cop” in this debate; although her faith is very important to her and has been a source of comfort she describes herself as a “proud feminist” and struggles with certain issues. These turn out to be familiar chestnuts: she would love to see women ordained priests and contraceptives made freely available in the developing world, presumably with the Church’s blessing. Oddly enough, Urwin did not sound a militant feminist in the manner of Baroness Helena Kennedy, who also appeared on Woman’s Hour arguing against Madeleine Teahan on November 1 last year, and whose voice quivered with indignation every time the words “Pope”, “men” and “Vatican” were mentioned. By comparison, Urwin sounded slightly apologetic for her stance, as if she really wanted to play “good cop” instead. Clearly, one’s tone of voice matters when it comes to intractable questions.

Madeleine Teahan comes across as a very good spokesman (I won’t use the word “spokesperson”) for the Church: she is not middle-aged and angry but young, calm and humorous. She pointed out that there are many young people in the Church who find the teaching on sexual morality “liberating”; indeed, she implied, being on the pill could turn into a new form of sexual slavery as it gave “greater sexual licence to men”. I have never heard this point made by feminists although it must have occurred to them.

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Garvey raised another old chestnut, an anecdote about a woman who was forced to have eight children against her will because a priest had told her it was her duty to do so. This only showed that hard cases not only make bad law; they cast an emotional pall over the real issues. Teahan gamely countered with praise for the late pope, John Paul II, whose encyclicals had raised the dignity of women, Catholic or otherwise.

At this point Urwin felt the need to refer to the Church as a “patriarchal organisation” but she didn’t say it with much conviction and then went on to add that the Catholic faith was kinder to women than some other faiths, where women had to be segregated from men during worship etc. “You have to be in something to change it,” she added stoutly.

Both women referred to the BBC4 documentary this Thursday evening, the third and final programme in a series called Catholics, which will be on the subject of women in the Church. They agreed the perspective was too narrow: what about lay men – and nuns? I’ll blog about the documentary too. Meanwhile, Jane Garvey came over as a sympathetic interviewer, not overly pushing her own (feminist?) point of view – as one suspects her tough co-presenter, Jenni Murray, would have done.

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