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Women's priesthood? Few women agree


Is ordination still the jewel in the crown that Catholic women covet? Or will it be left behind as women's goals change?

Can it be that even as rank-and-file Catholics come to embrace the idea and even as the church's high command hauls out its heaviest artillery to oppose it, those foot soldiers who have fought longest and hardest in the battle are taking a new position -- moving, in fact, to higher ground?

This elaborate military metaphor is meant to suggest the growing divergence of opinion among Catholic feminists -- and men who support their aims -- on the subject of ordained ministry.

Some of those Catholics most passionately dedicated to equality and mutuality in the church are no longer equating attainment of those ideals with women's access to the traditional priesthood. They are asking, instead, whether ordination is really the sine qua non of women's aspirations. These days examples abound.

In an interview with me last year, Loretto Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and an auditor at the Second Vatican Council, noted that some Catholic women "are saying that ordination is not the necessary thing for us to do. They're saying it will not solve the problem, that we are better off with a new way of structuring ourselves."

A former priest, firmly committed to the concept of optional celibacy, said, "Ordination is not the answer. Christ spoke not of priesthood, but of discipleship. That's what women should be focusing on."

Lisa Sowle Cahill, writing in Commonweal (Jan. 26, 1996), observed that some feminists "have ceased to care about ordination in an institution from which they are already so thoroughly alienated that they are seeking innovative forms of Catholic ministry and liturgy where their gifts are recognized."

And perhaps most telling of all, the 1995 meeting of the Women's Ordination Conference highlighted the growing conviction among some of its members that ordination into the present hierarchical system is simply not worth pursuing. Taking as its theme "Discipleship of Equals: Breaking Bread/Doing Justice," the conference focused on "a radical revisioning of church and society," in the words of Georgetown University theologian and principal speaker Diana Hayes. In a total of 45 focus groups that dealt with every topic from "Crones and Young Women" to "Domination and Sexual Abuse," the subject of ordination appeared only twice ("Ordination into Patriarchal Ministry" and "Ordination: a Feminist, Critical, Historical Overview"). At the same time, 21 of the focus groups considered facets of discipleship.

Also circulated at the WOC gathering was the draft of a document the group calls "A Declaration of Radical Equality." This manifesto rejects as false "all religious teachings and practice that exclude, dominate or privilege" and celebrates "women's religious and moral power to remake church and world." It advocates the development of "life-affirming spiritualities and ministries" and the encouraging of "all, especially men, to share power." In the entire document, the word "ordination" is not mentioned once.

Does all this add up to a profound change of direction or only a temporary distraction, to far-reaching reconstruction or only a dispute about vocabulary?

The cry for reform of the present system is not a new phenomenon but an idea that has been around for several decades. Some Catholics have been calling for a restructuring of Catholic worship and hierarchy for years. Almost a decade ago, I questioned more than 100 Catholic women about women's issues. When I went back recently to see what some of them had said about ordination, I found these comments:

"I don't have an objection to women's ordination. ... I just don't have a strong opinion about it. I guess I don't see priesthood as the ultimate step in the church."

"I love to preach and would love to be able to forgive sins. But stepping back from that, I wouldn't want to be one of the first women ordained, because I wouldn't want to be in the present structure."

"I see absolutely no reason under God's blue sky why women shouldn't be ordained, but I'm not sure at this point that I want to see any women ordained into that clergy. I don't think it's a good system. We need a new form of priesthood."

And Tobin pointed out that almost 30 years ago Thomas Merton was already saying that the church needed "a new way of worship in which everyone would have a part and where you'd have no hierarchical aspects."

Further complicating the issue is the significant action taken by Rome last year when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared the ban on ordaining women to be "irrevocable" and "infallible" doctrine, belonging to the "deposit of faith" and requiring the assent of all Catholics. Many theologians dispute this claim of infallibility, but the statement is still important in that it reflects the pope's rock-solid determination to stand fast on the question.

In an article in NCR (Dec. 15, 1995), Hans Küng noted that even in John Paul II's first two encyclicals on moral issues, Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae, as well as in subsequent pronouncements on contraception, abortion and euthanasia, the "use of that sundering term 'infallible' always was omitted," thus providing Catholic theologians with "a convenient loophole to enable them to avoid the 'definitive assent' to papal teaching demanded of them: It was, thank God, not an infallible doctrine."

In the case of women's ordination, an attempt has been made to close that felicitous loophole. So, what now? And if the answer to that question is "a new structure" or "a new form of priesthood," what should we understand by those terms?

Because women have been creating their own worship for at least two decades now (always, of course, with the words of consecration in the Mass denied them), it is not hard to make some educated guesses about the form women's liturgy would take: Symbols would play a part. Poetry, music and dance would play a part. Language that embraces the feminine as well as the masculine nature of human beings and of God would play a part. And two qualities that especially distinguish feminist theology -- relevance to lived experience and inclusivity -- would be central and indispensable.

The element of lived experience comes into play when, as Elizabeth Johnson writes in She Who Is, "the concrete, historical reality of women ... functions as symbol in speech about the mystery of God," when women come to know God as they come to know themselves. A sister who works as a retreat director described the process in this way:

In our retreats I urge women to talk about their own lives. I ask them, "Who are you at this point? How do you pray? Who is God for you?" Something happens to us when we have to answer questions like that. We find ourselves in the process. Women begin to talk about themselves and their own worth and dignity in ways drawn from their own experience. ... And people are willing to sit there for hours, rapt, listening to other women. ... Endless, endless stories. Women talking about their experience in prayer and how they have come to know Jesus.

In her book Women at the Altar, Loretto Sr. Lavinia Byrne calls this the "methodology" of feminism. She cites the work of a Loretto sister, a pastoral associate in a parish outside Chicago, as illustrating this principle and embodying "the feminine side of the church" as she makes her daily rounds:

"She blesses the tombstone of a lost baby with holy water and a prayer; she carries the host to the parents of a child who is to be taken off a life-support machine, touches the baby's body with it and then shares it with the parents; she has prayers for miscarriages, for people whose first time back to church is to attend a funeral, for those who seek the healing of a failed marriage."

Women's charisms, women's energies, seem uniquely to fit them for ministry of this kind, which is responsive to the anxieties, losses and burdens that people bear in real life.

The origins of inclusivity, the second distinguishing component of a "new priesthood," again may be traced to the words of Merton. In 1967 and again in 1968 (the year of his death), Merton invited a small group of contemplative women to join him in retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky and under his direction to consider some of the important events taking place in the church and the world at that time.

Speaking to these prioresses about women and the priesthood (as recorded in The Springs of Contemplation: A Retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani), he said, "Whether the solution to the problem is for women to be priests, I don't know. ... Right now, I don't see it. ... I think we need to develop a whole new style of worship in which there is no need for one hierarchical person to have a big central place, a form of worship in which everyone is involved."

Taking aim at the extravagant trappings of the hierarchical system, he continued, "Think of a woman all fixed up in a chasuble and a biretta! It's the men who thought up this ridiculous thing for themselves and now the women have to have it. ... I think most women are smarter than that; they can see that a lot of what men are doing is just part of an artificial structure."

How Merton might have gone on to develop these ideas must remain conjecture, but the qualities he would have valued in a new form of priesthood clearly emerge: lack of ostentation, simplicity, democracy.

More recently a contemporary theologian, Fr. Richard McBrien of Notre Dame University, took up the theme. Speaking at the Mile-Hi Conversations in Denver in 1996, he stated that the institutional structure of the church should be "collegial rather than monarchical," and predicted that ministries of the future will be "more democratic ... recognizing that the church always includes the hierarchy and other official leaders, but is never coextensive with them. The church is the whole people of God without artificial divisions imposed by gender or race or class or canonical status."

All this offers only a broad outline of characteristics that would distinguish a ministry shaped by women, a new form of priesthood. Many questions remain to be answered. Would such a priesthood call for a different eucharistic liturgy, different sacraments? What intellectual and spiritual attainments would be required of candidates for such a priesthood? Who would set those requirements? Would women have to leave the church in order to make this priesthood a reality? Or could they pursue it quietly within the framework of the institution?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the latter is happening already, although the official church remains inhospitable to women's aspirations (or perhaps because it does). A woman religious described to me a Mass she attended not long ago in which she "stood beside the priest and responded to him all the way through, and the whole congregation was invited to say all the prayers. Everybody said the words of consecration."

And another woman religious recalled being present as long ago as the 1970s at a liturgy where a woman presided and broke the bread. "How those who attended understood theologically, no one said," she commented. "Some consider the breaking of the bread as the gospel reality and believe that they receive Christ in that in the broad sense. Others say that it is the body of Christ as it would be in an orthodox liturgy." Then this woman, who holds a doctorate in theology, added, "Now, I don't believe the last part."

It is my sense that many other Catholics do not believe the last part, either. Catholics, even dissenting ones, are traditionalists, after all, and discarding a centuries-old heritage and beginning over again is a wrenching prospect.

Some difficulties inherent in such radical change were suggested at a Call to Action meeting in Denver this fall when a member asked the guest speaker, "Why don't we just start doing it? Why don't we start ordaining our own?" The speaker, Sister of St. Joseph Christine Schenk, of FutureChurch, offered an answer that seemed gently discouraging. She spoke of the "diffusion" that would probably result from such an approach, observing that Catholics might then face a choice between "constricting order" on the one hand and "chaos" on the other. She urged, instead, a process of consciousness-raising, education and dialogue on the subject of women's ordination.

McBrien, too, argues for holding on to the goal of ordained ministry for women. In answer to a question from the audience at the Mile-Hi Conversations, he described his feelings about the split in the Women's Ordination Conference this way: "My own sense is that the group that says, 'Don't even bother,' of course, is on the easier canonical turf because the Vatican has said it's a waste of time to bother, anyway. But my heart is still with those who say, 'We must continue to keep the issue alive as a concern.' "

And Tobin speaks of the value of tradition:

"I accept the good of tradition. Whatever you want to call the origins of the church and the guidance of the church by the Holy Spirit -- whatever name you want to give to that -- I think it does exist and I would have to say my faith would be in that. ... I distinguish between the good of the tradition and that which has been unfortunate. That's no reason for throwing the whole thing out. And that's my quarrel with women who say, 'I've had it with the church. Amen. Goodbye.' "

If I had to predict the future, I would still wager that Catholic women will stay the course in pursuit of ordination. Despite tremendous obstacles to be overcome, ordained ministry within the church seems more achievable in the long term than a "new priesthood" that calls for the severing of lifelong ties and plunging into uncharted waters.

Either way, however, it is time for Catholics on both sides of this issue to enter into dialogue about it. Women's calling to serve, a calling that has been harbored for so many years and thwarted for so many years, cannot be kept on hold forever, nor can it be ignored as if it does not exist. In spite of extraordinary measures taken by the official church in recent months, the issue has not gone away and neither, amazingly enough, have Catholic women.

Margaret Murphy, author of How Catholic Women Have Changed, lives in Litletown Colo.

National Catholic Reporter, January 31, 1997