e-mail us

Cover story

It’s inevitable: Women will be ordained


Now that Vatican authorities have declared as a matter of "infallible" teaching the prohibition against ordination of Roman Catholic women, it is the considered judgment of many feminist scholars, myself included, that such ordinations are imminent, for better or for worse.

While this might seem counter-intuitive to the uninitiated, longtime Catholic-watchers will recognize that such declarations usually come at the end of a long road. They come when rational discourse has been exhausted and only raw power will suffice to keep in place the kyriarchy -- a word coined by theologian Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza to refer to interlocking structures of oppression that result in the "lordship" of one person or group over another.

Then, after a decent interval, change takes place with pastoral practice preceding Vatican decree. While I have no crystal ball, I predict this is the pattern that will hold sway on the question of the ordination of women.

In this speculative discussion of the state of the movement, I will explore three interlocking dimensions of the situation: first, mounting evidence that the Roman Catholic church will have to ordain women in the next century in order to maintain its sacramental character; second, the feminist case for doing so as a matter of justice and pastoral integrity; and third, the feminist case for insisting on substantive structural changes in kyriarchy as part of the process.

I will conclude with a constructive suggestion for holding the tension and moving the matter forward.

1. Mounting evidence that the Roman Catholic church will have to ordain women in the next century in order to maintain its sacramental character.

A great deal of Catholic theological and biblical scholarship has gone into making the case in favor of women's ordination. Under pressure from the grassroots, commissions have met, dialogues with bishops have taken place, polling data is in order and testimonies of women acting as pastors without being ordained are all part of the common record.

Sociological evidence of the success of women ministers in other Christian denominations as well as women rabbis in Judaism and women leaders in other faith traditions is evidence that the ordination of Catholic women will certainly not cause the world as we know it to end, nor Catholicism to lose its unique charism. This has simply not happened elsewhere. In fact, evidence suggests that each religious group that has included women among its leadership ranks has had the basic structure of the group reinforced.

This, to my mind, is not a welcome thought when it comes to reinscribing kyriarchy with a few women allowed to enter at the lowest level, but it is an analytic probability in the Catholic case.

The numerical shortage of male priests around the world is well documented. Increasing attention is being focused on more qualitative matters. For example, in the United States, the scandals of clergy sexual abuse, clergy pedophiles and celibate clergy fathering children have undermined the once sacrosanct image of male priests. While it has always been argued that the worthiness of the minister does not affect the efficacy of the sacrament, intelligent people have their limits to credulity, especially in those aspects of ministry where children, adolescents and women are involved.

Of equal importance is the shifting face of Catholic worship life, specifically the singular rise in the number of small faith communities, that is, base communities that meet within or beyond parish structures. The pastoral needs of such groups are met variously, with many groups employing married priests and women as their primary ministers.

The Women's Ordination Conference in the United States is the organization chiefly responsible for bringing the issue to public attention. Working initially with European groups such as St. Joan's Alliance, and now as part of the newly created network Women's Ordination Worldwide, WOC has succeeded in making the ordination of women an accepted part of the international progressive Catholic agenda. For example, it was an item on the petitions that 2.3 million Austrian and German Catholics filed with the Vatican, and is part of the current "We are Church: A Catholic Referendum" petition drive in this country.

Throughout its history, WOC has held in tension the need for women to be ordained into a renewed priestly ministry with the need to create non-kyriarchical forms of church. In these kinds of communities the whole question of priesthood would be re-understood in the context of what Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza has termed a "discipleship of equals." At WOC's 20th anniversary celebration in 1995, a conference titled "Discipleship of Equals: Breaking Bread/Doing Justice," she underscored how for women "ordination is subordination" in a kyriarchical church, raising anew the question of whether ordination as currently conceived theologically and practically is adequate for anyone.

None of these factors can completely displace kyriarchical power. In the waning days of the current papacy and in the face of increasingly conservative appointments to dioceses, it is not immediately apparent that so seemingly radical a move as the ordination of women will happen anytime soon. But I want to suggest that it will for three reasons.

First, the shrinking pool of male candidates for holy orders not only in the United States but, with few exceptions, around the world is a demographic fact, not a feminist wish. Either we will have fewer clerics with more power and responsibility or we will enlarge the pool of priests.

Alternatively, either we will move to a non-sacramental, that is, a normatively non-eucharistic celebration rather than the Eucharist, which is now normative, or we will ordain more priests, including women and married men. In any case, I predict that by 2025, less than 30 years from now, one of these conditions will obtain, making ordained ministry substantively different from what it is now.

Second, it will not take 1,000 years for Vatican authorities to realize that ordaining women to the priesthood as it currently exists will be their best hope of maintaining kyriarchy. In short, I suspect they will figure out that ordaining women is not such a radical thing to do after all. Frankly, I deplore this possibility, but there are a number of well-trained, well-meaning women who, seeing the pastoral need, are ready and willing to promise obedience to the kyriarchy in exchange for sacramental legitimacy.

They are quite prepared to join their brothers in the collegium of the ordained. Perhaps even more than married men, these women (presumably celibate) will, however unwittingly, shore up by their willing participation a structure that seems to be collapsing under its own weight. With all due respect, I predict that they will make excellent priests in the current model of priesthood, and that is precisely the problem. It is the model, not the people who serve in that model, that is inadequate to the pastoral and theo-political needs of a postmodern church.

Third, if there is any guide in the Vatican's own track record on birth control -- an issue on which it insisted with similar vehemence despite a substantive change in common practice -- it would seem that the practice of ordaining women will soon catch up with the reality of women practicing ordained ministry. "Soon" may mean 100 years, but, as with birth control, when the sensus fidelium is so at odds with the official teaching, even the Vatican bows to the inevitable. This accounts for the current focus on abortion and near silence on birth control. Prediction: As women assume greater leadership, there will be greater focus on keeping base communities tied to parishes rather than on the gender of priests.

However the scenario unfolds, it is none too early to consider the impact of the inevitable, that is, the ordination of women, on the future church.

2. The feminist case for ordaining women as a matter of justice and pastoral integrity.

The foregoing is primarily an institutional analysis predicated on its needs and priorities in order for it to maintain its sacramental character as currently understood. The feminist case differs slightly, but not much.

The arguments can be clustered in three areas: First is the basic justice case that sees women and men as equal in creation. Accordingly, the ordination question is really the right to test one's vocation to priestly ministry without gender considerations. This position rejects as quaint and absurd the essentialist imagery of the kyriarchical church as bride and Jesus as bridegroom, which has been offered to exclude women from priesthood. It dismisses as unproven the notion that women were not present at the Last Supper, another of the intellectually embarrassing arguments trotted out to keep the priesthood male.

Second are the arguments from practice. The growing number of women who are pastoring churches, working as parish associates, ministering in prisons, hospitals and on campuses is indisputable evidence that the future is now. Anecdotes of parishioners preferring "Sister's Mass to Father's," and reliable reports of women exercising full sacramental ministry, including granting absolution and celebrating Eucharist, make the prohibition anachronistic.

However, as long as ordination is tied to jurisdiction so that decision-making power and economic choices reside in the hands of the ordained, the impulse to get these women ordained as a matter of justice will increase.

Third are the arguments from progress. In addition to rehabilitating Galileo and acknowledging the relevance of Darwin, albeit centuries after the fact, recent documents from Rome on women contain hints and glimpses of more than motherhood, that is, nascent acknowledgment of women as workers, partners and community citizens.

This is due to feminist work. The Vatican is pressed at every turn to recognize that the 20th century has been a time of unparalleled advances for women and girls in every arena from birth control to higher education. The Roman Catholic priesthood is one of the few remaining women-free zones. Feminists seek to end that, and, ironically, even that seems to be changing. Witness the fact that a woman (a highly competent, conservative legal scholar, Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School) led the Vatican's delegation to the U.N. women's conference in Beijing in 1995. This is an advance on gender grounds, but is just the kind of co-optation that the ordination of women portends.

I predict that these arguments will eventually combine with the kyriarchical ones to make a case for women's ordination into the symbolic and sacramental system, the ecclesial economic and political system that makes up the institutional church.

While some perceive this as progress, and arguably it is progress of a sort, I remain skeptical that it will occasion the substantive structural change and renewed theological expression needed for the next century.

3. The feminist case for insisting on substantive structural changes in kyriarchy as a part of the process.

An important aspect of the ordination movement is the caution of many feminists about the danger of having women ordained into a kyriarchical structure that will be reinforced by their presence and reinscribed by their successes. At best, women priests will mean increased clerical-lay distinctions, more concentration of jurisdiction in the hands of those ordained, including a few women, and a fundamental affirmation of the kyriarchy as it is, indeed a church made to look even better by this cosmetic change.

There is evidence in other denominations that the ordination of women has meant a certain "feminizing" of the role of the minister. The combination of long hours, low pay, low prestige and endless nurture makes priesthood a recipe for a woman's job in a patriarchical society, similar to what happened with teaching and nursing. There is every reason to believe that this will be the case with the ordination of Catholic women to a job that is already unsatisfactory to most male priests and that has lost its social cachet.

Projections indicate that women are quickly becoming a majority in many seminaries and are thus soon to be the majority of the practitioners in the field. Hence, when women's ordination comes, it seems that it will be a short interval between the first ordination and the achievement of parity if not majority status for women priests. Men, for reasons of seniority among others, will remain the bishops and cardinals -- that is, those with real decision-making power -- for the foreseeable future, while women will shortly be the majority of the rank-and-file clergy. Thus emerges another layer of injustice for women.

All of these reasons persuade me that the ordination of women into kyriarchy is at best a bad idea. But my primary opposition stems from the theological atrophy that will take place precisely at a time when we need to revisit not simply gender justice but the fundamental structures of kyriarchy, that is, lordship, as inadequate to and incompatible with claims to the gospel values of justice, equality and mutuality.

Likewise, a sacramental theology of Eucharist that is dependent on ordained people, female or male, rather than focused on a community gathered in memory of her, of him and one day, of us, is a dubious proposition for postmodern people. Symbols are simply not so binary any more.

It is these matters, like the clergy/lay split, that threaten to turn women-included Catholicism into a parody of itself.

Indeed, many progressive Catholic feminists oppose ordination, except of course as a theo-political matter of strategy, because ironically it will retard progress toward our primary goal: new models of church with renewed sacramental theologies adequate to the faith needs of a new century.

The women-church movement of feminist base communities engaged in sacrament and solidarity, house churches and the like, are far more consonant with early Christian models and far more conducive to progress toward this goal than the ordination of women into kyriarchy.

This position presents a delicate balance between pressuring for change and resisting the direction of that change, but it is the current state of the tension. Rather than struggling to be let in on kyriarchical terms, we are now struggling to keep the inevitable from having its worst consequences by creating communities in which shared leadership, inclusive sacramentalizing and justice-focused solidarity work replace the default reliance on women priests.

Conclusion: A constructive suggestion for holding the tension and moving the matter forward.

Imagine the hoopla when the first Roman Catholic women prostrate themselves before bishops, impart their first priestly blessings and celebrate their first Masses. It is a Hollywood answer to a Wall Street problem. It will be, in my judgment, an unfortunate consequence of needed changes co-opted before they were able to be realized, a case of half a loaf being worse than none.

While I respect and support, to a degree, the efforts to get women ordained for its symbolic and political importance, at the same time I consider it far more urgent to work to develop and maintain new models of church in which baptism is the fundamental sacrament.

It is only with such new -- some would say renewed -- models pushing against the discourse of ordination, especially by feminists who recognize the pitfalls of kyriarchy, that there is any hope of avoiding the inevitable co-optation by an institution whose sinister genius, and alternately its charm, is its ability to synthesize virtually anything into itself. Such is the mixed blessing we face.

Mary E. Hunt, codirector of WATER, Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, Silver Spring, Md., presented this discussion as a paper at the recent meeting of the American Academy of Religion in New Orleans.

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 1997