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Ordain women, change the abortion debate


Suppose the Roman Catholic church changed its mind and announced it was going to approve the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Suppose the church merely stated it would welcome and attend carefully to a resumption of the theological investigations of the ordination of women that it ruled out just a few years ago.

The earth would move beneath such a reversal of an opinion that has been as mixed as metaphors get: a litmus test for bishops-to-be, a red flag of warning to theologians, a line drawn across St. Peter’s Square, abandon hope all you who even think of ordaining women. Aside, however, from the logistical switches that allowing women to be priests would require in ecclesiastical life -- what would happen to rectories and so on -- another, deeper effect would almost certainly take place.

At the level at which things really happen -- the one beneath our conversations and rationalizations of our attitudes and behavior -- this change would strike the chains off the dynamic of control of women by men that lies, seldom if ever talked about in Catholicism, close to the bone of the abortion debate.

The pro-life position would be profoundly enhanced by this operational recognition of the full citizenship of women within the church.

Why is the abortion debate so often spoken of as a "struggle"? That description catches the hurly-burly of anguish at the death of the unborn and the attendant noisy circus of angry exchanges, demonstrations, marches and court appearances that crowd our view of it.

Something else is at work here. If it is not said aloud it is still impossible to deny. Many women feel that the institutional church (not necessarily or always overlapping with the church as a people of God) is pitted against them, that the men have so long dominated women in matters of doctrine and discipline that this masculine overseeing of their innermost lives seems natural, indeed, supernatural -- the way, in other words, God meant things to be.

This subterranean struggle against being overwhelmed by males motivates many women who advocate the pro-choice position. Perhaps more women than we know are not as much for abortion as they are against what they have experienced as a historical oppression of them by men. The resulting impulse for equality has asserted itself in dozens of ways in movements as varied as seeking the vote, entrance into and equal pay in the professions, freedom from workplace sexual harassment and, like it or not, the right to make their own decisions about their reproductive lives.

The institutional church that has generously and bravely spent its spirit and treasure in the pro-life cause has begun to wonder about some of its failed strategies, such as seeking a Human Life Amendment. Have its leaders even allowed themselves to explore the deep-down dynamics that may determine more of the character of this "struggle" that many of them, in their pastoral hearts, understand but cannot, in their official positions, discuss?

An institution run by men that refuses even to discuss women priests sparks theological debate on the conscious level anyway. On the plane of true transaction, it powerfully reasserts men’s control over women. And, no matter the flowing reassurances about the dignity of women uttered in sermons, women receive the closed-caption version: Stay in your place, and we will revere you.

It will be even harder for the church to defend this thinking at the level of parish life if male clergy, as many assert, emerge over the next generation struggling with their own gender identity.

How could women react otherwise when, while an abstract femininity is exalted, male ecclesiastics tell women, even at the poorest and most shadowed ends of the earth, that they may not choose contraceptive services even if they suffer rape or incest? Were church leaders to welcome a theological review of this question, they would thereby communicate their acceptance of women’s equality with men. Were this move by the church to be genuine rather than political, the struggle beneath the surface of all questions related to women, including abortion, would diminish.

In other words, making women equal in the church would address the broad social struggle for women’s equality with men, which is the real basis for the reproductive rights movement. Men surrendering control over women would lessen women’s need to keep fighting for it, one of the chief motivations of the pro-choice crusade.

The pro-life campaign will never completely succeed on the conscious level until the church addresses these issues on the unconscious level. The arguments against women’s ordination will remain unconvincing as long as ecclesiastics insist a spurious divine right to define and supervise the spiritual and physical destiny of women.

Eugene Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author most recently of My Brother Joseph, published by St. Martin’s Press.

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 1999