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Issue Date:  September 1, 2006

From the Editor's Desk

Anything but a settled matter

Deborah Halter is a bright, engaging, devoted Catholic woman called to ordained ministry. Her story in this week’s issue is a bittersweet tale of loss, both of her adopted city, New Orleans, and of her community called Catholic with a capital C. (See story)

In her book, The Papal No: A Comprehensive Guide to the Vatican’s Rejection of Women’s Ordination, she has written with great depth and scholarship of the church’s refusal to allow women into the ranks of ordained ministers. In this issue she writes with elegance and a self-effacing attitude of the wrenching choices she has made during the past year.

Many see the matter of women’s ordination as something far more complex than merely sharing power and authority in the community. As Fr. Timothy Radcliffe -- one not shy about challenging ecclesiastical presumptions -- put it when discussing women’s ordination in his book, What is the Point of Being a Christian?: “Our contemporaries are too ready to conclude, without hesitation, that women should be ordained. If women can be university professors, judges or prime minister, it seems obvious to our contemporaries that they should be priests. Well, it’s not so obvious to me. Ordination is a sacrament, which means that it belongs to the order of the symbolic. Presiding at the Eucharist is, above all, a symbolic role and not a claim to status. Now, modernity is blind to the symbolic: It can conceive priesthood only in terms of power or status. The fact that almost all decisions in the church are, in fact, in the hands of the clergy can, it is true, contribute to this misunderstanding. So we find ourselves in a situation where modernity is calling on the church to recognize the equality of the sexes while the church calls on modernity to recognize the profound importance of the symbolic.”

I don’t here mean to cross scholarly swords with Fr. Radcliffe. I have enough wits about me to understanding that as a suicidal mission. However, I do have questions about his point because it seems to me that the church in this instance, though it may in some ways be emphasizing the symbolic, has actually used a rather literal assessment of the matter to come to the conclusion that women can never be ordained. And that assessment rests, doesn’t it, on the simple observation that Jesus was a man. I’d also think that if ordained ministry were to be construed as other than a conferral within the community of power and status, a great deal of change would have to occur within ordained ministry.

This is where I find Halter’s work so valuable. She shows that the church’s decision about women’s ordination -- whatever other pillars it may rest on -- leans heavily on ancient misconceptions about women that thread through the church’s thinking on a range of issues down the ages.

The consequence? A lot remains to be discussed and figured out, I think. Some women don’t have the time and, sadly, Halter is one of them.

In this many-layered story, simultaneously of anguish and liberation, I venture that Halter is telling the story of thousands of Catholic women who feel adrift even as they are, in many ways, at home. I more than venture it, I know it. Catholic women fill the pulpits of scores of other Christian denominations. The congregations of other denominations are full of ex-Catholics, many of them women who simply have had it with exclusive language, exclusion from the pulpit, exclusion from the sanctuary and exclusion from the endless hierarchical circles where decisions are made, not infrequently about how women should behave as good Catholics.

Others have simply left and gone nowhere. They are weary of the fight, exhausted with trying to make a case that seems perfectly clear to so many other rational, devoted, dedicated Christians.

Halter’s story is a thoroughly Catholic and American story of the early 21st century. It is the tale of two groups who feel increasingly marginalized -- women in the church and the poor in the wider culture.

I have no special insight, no crystal ball, to show where all of this is going. The politics of New Orleans and whether we ever reach consensus on what constitutes the common good will decide much about the one group.

As for women in the church? Some leave the church for other Christian communities. Some get ordained on boats. Others stay to fight the long-haul battle within the community. All of them, I think, force us to think about who we are as a Catholic Christian community; about what our language and symbols mean; about how limited, perhaps, are our understanding of our own tradition and of God’s mind on the issue.

We may be told that we can no longer speak of this topic. That it is settled. Bishops, grudgingly or gladly, do as they are told. Women ordained on boats are excommunicated; questioners are told to be quiet; and those who leave are said to be simply wrong, wayward, but at least now out of the way.

And all of it lands in the sanctuary as a grumpy, rather ineffectual “harrumph.”

It looks to me to be anything but a settled matter.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, September 1, 2006

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