Interesting Answers


John Allen, someone I will have to pay more attention to, addressed the issue of the role of women in the Church in a way that I see as solidly holding forth Church teaching and then suggesting what could be done within the framework of Church teaching to make clear the full and equal status of women in the Church. Full article here. Even this may be controversial to some, but I don't see much that would be problematic about it (though I do have to admit that some DREs seem to run away with their own agendas--but wouldn't that happen male or female?). Moreover, it gets around the "it's the law, get over it," by framing the possibilities. One thing I like a lot in the argument is the notion that we can maintain our understanding and framework and still make room for a number of voices to be heard. (We have to remember that not every woman is a Hildegard or a Catherine of Siena--allowance should be made for those whose lives do not command our attention by extraordinary holiness, but who still have important things to say about how we live our spiritual lives.)

First, while no one directly put the question of women’s ordination on the table, we might as well deal with it head-on. Given Pope John Paul II’s 1994 document Ordinatio sacerdotalis, which stated that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women, and … this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful,” there will be no official movement on this question in any short-term future scenario I can imagine. I’m aware that some Catholics dream of revisiting the issue somewhere down the line, and I have no crystal ball that tells me where the church will be in 200 years. What I can say is that the Catholic Church does not lurch from position to position, especially on something this sensitive, and at a minimum anyone living in hope of rapid evolution will likely be disappointed.

Further, it’s correct that Pope Benedict and other church leaders see the revitalization of the priesthood as a top priority, including the fraternal nature of relations between bishops and priests – especially in light of the strain under which those bonds have been placed in some parts of the world as a result of the sexual abuse crisis.

However, the right Catholic answer when faced with a seeming disjunction is rarely “either/or,” but “both/and.” Hence one hopes that strengthening the all-male character of the priesthood does not have to come at the expense of greater efforts to hear the voice of women. We ought to be able to do both at once.

In reality, there are vast areas in the life of the church where authority and responsibility can be exercised without sacramental ordination. On the parish level, the Catholic church in the United States and elsewhere could not operate without the contributions made by women as directors of religious education, liturgists, pastoral associates, and in myriad other capacities. Roughly 25 percent of the diocesan chancellors in America are now women, and one hopes that trend will accelerate until it hovers around 50 percent, better reflecting the percentage of women in the church. Women today serve as diocesan spokespersons, as general councils for dioceses, as chief financial officers, and in a wide variety of other capacities. These efforts can become much more systematic, especially in positions of high public visibility. (The American bishops’ conference is presently hiring a new communications director, for example, and all things being equal, it would be exceedingly positive symbolism if that post went to a lay woman).

Even in the Vatican, one can detect “baby steps” in this regard. In 2004, Pope John Paul II for the first time appointed a woman to a superior’s-level position in an office of the Roman Curia, naming Italian Salesian Sr. Enrica Rosanna as under-secretary of the Congregation for Religious. It’s true that a cleric co-signs letters from the congregation that exercise the pope’s delegated “power of jurisdiction,” but nevertheless the appointment put Rosanna in a position of leadership in the universal church. In the same year, John Paul named Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon as President of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, and appointed two female theologians to the International Theological Commission, both firsts. (One was an American, Sr. Sara Butler). While these are admittedly small moves, and perhaps open to the charge of “tokenism,” they nevertheless set precedents upon which one can build.

Moving more comprehensively in this direction is important, it seems to me, for two reasons.

First, church teaching unambiguously supports the full equality of women, and offering the world models of female leadership is thus an important way of demonstrating that we mean what we say.

Second, doing so could also perhaps allow us to approach the conversation about the priesthood more rationally. Church spokespersons routinely say that the all-male character of the priesthood is not a matter of excluding women from power, because the priesthood is not about power but service. The practical reality, however, is that ordination has always been the gateway to power in the church, if not theologically then sociologically. If the church were more systematic about the full representation of women in every area of life that doesn’t require ordination, it would perhaps reduce some of the suspicion that the teaching on the priesthood is really a smokescreen designed to preserve a system of male privilege.

I recognize that for some Catholics, including many deeply faithful Catholic women, none of this amounts to a fully satisfying answer. Yet under the rubric of “the art of the possible,” it seems to me to be the best answer one can give about what can be done under the present circumstances to help the church “breathe with both lungs” – in this case, not East and West, but male and female.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on November 20, 2006 7:51 AM.

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