STEPHANIE DOWRICK. Would ordaining women save the Catholic Church?

In our 21st century, and even allowing for widespread secularism especially in the West, about 2.2 billion people still call themselves Christian. Of these, about 1.2 billion are Roman Catholic. This number is only slightly smaller than the total number of Muslims (1.3 billion). The overall picture is clear: Catholicism is still a force to be reckoned with. What’s more, its influence – for better and worse – goes well beyond the parish gate. So maybe you’d prefer to ask, “Should the Catholic Church be saved (from itself)?”  

My own relationship with Catholicism is complex. I am an ordained interfaith minister and have been for many years. I am also a “sort of” Catholic. (The challenging, radical, non-compliant kind who can’t walk away entirely. And I suspect there are many of us.) I am also shaped by faiths other than Christian, especially Judaism and Buddhism. Within Christianity, I am familiar with the mainstream progressive Christianity found in most but not all Uniting churches. In fact, I led interfaith, spiritually inclusive services for more than 11 years at one of Sydney’s largest Uniting churches and am more than grateful for their welcome. I’m also familiar with the uncluttered worship and social justice practices offered by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). I owe much to the Quakers. And some of that drives my frustrations and hopes for the infinitely more influential Catholic Church.

It was, after all, early Friends who dared suggest that we don’t need a priest, bishop or any intermediary between ourselves and God. “High or low”, “male or female”, we’re all available to the literal “moving” of the Holy Spirit within our minds and hearts. We can all be inspired in our conduct and valuing of life. The resolute simplicity of Quaker thinking and the conduct it calls forth demands as well as develops a high level of emotional and spiritual intelligence. Such thinking refuses and refutes dualistic notions of worthy and not-worthy, saved and not-saved and of any race, gender, culture as intrinsically superior to any other. “Walk cheerfully over the world”, urged the dissenter and Quaker, George Fox, “answering that of God in everyone”.

Almost 400 years later, the revolutionary notion of God in everyone still massively challenges us. It disallows prejudice, contempt or hatred. It disallows any form of dehumanising “the other” or seeing difference as inevitably “less than”. It disallows the notion that some are nearer and dearer to God than others. Or that some can read the mind of God and interpret it, while most (of us) cannot. It also disallows the belief that we can justify harming or killing others. “Do no harm” becomes, in this context, quite literal.

Fox’s revolutionary egalitarianism was both vertical and horizontal. It resonates in the way we view and relate to God, and to one another. As a lived experience, it transforms our very sense of self: how we respect and value our own lives as well as the lives of other people. Fox expressed this with almost unimaginable courage at a time when racial, class and particularly gender inequality was fiercely defended as God’s plan by those with most to gain materially and ideologically. But Fox’s ideas weren’t new. Revolutionary egalitarianism is surely what Jesus taught? In the Hebrew Bible, too, you can find these lovely words: “Do we not have just a single Father? Did not just one God create us all? Why then does humankind deal treacherously with one another? This betrays the teachings of our ancestors.” (Malachi 2:10) Mystical wisdom across all faith traditions holds that every life is of value and that our happiness and wellbeing depend absolutely upon our consideration of others – without exception. “See yourself in others and others in yourself. You will have nothing to fear” is a teaching from Hinduism, a religion more ancient than Christ’s own Judaism. But it was the early Christian, Paul, who wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile [or Greek], neither slave nor free person, neither male nor female. You are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Yet that potent message of inclusion (Galatians 3:28) seems soon lost as the early Christian communities of women and men, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, morphed into the highly masculinised, profoundly and unashamedly hierarchical Roman Catholic Church. For 2000 years, give or take a couple of centuries, and give or take some highly disputed anti-women remarks widely quoted and attributed to Paul (, male Christians have seen themselves as unquestionably “worthier” than women not just to lead Christian worship and thinking, but to dictate it.

How tragic it is that for all its mighty, centuries-long and sometimes quite insane pursuit of “heresy”, the institutional Church failed to recognise its own heretical sexism, as well as its corrosive racism and religious prejudice. The “othering” of women, of people of colour or of religions or denominations other than its own, brought devastating harm. And the time for that harm is over.

Unifying, loving, healing: that’s the work of religion(s). To be a clearer, cleaner channel of healing for the billion-plus people who look to it for spiritual sustenance, the institutional Church must heal itself. The sexual abuse scandals should be enough to wake those who sleep. But it is perhaps even more the distortions of spiritual power that allowed such abuse, such blatant gender prejudice, such appalling absence of care and insight, that must now end. At present, the least qualified male candidate can consider a call to the priesthood. The most qualified, willing woman cannot. Welcoming women into the priesthood and the beating heart of the Church, re-framing a newly moral leadership with women and men as true equals, may not be enough to save the institutional Church – or the men who rule it. Perhaps in the West at least, entrenched sexism will reveal an organisation beyond repair. Yet I remain cautiously hopeful.

Alone among Christian denominations, the Catholic Church is also called “Mother”. A mother’s love – tender, humble and renewing – is surely what’s needed. If healing is to take place along with rebirth, it must be shared. We will rise only if we can rise together. “The hour has come to wake from sleep”, Paul wrote to the Romans (!3: 9-12). “Love those with whom you share this world. Where love is present, no one is harmed. Love fulfils God’s longing for the world…Lay aside whatever lingers in the shadows…Live honourably…let your life be worthy of its light.”

Reverend Dr Stephanie Dowrick is the author of many books including Seeking the Sacred, Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love, and Heaven on Earth.


This entry was posted in Religion and Faith. Bookmark the permalink.
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Rosemary O'Grady

Could it be that Rev Dowrick’s ‘relationship’ with Holy Mother Church is a tiny bit dysfunctional – on top of being frustrating and hopeful? It is not possible to be a kind-of Catholic, ‘non-compliant’ – ‘one who can’t walk away entirely…’. It misses the point, clearly enunciated by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI – that his kind of Church will be smaller – having been made stricter – but that will be a Good Thing because it will be back to a Catholic Church which means to be the one true holy and apostolic …you know the drill, from which the… Read more »

Henry Starr

When Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile [or Greek], neither slave nor free person, neither male nor female. You are all one in Christ Jesus.”, who is the ‘You’ he is addressing? Is it all people? All faiths? All baptised Christians? He makes clear it is the elect. This is a message for those who are through grace counted as righteous because of their faith in Jesus Christ. So my question is how, when reading Paul’s letters, and the whole of the good news of the gospel, do you believe the statement“There is neither Jew nor Gentile [or… Read more »

Lynne newington

I guess the biblical quote: In my fathers house there are many mansions…..would apply here too.

Peter Mansour-Nahra

Henry, one could say the Bible itself is cherry-picked out of all the inspiring writings of ancient and modern history. You say “either you believe Scripture or not”. But what is the evidence a person can find to give rise to belief? The divine inspiration of Scriptures cannot be experienced, only taken on trust from someone else who claims to know. It is the early christian community, the “church” that speaks, based on “thou art Peter and on this rock I will build my church”. But is that inspired scripture? Who can tell us? Even without an answer to that,… Read more »

Lynne newington

Not sure about that Peter, I have to admit…when seeking an answer for something I’m not sure of, with many different versions of the bible aided by in particular Strong’s Concordance, I have found many references that have taken to me to an answer for something unresolved I wasn’t even looking for at the time, tucked away in my subconscious .

Henry Starr

Great question, Peter. I would say scripture itself is self-authenticating. On it’s own terms, taken as we have recieved it, all scripture points to Jesus. The ‘evidence’ we have is being of creation, individually fearfully and wonderfully made, so we know two things from birth, God’s divine nature and his power. Now we know scripture says Jesus is the word of God. The Word who was there in the beginning. And Timothy says ‘all scripture is god-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’. It is up to us in some way to recieve the good… Read more »

Lynn Anning

I find institutionalised patriarchal religion in this day and age cruel, godless and totally irrelevant to true spirituality. Well done, you boys in control. Maybe you should re-name yourselves.

Cholena Anderson

The unapologetic sexism ingrained in catholic and protestant churches is the main reason I have become increasingly reluctant to attend church, despite my deep desire to connect with God. This hierarchical system ranks some higher than others and implies that one has less intrinsic value than another. It seems justified by the same thinking that perpetuates sexism in society in general. Or is it the perception that its ok because its how things have always been done? There was a time when slavery was justified by the same. It is hard to feel open to worship wholeheartedly in an environment… Read more »

Karen Thomas

As a Catholic woman who no longer practices, I relate entirely to Stephanie’s comments on the church, especially as it relates to women. I miss the Mass and the feeling of belonging to this institution, but for some years have not been able to condone so many of the church’s social injustices. Women’s ordination is a big one, but so is systemic prejudice towards the LGBTI community, divorced people and no words can describe the appalling sexual abuse history and the treatment of so many victims seeking justice. I’ve long said that for the church, the worst man is better… Read more »

Gregan McMahon

The exclusion of women from leadership roles in the Catholic Church is justifed by Tradition, i.e. a few centuries of primitive misogyny and superstition. No self-respecting institution, you would think could hold onto it so desperately. It needs to be reversed immediately. However, don’t expect that the change will improve matters much. You need only to contemplate our elected representatives in the political arena and the quality of the women elected there: by and large they’re no better than the males. Hunger for power or dominance does something to the psyche that is not good.

Paul Bauert

Excellent post


Nevertheless, Stephanie, with Catholic church attendance now down to 10% or less in Australia – translate that into a world-wide dissatisfaction with that same religious business – and the figure appears much tinier than simply counting all names to date have been christened or forced to be christened.

WendyJoy Smith

The whole world could do with a little more Quaker thought and action….Great article Stephanie Dowrick.
I will be attending a book launch by Libby Gilchrist, Anglican priest, The Tapestry, One Woman’s Journey To Priesthood at St Matthews Church in Albury NSW 6/5/18. Seems related to your article

Lynne newington

……Alone among Christian denominations, the Catholic Church is also called “Mother”. A mother’s love – tender, humble and renewing – is surely what’s needed

Surely what is needed is the respect given to mothers who have given their children to the church and treated far from the image given of Mary.
Emotion is only a propaganda tool in my opinion, well oiled by Goebbels.

Joan Seymour

Goebbels used other people’s emotions as a tool. He did not admit emotion as a guide to his own practice of life. In denying the place of emotion, he became less than human. The opposite – allowing emotion to dominate over rational thought – has a similar result. Individuals and groups need to balance the heart, the head and the gut – the Catholic Church has allowed the rational function of the brain and the protective function of the gut to drown out the knowledge of the heart that is an essential part of its healthy functioning. It attempts to… Read more »

Lynne newington

Not a bad summary, although there must have been some emotion within Goebbels make up to understand the effect it would have.
And as far as the church is concerned and emotions, it’s one of it’s most powerful weapons.