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.


Rev Dr Stephanie Dowrick is a New Zealand-born writer, social activist and interfaith minister. She has written many influential books, was co-founder and first MD of The Women's Press, London; has been a contributor to Australian media in many forms, including as "Inner Life" columnist for Good Weekend; she has led "Interfaith in Sydney", a global spiritually inclusive congregation, since 2006; she teaches widely both on writing and spiritual/ethical living; she is a mother and grandmother.

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16 Responses to STEPHANIE DOWRICK. Would ordaining women save the Catholic Church?

  1. Avatar Rosemary O'Grady says:

    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 dross has been smeltered. Holy Mother wants you to walk away (ie Grow Up). She doesn’t want non-compliant followers whose clinging to the apron-strings pretty-obviously has quite a lot to do with politics: the’infinitely more influential Catholic Church…’ Any political influence wielded by Holy Mother is to be the province of the hierarchy, not to be shared with emotional persons whose role has traditionally been that of the handmaid. The Bible is a great book – a Read for the Ages … but building a civilisation on its interpreters’ dictates and dogmas is a recipe for misery. Christopher Marlowe said it in a nutshell: ‘Bethink ye, in the bowels of Christ, that ye are right?”

  2. Avatar Henry Starr says:

    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 Greek], neither slave nor free person, neither male nor female. You are all one in Christ Jesus.”, extends to Hindus?
    Either you believe scripture or not. I think it’s in incredible bad faith to cherry pick reading the bible. I encourage you to reread the book of Jude.

    • Avatar Lynne newington says:

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

    • Avatar Peter Mansour-Nahra says:

      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, the church tradition declares the biblical canon closed about middle of the 2nd Century, while arguments continued about certain critical N.T. books, including Jude. Divine inspiration means God approved all the brutality of the Old Testament, then changed his mind and replaced it all with the New Testament, and stopped inspiring writers by the middle of the second century. It all seems incredibly anthropomorphic, not divine.

      • Avatar Lynne newington says:

        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 .

      • Avatar Henry Starr says:

        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 news of the gospel. The entirety of scripture IS the gospel. Again and always, it was not by works that Abraham was counted as righteous, but by faith.
        So the good news for us who are living in the end times, which it has been since the events on Calvary, is that when we look to the cross we’re saved, not because of anything special about ourselves, but because of what God had done. What God has done and why he did it and how to understand something about God is why we read the Old Testament and the house of Jacob.
        In doing so we may finally know something true about ourselves. That we’re loved. I know who I am because I know who God is and that he loves me.
        I don’t accept your point about calling all scripture into question. It’s the most verified literature in all of history. Considering the deviations and comparing it to other written works it’s shocking just how consistent it is. As for the more subjective crit I understand mainstream theology is at ‘post-liberalism’ because it has become clear that you must either accept scripture how we have received it or don’t brother criting at all.

        Now I grew up in the Uniting Church in the 90s. They don’t usually teach like this. Like the comment section and most western churches they feel uncomfortable with sections of the OT. Rather what they do is moralise EVERYTHING. Up to and including the cross. Eg. Jesus was being considerate to the thief on the cross so I should try harder to be considerate. Literally that is what I heard in the UC this Good Friday. It’s not about God, it’s about us.

        Right now I am reading Joshua and I am not feeling my faith attenuate because I have been so blessed and reprimanded by people of faith outside of the West – in Beijing actually, and encouraged to ponder what the book says about God. It is his book about himself for us. The Old Testament is wonderful. The problem isn’t scripture, it’s this generation. The problem of indwelling sin in a people God loves but will not commit to destruction. The Good News is that the work has been done. While we’re waiting faith, hope and love abounds and the kingdom of God is spilling out of us, like the prophets foretold.

  3. Avatar Lynn Anning says:

    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.

  4. Avatar Cholena Anderson says:

    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 that condones this exclusive thinking or on a more personal level, devalues on me for being a woman.

  5. Avatar Karen Thomas says:

    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 than the best woman. This is despite the fact that the church cannot run without women’s service and the fact that once the church has lost the hearts and minds of women, it is lost. Women bring the family to church and as it is now, there are no positive role models for women, nor is there a hope of a more equitable future. There are zero avenues to discuss this within the church. I raised women’s ordination a few years ago with a quite young priest who is now a bishop, he shouted at me ‘ THAT will NEVER happen’. Dr Bob Dixon a demographer for the church outlined a year ago, his vision of the church in 2030. A very interesting read The future looks bleak for there is so little capacity for change.
    Like Stephanie, I really don’t want to let go, but have long sought spiritual companionship through other traditions, the Buddhist, Brahma Kumari’s and Interfaith communities have all offered loving, inclusive and non-judgmental welcomes. With these groups I have enjoyed female led meditations, services and teachings denied to me in the Catholic church.

  6. Avatar Gregan McMahon says:

    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.

  7. Avatar Paul Bauert says:

    Excellent post

  8. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    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.

  9. Avatar WendyJoy Smith says:

    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

  10. Avatar Lynne newington says:

    ……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.

    • Avatar Joan Seymour says:

      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 put divine truth into rational human doctrines (head) and is quick to see the dangers to its own institution and counter them (gut). Yet the heart and its emotions are still powerful in the Church, as anyone who works with the poor and abandoned knows. We just need to get it together, connect, connect, connect.

      • Avatar Lynne newington says:

        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.

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