Plenary Council: Opportunity for Church to Restore Human Rights

Sep 19, 2021

Having for the first time chosen ‘no religion’ instead of Catholic in the Census, I do not feel entitled to write about the Church from a religious perspective. Instead, my comments are from a human rights viewpoint, the Church being an institution with considerable influence on Australian society and government.

When Christ said to his disciples, “The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord to send forth labourers into his harvest”, he could have been addressing the Australian Catholic Plenary Council regarding the severe shortage of ordained priests, its frontline labourers.

The Council’s preparatory papers demonstrate that Church and lay Catholic leaders are very aware of this crisis e.g. “The concern of many Churches over the decline in the number of candidates (for the priesthood) is undeniable. How can vocations be made appealing to Australian people to ensure a vital future? How do we encourage more Australian vocations to the priesthood?”

Why are priests so essential? Surely, much of their work could be delegated to lay Catholics. True, and following Vatican II, such delegation has been considerable, with potential for much more. However, crucially, this doesn’t provide ordained priests, the labourers exclusively licenced to perform what the Church considers fundamental services – the celebration of Mass and Sacraments. Priests have declined from 3895 in 1971 to less than 3000, with the Grim Reaper steadily culling those heroically soldiering on to extreme old age.

Stop-gap solutions like migrant priests from poorer countries, only promise relief until living standards rise globally. A more substantial contribution can come from men who hear the call and are willing to answer it, if only the Church removed the requirement for priests to be celibate. Peter, certainly, and probably all 12 Apostles weren’t.

Nor was celibacy a requirement for priesthood during the Church’s first thousand and more years, when even Popes married, some fathering successor Popes! Besides, the Church allows married priests in its Eastern Rite and those ordained from other denominations can remain priests and married should they convert to Catholicism.

But there is a much deeper pool, a veritable ocean, that the Church refuses to draw from – WOMEN! They constitute more than 50% of the faithful, are pleading for the opportunity to serve, and, if permitted, could more than double the number of priests rapidly.

The justification for the ban, that Christ set a binding precedent by only choosing male apostles, is specious. Far more plausible is that he was following the male dominance of Judaism, emulating the Patriarchs of the 12 tribes of Israel, who were, of course, male!

Besides, the Church from its earliest times, chose not to follow all precedents practiced by Jesus and his Apostles. All were Jews, yet virtually all priests, indeed all Catholics, are Gentiles. All spoke Aramaic, the evangelists wrote the Gospels in Greek, Roman Christians adopted Latin, the Church’s language from the 4th to the 20th century! Yet today, the vernacular is almost universally used, making the Lord’s Supper understandable to the masses!

Natural Law clearly supports equality in access to the priesthood. There is no natural difference making women or men more capable of priestly duties than the other. The Church followed pre-emancipation society, seeing men as superior and women subordinate, a view now rejected by all but the most repressive communities.

Surely the fact that the Holy See, Iran, Somalia, and Tonga alone are not signatories to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which 189 States, including Australia, have ratified, should give Rome pause. Its rigidity is patently a breach of fundamental Human Rights, and only encourages fundamentalists of all religions to continue gender discrimination.

The Australian Council, the only one currently in the Catholic world, has a rare opportunity, arguably an obligation, to urge the Church towards justice and equity for women. Delegates might discern that the collapse in male vocations is a clear portent, whether ‘divine’ or human, that reform is an urgent imperative. They must seriously consider the Church’s existential crisis, and courageously recommend solutions to the Vatican.

There is cause for hope. By establishing the Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate to review ‘the theology and history of the ministry of deaconess in the Catholic Church and the question whether women be allowed to become deacons’, Pope Francis has opened the door, if only slightly. The diaconate is a stage in the journey towards priesthood. Its history dates to the times of the Apostles.

Paul clearly appointed women deacons. In ‘Romans’, he specifically named and commended several women, notably Phoebe, who “has been appointed, actually by my own action, an officer presiding over many”. He calls her ‘helper’, ‘servant’ or ‘patron’, (which can translate as ‘deacon’). There is also considerable evidence that women served as deacons in the Western Church until the 13th Century.

The Council papers suggest that women’s ordination will, at least, be discussed. ‘Working Document’ acknowledges that, “Many viewed the change of Church laws in this area as an urgent priority to update Church teaching, be gender inclusive and bring a balance of the feminine voice in areas of pastoral ministry, governance and decision-making”.

Input from the broader Catholic community urges ‘women’s ordination’ 20 or more times. However, the establishment remains wary, saying, “It is ….. open to the Plenary Council to explore ways in which this co-responsibility might be formalised and expanded, ….. while upholding the Church’s teachings on the nature of ordained ministry in the Catholic Church”.

Shifting this rigidity may need a miracle. However, Vatican II demonstrated that previously unthinkable radical change is possible. This Council may not have the authority of an Ecumenical Council, but it can urge Pope Francis to widen the remit of his Study Commission to consider not just Women Deacons, but Women Priests as well. This could provide the spark that just might light the way out of the gloom encircling the Church!

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