Frank Brennan SJ. Women Priests in the Catholic Church – Can we at least talk about it?

Nov 19, 2014

There was an interesting exchange on CBS 60 Minutes here in the USA on Sunday night between Cardinal O’Malley and Norah O’Donnell

(See  Here is part of the interview:

Norah O’Donnell: The church says it’s not open to the discussion about ordaining women. Why not?

Cardinal Seán O’Malley: Not everyone needs to be ordained to have an important role in the life of the church. Women run the Catholic charities, the Catholic schools, the development office for the archdiocese.

Norah O’Donnell: Some would say women do a lot of the work but have very little power.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley: Well “power” is not a word that we like to use in the church. It’s more service.

Norah O’Donnell: But they can’t preach. They can’t administer the sacraments.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley: Well…

Norah O’Donnell: I mean, some women feel like they’re second class Catholics because they can’t do those things that are very important.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley: Well, they, but they’re, they have other very important roles that, you know, a priest cannot be a mother, either.

The Cardinal stated the official position:  “The tradition of the church is that we have always ordained men. And that the priesthood reflects the incarnation of Christ, who in his humanity is a man.”  Here Cardinal O’Malley was being quite consistent with the approach taken by Pope Francis.  Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general.” Surely it must be even more divisive if those who reserve to themselves sacramental power determine that they alone can determine who has access to that power and legislate that the matter is not open for discussion.  Given that the power to determine the teaching of the magisterium and the provisions of canon law is not a sacramental power, is there not a need to include women in the decision that the question is not open to discussion and in the contemporary quest for an answer to the question? Francis’s position on this may be politic for the moment within the Vatican which has had a longtime preoccupation with shutting down the discussion, but the position is incoherent, as the TV world experienced on Sunday night seeing Cardinal O’Malley trying to make the official position credible.

No one doubts the pastoral sensitivity of Pope Francis and Cardinal O’Malley.  But the Church will continue to suffer for as long as it does not engage in open, ongoing discussion and education about this issue.  The official position is no longer comprehensible to most people of good will, and as demonstrated on Sunday night, not even those at the very top of the hierarchy have a willingness or capacity to explain it.

The claim that the matter “is not a question open to discussion” can not be maintained unless sacramental power also includes the power to determine theology and the power to determine canon law.  Ultimately the Pope’s claim must be that only those possessed of sacramental power can determine the magisterium and canon law.  Conceding for the moment the historic exclusion of women from the sacramental power of presidency at Eucharist, we need to determine if “the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life” could include the power to contribute to theological discussion and the shaping of the magisterium and to canonical discussion about sanctions for participating in theological discussion on set topics such as the ordination of women.  As Francis says, “Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded.”

Sunday night’s CBS discussion got even more difficult despite the enormous good will and rapport between O’Malley and his interviewer. This is how it unfolded:

Norah O’Donnell: But in spite of that, does the exclusion of women seem at all immoral?

Cardinal Seán O’Malley: Well, Christ would never ask us to do something immoral. And I know that women in...

Norah O’Donnell: The sense of equality. I mean, just the sense of sort of the fairness of it, you know. You wouldn’t exclude someone based on race. But yet you do exclude people based on gender.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley: Well, it’s a matter of vocation. And what God has given to us. And this is, you know, if I were founding a church, you know, I’d love to have women priests. But Christ founded it and what he has given us is something different.

If Cardinal O’Malley were founding a Church in the twenty first century, he would love to have women priests.  So I presume, given complete freedom before God, he would have women priests expressive of Christ’s full humanity and of Christ’s giving of self as spouse in the eucharist.  If Cardinal O’Malley had been founding a Church in the first century, I presume it would not have occurred to him to have women priests, and thus he would not have loved to have them.  His two positions are readily understandable and can be held together.  Like all of us, he is a person of his times.  When Christ founded the Church in the first century, let’s assume that he did give us a male priesthood (in that it developed not long after his death) and that he did not give us a church with women priests.  If Jesus was founding the Church in the twenty-first century would he love to have women priests?  Would he think it immoral not to have women priests?  I think you can answer “Yes” to these two questions, still be a Catholic in good standing, and still acknowledge that in the first century, Jesus, like Cardinal O’Malley would not have considered having women priests and neither would he have considered it immoral to exclude them from ordained ministry.  You can also answer “No” to these two questions, being counted a Catholic receptive to present papal teaching, but like Cardinal O’Malley being a little pressed to make sense of it all when asked why even discussion of change is inappropriate, and perhaps even forbidden.

Given that even one as senior and pastoral as Cardinal O’Malley gets tongue-tied on this issue, is it not time to invite the conversation rather than the men trying to keep it shut down?  Sunday night’s TV appearance shows that with the best will in the world, that tactic just ain’t working.  John Paul II’s enforced silence behind a tongue-tied episcopal wall is no longer an option.



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