Hope springs eternal: The case for Catholic women priests

Oct 21, 2021
woman rosary
(Image: Unsplash)

It takes time for managers to acknowledge and appreciate change makers. The historical Jesus discovered this in his 30s. Even popes need remedial theological education.
In 1994, to officially stamp out what he considered a rapidly spreading “deviant behaviour” and unorthodox thought and teaching, Pope John Paul II declared women’s ordination a closed matter.

In his letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, he wrote: “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance … I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

The Roman Catholic prohibition of women’s ordination argued from a perception of divinely-constituted gender roles: the belief that masculinity was integral to the ministry of both Jesus and the apostles. Being a woman is fine, the churchmen said, but if a person is going to act “in persona Christi” (in the person of Christ) that person needs to have male genitalia.

Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and apparently Pope Francis have all believed, when it comes to priesthood, that there is an essential difference between being male and being female —  i.e. that maleness is necessary for priesthood just as water is necessary for baptism.

Why? Because, they argue, that’s the way the historical Jesus set it up.

All of this is summed up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (issued by Pope John Paul in 1992):

“Only a baptised man (vir in Latin) validly receives sacred ordination. The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the 12 apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognises herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.”

Interesting. I remember very clearly the official declaration of the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1976 that no valid scriptural reason existed for not ordaining women.

With all due respect, even popes need remedial theological education. Or they at least need well educated and up-to-date advisers and ghost writers. The Pontifical Biblical Commission was formally established by Pope Leo XIII (1810–1903) in October 902. Its purpose was and has always been to ensure the proper Roman Catholic interpretation and defence of Sacred Scripture.

Very often those who oppose women’s ordination argue that Jesus chose only male disciples so therefore all priests and bishops must be men. The historical testimony, however, does not confirm this. The historical Jesus was not a male chauvinist.

Jesus’ disciples were a dynamic group of young men and women, most probably in their early or late teens. In the Hebrew tradition, we know that young men began studying under a rabbi when they were between ages 13 and 15. We know from the Martha/Mary account in Luke chapter 10 that Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, was truly a disciple.

In each of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, there is a common thread: the first witnesses to the reality of the empty tomb were women.

Yes indeed, among Jesus’ disciples, later called apostles when sent out to preach the Good News, there were men and women. Certainly Mary the Magdalene was a key disciple and has often been called the “apostle to the apostles”. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, refers to Priscilla and Aquila. He praises the woman Junia as a prominent apostle and Phoebe, a leader from the church at Cenchreae, a port city near Corinth.

As far as ordination is concerned, as I have often written, the historical Jesus did not ordain anyone. Ordination came several decades after Jesus’ Last Supper. When it was established, it was not about sacramental power. It was simply a form of quality control insuring qualified and competent ministers.

In the early Christian communities, long before ordination came into being, male and female leaders, selected by the communities, presided at Eucharistic celebrations. There were male and female ministerial leaders. Much later in the history of the church, misogyny slipped in and an all-male clerical culture took over. Priesthood then became male-hood.

A major development in the contemporary experience of women’s ordination came in 2002 with the ordination of the “Danube Seven” —  a group of seven women from Germany, Austria and the United States who were validly ordained as priests on a ship cruising the Danube river on June 29 2002. It was an historic moment. A year later, two of the original group were ordained bishops.

Today, RCWP (Roman Catholic Women Priests) and ARCWP (Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests) are two branches that have developed from the ordination of the seven women on the Danube. Both groups have members in the USA and both are international. RCWP women priests and bishops minister in over 34 USA states and are also present in Canada, Europe, South and Central America, South Africa, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Today there are 270 women priests and 15 women bishops worldwide.

Prophetic movements, like RCWP, always shake-up institutional managers. That of course is often a good thing. The prophetic leaders who condone women’s ordination often incur excommunication. In every institution it takes time for top management to acknowledge and appreciate the change makers. Even the historical Jesus discovered this in his early thirties.

Looking historically at how change occurs in the Roman Catholic tradition, we see a three stage development: (1) When a big change starts, the change is condemned; (2) Later, if the change continues to develop and prosper, it is officially “tolerated” and often as “an experiment”; (3) Finally, once the change is fully established and flourishing, it is labelled “good and truly a part of our tradition”.

As they say, hope springs eternal. As I would say — Yes. The women priests movement proves it is happening.

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