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The Forbidden Subject: The Ordination of Women

The Forbidden Subject: The Ordination of Women

by Jeanne Pieper

From: The Catholic Woman. Difficult Choices in a Modern World, by Jeanne Pieper, Lowell House, Los Angeles 1993, here pp. 114-128. Republished with permission by the author. See a review of the book. Copies still available from the author.

Review of the book

With the exceptions of the topics of married priests and perhaps remarriage after divorce, in this chapter we have discussed general moral issues that pertain to all humanity, not just Catholics, and certainly not just women. While groups may differ on the exact details about how to live a good and holy life (for example, many African Muslims practice polygamy), many of the broad moral philosophies behind different religions are the same.

I remember writing the narration for the program that the Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews put on for Pope John Paul II during his 1987 visit to Los Angeles. Each group, including the Catholics, presented what they considered to be a core reading from their sacred literature, along with a musical sample from their culture. I was amazed to discover the basic moral similarities among them, and found myself contrasting how beautiful it all sounded with how many people had been killed throughout history by wars waged against each other by the followers of each of these five religions.

This section, however, has to do with Catholic women in particular, because it is about an organizational as well as spiritual issue that primarily concerns them today, although many other denominations, both Christian and non-Christian, are finding themselves faced with similar challenges and new ways of thinking by their women members as well.

The Sacrament of Ordination

One of the definitions of the Catholic church is that it is a sacramental church." We learned years ago, in the Baltimore catechism, that a “sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.”

Some sacraments (special signs of God’s presence in our lives) we give each other (e.g., marriage, where the priest really is only a witness). A valid baptism can be performed by anyone who pours the water over the head of a person and says the right words. While priests and deacons normally perform this act, in an emergency (e.g., danger of death) anyone else (even a woman!) will do. For example, Protestants who convert to Catholicism are not rebaptized.

Although more and more people, particularly women, are beginning to talk about “sacramental moments,” the Catholic church has only seven official sacraments. Four of these sacraments, which both males and females generally receive only once in their lifetime, mark a passage in a person’s life cycle. They are baptism, confirmation, marriage, and anointing the sick (called the last rites by most people, this sacrament used to be known as Extreme Unction).

Two sacraments unite us to the supernatural, spiritual world on an ongoing basis. Today one of these is received often, sometimes daily or at least weekly, by most practicing Catholics and is called Eucharist (Holy Communion). Another, reconciliation (confession), used to be received often but is becoming rarer, at least in the United States.

There is one sacrament, however, that the official Catholic church teaches can be received only by men. That is ordination the sacrament which bestows the necessary “power” on a man to make him able to bring God’s grace to the rest of us in the special, organized, and institutional ways of the other six sacraments.

The Catholic church also teaches that an unbroken line can be traced from each validly ordained priest living today back to Christ, who ordained the first priests (the 12 Apostles) and made Peter the first bishop and first Pope. (Peter never called himself bishop, or Pope for that matter, but that is another story.) This tradition of unbroken continuity is one of the mystical and spiritual qualities, not to mention temporal and political dimensions, that the Church is so proud of and which many women bring up when bragging about why they like being Catholic.

To become a priest, a man must be ordained by a bishop who can trace his ordination back to Peter. Although the Roman Catholic church believes that some Protestant priests (primarily Episcopalians, but maybe some Lutherans) and certainly Eastern Rite priests also may make the same claim, it is only in the Roman Catholic tradition that one can be sure.

While I doubt that there really is anything close to an actual paper trail about all of these ordinations, it is not something I, nor many Catholics, spend much time researching or worrying about. I am perfectly willing to believe that this unbroken line of succession is at least philosophically and metaphorically true and important for the identity and spiritual power of priests in the Catholic church today.

Some people (mostly priests high up in the hierarchy, and even some women like the fundamentalist members of the WFF) claim that a woman can no more be a priest than a man can be a mother. However, most women think that the only reason women cannot be priests is because no Roman Catholic bishop will ordain one. (Episcopalian and Anglican bishops have ordained women.) Regardless, most Catholic women really are not interested in the job (we’ll see why later).

There are two main reasons why a woman might want to be ordained a priest.

Spiritual Reasons

The first and most important reason is spiritual (although many men as well as fundamentalist women may not believe me) and has nothing to do with women's liberation, Church politics, status, power, control, or even justice. The most important act that the official Church says only an ordained priest can do is to be able to say Mass, which means changing the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ. This is the very core of the Catholic religion and for centuries has been considered its most important spiritual activity. Yet the number of people allowed to perform this most important act ordained priests—gets smaller each day, and few predict there will be any improvement in these statistics by the coming century.

In the meantime there are many good and holy Catholic women throughout the world today, many with the same or better education and spirituality as male priests, who find themselves in situations where the institutional Church needs an ordained priest, yet none is available. While particularly true in the Third World, this is becoming more prevalent in developed countries as the number of priestless parishes grows in Europe and the United States.

The problem of a male-only priesthood is also graphically apparent at Eucharistic celebrations of Religious Orders of Women who have to search for a priest to “import” to say Mass for their churchful of women. For many of the assembled nuns, almost all of whom are educated and spiritual women, this feels something like a woman celebrating a special birthday party but then being told that a man, a stranger to the group, will have to be brought in to blow out her candles.

Catholic women who remain steadfast in the belief that only a male ordained priest can consecrate the bread and wine often are like a doctor who has had to leave her medicine bag behind. They consider the sacraments important; they have a specific occasion when they have use for the sacraments yet they are not allowed to help themselves or the faithful they serve tap into these important spiritual resources only because they happen to have been born female.

Political Reasons

However, many women who are not in immediate need of the tools that ordination could give them are upset by the Church’s policy as well. Not only are they not able to use all of their very needed spiritual talents, they feel like they can be the secretary but never the boss. In the 1990s this type of job discrimination is not only considered immoral but illegal in the United States.

Not being able to be ordained categorically relegates all women to second-class status in the Catholic church, regardless of how compassionate, understanding, or even inclusive some male members of the Church may be. This is because the most important spiritual activity (Eucharist) and all real power (the making of ultimate decisions on moral as well as temporal rules) are in the hands of ordained men. As Donna Mahoney writes, “All the interaction, writing, and sharing between priests and women notwithstanding, women will not be accepted as equal within Church structures until they can be ordained.” (36)

Pope John Paul II and many of his friends claim that the topic of ordination for women cannot even be brought up because women cannot “image” Christ. According to them, because Christ was a man, only men can be Roman Catholic priests. Furthermore, they say, “If Christ had wanted women to be priests, he would have chosen a woman for at least one of his 12 apostles’, Tradition and sex organs are the two main reasons the Catholic church refuses to consider ordaining women.

There are several standard answers to both of these remarks. Not only does no one know what Christ looked like (my mother is convinced he actually may have been black), no one seriously suggests that in order to “image” Christ, all priests should be Jewish, thirtysomething men. Even the New Testament talks about women who were close friends and companions (e.g. disciples, if not apostles) of Jesus.

European theologian and writer Uta Ranke-Heinemann gives a fascinating and detailed history of the fear and oppression of women by religious men (both in the Catholic end Jewish faiths and almost since the beginning of time) in her enlightening book Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven. She is a world-renowned scholar and each page of her book is full of more facts than most of us ordinary women in the pews can remember, let alone comprehend. But she gives scholarly proof to what almost all Catholic women today either feel intuitively or have discovered by reading their Bibles. She writes

Jesus was a friend of women, the first and practically the last friend women had in the Church. He caused a stir by the fact that he had dealings with women, that he was surrounded by ‘many women’ (Luke 8 3) which, for a rabbi and teacher of Jewish law, was absolutely inappropriate and unprecedented for his day and age. We all know that he had twelve male disciples, but he also had many female disciples, including society ladies such as Joanna, the wife of a high official under Herod Antipas. Nowadays, these women would be called ‘liberated,’ because they did not accept traditional female roles, but on the contrary, financed Jesus and his group ‘out of their means.’

In Jesus’ day, the general practice was that if a woman so much as spoke with a man on the street, she could be repudiated by her husband without repayment of the marriage portion—roughly equivalent to our alimony. And conversely, it was considered outrageous for the student of a rabbi (= disciple), not to mention for the rabbi himself, to speak with a woman on the street. These women gathered around Jesus, his female disciples, were not a passive audience. Women were the first to announce the resurrection of Jesus.(37)

In other words, Jesus regularly broke many “good ol’ boy” rules. He not only considered women his close friends, he also took women very seriously.

Knowing all of this, most Catholic women today dismiss as ridiculous the stated reasons that the institutional Catholic church gives for not allowing women to be ordained. Even conservative women, who have a history of unquestioning acceptance of Church teachings, are beginning to have their doubts.

Laurie, still in her twenties, tells me that the idea of women priests “is so against what I have been raised with. We just went to a Bible study the other night, and they were talking about how in Jesus’ time there were no women apostles. It was really a discussion group and different people were citing passages in the Bible where it shows that Jesus didn’t have women priests and that most of his followers were men.” She hesitates, then adds, completely uncoached by me, “But I don’t know if this is really true. Women probably just didn’t get written about as much.”

More than a few scholars agree. “Evidence clearly exists, and has been documented, that women were priests in the early church. An Italian (male) scholar, an editor of a scholarly journal on Christian antiquity, Vetera Christianorum, provided the cogent literary and epigraphical evidence that women were indeed being ordained into the priesthood of the Christian church from the second to the fifth century.”(38) Artwork in the catacombs also indicates that women took an active part in the celebration of the Eucharist.

Modern-day Women Priests

Several leaders of the U.S. Women’s Ordination Conference insist that, on a trip to Eastern Europe, they actually met with women who had been ordained during the Communist era in Czechoslovakia so that they could work, as priests, in the Catholic underground. So much secrecy was needed that often the women’s own families did not know that they were ordained priests. Today these women priests believe they still must stay hidden in order not to be condemned by the Vatican.

As more Christian denominations begin to ordain women, the Catholic position looks even more suspect. The subject is a relatively new one, however. Before the 1960s it was rarely brought up, and then only by naive elementary-school girls who happened to wonder out loud why they couldn’t be altar boys. During her interview with me, Mary Anne remembers that in 1967 a study of nuns showed that only 15% of them had ever thought about the ordination of women for themselves or for any other woman. Thirteen years later, the percentage of nuns who wanted, or knew someone who wanted, to be ordained had risen to 50%. According to Gallup polls, in 1974 only 29% of all Catholics (men and women combined) favored the ordination of women. In 1985 this had climbed to 47%, and by 1992 the figure was 67%.(39)

The only reason that the issue of women’s ordination is not a bigger, more passionate subject in the Catholic church among lay women is because, unlike doctrines on birth control, abortion, divorce and remarriage, it does not intimately affect very many people in the pews, since hardly any of them (either women or men) want to be priests anyway. But that doesn’t mean that the subject doesn’t anger many women who bother to think about it. And, in fact, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Catholic women today who have graduated from universities and seminaries with all of the credentials for ordination except male genitalia.

Eighteen-year-old Rebecca explains, “My perfect church would have women priests. It would be open to having women as much involved as they can be. I don’t know if there are a lot of girls who would want to be priests, but there is the idea that you don’t want to be told that you can’t. You want it to be an option, even if you don’t think you are going to choose it. But they are saying we can’t even think about it . . . that it is not even possible, just because you are a woman, which is a real turn-off. I think they will have women priests in my lifetime. If it doesn’t happen eventually, there aren’t going to be many priests left.”

Many men in the Catholic church today agree with Rebecca. Father Richard McCormick, a Jesuit priest and ethics professor at Notre Dame University, claims that before Vatican II, “I would have viewed the ordination of women as forever impossible. Not so now. I have come to see it as not only possible but desirable and inevitable.” Part of what has changed his mind is “the privilege of experiencing personally the ministry of women. This has dissolved emotional obstacles that were far more formidable than any theological analysis.”(40)

I don’t mean to imply that all Catholic women are in favor of women’s ordination. Some, like Sherry Tyree, find radical feminists—the kind of woman they think wants to be ordained—so strident and obnoxious that they wouldn’t consider going to a Mass that one of them was saying. Although in the 1960s Sherry thought that it was just a matter of time before women were ordained, today she is glad she was wrong. “I first started changing because I saw that the women I knew who really wanted to be priests were women I didn’t particularly like. They didn’t have a sense of humor. They took it all too seriously. My first reaction was purely personal. I didn’t like these people, and I didn’t want to see them on an altar. I wouldn’t go to Mass if they were the ones saying it."

Other women, even those with reasonably modern viewpoints about other issues, simply find the idea of women priests “weird” and hard to get used to. Many of them are women who still feel uncomfortable with the idea of their personal physician being a woman. Margaret is even more specific. “The people I know,” she says, “are violently against women’s ordination. Traditionally women have not been priests, and we have to acknowledge that if the spirit has never moved people into wanting women to be priests, there is a reason for it.”

Although Sister Sean Patrice agrees with Margaret, she finds her resolve softening. “I am not in favor of women’s ordination,” she explains, “but I have mitigated my absoluteness against it. If the Pope said tomorrow that it was allowed, that would be fine. It would mean that the Church has looked at it and agreed, but I still think it could be pretty hard to get used to. I don’t have any problem with women lectors or women Eucharistic ministers anymore, however.”

Jackie is even more honest and probably speaks for the majority of people who claim to be against women’s ordination. “I know it is just a tradition,” she tells me. “I’m just not ready to give up that tradition. I don’t think the world is ready for a woman leader. We aren’t there yet, not that we aren’t going to be there, but we aren’t there yet.” And we laugh, for we realize that while I (the supposed liberal in this conversation) am only talking about women priests, Jackie (the supposed conservative) is talking about a woman Pope!

Two of the most highly educated of the women that I interviewed who do not travel in Catholic feminist circles and therefore have not been involved in the discussion of women priests before (they had never heard official Church arguments) have some very interesting sexual speculations about the issue which probably come closer to the truth than they realize.

“There must be some deep philosophical, symbolic reason for it,” Jennifer muses, “that you think of the Church as the bride and Jesus as the bridegroom and there is some sexual reason tied to that for only having men as ministers. However, if tradition is their reason, or if it is only because women don’t look like Jesus, I’d say, ‘Welcome to the nineties, guys!’ ”

Psychiatrist Nancy carries Jennifer’s thoughts to their logical conclusion. ‘The only way I can understand it is the yin and yang thing . . . because the feminine is evil and male is good, just like the feminine is dark and male is light. I think the Church must believe that. It must go back to something basic, like it is impossible for two women to have intercourse.”

However, the stated reason that the Vatican gives against ordaining women is a lot less complicated. Rosemary Chinnici quotes a late 1970s Vatican declaration on the subject in her book Can Women Re-image tbe Church?

The Christian priesthood is therefore of a sacramental nature The priest is a sign, the supernatural effectiveness of which comes from the ordination received, but a sign that must be perceptive and which the faithful must be able to recognize with ease.

The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things. When Christ’s role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this ‘natural resemblance’ which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man. In such a case, it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man.(41)

Interestingly, the official Church seems to believe that Jesus said, “Pretend to be me as you do this,” rather than “Do this in remembrance of me.” Several women remarked that this Vatican declaration is what turned them into intense feminists. At the time, Silvia was in a master’s program in pastoral ministry at her local seminary, which she loved until she read the above document. “I became furious,” she fumes. “That was my radicalization. I began to question everything from then on. And I had a really hard time finishing the I program, but my husband urged me to do so and get my degree.”

Emily had a similar reaction:

My initial response was one of disbelief. It seemed impossible to me that the leadership of the Church had reduced ‘imaging Christ’ in such a crass way as being physically masculine. I felt naive, duped, betrayed, lost. I had the distinct sense that now everything in my life had a different meaning. And I knew, with my whole self, that what I had just read was not the truth. These words contradicted everything I had ever been taught and believed about myself, about Jesus, about my Christian vocation.

I knew that I had experienced the living Christ in many women who bore no ‘natural resemblance’ to Christ but who had in so many ways made Christ incarnate for me. I knew that there was much in me that blocked others from seeing Christ, but I knew from the depths of me that my female body was no obstacle.

I knew that I had been led on by a male clerical magisterium who flattered me by telling me that I was created in God’s image, shared in Christ’s mission, while all the while believing that I was basically inferior and would never be a ‘perceptible’ sign of Christ’s presence. I had never wanted to be ordained. I still don’t. But that had nothing to do with being united to Christ. I knew that the document was false, and from that moment on, that I could never presume truth from an institution that had denied my own truth.(42)

Silvia’s and Emily’s emotional words were echoed by many women who I read the Vatican declaration, so many that by now Catherine Mowry LaCugna, associate professor of systematic theology at Notre Dame, suspects that the authors of the document may wish they had never printed it.

As a theologian, she considers that the argument against women’s ordination because of tradition is legitimate and worthy of serious scrutiny and debate. But this new reason for rejecting the ordination of women “was so offensive, so patently without precedent or foundation, and so inconsistent with the Church’s own sacramental theology and previous tradition, that the arguments against ordaining women now seemed specious as well as deeply sexist.” (43)

Regardless of Vatican pronouncements about the subject, and the fact that it is thought to administer a deathblow to the career of any priest who disagrees with the Pope on this subject, supposedly 30 U.S. bishops now favor women’s ordination and as many as one hundred would express sympathy for the idea were it not for Pope John Paul’s strong insistence that the subject remain closed. (44)

There is another reason against women’s ordination that many women (particularly older women) give me, even those who are feminists in every other way and personally have nothing against a woman being able to be a priest. And that is that once women are allowed to do something, most men will stop. That is certainly what has happened and is happening in many other fields (education, for example) when they are opened up to women. Many women believe this would be equally true about priesthood.

“If women could do it,” Jane H. insists, “the men would all drop out. It would suddenly be seen as having no value." “It is partly the male ego,” Marian B. explains. “For example, it appears to me that now that they have women on the altar in our church [to give the readings as lectors and to distribute Communion as Eucharistic ministers] there are no men doing these things anymore. I am afraid—and I don’t think that this is the fault of the Church—that if they have women priests, pretty soon there will be no more male priests."

Margaret is probably 40 or more years younger than Jane and Marian but her reasoning is similar. “I have a fear that men who go to Church because their wives tell them to will not appreciate some woman in the pulpit telling them what they have to do the rest of the week. There are so many countries where men barely get in the front door of the Church now, that they would just not go at all if there were women on the altar. Men by nature would rather stay home and watch football, or even cartoons, on television. [Including her husband, she confessed, even though he once was in the seminary, is very active in their parish, and once considered becoming a deacon.] If you took the priesthood away from men, I don’t know if you would get any men in the Church. My mother says that men have their moms yell at them when they are little kids. They have their wives yell at them when they are grown men; If they go to Church and have a woman yell at them there too, they wont even bother to go.”

On hearing Margaret’s comments, my sister Joanna suggests, “Perhaps yelling at the congregation is something that needs to be changed and should no longer be a definition of a priest!”

I am sure she and many other women have plenty of ideas for more creative ways to “cheerlead” people into heaven than to scream threats at them.

All of the above are sad but probably true commentaries about the state of organized religion in the world, especially the Western world, today. In the 1990s women usually make up about 80% of churchgoers and maybe 85% of the lower echelons of church workers. So for the most part, saying Mass is something that clerical men do for women.

“If 85% of the churchgoers are women, why shouldn’t 85% of the priests be women?” a male friend suggests and then adds, rather sheepishly, “That’s an interesting idea, but somehow it is slightly offensive to me anyway.”

All of this proves that the whole discussion against women priests is culturally sanctioned discrimination and has nothing to do with religion or the spiritual.

The Controversy Continues

Whether one likes the idea of married or women priests, today’s refusal by the Official Church to consider either deprives 65% of its members throughout the world the opportunity to celebrate regularly what those same leaders declared in the Vatican II document on the liturgy as “the peak toward which all church activity is directed and the summit from which all its power flows.”(45)

The act of consecration of the bread and wine has always been considered the central part of any Mass. But the rapidly growing lack of priests is changing both this belief and practice. More often, congregations are not actually participating in a Mass but a Eucharistic prayer service, in which preconsecrated Communion hosts are distributed in a ritual that closely resembles an ordinary Mass to anyone who is either not an informed Catholic or not paying close attention.

I was on a writing assignment in Ecuador a few years ago. One Sunday, several of us accompanied a priest on a two-hour ride over barely passable dirt roads to a Church in a far-off village. It was packed with both men and women, many of whom were catechists who were given boxes of consecrated hosts during the Mass. They then set off on foot to other small churches in the mountains, where over the coming weeks they would hold prayer services and distribute Communion.

Despite Church teachings to the contrary, I believe that these Eucharistic prayer services are beginning to be looked upon by most of the people in the pews as the same as Mass and that, for most of these congregations, the subject of women’s ordination is no longer of much interest, if it ever was.

My sister Joanna tells me about her recent sabbatical. Part of it was at a farm in the country, and there were eight nuns in attendance, most more conservative than she. They all went to town for Mass each Sunday, but the rest of the time they had a morning prayer service that they each took turns to plan which was usually very parallel to Mass. In it, preconsecrated hosts were distributed. Although all of them knew in detail the difference between a Communion service and a Mass, within a few days they began to say to one another “What time is Mass this morning?” And these women were highly educáted and for the most part conservative nuns. They, of course, knew they weren’t actually having Mass, but the similarities to Mass stood out more than the differences.

Margaret tells me angrily about a similar situation. “My father and mother-in-law moved into a parish in Oregon where there was a woman administrator who did the Eucharistic celebrations. She didn’t explain the difference to people between a Mass and a Eucharistic prayer service and acted as if she were a real priest saying Mass,” Margaret relates.

“My father-in-law is an ordained deacon, and when he moved into the parish, he took it upon himself to educate the people of the parish about what she was doing,” she continues. “And so the people went to the bishop and told him, ‘Get rid of this woman, and get us a priest once a month if that’s at all possible, but remove her’. And all it took was someone educating the people to the truth."

Although there is probably much more to this story than I was told, it not only proves my point about what Eucharistic prayer services are quickly becoming, it also emphasizes some of the difficulties that the ever-increasing number of unordained women who are given parishes to administrate are coming up against. It is no wonder that many women feel angry and frustrated.

It is not only younger, feminist women who are feeling this way. A year or so ago, my sister’s community of nuns had their yearly gathering in their Mother House, which was once where all the young girls who just entered lived and has now been turned into a residence for retired nuns. A special Mass had been planned for this celebration and their very large chapel was packed with sisters.

For some reason, the priest never came. As time went by, the assembly became more and more restless. Finally, one of the nuns, who has a masters degree in liturgy and is the associate director of the Office for Worship of her diocese, came forward and led a Liturgy of the Word, which included the reading of the Gospel and other Mass prayers. It, of course, stopped short of the consecration of the Communion bread and wine. Since there were not enough preconsecrated hosts in reserve, and also because the sister leading the service does not believe in Communion services anyway, no hosts were given out.

My sister wrote an article about the reactions of the older nuns to this event for her community’s newsmagazine, which she shares with me. In it, Sister Agnes Joseph, who entered in 1924, explains, “I felt very disappointed I came to receive Jesus and I couldn’t, so I felt like I was deprived of something I wanted very much. And we have so many beautiful sisters who would make wonderful priests. I hope the time comes soon when one of our sisters can celebrate the Eucharist for us.”

Sister Anne Terese, a relative “youngster” who entered in 1934, exclaims in the same article, “I was in the choir loft, and I heard all the diversity in what our sisters were saying [at the meeting]. At the same time, I saw clearly our great unity, and I felt very proud of our community. Then when Father didn’t come for Mass, I felt sorrow that none of these sisters whom I was so proud of could celebrate the Eucharist. This is a great change of heart for me. Before this event, I never thought that any sister should be able to celebrate Mass. Now I pray that day may come, even if it does not come in my lifetime.”

My sister Joanna reflects on her reaction to this event. “I felt angry that the head of our order, who was sitting in front of me, could not get up and celebrate the Eucharist; angry that any of our sisters well trained in liturgy, theology, and spirituality could not say Mass,” she confesses. “Angry at the Church that we are all committed to, but which does not permit full use of our gifts, and which seems to value ‘maleness’ over availability of the Eucharist.”

“I also felt powerless and frustrated. I like to do something to solve the injustices I see in the world, and with this injustice I am at a loss to know what to do. But I also felt proud of our Sister who got up and led the service, aware that a previous year, when the priest did not come, we all sat in the chapel and did not even celebrate the Liturgy of the Word. And I felt excited that so many of us were having a common experience that day which would lead to much reflection and discussion about the ordination of women.”

One would think that in a world which so obviously and so desperately needs spiritual comfort and direction, any person interested in providing or participating in religious experiences would be thanked, not censored. And that, at the very least, people who believe in the power of prayer, and more specifically the power of the special connection with God and one another that the Eucharist provides, would be actively campaigning for women’s ordination.

In a letter to the editor that was published in the December 28, 1984, edition of the National Catholic Reporter, I wrote “I propose that all of us, either as lectors or as participants in the pews, add this prayer to the ‘Prayers of the Faithful’ during Mass ‘That the Church extend the power of full sacramental ministry to all who are called by the Holy Spirit, we pray to the Lord.’ As innocuous as this statement is, I am too chicken to say this aloud in my church. Every Sunday I promise myself, ‘next week,’ but I am afraid of being labeled a radical and a nut, of feeling embarrassed.”

Almost 10 years have passed since I wrote that letter, and I have not had the nerve to pray my prayer out loud even once.

Holy Thursday is the day that commemorates the Last Supper, which was when the first “Mass” was said by Christ. One Holy Thursday, Terry (knowing nothing of my views or my letter) tells me, she forced herself to be brave.

“The sermon was about vocations,” she confides, “and so it suddenly occurred to me that this was the big day for ordinations. I remembered all the things that the Women’s Ordination Conference had said in their last newsletter about praying for women’s ordination at the Prayer of the Faithful. And I started shaking all over. I was sure my voice would shake, and that the students sitting next to me would be upset. But I made myself say it out loud ‘Let us pray that any woman who feels called to be a priest can someday be ordained,’ and immediately a hush came over the Church, everyone was so shocked at what I had said. But the college kids who were with me claimed I sounded fine. In fact they were very proud of me!”

I had already heard about this instance from Jamie, another young woman in the same parish. “Last Easter, some woman actually said something out loud about ‘I pray that someday women can become priests,’ and I think that 90% of the church gasped. I was one of them,” she says, “because to me, a priest and a nun are as much like a man is a man and a woman is a woman. It is just more comfortable for me.”

Many women don’t agree with her privately, but most of the “average women in the pews” are, like me, too cowardly to make a public fuss. And for some of them, as well as for the majority of nuns and other feminists, the subject may be fast becoming one of only academic or political interest. As difficult as it is for many Catholics to believe, the subject of women’s ordination may be on the way to becoming the same kind of “nonissue” spiritually that the subject of artificial contraception has become sexually for almost all Catholic women.


36. pp. 156, Donna Tiernan Mahoney, Touching the Face of God: Intimacy and Celibacy in Priestly Life, 1991, Jeremiah Press, Boca Raton, Fl.

37. pp. 119, 120, Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs tor the Kingdom of Heaven, translated by Peter Heinegg, Doubleday, New York, 1990.

38. p. 1, Carolyn Moynihan Bradt, “Evidence exists Women were priests and bishops in the first five centuries of the Church,” New Women, New Church, Vol. 13, No. 2-5, May-October 1990.

39. p. 6, Arthur Jones, “Gallup poll results unlikely to please Vatican,” NCR, July3, 1992.

40. p. 6, Richard A. McCormick, SJ, “Changing my mind about the changeable Church,” Churchwatch, Call To Action Quarterly Progress Report, October-November 1990 (originally published in The Christian Century, August 8-15, 1990).

41. pp. 524-527, “Women in the Ministerial Priesthood,” Origins 6 33, February 3, 1977, as quoted by Rosemary Chinnici on p. 7, in Can Women Reimage the Church? 1992, Paulist Press, New York.

42. p. 44, Can Women Reimage the Church?

43. p. 247, Catherine Mowry LaCugna, “Catholic women as ministers and theologians,” America, Vol. 167: 10, October 10, 1992.

44. p. 3, Dorothy Vidulich, “Women’s pastoral buried after 10 years ” NCR, December 4, 1992.

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