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Womenpriests: Keeping Mum or Speaking Out?

"I would want to be a priest"

Womenpriests: Keeping Mum or Speaking Out?

by Professor Dr. René van Eyden

Address to 1500 participants of the general assembly of the Acht Mei Beweging in the Netherlands (2 November 1996). In response to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994) and statements by Cardinal Ratzinger (1995) that discussion on the ordination of women is closed. Translated by John Wijngaards and published on www.womenpriests.org with permission of the author.

It has been a historical day. Catholics all over the world hear that some doctrine has been “infallibly decided” and they then proceed in all openness to discuss the question as mature Christians with their own sense of responsibility.

The theme I want to discuss is: should we co-operate willingly and suffer in silence or speak out publicly and promote new practices?

I will touch only on one aspect of the whole area concerning women and ministry, namely: why do so many pastoral leaders and their parishioners allow the official practice of excluding women to remain uncontradicted, even though they themselves consider it a wrong practice? What does complicity mean in this context?

Let me start with describing two experiences to you: two ordinations of priests that I attended recently.

Opposite experiences

The first ordination to the priesthood was in a parish in the Netherlands. The parishioners had done everything to make it a beautiful celebration. There was song, there were decorations, special text books had been prepared, and so on. This was only the background to the real event, the Roman Liturgy of the Ordination to the Priesthood. It was an extremely clerical happening, a ritual reserved only to ordained men. Not a single woman, not even a female pastoral worker to be seen in the sanctuary. In the homily and in the prayers there was not a single hint regarding the (provisional?) exclusion of women. The bishop and a large circle of male priests impose hands. For the faithful, but without participation of the faithful.

An enormous difference was a celebration in which for the first time two women were ordained priests in the old Catholic Church in Germany, in Konstanz on Pentecost Monday 27 May 1996. This was a liturgy carried by the whole participating community, a bishop radiating involvement, standing not over but between the faithful, the priests visibly equal brothers and sisters in the ministry,

It was an incredible contrast: on the one hand the Roman ceremony clerical, sterile and patriarchal: on the other hand a heart-warming feast of the Spirit.

How painful and humiliating the former kind of ceremony can be for a woman involved in parish apostolate has been movingly described by Maria Mulder (Trouw 3 July 1992: “Chilling experience at the ordination of a priest”). Banning a woman not because of a shortage of pastoral qualities but only because she is a woman, is extremely humiliating for all women.

The exclusion of women from the ordained ministries has been studied exhaustively (note 1). The conclusion is clear: from a pastoral point of view certain women are deprived of a right in the Church, all women are humiliated and the community of believers is deprived of the pastoral leaders it needs. From a theological point of view it is a betrayal of the identity of the ministry and of the Church, and implies a defective understanding of Jesus’ own mission and message.

In an open letter written by the association “Vrouwmens” to Cardinal Simonis on the occasion of “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” one reads: “Is this way of arguing not an offence to God? Do the real reasons not lie rather in concern about the leaders’ own position of power rather than in concern for truth?”

There was something very unwholesome in the ceremony of that Dutch parish. The liturgy devolved without hitch, not a single word of protest was raised. Everyone wants the ordinand to have a happy feast. Not a single person mentions the ambivalent character of the ordination in which women have been excluded on principle. BUT most of the priests present at the occasion are really not in agreement with the ban against women. They realise the defect in the theology of Church and ministry mention in the ordination text. They are aware of the fact that many of their pastoral colleagues in the parish who are women are deeply hurt.

Why then do we go along with it, all the same?

From research among Roman Catholic parish priests in the Netherlands it is clear that 68% believe women should be ordained, which is a comfortable majority! (Pastores en Ambt, VPW Nederland, June 1994).

The question thus arises: why does everyone so willingly co-operate, with the priests too imposing hands, and so on? Why does everyone keep his mouth shut? During the ceremony nothing was noticed of public expressions of protest against the Roman ban. There were no signs of solidarity with women. Why does everything just go merrily on in the traditional way?

Many of the participants are aware of the fundamental mistakes in the official vision of the Church and the official practice of the Church, but whenever the official Church acts, these same people co-operate without voicing any protest.

The mechanisms of repression

How can we explain this inconsistency?

It is part and parcel of how a repressive system works.

In spite of many forces to the contrary, a repressive system can continue its domination for a long time as long as three factors are safeguarded:

  1. The exertions of those who dominate.
  2. The degree of ‘toughness’ in the institutional structures of the system.
  3. The conscious and also unconscious complicity of those who are dominated.

Applied to our subject we can say that the exclusion of women is possible because of the combination of those three factors, a combination which, unfortunately, continues unabated.

How to combat a repressive system

If we want to combat the exclusion of women from the ministry (or, for that matter, other forms of repression), this can be done in three ways: by focussing on the repressive leaders, on the structures of the system, or on the ‘underdogs’ who often act as accomplices.

1. Focus on the leaders.

The leaders of the Church base their exclusion of women on a number of theological tenets. Our strategy should be to try and change the perceptions of these people by providing better arguments. However, this often proves a rather fruitless undertaking.

The Pope is already trying for many years to explain to women how they should consider themselves, what it means to be a woman, what a woman can do and cannot do, what she may do and what she may not do. Strong argumentation has been put forward against this Roman theology, but without any effect. The truth is caught in the trap of power (note 2).

Church leaders do not like the word “power”. One prefers to call it “authority”. Jan Roes calls this “reducing the concept of truth to the capacity of taking decisions on the one hand and to obedience to the sovereign magisterium on the other” (In de Kerk Geboren, Nijmegen 1994, p.56). We have already reached the stage where the exclusion of women has been called an ‘infallible doctrine’ and in this way Rome has spoken its last word.

2. Focussing on structures.

Excluding women from the ordained ministry is only the tip of the iceberg, the bulk of which floats invisibly below. There rests the ancient mass of patriarchal structures and ideologies. The inequality of power between men and women has in the course of time hardened to a patriarchal and hierarchical institution.

Here our strategy could be to try to change the institution and its structures by organising a contrary power. This too seems not an easy task. Until now no more than superficial reforms have been achieved. Attempts in this direction have had no greater success than trying to put pins into a block of granite.

3. Complicity by those who are dominated.

The third factor lies in complicity by those who suffer repression. In the past the exclusion of women was considered self-evident in the Church, part of the established order which by itself demands acceptance. This is in line with the official policy of the Church, and pastoral leaders and parishioners conform especially with regard to what they do in public. They follow the rules, even though they have some doubts. The power of the Roman system is kept intact also by those who are being held in its grasp.

The strategy that is required here is closer to home. It means changing yourself, loosening yourself from repressive rules in your own conscience, looking no longer at things with the eyes of higher authority, listening to those who are marginalised, and purposely choose their side.

This attitude allows men and women the freedom, both personally and collectively, to criticise the official doctrine and to challenge the practice of the exclusion of women, in specific situations. Then a salutary “interaction” can happen. According to the theologian J.B.Metz, necessary renewal and reform in undisturbed systems of doctrine, only happen when “interruptions” have been brought about (note 3).

The objective of reforming Church and ministry

The ordination of women to the priesthood is not an isolated objective. What is at stake is a much wider and all embracing renewal of Church ministry, as is indicated in the slogan of the women’s ordination conference: “New Woman - New Church - New priestly ministry”.

If women’s future functioning in the church’s ministry would leave that ministry unchanged, it would only strengthen the patriarchal institution of the Church that now exists. There are people who therefore consider the arrival of women in ordained ministries undesirable. But others have experienced that once women fulfil a Church ministry, that it then becomes “a different ministry” (note 4).

The important thing is that there should be space for a diversion in vision and strategy: not to work against each other, but together, in order to proceed to the same final aim. For men in a church dominated by men, it is a tiresome process.


In many feminist studies it has been pointed out that changes in mentality arise earlier than changes in practice. This means that there can be a large difference between thinking and doing. This allows men to remain accomplices by their conforming behaviour, even though they agree that much has to be changed for women in the Church.

The word “accomplice” may sound disconcerting to men who think they simply do what is expected of them. What is meant by this term? Lieve Troch has said some very good things about complicity in her book “Verzet is het Geheim van de Vreugde” (Zoetermeer 1996). We speak of complicity in persons or groups if conflict against injustice is not openly expressed and not given concrete shape. Then conformers are co-responsible for the continuation of domination and repression.

Complicity happens not only in personal behaviour but also in collective behaviour. It is not necessarily the same as guilty behaviour.

Often people are not quite conscious of the fact that in reality they themselves are co-responsible for the continuation of a specific injustice by their conforming and uncritical behaviour. This is known as unconscious complicity. If this happens on a wide scale it may be even more damaging to those who are treated unjustly than forms of conscious complicity.

Since the discussion about women in ministries has been declared closed, a new situation has arisen in the Church. If pastoral leaders and the faithful now remain silent, they will become accomplices in the full sense of the word.

More than ever it is important to recognise all forms of complicity and to reject them. How could we preserve a collective integrity, if we do not bring our own way of acting in conformity with the insights that we have acquired? The extent to which can we be consistent in this, will also depend on the support that we give each other through personal communication and in organised contacts.

If we try to oppose the exclusion of women by public protests, we will receive some support but also opposition. We will be accused, for example, of splitting the Church by criticising the church leaders. Hamma-Renate Laurien, member of the central committee for Dutch Catholics says: “Speaking out is not only a right. It is also a duty in faith for all those who want the Church to possess more credibility. Critical loyalty is what we should have, also with regard to the issue of women and the priesthood”. She states that our hope in the future of the Church will lie “in our parish communities, in our parish councils, diocesan pastoral councils, and from our orthopraxis [= correct action], that is, the practice based on faith as it happen in the root communities of the Church”. Her book is a plea to have a fair discussion in the Church about the ordination of women (note 5).

How to give shape to protest and solidarity

I want to conclude by giving some concrete examples of how opposition to Church leaders and solidarity with women can be given expression.

  • Elizabeth Schüssler Forenza proposes that during the confession of guilt in the Eucharistic celebration we should also confess the sin of excluding women from the ministry. This could be a collective expression of guilt as a first step to transform “structural sexism” (New Woman, New Priestly Ministry. Women’s Ordination Conference, 1980).
  • The report addressed to the bishops: “A Liturgy friendly to Women” (note 6), provides important advice and recommendations concerning the ordination of women to the diaconate and the priesthood.
  • The Pastoral Letter of “Priests for Equality”, 8 december 1985, sketches a programme of action as to how we can arrive in concrete steps to the ordination of women. This is an impressive document that expresses solidarity and concern about the future of the Church. “Priests for Equality” was established in 1975 in the USA. It now consists of more than 3000 priests from 35 countries who subscribe to the Constitution for Equality in the Church (note 7).
  • In National Declaration of “Kerk Hardrop”, de Dutch parallel-organisation to the We-Are-Church of Austria, Germany, Switserland and-so-on , the second of the five main aims is: “Opening the diaconate to women. Admission of women to the ministerial priesthood. Banning women has no biblical foundation”. This kind of plea helps to stimulate awareness in the Church. It agrees with the position taken by the “Acht Mei Movement” from the beginning.
  • At times male candidates for ordination express, either during or after the ordination rite, that they disagree with the exclusion of women from the priesthood.
  • The Union of Pastoral Workers in the Netherlands (Vereniging van Pastoraal Werkenden) could put itself clearly on the side of women in pastoral ministries on the occasion of diaconate or priestly ordinations. The pastoral workers of the diocese of Salzburg in Austria have agreed among themselves: no one lets himself be ordained deacon until women will be admitted to the diaconate (note 8).
  • Every parish can find symbolical and imaginative expressions of protest and solidarity. In the parish I mentioned earlier, parishioners sent, on the day of the ordination, flowers and letters of condolence to their woman pastoral assistant. They said that at least one flag should have been half-mast, and the yellow-white flags of the Vatican should not have been hoisted at all.
  • During the ordination ceremony itself the community can express in various ways that it needs both men and women in the priestly ministry. For instance, one could give a striking role of prayer or witness to a woman preacher from a sister church during the celebration itself.

The one thing we must not do is to remain silent, to share by complicity in the unwarranted exclusion of women from the ordained ministries. Somehow or other we have to speak out!

René van Eyden


Note 1. Rome’s prohibition of further debate on the ordination of women has given rise to a flood of theological publications. See, for instance: Walter Gross (ed.), Frauenordination. Stand der Diskussion in der Katholischen Kirche, Munich 1996.

Note 2. The documentation on Human Rights in the Church (Mensenrechten in de kerk, Commissie Justitia et Pax Nederland, Oegstgeest 1993, p. 33), quotes Vaclev Havel in relation to totalitarian systems: “When the centre of power coincides with the centre of truth, corruption lurks round the corner”.

Note 3. J.B.Metz, Unterbrechungen. Theologisch-politische Perspektive und Profile, Gütersloh 1981.

Note 4. Martine Bakema and Lies Sluis (ed.), Een ander ambt. 25 Jaar vrouwen in het ambt in de Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, Kampen 1994.

Note 5. Hanna-Renate Laurien, Abgeschrieben? Plädoyer für eine faire Diskussion über das Priestertum der Frau, Freiburg-Basel-Wien 1995.

Note 6. Een vrouwvriendelijke liturgie in de rooms-katholieke kerk. Advies van de werkgroep Vrouw en kerk, de Katholieke Raad voor Kerk en Samenleving, en de Unie Nederelandse Katholieke Vrouwenbeweging, aan de Nederlandse Bisschoppen”, september 1991, pp. 37-44.

Note 7. See the text in: Archief van de kerken, vol .42, no.6 June 1987.

Note 8. See the international magazine Diakonia, vol.24, nr.3, May 1993. The whole issue deals with men, e.g. how priests can share the pain which their female colleagues in the ministry feel on account of their exclusion from ordination.

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