American Religious Experience
Ordination of Women: A Devoted Struggle for Equality within the U.S. Catholic Church
Megan Elizabeth Scheible / Michigan State University
Every church within the Catholic Faith in the United States deserves to have a powerful figurehead. This person should have a divine spirit and deep connection to God. This person should emulate all that Jesus Christ spiritually personified and have the answers to the parishes' hard questions regarding the Catholic Faith. This person should be someone dedicated to God with a love for preaching about all that God is. Clearly, it is not what physical attributes this person has on the outside of their body; it is the idea that they share a likeness in spirit, heart, and soul to Jesus Christ. In the Roman Catholic Church, the person preaching on the altar is always male. Today, church after church is being closed because there are not enough men answering the call from God to become ordained priests, so church doors are locked and empty all across the United States. It is my opinion that a woman's physical features are not reason enough to stand in the way of female ordination into the Catholic Church. Women deserve the same rights that men have in answering a call from God and being granted the privilege to administer the holy sacraments to a parish.
In the past fifty years in the United States, things have progressed for women in small strides. In U.S. Catholicism girls have been granted permission to become altar servers during Mass. This was a long time coming as boys have been at the side of priests since the beginning while women and girls have been in the vestibule taking care of the church bake sales or making the altar look nice. One of the reasons girls weren't supposed to serve is the same reason women aren't supposed to be priests, simply due to the fact we have a female body —a body different from that of Christ. Mark Chaves makes an outstanding point regarding the issue in his book Ordaining Women, "Commitment to a truly efficacious sacrament does not logically imply that the sacrament be performed only by males, any more, it would seem, than it would imply that it be performed by Jewish males, or by males with beards, or any other dimension of resemblance among persons one might choose to emphasize."1 I remember my mother fighting for me to be allowed to serve when I was ten years old because I had a true interest in it and she believed I should not be turned away because I had a female body. It took her and other mothers within my parish to rally for us young girls, and after a good long fight the old timers of the church couldn't say no anymore. In 1996, I was one of the first female altar servers ever to serve at my parish. That was a small battle won, but the feeling of victory is something I will never forget. This role is a small one compared to what other women are fighting for. Roles for females have changed slightly in the past fifty years within the U.S. Catholic Church, but women are being denied ordination.
Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council in 1962 in Dedication to "the Immaculate" and Vatican II was closed in 1965 by Pope John VI. This time period was and still is significant to the fight for women to gain equality within the U.S. Catholic Church. The purpose of that meeting was to think about the past, present, and future of the church. It was a chance for the leaders in the Roman Catholic Church to meet and open the windows to renewal, in other words, to update the Church. By doing so, the powerful patriarchy within the Catholic Church could give followers insight into the way to live and behave within the religion in the modern world. Pope John XXIII gave his opening address, and gave hope to feminists who wanted nothing more than to be seen as equals in their religion. Pope John XXIII states in his opening remarks, "Illuminated by the light of this Council, the Church, we confidently trust, will become greater in spiritual riches and gaining the strength of new energies there from, she will look to the future without fear."2 Catholic women around the world understood these words, and prayed they would not be alone in the fearless battle to answer their call to ordination.
There were many other pieces of hope within his opening, but this can be interpreted in many ways. My hope is that people will see his outreaching to women within the Catholic Faith. Pope John XXIII sees the need for change and with change comes the opening of rights and equality for women. He states:
Hence the Church, whose light illumines all, whose strength of supernatural unity redounds to the advantage of all humanity, is rightly described in these beautiful words of St. Cyprian: The Church, surrounded by divine light, spreads her rays over the entire earth. This light, however, is one and unique and shines everywhere without causing any separation in the unity of the body. She extends her branches over the whole world. By her fruitfulness she sends ever farther afield her rivulets. Nevertheless, the head is always one, the origin one for she is the one mother, abundantly fruitful. We are born of her, are nourished by her milk, we live of her spirit.3
Unfortunately for the women of the Roman Catholic Church, change came, in the way the Mass was said and Catholics became more accepting of other Christians, but there were no changes in the fight for the ordination for women. Paul Hofmann writes in his book, The Vatican's Women, about the outcomes of Vatican II, "The council considered the status of women in the church only in passing and left things essentially unchanged. The council fathers reconfirmed the male monopoly of the priesthood, the rule of priestly celibacy, and the ban on abortion."4 This pope had answers to many questions regarding keeping up with the times, but the call for women to the altar was an issue that was denied and left many people questioning if this was really a valiant effort for an aggiornamento (updating) of the church.
There are many new avenues the U.S. Catholic Church left unexplored. As Vatican II called for an update into the modern world, other U.S. Christian Churches had done just that by allowing the ordination of women into their churches. If other religious traditions can reform with the times, what is it that prevents the Catholic Church for allowing passionate women interested in leading a Church from becoming ordained? Whenever change is called for, there are select groups that cause a major stir and protest. I believe the group that is against the ordination of women needs to step back and realize that this would be a step in a powerful direction for the future of U.S. Catholicism. When the Church decided to begin saying Mass in English instead of Latin many were shocked at this decision, but by saying Mass in English more people could understand and appreciate the beauty of the Mass. This change was a major shift, but it was justified by the Vatican as for the betterment of the church. Instead of losing people or maybe never gaining newcomers, the reform added to the population of Catholics. I believe allowing women to be ordained as priests would have a similar impact. More churches would have sound, permanent leaders and it would give hope to women fighting for the same equalities in other religions as well. Rosemary Radford Reuther points out, "The visibility of such as movement for the ordination of women in Roman Catholicism also will make it more difficult for other denominations, such as Anglicans, to use the conservative ecumenical argument against ordination within their own bodies."5 With the number of men answering the call dropping, so are the number of priests available to serve the growing U.S. Catholic population. This not only leaves people without guidance for their religious needs, it also leaves voids in Catholic schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. This country needs priests, and if women are able and willing, how can their anatomy keep them from answering that call from God?
|"The argument for an all-male clergy is that males share the same body as Christ, therefore they exude the likeness of Jesus Christ the best. Women lost their chance for leadership at the very beginning of creation."|
There are infinite reasons for women to have the position of priest within the Catholic Religion, but there are still many reasons against it. Why does a tradition that has been quite solid for thousands of years have to be changed? Through struggle and hardship the Popes in Rome and the male priests in Catholic churches across the world have kept the most highly populated religion alive and thriving. The argument for an all-male clergy is that males share the same body as Christ, therefore they exude the likeness of Jesus Christ the best. Women lost their chance for leadership at the very beginning of creation. The condemnation of women also seems to stem from Eve and the creation stories. The Latin Fathers are the first to crucify all women for their interpretation of Eve's sin. In a time period dating 155-245 AD, Tertullian harshly spoke out against women and the fact that because they share the same gender as Eve they will be punished forever. St. Jerome (347-419 AD) added that women could only overcome their guilt through the pain of childbirth or by becoming virgins and refraining from sex.6 The protests continue throughout the middle ages where Guido de Baysio (1296 AD) proceeds to connect women to the fall of the garden. He states according to a piece written by John Wijngaards, "Women are unfit to receive ordination, for ordination is reserved for perfect members of the church, since it is given for the distribution of grace to other men. But women are not perfect members of the church, only men are."7 It is ancient thoughts and ignorance that is not scriptural but tradition that continues in 2006. No one has proven that Jesus believed women must carry out the burden of Eve's sin and should suffer for all eternity. Allowing the ordination of women into the U.S. Catholic Church would put the historical ignorance aside and pump the positive energy and spirit of unity, which Pope John XXIII called for in the 1960's back into the religion.
If one looks to the Bible, we see an example during the resurrection of Jesus where women played an important role. Mary Magdalene and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, went to his tomb and found he was not there. Jesus then appeared to them and said, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."8 Jesus chose women to let it be known he had risen and by doing so it shows the importance he places on women and their role within the Catholic faith. "Since the Gospels do not leave these women anonymous but identify them by name, it is obvious that they must have played an important role in the Christian movement in Palestine" writes Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza.9 Mary Magdalene and the Mother Mary were the first people Jesus appeared to, not his male apostles and brothers; the two prominent women in his life. This helps to clear up the disputes that Jesus wouldn't want women presiding in the church and giving the sacraments. He gave these women a very powerful job in calling together a community to see the risen Lord.
According to www.womenpriests.org, a popular Catholic website interested in the ordination of women, nine out of ten Catholic scholars support women becoming ordained into the Catholic Church.10 It is not just Catholics who wanted women to become priests. There are many other Christian religions that saw the need and responded by allowing women to be ordained. This happened long before Vatican II, though, and the Catholic leaders still in 2006 have not caught the drift. It is working for other Christians —what is our holdup? In 1892, the United Church of Christ opened the doors for women ministers. In 1956 the United States Presbyterian Church allowed women to become ministers, and the latest group in 1994 was the Church of England.11 In a book entitled, Women Priests in the Catholic Church?, Haye van der Meer looks at various other religions and explains in her introduction,
There are now, at least in the Scandinavian churches, women on whom the bishops have imposed hands and upon whom the Mass vestments have been conferred. That means that now, even among Christians who make the same efforts as we do to deal with the full traditions of their churches —and not merely among groups like the Quakers, the Salvation Army, the Congregationalists, and other such churches and groups in which the community is considered the unrestricted bearer of all authority —the opinion prevails that the female priestly office does not contradict the essence of Christianity.12
Women priests are giving sacraments in churches throughout the world, except in the Catholic churches. American Women are fighting to answer a call to God within the church but the patriarchy of Catholicism prevails at stopping that. Clearly there is an inequality that is becoming dangerous and harmful to the church. This is not unique to Catholicism. Rita Gross points to another interesting fact, "The abuse of power is certainly a major human problem, and patriarchy is rife with the abuse of power. But one of the most abusive aspects of patriarchal power is men's automatic, rather than earned or deserved, power over women."13 Women are fighting this fight against men and the men don't have to fight anyone to gain the positions they have within the church as ordained priests.
The Methodist church has set up websites and groups solely to bring and ensure equality to their church. The Methodist Church Committee for Gender Justice outlines possibilities and advantages of female ordination. The following guidance is offered in the light of the Methodist Church's commitment to the ministry of the whole people of God: maintaining inclusive language and imagery of God; and advocating appropriate diversity in the make up of groups working on behalf of the church. The Methodist Church stresses that men should not be assumed to male roles such as yard work or setting things up around the church and women should not be assumed to feminine roles such as doing the cooking for an upcoming event at the church.14 The Methodist church emphasizes the importance of using gender neutral language, reinforcing the ideas that women, most famously, Mary Daly, have been fighting for for years. Daly writes, "As the women's revolution begins to have its effect upon the fabric of society, transforming it from patriarchy into something that never existed before…it will I believe, become the greatest single potential challenge to Christianity to rid itself of oppressive tendencies or go out of business…It is also very possibly the greatest single hope for survival of religious consciousness in the West."15 By taking out the male centered thinking, the Methodist church is inviting women in, and making them equals. It is the feeling of equality that propels them to positions of power within the church and their courage to answer the call to become ministers in a church where they feel welcome and have a sense of belonging.
When a person wants so badly to be accepted and given a position they work hard for and rightfully deserve, they often will stop at nothing to get it. As intelligent, strong willed women continue to be turned down by the patriarchal society within the American Catholicism, they are beginning to find new avenues. The U.S. Catholic Church is losing women that are fed up with its inability to change and accept women for who they are and what they want to become, in these cases, the women want to become ordained priests. With numbers of women joining daily, American women are turning to other religious traditions. For example, in the branches of Buddhism, women have the ability to become fully ordained abbots. American women lead the way for other women by building Buddhist Centers for study, monasteries to live, and writing books. If you don't want to be a nun, that's it for you in the U.S. Catholic Church. You don't have the ability to work hard and through time and knowledge gain a privilege to become a priest. You are stuck at a level always subordinate to a male figure head. One of the Zen foremothers that left Roman Catholicism left for the same reason many are still leaving. Nancy Wilson Ross left Catholicism, wrote many books about Eastern religions, including Buddhism, and stated her opinions on the conclusion of Vatican II, "The way he refused those noble women who came forward with petitions. The way they presented them would bring tears to your eyes. And then that old fat man would just shake his head in an avuncular way and say, ‘No, it's not for girls yet.' You just wondered when ‘yet' was going to roll around. I was infuriated by all that".16 Here another powerful woman in the Buddhist community cannot understand what the Catholic Church is waiting for. Most Buddhist's religions are welcoming these women with open arms, as the Catholic Pope just shakes his head and turns them away.
Eventually the U.S. Catholic Church is going to have to answer exactly what is being lost by dismissing women interested in becoming ordained priests. There is already a shortage of males interested in going into the seminary, which means in the next couple decades the parishioners will be at Church on Sunday morning with no one "qualified" to preach and administer sacraments. The church will also begin to lose families as well. When little girls begin asking questions to their mothers about why women can't administer sacraments at Church the mothers really have no good explanation other then to say the Pope doesn't think we can do it yet. As more and more women take over positions of power in other fields and continue to excel, why shouldn't a woman be able to stand before her community and devote herself to God and his good word? Women are not trying to change anything but the acceptance of their gender. They have agreed to be celibate and devote their life to God, just as male priests do. All of these issues would be resolved if the Fathers of the Vatican would just open their eyes to the dangerous position the Catholic Church is in. Priests are getting older and if no one is there to replace them, what happens then? According to Angela Bonavoglia's book, Good Catholic Girls, in 1956 there were 58,632 priests. In 2003 that number has dropped to 43,634 priests in the United States. She writes, "Today there are more priests in the United States over the age of ninety then under thirty. The United States has a ratio of one priest to every 1,400 Catholics, which bad as it is, is still among the best ratios in the world". Knowing that the United States has a higher ratio of priests to Catholics makes one question how all the foreign priests taking open positions in the Church is happening? Bonavoglia touches on this issue as well, "That reality has led some reformers to question the justice of the United States' importing priests from other countries to lead parishes; today, more then twenty percent of all Catholic seminarians are foreign-born, and the majority are preparing to be ordained for a diocese in the United States."17 By doing this more and more Catholic Churches in different countries are left without priests. Allowing woman to become ordained would open up fifty percent of the population to a chance at filling those positions, that's close to half a billion women being able to answer the call to ordination if they hear it. This would save a lot of people from leaving the Church, as well as saving churches from shutting down due to lack of priests.
If the frighteningly low numbers of priests isn't enough to make the U.S. Catholic Church want to reconsider, one can always refer to papal writings. Although Pope John Paul II had made his position clear on the ordination of women, I look to two Apostolic Letters he presented. The first occurred on August 15, 1988 where he addressed the dignity and vocation of women by revering women for all they contribute to the church. This piece is also a continuation of the outcome of Vatican II, where the call for unity was given, yet women were still denied the chance to become fully ordained priests. This piece, entitled "Mulieris Dignitatem" seems to do the same thing. Pope John Paul II builds up hope for women by giving many praises and citing many texts regarding the importance of women and the Mother Mary in the Gospels, but stops there by not providing answers to the questions women have regarding their inability to become ordained. Pope John Paul II states, "The Church gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine ‘genius' which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness."18 With such praise for all the good women have done for the church, one can't help but wonder why women aren't aloud to share with men the privilege of becoming ordained.
Time goes on but the topic and questions have not gone away. In 1994, Pope John Paul II directly addressed the issue of female ordination. This Apostolic Letter was given on May 22, 1994 entitled "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis." Again the outcome of this letter denied women the right they have been fighting for so diligently for decades. He points to the praise given to women in the "Mulieris Dignitatem" and asks women to remember that the greatest thing the Church has to offer is love. I believe love is shown by acceptance and devotion, and even though the Pope claims women have power, he is not allowing women to reach their full potential by limiting them to being great mothers and caretakers of the home or virgins and nuns. The conclusion of the "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" left many women feeling anything but loved by a Church they devote their lives to. It was written,
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (Lk 22.32) 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.19
This was the ultimate sword through the hearts of women everywhere fighting for something so deeply meaningful. Once again women had to regroup and decide if this was a battle they thought they ever had a chance to win.
The battle raged on. Groups emerged and continued to evolve. One of the most popular and articulate Internet libraries regarding the issue of female ordination, titled Female Priests: The Case for Ordaining Women in the Catholic Church gives this statement on their homepage:
We are Roman Catholic theologians who firmly believe that the discussion on women priests should be left open. We love our family, the Catholic Church. We fully accept the authority of the Pope. We respect his personal integrity as an outstanding spiritual leader. But we are convinced that the Pope and his advisors in Rome are making a serious mistake by dismissing women as priests. We feel obliged in conscience to make our carefully considered reasons known.20
Navigating though this website, you accumulate hundreds if not thousands of supporters for the ordination of women. Supporters range from male and female theologians, to nuns, and ordained priests that have left their jobs due to the inequality being presented. In that case, Father Eamon McCarthy from the Archdiocese of Dublin, Ireland refused to work in a parish where his Oath of Fidelity would imply women can't become ordained. He therefore didn't receive a position as the priest and responded stating, "It is time to speak out; we must not be silent accomplices."21 Father McCarthy is just one of many speaking out. It is the common goal of women and men fighting for female ordination to not be silenced anymore. For many years the Catholic Church kept this issue quiet and responded with Apostolic Letters such as the "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" and "Mulieris Dignitatem" where women received an answer and were expected to accept it and go back to their housework. This is not the case anymore, and that is a frightening thing for the Roman Catholic Church and all those opposed to female ordination.
Sister Joan Chittister was apart of the 2001 Call to Action's (CTA) twenty-fifth anniversary conference. According to CTA's mission statement they serve as, "a Catholic Movement working for equality and justice in the Church and society. An independent national organization of over 25,000 people and 40 local organizations, CTA believes that the Spirit of God is at work in the whole church, not just in its appointed leaders. The entire Catholic Church has an obligation to responding to the needs of the world and taking initiative in programs of peace and justice…"22 The CTA organization is fighting for many causes such as: allowing priests to disregard the age old practice of celibacy and allowing women and married men the chance to become fully ordained priests. This is a group that fights a good fight towards making the Catholic Church current with the changing times. CTA is opening the eyes of people all over the world, to allow them to see the importance of change and the implications of what may happen if change doesn't occur. Sister Joan Chittister is working to make the Catholic Church realize how primitive its measures are in comparison to other religions. On June 30, 2001 Sister Chittister addressed the Women's Worldwide Ordination Conference in Dublin with a speech entitled "Discipleship for a Priestly People in a Priestless Period". In this powerful address, Chittister looks to other religions embracing female leadership, and states, "In Asia, Buddhist women are demanding ordination and the right to make the sacred Mandalas. In India, women are beginning to do the sacred dances and light the sacred fires. In Judaism, women study Torah and carry the scrolls and read the scriptures and lead the congregations. Only in the most backward, most legalistic, most primitive of cultures are women made invisible, made useless, made less than fully human, less than fully spiritual."23 The Catholic Church is a backwards, primitive religion that is not changing with the times. As women try to answer their call to ordination they get nothing but a "No".
Only time will tell what the outcome of this great fight for ordination will be. I feel as though women priests will be inevitable for the survival of the U.S. Catholic Church. Bonavoglia writes, "Along the way, some of the most intelligent, accomplished, and passionate women reformers gave up the whole idea of fighting to get women admitted to the priesthood as it currently exists. Looking at a Church they see as hopelessly clerical and hierarchical, they want to transform that institution into what it once was, in the earliest days of Christianity —a discipleship of equals."24 Although many great women have been lost along the way I feel this battle has not lost any fury and fire. American women are still hearing that call to ordination and they will not let men who misinterpret scripture, rely on tradition, or reject their female body stand in the way of answering that call. The fact that in the last fifty years American women have not lost any desire to continue their fight through the outcome of Vatican II and all other losses, shows the devotion women have to God and their church. It is my feeling that I will one day sit in a pew in an American Catholic Church with my kids and husband at my side listening to a wise female ordained priest giving a sermon about the importance of equality and devotion. Until that day, women in the United States must keep fighting for their ordination into the Catholic Church and the ability to administer sacraments to congregations that welcome women and their devotion to this religion.
Bonavoglia, Angela. Good Catholic Girls: How Women are Leading the Fight to Change the Church. New York: HarperCollins. 2005.
Boucher, Sandy. Turning the Wheel: American Women Creating the New Buddhism. Beacon Press: Boston. 1993.
Chaves, M., Ordaining Women. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Chittister, Joan. "Discipleship for a Priestly People in a Priestless Period". Dublin, Ireland. 30 Jun. 2001.
Daly, Mary. Eds. Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow. Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion. "After the Death of God the Father: Women's Liberation and the Transformation of Christian Consciousness". New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1979.
Gross, Rita. Feminism and Religion: An Introduction. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.
Hofmann, P. The Vatican's Women: Female Influence at the Holy See. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002.
Pope John Paul II. "Mulieris Dignitatem." Rome, Italy. 15 Aug. 1988.
"Ordinatio Sacerdotalis." Rome, Italy. 22 May 1994.
Pope John XXIII, Opening address to the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. Rome, Italy. 11 Oct 1962.
Reuther, R. Eds. Eleanor McLaughlin and Rosemary Reuther. Women of Spirit: Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.
Schussler Fiorenza, E. Eds. Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow. Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion. "Women in the Early Christian Movement". New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1979.
The Holy Bible Revised Standard Version. Winona, MN: St. Mary's Press. 2000.
"The Methodist Church" 1 Apr 2006. http://www.methodist.org.uk.
Van der Meer, Haye. Women Priests in the Catholic Church? Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 1973. The Ordination of Women in the Roman Catholic Church. Webmaster John Wijngaards. 8 Apr 2006. 5-9 as found in introduction on http://www.womenpriests.org/classic2/meer01.asp.
Wijngaards, J. "Women Were Considered to be in a State of Punishment for Sin." 24 Mar. 2006. http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/sinful.asp#latin.
1 M. Chaves, Ordaining Women. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997) 118.
2 Pope John XXIII, Opening address to the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. Rome, Italy. 11 Oct. 1962.
3 See footnote 2
4 P. Hofmann, The Vatican's Women: Female Influence at the Holy See (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002) 188.
5 R. Reuther. Women of Spirit: Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979) 373. This article was written before women gained ordination in the Episcopal/Anglican Church.
7 See footnote 6.
8 Mt 28:10.
9 E. Schussler Fiorenza, Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion "Women in the Early Christian Movement" (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1979) 90.
11 See footnote 6
12 H. Van der Meer, Women Priests in the Catholic Church? (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1973) 4-9.
13 R. Gross, Feminism and Religion: An Introduction (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996) 25.
17 Bonavoglia, Angela. Good Catholic Girls: How Women are Leading the Fight to Change the Church. (HarperCollins: New York, 2005) 218-19.
18 Pope John Paul II, "Mulieris Dignitatem."
19 Pope John Paul II, "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis." Bold added to text by author for emphasis.
20 See footnote 9
21 See footnote 9
23 J. Chittister, "Discipleship for a Priestly People in a Priestless Period". Dublin, Ireland. 30 Jun. 2001.
24 Bonavoglia, Angela. Good Catholic Girls: How Women are Leading the Fight to Change the Church. (HarperCollins: New York, 2005) 269.