No Girls Allowed: Women and the priesthood in the Catholic Church
The roots and future of the Church's ordination policy
Since the Obama administration’s late January decision to mandate that Catholic hospitals offer birth control coverage, that long standing and perhaps original American political issue is back under the national spotlight—religious freedom. Fierce debates have emerged at the nation’s oldest Catholic university, where a group of law professors expressed support of the mandate and law student Sandra Fluke was infamously derided by talk-show host Rush Limbaugh for speaking out in favor of the policy. The form of religious freedom championed by the Right, it would seem, is incompatible with women’s health. This latest showdown over contraception, however, is only a small chapter in the tenuous—and, as many argue, outright discriminatory—relationship between the Catholic Church and women. Nowhere is the tension more visible than in the Church’s gender restriction on entering the priesthood, the institution that constitutes the most direct connection between the Church and the communities it serves. Through conversations with priests, activists and historians, Counterpoint set out to uncover the roots of this seemingly outdated and sexist practice, and if the official policy shows any signs of being reversed.
One is immediately struck by the pervasive culture of fear surrounding the issue. Women’s ordination is so taboo that it cannot be discussed publicly by any church official—the risk of excommunication or official reprimand is so great. Those who speak out in favor are likely to be expelled from the Church. The Church has even gone so far as to state that no professional theologian who supports the ordination of women will ever be consulted on matters of Church policy.
“I find it offensive, as an adult, that we cannot even discuss women’s ordination,” says Father Raymond Bourgeois, a priest and lifelong activist who was excommunicated in 2011 for delivering the homily at a women’s ordination ceremony three years earlier in Lexington, Kentucky. Bourgeois is most well known for founding School of the Americas Watch, an organization that works toward closing the United States military school at Fort Benning, Georgia, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Bourgeois has spent four years in prison for his role in the protests, and was nominated in 2010 for the Nobel Peace Prize. Bourgeois and other like-minded priests subscribe to the Church’s teachings on the importance primacy of conscience—the idea that one is responsible to do what he or she believes is right in any situation.
“At the very root of our Church’s teaching is the sin of sexism,” he said, pointing to the well ingrained culture of discrimination within the Catholic Church. “I have so many women friends who say to me, Roy, I just can’t take the sexism anymore.”
Priests who feel similarly face a difficult dilemma: follow one’s conscience or keep one’s career. In the overwhelming majority of cases, priests choose the latter. Most priests believe they are doing good work within their parishes and don’t want to be kicked to the curb for speaking out in favor of women’s ordination. Many entered the religious life at a young age and have never worked elsewhere. If they were expelled from the Church, where would they go? Speaking against sexism is simply not worth the risk. Bourgeois says he’s met privately with many priests across the country who support ordaining women.
“They’re very supportive [of women’s ordination], but they’re not ready to go public,” he said. “The biggest challenge has been to try to get fellow priests to do what I had to do … our silence is the voice of complicity.”
For the non-religious, it seems evident that the Church’s policy on ordination is blatantly sexist. Why should only men be able to serve God, when the Church proclaims to support gender equality? Moreover, other Christian churches, like the Anglicans and a host of Protestant denominations, have already made the decision to allow women priests. So what’s wrong with the Catholic Church, which in 2010 declared the ordination of women to be a crime on par with pedophilia?
By official accounts, the Church has never allowed women to serve as priests. Rules prohibiting women from serving as priests are considered to be part of church doctrine, and thus not subject to change.
“Doctrine is not something that the Church made, it is something that was given to it,” says Father Stanislaw Orsy, an expert on canon law at Georgetown University Law Center. “The Church does not feel it has the authority to legislate [about matters of church doctrine].”
Behind the doctrine lies a complex web of theological arguments, foremost of which is that Jesus Christ himself, in selecting twelve apostles to spread his gospel, chose only men. In a 1976 letter entitled Inter Insigniores, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope Paul VI declared that Jesus’ decision to exclude women was not influenced by the patriarchal structures of society in first-century Jerusalem. Jesus simply chose men because he wanted to. And the Church is in no position to contradict the Son of God himself.
In addition, the Church’s policy is backed up by something called “ordinary universal magisterium,” an unspoken agreement of world’s Catholic bishops. In two thousand years of constant practice, the bishops have never ordained women, thus establishing a tradition with a certain formal holy authority.
“There is no evidence that women were ever ordained,” Orsy said. “I taught these matters for years, and I tried to look at every single document I could find, and I found no evidence whatsoever…. In theology, you need hard evidence. We cannot reduce theology to free-thinking that has nothing to do with evidence.”
But there are many who find fault with the historical arguments against women’s ordination. In fact, during the 1970s, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, part of the Vatican’s administrative arm, was tasked with a study on the role of women in the Bible. The commission found that there was no biblical evidence to suggest that only men can serve as priests. But Church policy still did not change.
Many also take issue with the Church’s central theological argument that women cannot be priests because Jesus Christ chose only men as his apostles.
“There were twelve apostles chosen before Jesus’ death and resurrection,” said Therese Koturbash, international ambassador for the women’s ordination group Roman Catholic Womenpriests, one of the few groups that openly advocates for the ordination of women and until very recently, performed illegal ordination ceremonies like the one Bourgeois attended in 2008. “But after his death and resurrection the first apostle appointed was Mary Magdalene, a woman, and she is known as the Apostle to the Apostles.”
Bourgeois echoed Koturbash, recalling a letter he once received from a college student who wondered, “Who is more qualified than Mary to say the words that male priests say at mass: this is my body, this is my blood?”
If the theological arguments surrounding the ordination of women are open to debate and seem to suggest room for progress on the issue, there remains one major obstacle—the organization of the Church itself.
“The Roman Catholic Church is a polity that is very top down,” said Dr. Cathy Wessinger, a professor of theology at Loyola University in New Orleans. “It’s like a monarchy.”
Wessinger, a scholar of the history of religions, has written two books about women’s participation in both marginal and more mainstream global faiths. She described how the Catholic Church’s top-down efforts to deal with women’s involvement in the Church have been largely unproductive.
After the Episcopal Church legalized the ordination of women in 1976, the Catholic Church began trying to reach out to women in order to encourage them to become more involved with the Church. In the 1980s, Catholic bishops in the United States issued a rough draft of a pastoral letter to be entitled “Partners in the Mystery of Redemption”—declaring sexism to be a sin—and organized a series of meetings in which they encouraged Catholics to comment on the document.
“My impression was that Catholic feminists, both male and female, were extremely critical of the document,” said Wessinger, who attended the meetings held on the Loyola campus.
Catholics recognized the absurd paradox inherent to the document, which, while plainly stating that sexism is a sin, did not advocate the ordination of women. Under increasing pressure from Rome, the American bishops scrapped the pastoral letter entirely, and this small effort to democratically engage with everyday Catholics came to nothing.
Later Pope John Paul II attempted to address women’s issues in a 1988 Apostolic Letter entitled Mulieris Dignitatem. While the letter confirms the dignity of women, it goes on to outline two dimensions of women’s vocation, namely virginity and motherhood.
“From a feminist perspective, the problem is that he is defining women’s vocations solely in terms of their sexual status,” Wessinger said. “And of course, men’s vocations are not defined in that way.”
But instances in which the Catholic Church proactively tries to resolve problems are exceptions to the rule. Generally, the Church reacts to outside pressures the same way it always has, by ignoring them. The grinding Church bureaucracy and the intransigent nature of its leadership have many convinced that women’s ordination isn’t happening anytime soon.
“This conversation has been going on for 30 or 40 years and there’s been no progress,” said Father Thomas Reese, a religion and public policy fellow at Georgetown’s Woodstock Theological Center.“The hierarchy is an elite that is totally isolated from public opinion.”
Reese likened the lack of progress on this issue to the similarly contentious debate about allowing priests to marry. In the 1960s and 1970s, many priests, inspired by more democratic and forward thinking language coming out of the Second Vatican Council, campaigned in favor of permitting priests to marry. For historical reasons, mandatory celibacy is considered “discipline” rather than “doctrine,” and theoretically could be changed. While priests are required to obey the teachings regarding clerical celibacy as long as they remain in force, they are free to oppose and speak out against them. But the movement opposing clerical celibacy came to nothing and priests felt they were wasting precious free time that could have been better spent running their parishes. A few decades later, the church was rocked by a widespread sexual abuse scandal that many argue could have been avoided had priests been allowed to marry.
Based on the Church’s capacity to embrace popular progressive change, Reese is pessimistic about the prospects for the ordination of women priests.
“The chances of the pope and the bishops changing their minds about women’s ordination are very, very, very, very slim,” says Reese. “The hierarchy is an elite that is totally isolated from public opinion.”
Priests with even the slightest misgivings about Church policy stand no chance of ascending the ranks of the Church hierarchy. Conversely, those who most aggressively enforce compliance with Church doctrine are typically first in line for promotions.
“It is hard to see how the Church’s teaching is going to change because the people in charge have been screened before being promoted… Bottom line? Don’t hold your breath.”
In a February 2012 issue of America, a weekly Catholic magazine published by the American Jesuits, Patricia Wittberg wrote an article entitled “A Lost Generation?” in which she notes that, historically, women in Western society were more religious, more spiritual than men. They also tended to join the religious life in much greater numbers. But data from recent studies show that the trend is reversing. Unlike their Protestant counterparts, Catholic women of recent generations are less likely to attend weekly mass, much less enter the religious life.
While women may be beating a hasty retreat from the Catholic Church, they are not the only ones. Vocations are down across the board, with parishes across the United States forced to merge or close their doors. According to data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, the Catholic population is rising steadily, but the last forty years have seen a steep decline in total numbers of priests and religious women. In 2011, there were more than three thousand American parishes without resident priest pastors.
In other words, the Catholic Church may soon be forced to grapple with the uncomfortable fact that women’s priesthood could be necessary for the long-term sustainability of the Church. Many women feel called to the priesthood, but the Church continues to deem their vocation illegitimate.
At present, women wanting to enter the religious life are restricted to service as nuns. But if the Church were to change its policy, it seems logical that many women would take the opportunity to lead their communities as priests.
“The spirit can speak to anyone it pleases,” said Sr. Rosemary Reid, a member of the Sisters of the Cenacle order. “Whether or not [women’s calling] is valid, well, right now tradition and culture say that it is not.”
Reid, now 87 years old, is my great aunt. She has been a nun for more than 60 years. Her order has had its own struggles with finding young women who are interested in the religious life. I asked her about the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood.
“Well, the physical argument is that we’re too weak,” she said with a chuckle. “But sometimes the men are too strong.”
Reid said that while some believe that women desire to stage a coup against male privilege, others recognize that women simply want to help provide “solace and help in the service of Christ.”
“We are all in the same boat here,” she said. “We are all trying to do the same thing.”
Even Koturbash of the more radical Roman Catholic Womenpriests still believes in the Church’s fundamentally good nature. While discussing Womenpriests’ decision to keep the fight for women within the institutional framework of the Church, Koturbash likened the exclusion of women to an oil spill within the church. When the spill hits, members of the community do not simply pack up and leave, she explained, they stick around to try to clean up.
“Otherwise,” Koturbash said, “fundamentalism can take hold.”
Clearly, the women who feel called to the priesthood simply want their opportunity to serve the Church and to lead, to do good. What is it that the Catholic Church is so afraid of ?
I spoke with many people who, like Sr. Reid, emphasized the Church’s capacity for good and its progressive stance on other issues. But as long as the Church continues to refuse to ordain women, it will become increasingly difficult for the organization to maintain its credibility in other areas.
That Koturbash and others maintain a certain faith in the Church as a whole is impressive. One cannot help but wonder why more dissidents have not simply walked away, especially considering the Church’s continued refusal to address their grievances, a refusal that stems from the fundamentally authoritarian nature of a twenty-first century faith that remains, as Koturbash says, “a medieval institution.”
Indeed, what may ultimately be at stake is the relevancy of the Church—it can either adapt to changing norms in order to maintain its credibility or stubbornly cling to the remnants of patriarchal society and traditions rooted in sexism. Facing a sexual abuse scandal, a shortage of priests, and a steep decline in women’s participation, it seems that the case for women’s ordination is stronger than ever. The alternative—staying the course by continuing to alienate women and ignoring the changing values of the faithful—could be far worse.
“When you say that certain subjects are off the table, can’t be discussed, can’t be talked about, I think that leads to a dysfunctional organization,” Reese said. “That makes it real difficult for the Church to deal with problems in the twenty-first century.”