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Papal Bull - Detail 1


The Ordination of Women Priests

March 6, 2009
N. Lukanovich

International Women's Day is a mere two days away, March 8th, and while there has been much progress in the last century, the obstacles and inequities for women around the world are enormous. Even in the Western world, where it is assumed that women have equal rights, there exist institutions and groups that deny equality. Freedom of religion has become the mantra of religious groups that treat women as 'the second sex'. Gender equality is not enforced within religious institutions or groups, and the largest church in the world, the Catholic Church, with more than 1 billion followers, including 67 million in the United States, continues to refuse even the discussion of the ordination of women priests.

The Vatican, led by Pope Benedict XVI, issued its strongest decree against the ordination of women last May, 2008. Written by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith it stipulates that any women ordained priests and any bishops ordaining them are to be punished by latae sententiae excommunication, which means that it is automatic, immediate, and self imposed. The Church says it cannot change the rules banning women from the priesthood because Christ chose only men as his apostles and a priest must represent the body of Christ and therefore must be a man. Those against the ordination of women point to scriptures in the Bible and claim that these scriptures make it impossible to ordain women. But of all the papers written on the subject by Catholic scholars, 80% argue that women should be ordained as priests, also using scriptures in the Bible as evidence.

The 'fact' that all the apostles were men is disputable, and there is also much evidence that women did lead prayer during the time of Jesus. Scholars who have retranslated the original Latin records of the Church's early days have shown that women were ordained for the first 1,200 years after the life of Christ, thus the teaching of the Church does not reflect its actual practice throughout history. (The same can be said about the requirement of celibacy).

The argument that a priest must be a man because priests recreate the ritual of Jesus standing at the altar, breaking bread and saying "this is my body", is more than weak. According to the Church, the priest does this in persona et nomini Christi, in the name and the person of Jesus; so because Jesus was a man, a priest must be a man to perform the ritual. However, a priest need not be a man to break bread and share wine as the representative of Jesus, in persona Christi, in a Pascal meal.

In a statement issued by the Women's Ordination Conference (founded in l975) in response to this latest decree for excommunication of women priests, they point out that in l976, "the Vatican's own Pontifical Biblical Commission determined that there is no scriptural reason to prohibit women's ordination. Jesus included women as full and equal partners in his ministry, and so should the hierarchy. [] It is time for the Vatican to listen to its own research, its own theologians and its own people who say that women are equally created in the image of God and are called to serve as priests in a renewed and inclusive Catholic Church."

The Vatican's stance on this issue, along with its views on birth control, homosexuality, and celibacy will be the death of the Catholic Church in the modern world. Along with many church closings, the declining number of nuns in the U.S. is reflective of how quickly the Church is losing appeal for the modern woman. In l965, there were 173,865 Catholic sisters in the U.S. and by 2000 the number had shrunk to 79,876. The average age of a member of a women's religious community in l999 was 65 - 70 years old. Over 60 women around the world have been ordained as priests, some of them former nuns. There are at least 24 women in the U.S. who are practicing as priests, many in their homes, and support for women's ordination is growing exponentially.

The group Roman Catholic Womenpriests (founded in 2002) which includes Canadian Marie Evans Bouclin, a former nun who was ordained as a deacon along with 8 other women in a boat on the St. Lawrence river in 2005 (no diocese would allow them to be ordained within its borders), and ordained as a priest in 2007, is asking the Pope to lift the decree for automatic excommunication since Benedict XVI rescinded the excommunication of 4 bishops on Jan. 21, 2009, all of whom belong to the Society of St. Pius X, an ultraconservative group of Catholics in formal schism with the Vatican after the reforms of Vatican II. The four were excommunicated after being consecrated as bishops by the leader of the Society of Pius X, the Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who did not go though proper channels (seeking approval from the Pope).

One of these bishops, Richard Williamson, consecrated as a bishop and excommunicated in l988, is a Holocaust denier who has also made abominable remarks about women, saying that it is against God's will for a woman to attend college or wear pants or shorts, and the following quote reveals his belief that a real woman doesn't think: "A woman can do a good imitation of handling ideas, but then she will not be thinking properly as a woman. Did this lawyeress check her hairdo before coming into court? If she did, she is a distracted lawyer. If she did not, she is one distorted woman."

But no matter how repulsive his views towards Jews and women, the Pope can not reverse the rescinding of the excommunication, because these views are not against canon law. But ordaining women is such an affront to canon law that a Canadian Roman Catholic priest, Friar Ed Cachia, was excommunicated in 2006 for having been quoted in a newpaper in 2005 (when the 9 women were ordained on the St. Lawrence River) as saying that it was time the Vatican revisted the issue of women in the priesthood. In fact, you could be an ordained priest who is entrusted with the care of your 'flock', and be a racist, sexist pedophile, and you still couldn't be excommunicated as long as you follow canon law. But breathe a word about the ordination of women, and whammo, no more sacraments for YOU!!!

Soon the Catholic Church will become known as the Stubborn Church, and they may continue to grow in numbers in Africa and Latin America in traditional communities that already share the same outdated and patriarchal viewpoints as the Church; but for all the love thrown at the Pope, and the throngs that go to see him, as an institution the Catholic Church is losing relevance in cultures that have evolved both morally and socially. The Anglican Church is in a state of crisis, facing a possible split between those who accept the consecration of women bishops and gay marriage and those who are still opposed to ordaining women and homosexuals priests. But many Protestant sects have evolved along with the times; the United Church, for example, has high numbers of both women and gay ministers. There are 16 organizations in 11 nations that advocate for the ordination of women. The majority of Catholics in the U.S., 63-70%, support the ordination of women.

The fact that Vatican II, in l961, brought in many reforms that many Catholics thought would never occur is proof positive that the Church is capable of changing its rules. Some of the reforms were to emphasize the importance of 'good works' and social action, bringing the Church to the streets. The attitude towards other religions was modified so that the Church could work together with leaders of other faiths. Women no longer had to cover their heads in church, and nuns no longer had to wear habits. Lay people were allowed to hand out consecrated communion wafers, and priests could deliver mass in their own language and face the congregation. They were reforms that breathed new life into the Catholic Church, and at the time Pope John Paul II declared they were necessary to bring the Church out of the Dark Ages. Unless the Vatican is willing to change its stance on the ordination of women, these reforms of Vatican II will do little to improve the current image of the Church as remaining in medieval times in regards to gender discrimination.

And to those who would ask, "Why does it matter? Why do there need to be women priests?", I would refer to an article written by Jesuit Father Alysius Howe, for The Washington Post and Newsweek's On Faith site. Father Howe discusses the importance of ordaining women priests with such eloquence and insight, it's worth quoting at length:

"The Pauline analogy of husbands mirroring Christ and wives mirroring the church has within it the seeds of much in theology and church discipline that is sexist and misogynist. The attitudes that men have towards women are formed very early in their development. We are socialized within our families, in our church communities, in our schools. If Catholics are told that only men can be, for sacramental purposes, in persona Christi, standing in the place of Christ at the Eucharist, are we seriously meant to believe that this does not lay down the germ of an idea, namely that women are inferior to men, even in the order of God's grace? If all the discernment and decisions that affect women in the Church are made only by celibate men, are we to conclude that this has no effect at all on the attitudes of Catholic men towards women? [] The sin of clericalism, however, is a choice, and not an ineluctable consequence of being a Catholic priest. Similarly, Catholic men may read St Paul, or the latest Vatican instruction against women priests, and yet come away unconvinced that socially-conditioned notions from 2 millennia ago have the force of divine will."

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Text and Images: Property of Natasha J. Lukanovich or contributors - Writers and Artists as Named