Papal Bull


The Ordination of Women Priests

March 6, 2009
N.J. Lukanovich

International Women's Day is a mere two days away, and while there has been much progress in the last century the obstacles and inequities for women around the world remain enormous. Even in the Western world, where it is assumed that women have equal rights, there exist institutions and groups that still deny equality, using freedom of religion as the justification for continued treatment of women as a secondary class of human. The largest church in the world, the Catholic Church, with one billion adherents including 67 million in the United States, refuses to even discuss the ordination of women priests.

The Vatican, led by Pope Benedict XVI, issued its strongest decree against the ordination of women in May, 2008. Written by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith it stipulates that any women ordained as 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 as evidence that it is "impossible" to ordain women.

But the majority of Catholic theologians who have written on the subject argue the opposite, also using scriptures, such as 1 Corinthians 11 and Acts 21:9, that speak of women praying, prophesing and therefore preaching, and Romans 16:1-2 wherein Paul refers to Phoebe as a deacon. Retranslations of the original Latin records of the Church's early days has shown scholars that women were, in fact, ordained for the first 1,200 years after the life of Christ, and did lead prayer during the time of Jesus, thus the teaching of the Church does not reflect its actual practice throughout history.

Scholars have also disputed the belief that all the apostles were men, as it was Mary of Magdala, known as the "apostle to the apostles" in the Eastern Church, who witnessed the resurrection and was asked by the risen Christ to spread the good news and word of Christianity. Jesus treated women with an equality unheard of during this period in history: having women disciples, speaking with women in public, touching them, travelling with them, viewing them as being on equal footing in divorce - showing that even in this instance he did not accept a hierarchy of men above women. This egalatarian view is exemplified in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The tired 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 response to the Vatican's 2008 decree, the Women's Ordination Conference (founded in 1975) issued their own statement one day later, pointing out that in 1976, "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 women's reproductive rights, homosexuality, and celibacy will be the downfall of 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 increasingly emancipated women. 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.

The courageous and determined efforts on the part of Roman Catholic Women Priets (founded in 2002), the aforementioned Women's Ordination Conference, and other similar groups, have resulted in the ordination of over 60 women around the world; including the Danube Seven in 2002, the St. Lawrence Nine in 2005, and eight women in Pittsburgh in 2006. Some of these ordained women were theologians or scholars, some were former nuns - all of them were officially excommunicated within a year of ordination. 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.

Roman Catholic Womenpriests 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 do not "break" canon law. But ordaining women does, and is such an affront to the Church that a Canadian Roman Catholic priest, Friar Ed Cachia, was cut off from his diocese for saying it was time the Vatican revisited the issue of women in the priesthood, referring to the ordination of the St. Lawrence Nine. He was excommunicated in 2006, for, according to the official statement from the Bishop of Peterborough, "celebrat[ing] liturgical and sacramental rites at his newly formed, Christ the Servant Church. In doing so, he acted entirely on his own initiative, and without the approval of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, and has incurred automatic excommunication by virtue of the law of the Church."

The Catholic Church is losing relevance in societies that at least promote the ideal of equality, even if the ideal has yet to be fully realized. How are other Christian sects doing on this issue? The Anglican Church is currently 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 openly homosexuals priests - much further along than the Catholic Church, but not any where close to the progressive stance of the United Church, for example, which has high numbers of both women and gay ministers. There are 16 organizations in 11 nations that advocate for the ordination of women, a change supported by the majority, 63-70%, of Catholics in the U.S. On the other hand, there are evangelical churches in the U.S. that promote views at least as misogynist as the Catholic Church, but are far more active politically, successfully waging campaigns to limit abortion, for example.

The fact that Vatican II, in l961, brought in many reforms that most 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 the habit. Lay people were allowed to hand out consecrated communion wafers, and priests could deliver mass in their own language and face the congregation.

These reforms breathed new life into the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II declaring they were necessary to bring the Church out of the Dark Ages. Society has progressed even further in the last nearly fifty years, leaving behind a Church that seems just as stuck in the Dark Ages as it did in the fifties before the reforms. The Church needs to dump it's suffocating misogynist dogma, because where women thrive so do whole nations and the Church is gaining numbers in both Latin America and sub Saharan Africa, and wields tremendous influence in less progressive nations all over the world.

Teaching children, whether through church or Catholic schools, to believe that women are less than men, less close to God, and not in his image, is the definition of patriarchal brainwashing, and it matters because this isn't some men's club that meets to shoot darts down at the Legion, the Catholic Church is the most institutionalized religious organization in the world, with, as previously mentioned, one billion followers.

I 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."