When my daughter whispered to me, “I wish girls could be priests,” I didn’t know what to say.
The rites of the annual paschal triduum fascinate and inspire me more than almost anything else that the church’s liturgy has to offer, and I know I am not alone. Like many other Catholics, I find myself drawn in and moved, year after year, during those three great days. So I probably should not have been surprised to realize last year that they were also moving my 9-year-old daughter.
Our family had attended the liturgies of Holy Thursday and Good Friday together, and now we were at the Easter Vigil. Our pastor was blessing the waters of the baptismal font, an evocative moment in a liturgy laden with them. As he solemnly dipped the massive new Easter candle into the font, once, twice, three times, while calling down the Holy Spirit upon the water, Abigail, the youngest of our seven children, leaned over to me. I bent my head close to hear her whisper: “I wish girls could be priests.”
Abigail’s words tripped me up and distracted me from much of what followed. The fact is, they stirred up in me the profound ambivalence I feel about this topic. I do not mind doctrine that is challenging or countercultural—seven kids, remember?—and I understand what the church teaches on a male-only priesthood, the authority with which it has been presented and the reasons offered to support it. Indeed, I have repeated all of it from time to time, respectfully and confidently, both in parish faith formation settings and in personal interactions.
At the same time, I am uncomfortable with the possibility that the teaching might be more rooted in cultural norms and less in the will of God than many who lead the church realize. How can I raise my five daughters to reject the limitations our society might put on them as women, while also teaching them to understand and embrace the one imposed on them on the same basis by the church we love?
‘No Authority Whatsoever’
I realize it is possible that church teaching on women’s ordination might “develop” to the point of looking very much like the correction or even contradiction of what it previously was. It would not be the first instance of such evolution. Throughout the three years I spent researching and writing about John Courtney Murray’s contribution to Catholic teaching on religious freedom, I was continually struck by the certainty with which the Jesuit theologian’s powerful and highly regarded opponents condemned his thinking as contrary to church doctrine. And why not? In 1832 Pope Gregory XVI had dismissed the idea of religious freedom as “absurd,” and Pope Pius IX had included it in the famous “Syllabus of Errors” in 1864. Murray’s greatness lies in his success at constructing an argument that allowed the Second Vatican Council to recognize religious freedom as a fundamental demand of human dignity without having to explicitly reject the previous teaching in its own historical context. Since then, the council’s teaching has been reasserted in the strongest terms by St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. It is easy now to see this as a legitimate development of doctrine. But for many in Murray’s day, especially those who were the most self-consciously “orthodox,” it was not clearly so until an ecumenical council of the church said it was. Murray’s thinking did not go from false to true in December 1965; rather, the negative judgment of many theologians and bishops was newly understood to be mistaken.
We could multiply examples to make the same point. I might quickly mention the ancient doctrine “outside the church there is no salvation,” which the great 20th-century theologian Avery Dulles, S.J., once said “has been so drastically reinterpreted by Vatican II that the meaning is almost the opposite of what the words seem to say.”
I also realize that the undeniable impact of cultural factors on what the church has taught about women in the past makes it reasonable to approach its teaching today with, at the very least, a fair amount of skepticism and scrutiny. After all, Pope Leo XIII insisted in “Rerum Novarum” (1891) that “woman is by nature fitted for home-work, and it is that which is best adapted at once to preserve her modesty and to promote the good bringing up of children and the well-being of the family.” That message came just a century before St. John Paul II wrote, in his “Letter to Women” (1995):
Thank you, women who work! You are present and active in every area of life—social, economic, cultural, artistic and political. In this way you make an indispensable contribution to the growth of a culture which unites reason and feeling, to a model of life ever open to the sense of “mystery,” to the establishment of economic and political structures ever more worthy of humanity.
With all that as background, one might find it easy to dismiss the Vatican’s document “Inter Insigniores” (1976), which reaffirmed that only men can be ordained priests, relying heavily on the symbolic significance of the fact that Jesus was a man. It was, after all, not a papal document but a curial one. But then there is St. John Paul II’s “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” (1994). In that document, the pope reaffirms the church’s inability to ordain women in language that is stark and clear and strikingly authoritative. Rejecting any suggestion that the question is “open to debate” or that the teaching possesses “merely disciplinary force,” John Paul proclaims:
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 (cf. 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.
While the argument that this teaching is offered infallibly is hard to sustain—despite the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s (fallible) judgment that it is—there seems to me to be little getting around it without conceding quite a lot about the fallibility of papal teaching and the willingness of God to permit error in important and authoritative doctrine. Precisely because of the points I made above, I do not doubt the good will or the faithfulness of my fellow Catholics who vocally reject the doctrine. But doing the same is a bridge that I am not so far able, in conscience, to cross. May God—and my daughters—forgive my lack of courage and good judgment if I am wrong.
A Matter of Evangelization
Wherever you stand on the matter, it should be clear to all of us that the doctrine represents a problem for evangelization. Even if the teaching is not unjust—even if it is not the result of the church’s failure to fully appreciate the dignity and equality of women—the perception by many, if not most people in the United States today is that it is. And the very perception of an unjust church handicaps its ability to witness effectively to the world. By way of analogy, if rumors circulate throughout town about a particular restaurant having a filthy kitchen, then no matter how clean the kitchen actually is or how good the food is, no one will care what is on the menu.
If evangelization is the central priority that we say so often it is, then even the most self-consciously orthodox among us, even those convinced no woman ever should or will be ordained a priest, should be intensely concerned with ensuring that the church is absolutely and obviously committed to the equality and dignity of women. Given this, efforts to expand the role of women in the church should not be a source of conflict among the faithful at different places along the theological spectrum but a point of contact and cooperation. How might we join together around this issue? Here are a few ideas:
1. We should cry out together for greater roles for women in church administration and leadership at all levels. The gift of being a good leader is not a grace of the sacrament of orders. And since many women today are not only theologically trained but have reached levels of theological accomplishment that far surpass those of most priests, there is no reason that women should not serve as officials at all ecclesial levels, from the Roman Curia on down. There is also no theological reason faithful women who have attained the highest accomplishments in church, business, social services and other areas could not be named cardinals.
The gift of being a good leader is not a grace of the Sacrament of Orders.
2. Bishops, priests and deacons of all stripes should strive to be more attentive in their preaching to the dignity of women. That will mean becoming more familiar with feminist scriptural commentary and theology. It will mean lamenting the absence of many of the most important Scripture passages about women from the Sunday lectionary cycle—how is it possible that Mary’s Magnificat is never proclaimed on any Sunday of the three-year cycle?—and for that reason making sure to preach on the passages about women that are there. Be sure, for example, to use the longer version of the Gospel on the Sunday after Christmas, Year B, since the shorter version excludes the passage about the prophetess Anna. Similarly, proclaim the longer form of the Gospel on the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time in Year B, since the woman with a hemorrhage is excised from the shorter form.
3. We must also take as seriously as possible the question of the ordination of women to the diaconate, recently raised again by Pope Francis. After all, the strongest conclusion that could be reached on the topic in 2002 by the International Theological Commission, following a five-year study of Scripture, doctrine, theology and linguistics, was that the evidence, in the words of its general secretary, “tend[s] to support the exclusion of this possibility.” From a Vatican-appointed, (then) all-male group of scholars, that’s practically resounding support for women deacons. Given the cultural biases that mark our history and our present, the reasons for excluding women from any role should have to be blindingly clear and obvious.
Bishops, priests and deacons of all stripes should strive to be more attentive in their preaching to the dignity of women.
We certainly need to dismiss the argument against women deacons that says it is unworkable, because it would only encourage those who wish to see women priests. Current canon law—as revised under Pope Benedict XVI—makes clear the theological distinctions between the diaconate and the priesthood. If women can be ordained deacons, then it is just too bad if someone gets the wrong idea about women priests; we will either have to have a good explanation about why the two are very different or admit we cannot explain why they are and accept the consequences of that.
Who knows whether my daughter Abigail, as she moves into adulthood 10 or 15 years from now, will still wish she could be a priest. Even if she does not, she will be—if she grows into the smart, self-confident and faithful Catholic that I hope she does—at least a bit uncomfortable with her church’s teaching on the ordination of women. As she struggles with that discomfort, I hope that one conclusion that will be nearly impossible for her, thanks to the life and witness of the church at that time, will be to dismiss the teaching as a sign of patriarchal attitudes that lie at the heart of the church’s structures and its message.