Lucetta ScaraffiaSeptember 16, 2021
Cardinals arrive in procession for a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in memory of cardinals and bishops who died in the past year, in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Nov. 3. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Editor’s note: In a lecture at Fordham University in New York in 1996, Avery Dulles, S.J., addressed what he saw as the major objections to the apostolic letter of Pope John Paul II in 1994, “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” on the inadmissibility of women to the Catholic priesthood. The talk was published in Origins (Vol. 25, No. 45, dated May 2, 1996) as “Gender and Priesthood: Examining the Teaching” and was reprinted in America in 2001. To mark the 25th anniversary of this essay, America asked two scholars, Lucetta Scaraffia and Julia Brumbaugh, to respond. The full text of the Dulles essay can be found here.

This article is part of The Conversation with America Media, offering diverse perspectives on important issues in the life of the church. 

Avery Dulles’s lucid essay on the female priesthood, or rather its impossibility within the Catholic Church, raises fundamental questions that go beyond the scope of the ordination of women: What is the church’s relationship to its female members overall? And by what criteria do we judge the institutional church’s response to women?

If we judge by modern standards of equality and equal opportunity between women and men, are we not in danger of placing too much emphasis on social conditioning? A religion, and particularly the Christian religion, is not simply a moral system. It is born of revelation and obeys a tradition, and we must take that into account.

As Christians, we certainly do not lack the arguments within the Gospel tradition to find sure and clear indications in this regard. In Scripture, Jesus acknowledges that women have an equal—and sometimes even superior—capacity for spiritual understanding, and he entrusts them with complex and difficult missions, including the commission to tell the other disciples of his resurrection (Jn 20:1-18; Mt 28:1-10; Mk 16:1-11). If he does not entrust them with the priesthood, it is certainly not because he considers them inferior, nor because of the influence of the social customs of his time. More than once, and precisely on the subject of women, he is able to subvert these customs with courage (Jn 4:1-42; Lk 7:36-50). We can deduce from this that Jesus wants to point women and men to missions of different kinds, but equal value.

A religion, and particularly the Christian religion, is not simply a moral system. It is born of revelation and obeys a tradition, and we must take that into account.

The history of the church, unfortunately, confronts us with another reality. The exclusion of women from the priesthood has been considered evidence to sanction their inferiority, even on a spiritual level. This has had consequences in the life of the church, where for almost two millennia women have performed secondary, if not servile, tasks, and where their voice has not been heard. In other words, their exclusion lies at the root of the conception of priesthood that has prevailed. Despite what Dulles writes—“The ministerial priesthood is not a sign of personal superiority, but a humble service to be performed for the good of all God's people”—the priesthood has been transformed into a role of power and an opportunity for an institutional career instead of one of service to the faithful.

When asked if she wants a female priesthood, a friend of mine who is a woman religious replied, “No, I want there to be no more priests.” She obviously understands the term “priest” to be the equivalent to “man of power.”

Read Father Matt Malone’s introduction to this year’s special issue on women and the life of the church.

For this reason, the debate on the possibility of female priesthood must have as its first objective that of re-examining the priestly figure in the light of its historical reality, one that is certainly not consistent with the Gospel message. In this sense, any attempt to ordain women in order to give them more power in the church is also not consistent with the Gospel message, even if this project has the noble intention of putting an end to the subordination of women. In human history, justice has never been restored by shifting power from one class to another.

The refusal to accept the ordination of women to the priesthood would be more easily accepted if it were accompanied by respect toward women and an openness to collaborate with them. The current subordination of women in the church and the lack of respect and listening shown by the ecclesiastical institution certainly does not help anyone to understand the reasons for this exclusion, which seems more like a way to continue to hold power. Dulles grasps the need for greater respect toward women, but limits himself to citing John XXIII and John Paul II’s timid comments about women. Aside from the fact that both popes made statements about the equal treatment of women that have not been followed up in the life of the church, they issued texts—particularly John Paul II’s “Mulieris Dignitatem,” with its problematic explication of the qualities of the “feminine genius”—that require further discussion and debate.

But above all they are words. Just words. No consideration is given to reality, which conveys a very different set of information to women in the church.

The refusal to accept the ordination of women to the priesthood would be more easily accepted if it were accompanied by respect toward women and an openness to collaborate with them.

The witness of women religious

The real life of the church reveals a total lack of consideration for women in religious life, who until recently constituted well over half of the worldwide members of religious institutes. It can be said without any exaggeration that the sisters have kept up the presence of the church in the world by their tireless and passionate work without receiving anything in return. Their voices have never been heard and their opinions are almost never asked for, not even during the procedures for selecting new bishops. This, of course, is an issue on which they would have much to say because they know the priests of the various dioceses well; what is more, they are devoid of any competitive interest.

In essence, women religious are treated as obedient and silent servants, and accepted only if they behave as such. Only recently did Pope Francis, during one of his periodic audiences with the superior generals of women’s religious institutes, allow—at their explicit and precise request—a dialogue with him, as had always happened with their male counterparts.

If the church has not changed, women religious have. Their flagship association—the International Union of Superiors General (U.I.S.G.), which brings together almost all the women’s congregations of active life in the world—has initiated important international projects. The U.I.S.G. has also received prestigious awards for its work, most from non-Catholic institutions. Outside the church it is becoming an association that is listened to and respected. Inside the church it is almost as if the organization did not exist. Neither the president nor the women religious who are part of the U.I.S.G. governing council—capable women and experts on the situation of the church in different countries—are ever regularly consulted by any Vatican body, much less by the Council of Cardinals, an advisory council established by Pope Francis and formed only by cardinals.

In essence, women religious are treated as obedient and silent servants, and accepted only if they behave as such.

Lay women in the church

This is not to mention the parallel situation of subordination encountered by women in parishes, those who are catechism teachers, and also those interested in the life of the church from the inside or the outside. For example, women who work as journalists covering the church have long experienced condescension and disinterest from male church authorities, with the implication that they are less important and interesting than men. A hierarchy that is totally male and not used to having relationships with women obviously prefers to have contacts with men, even in the media.

In these conditions, it is difficult to create a theological and symbolic discourse that can justify the rejection of the female priesthood in any way that is credible to women in the church. The reasons offered for a male-only priesthood start to seem like they were invented to justify other things, such as the holding of power. I think instead that a real openness to listening to and collaborating with women would make this prohibition of women’s ordination less difficult to accept for women. Above all, it would have the function of attenuating (if not actually zeroing out) much of the clericalism that today poisons the life of the church on an institutional level. If women could offer their points of view, their particular experiences, their freedom as people who do not pursue ecclesiastical career goals, it might bring to the church the breath of fresh air and life that it sorely needs.

Of course, this would also mean truly reopening the discussion about the role of the laity in the life of the church, with the consequence of de-emphasizing or at least further contextualizing the role of the clergy. Giving such a true opening to women would be a fulfillment of the desire of John XXIII—to throw open the windows of the church and to let fresh air into a sclerotic institution.

A real openness to listening to and collaborating with women would make the prohibition of women’s ordination less difficult to accept for women.

A modest proposal

There is no need to cancel tradition or to destroy the symbolic meaning of a consecration in the name of an equal access to professions imposed by the contemporary social context. The priesthood is not a profession. It is a mission. And not everyone has the same mission. This is the prophetic message that the church claims but needs still to hear, a message that invites us to look at the world with eyes that are less ideological and more attentive to diversity, more respectful of spiritual needs. Those spiritual needs do not necessarily coincide with social needs.

But there is also another possibility, one that would allow women to acquire authoritative roles in the church without substantially altering tradition: appointing women who have especially distinguished themselves as cardinal deacons. They would not need to be ordained priests to serve in this office.

The idea was suggested to me many years ago by Mary Douglas, the great English anthropologist of Catholicism and a careful scholar of the role played by symbols in religious traditions. Perfectly aware of the symbolic significance of the male choice for the priesthood, Douglas also knew that in the tradition of the church there was a figure—that of the cardinal not ordained a priest—that could serve as a precedent for the development of this role for women.

Cardinals, as we know, are appointed exclusively by the pope. According to the criteria confirmed by the Council of Trent, their ranks can include non-ordained persons. It is true that according to the current Code of Canon Law one must be ordained a priest to be admitted to the order of cardinal deacons. However, this is a rule of canon law, not a dogma, and not even an ancient one. There have been many cardinals in the history of the church who were not ordained priests, like Rodrigo Borgia, later Pope Alexander VI, who received holy orders only shortly before being elected pontiff.

The presence of female figures in the College of Cardinals, a body whose tasks include electing future popes, would guarantee a greater voice in addressing the problems of the church and would finally give women the authoritative role they deserve in the Catholic community.

In the past it has been said that at least one of the cardinals appointed in pectore (those appointed by a pope who for various reasons does not make the appointment public) by John Paul II was a woman; some rumors point to Chiara Lubich and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. It has never been determined if this rumor was well-founded, but the very fact that it circulated and was considered possible—and above all the fact that there were authoritative candidates for the role—demonstrates how such an action can be practiced and accepted.

Opening up the church to women while maintaining the idea of diversity in mission must be a proposal that originates within the ecclesial institution, one that draws its origins from its traditions and from attentive listening to the Gospel message, not from social conditioning coming from outside. This requires serious self-criticism and a great deal of courage. Let us hope that in the future, a church that has grown and evolved over two millennia will surprise us in this way and give itself a prophetic look again.

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