Activists Still Pine for Women Priests
LYON, France — The debate about women's ordination rages on.
Doctrinally, Pope John Paul II ended the debate in 1994 when he wrote:
“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 (see Luke 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.”
The election of Pope Benedict XVI left no room for doubt. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had excommunicated seven women “ordained” on the Danube River in 2002.
All the same, advocates of women's ordination appear to be turning up the volume on their call for change.
A French woman said she was ordained by three women who call themselves bishops in a July 2 ceremony on the Saone River near Lyon.
Nine more women — seven Americans, a German living in the United States and a Canadian — also plan to be “ordained,” four as priests and five as deacons, July 25 in a rite to be conducted on the St. Lawrence Seaway between the United States and Canada.
The diocesan newspaper in St. Cloud, Minn., published a June 23 editorial, “The Half-Full Stained Glass,” calling on the Church to once again discuss the possibility of ordaining women. In it, Joseph Young wrote that the Church's all-male hierarchy can only live up to half its potential if it does not tap into feminine wisdom, judgment, expertise and talent.
“I think it is just a convergence of things,” said Kathleen Strack, one of the candidates for “ordination” as a deacon July 25. She added, “It's gathering steam; obviously, this isn't going to peter out in the next five days.”
Indeed, Victoria Rue, who said she will be “ordained” a priest July 25, pointed out that 70 women, including 38 from the United States, are in the preparation program that produced the “Danube 7” in 2002. Two of those women, Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger of Austria and Gisela Forster of Germany, have called themselves bishops since 2003 and say they will “ordain” the group of nine later this month.
“We look forward to this happening every year,” Rue said. In addition to these public ceremonies, she said, small house churches have continued to “ordain” their own leaders as part of the women's ordination movement.
Kelly Reed, a theology teacher at Cardinal Stritch High School in Oregon, Ohio, sees the latest developments as an opportunity to educate Catholics about the Church's teaching on the priesthood.
“Most of these issues come down to a lack of education,” Reed said. “People know what they want to know, but they're not well-informed on some of these topics. Sometimes, I think the Spirit moves us so we will educate ourselves. When people educate themselves, they can unite and strengthen the Church, instead of being divisive.”
Reed studied the women's ordination issue while pursuing a master's degree in theology. As part of her research, she surveyed the faculty and staff at two Catholic high schools in Toledo, Ohio, and found that 90% thought the Church should ordain women. Fewer than 10%, however, had ever read anything on the topic, much less a Church document.
“Really, people don't know,” she said. “They have no clue why the Church teaches as it does.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Only a baptized man validly receives sacred ordination. The Lord Jesus chose men to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry” (No. 1577).
“The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself,” the Catechism continues. “For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.”
Bride and Groom
However, Jennifer Ferrara, a former Lutheran pastor who gave up her ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America when she became Catholic in 1998, said a more compelling argument against women's ordination concerns the differences between men and women that are built into the economy of salvation.
“In the traditional Catholic way of viewing things,” Ferrara said, “Christ is the bridegroom, the Church is his bride. The priest represents Christ the bridegroom, the head of the Church, and this is especially true in the Eucharist when Christ is exercising his ministry of salvation. Women cannot represent Christ as the bridegroom.”
Advocates of women's ordination contend that all Christians are called to represent Christ in the world.
But Ferrara said those who argue that women can represent Christ as priests think of femaleness as an attribute similar to nationality or skin color and thus minimize the differences between male and female.
“According to traditional Catholic teaching, she said, “the differences between male and female are a constituent part of who we are…. Men and women are both images of God, but they are distinct. [Women] can't image Christ's masculinity. Women cannot image Christ to the extent that he was a man.”
Ferrara attributed those ideas to Pope John Paul II's Catechesis on the Book of Genesis and the 1976 “Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood.
If women are ordained, Ferrara said, the Church will have a more Protestant idea of ministry, which is functional and amounts to somebody doing a job.
“The priest is an icon of Christ and acts in persona Christi at the altar and in the confessional,” she said. “You have to disregard the importance of that entire symbolism of Christ as bridegroom, the Church as bride, in order to make the argument for women's ordination. It has to be jettisoned altogether, because the feminine cannot represent the masculine.”
Ferrara thinks that if the Church should ordain women, much would be at stake.
She has no doubt that women can do “the job” of ministry as well as men.
But, “I think that to insist upon women's ordination is to deny what is noble and holy about being women,” she said.
She said, “That's what people conclude without understanding the theology and that's what would be lost if we ordain women.”
Judy Roberts is based in Graytown, Ohio.
- July 24-August 6, 2005