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Promote integrity – to overcome organisational control

How to get the Church to accept women as priests. Strategy Presenter’s Pack, part 4.

Note for presenters. A diagram for printing and distributing to your listeners can be downloaded here: Promoting Integrity.

In recent years Rome has unleashed an unprecedented ‘reign of terror’ in the Church with the express purpose of suppressing all further discussion on women priests. This springs, no doubt, from the conviction that the ordination of women contradicts Scripture and Tradition, and that the faithful should be spared the ordeal of going through uncertainty and confusion. Powerful measures of organisational control have been put in place and are being constantly monitored.

  • Bishops. Only those men are elected as candidates for the episcopacy who undertake, probably on oath, not to promote the ordination of women. Constant pressure is put on bishops ‘to resolutely refuse any support to those people, whether individuals or groups, who defend the priestly ordination of women, whether they do so in the name of progress, human rights, compassion or whatever reason it may be’.1 Individual bishops receive detailed instructions from Rome regarding supposed ‘dissidents’ in their dioceses. The Synods of Bishops, which were instituted by the Vatican Council to curb curial monopoly, have been deprived of any real influence by a rigging of the agenda, by saturating committees with members of the Roman Curia, by a subtle censorship of bishops’ contributions, by selectively omitting resolutions voted on by the bishops.2
  • Religious Superiors.Whenever a man or woman religious expresses disagreement with Rome’s view on women priests, Roman Congregations lean on the Superior General concerned. Usually this happens behind the scenes and religious superiors are urged to keep Rome’s intervention secret, but some cases have come out into the open. In October 1994, fourteen prominent Religious Sisters in India belonging to ten different Religious Congregations addressed their objections to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in a letter to the Holy Father. All the Congregations were leaned upon.3
  • Theologians. Professors in seminaries and theological colleges are required to swear the oath of loyalty which now, since Ad Tuendam Fidem (28 May 1998), includes agreement to the ban on women priests. Theologians have been dismissed from their teaching posts because of their views on the ordination of women. Others have been warned that they will be dismissed if they speak out on the issue. Rome has issued new instructions that put Catholic Colleges under more direct ecclesiastical control. I know of cases where theologians have been admonished by their bishops, on instigation of Rome, because they had allowed their articles to be published on the women priests’ web site. Last year the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales withdrew sponsorship of a theological conference in Newman College, Birmingham, because I was one of the speakers.4
  • Editors, Writers, Publishers. Many Catholic newspapers and magazines are vulnerable because they are owned by dioceses or by publishing houses owned by religious congregations. Rome has issued strict instructions to book censors not to give the Imprimatur or Nihil Obstat to books favourable to women priests. The Liturgical Press of St. John’s Abbey, Minnesota, North American publisher of Woman at the Altar by Lavinia Byrne, allegedly burnt its stock of 1300 copies when it was informed by the local bishop that Rome was displeased with the book. A number of Catholic publishers to whom I showed the manuscript of The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church. Unmasking a Cuckoo’s Egg Tradition, responded with: “We’d love to publish a book like that, but we can’t in the present climate in the Church!”
  • Parish Priests, Lay leaders. Through the new oath of loyalty priests too are put under pressure to fall in line with Rome’s opposition to women priests. The ban to women priests has been incorporated into central Church documents: Church Law (can. 1024), the official Catechism (§ 1577).
  • Congresses and Meetings of Catholic Organisations. The outcome of such consultations is often manipulated by Roman interference. An infamous example is the Third World Congress for the Lay Apostolate (Rome 1967) that manifested the wide range of ‘hierarchical control mechanisms’ that Rome has used ever since.5

The intimidation from above has resulted in a climate in which many individuals and groups act and speak against their better knowledge. They feel trapped between conflicting loyalties. On the one hand, they do not want to disobey authority or risk their jobs and positions. On the other hand, they realise that Rome’s stand against women priests is really untenable and is doomed to fail. This becomes a problem of conscience which is ‘resolved’ with the help of classical rationalisations:

“Authority has spoken. I have to obey.”
“Everybody else toes the party line. Why should I risk my neck?”
“Another Pope will surely change this policy, meanwhile I better comply . . .”
“It is better for the people entrusted to me that I keep my job.”

It is not my intention here to condemn the persons who are caught in this terrible dilemma. Their struggle is real. As a professor of Sacred Scripture in the missionary college in London I experienced the same trauma. I continued to teach, saying to myself: “Surely the Church will come round soon! It’s better for my students that I stay. I can prepare them for the future … ” That was before Ad Tuendam Fidem that imposed the oath. The problem is that, while everyone finds excuses, integrity, truth and credibility suffer. If people comply, and even swear oaths, with bad consciences, the Church itself is gradually being corrupted. For what is more important in theology than that the truth be fearlessly sought out and freely discussed? And what is more important for the teaching authority than that its opinions can be trusted? And what is more dreadful to the People of God than that they are reduced to a bunch of puppets held by a string?

The abuse of power by the Roman Curia calls for an urgent reform of how authority is structured and exercised in the Church. 6 It also calls for special steps on our part.

Principle. The movement for the ordination of women should promote integrity at all costs.

  1. Pastoral leaders should be encouraged to speak out.

    In recent years a number of bishops, religious superiors, parish priests and theologians have spoken out. They deserve our full support and their statements should be widely publicised to encourage others to do the same.

    In this context it is useful to remind all concerned that Church functionaries who have sworn the ‘oath of loyalty’ are not bound by the oath as to parts which go against their conscience. Bishops, for instance, who have promised not to promote the ordination of women as a condition of their admission to the episcopacy, are able to change their position once they realise that the ban against women priests is based on faulty evidence. Bishops know from their study of moral theology that a promise, even if made under oath, ceases to oblige if (a) a substantial error affected their knowledge regarding the object of the promise, or (b) if an error affected the purpose of the promise (e.g. what is good for the Church), or (c) if the promise was made under fear, or (d) if the object of the promise has become impossible or harmful. The promise ceases ab intrinseco, as Thomas Aquinas taught: “Whatever would have been an impediment to the making of a promise if it had been present, also lifts the obligation from a promise that has been made.”7

  2. We must ‘disrupt the system’ by voicing protests on all suitable occasions.

    This applied to the Soviet Union8 and to dictatorial governments in Latin America,9 and it has consequences for Christians,10 also in the context of the women priests’ question. Church leaders will continue to ignore the issue unless we constantly remind them of the anomaly. This is known as ‘disrupting the system’. 11

    Women’s movements in many countries are already engaged in such activity: rallies in front of the diocesan cathedral on regular days; parish priests who refuse to take the oath of loyalty;12  male pastoral workers who decline the diaconate until their women colleagues will also be ordained;13 public billboards demanding ‘Ordain Women’ and many other actions. The North-American Women’s Ordination Conference is leading the way, and publicising ideas through its email newsletter Action Alert and its quarterly NewWomen, NewChurch.14

    It is imperative that such demonstrations be stepped up and maintained.

  3. We must expose all forms of behind-the-scene pressure.

    Many Catholics would be appalled if they knew how much pressure Rome is putting on bishops, religious superiors, heads of colleges, theologians, editors, publishers and writers. Rome often succeeds because it simultaneously imposes a duty of ‘silence’. No one is supposed to know. But, unless there is a genuine case in which confidentiality needs to be maintained for some personal reasons, this secrecy plays into the hands of those who abuse their power. The answer lies in openness and in revealing publicly what is happening.

    At the Synod on Evangelisation in 1974, Vatican organisers surreptitiously withdrew a report of what the 200 participating bishops had suggested in their various workshops and substituted it with a document they themselves had already prepared in advance. The new document was presented as if it was a summary of the bishops’ suggestions. The ploy was only frustrated by some participants courageously unmasking the deceit in a general assembly.15

    Public awareness in the Church will be aroused if more and more of such cases are brought out into the light for all to see.

John Wijngaards


  1. Letter of the Congregation for Doctrine to Bishops, Osservatore Romano 13 September 1983.
  2. This has been documented in detail for the Synod on the Family. See J. Grootaers and J. A. Selling, The 1980 Synod of Bishops On the Role of the Family, Louvain 1983, 375 pages. Similar manipulations took place at the Synods on Evangelisation, on the Laity, on Africa, on Asia, on Europe, to mention but a few (see The Tablet, correspondence 16 Oct – 20 Nov 1999).
  3. ‘Women Religious in India respond to John Paul II’, Worth (10 October 1994), Jegamatha Ashram, Ponmalaipatti, Tiruchirapalli 620 004, India.
  4. Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham, prompted by Rome, demanded that I undertake in writing not to raise the question of women priests. I refused to do so even though my topic was not directly related to women priests. See The Tablet, 24 June 2000, pp. 875-876.
  5. J.G.Vaillancourt, Papal Power. A Study of Vatican Control over Lay Catholic Elites, Berkeley 1980.
  6. B. Tierney, Origins of Papal Infallibility, Brill, Leiden 1972; A.B. Hasler, Wie der Papst unfehlbar wurde, Munich 1979; P. Chirico, Infallibility: The Cross roads of Doctrine, Michael Glazier, Wilmington 1983; J.M.R.Tillard, The Bishop of Rome, Michael Glazier, Wilmington 1983; P. Granfield, The Papacy in Transition, Gill, Dublin 1981; P. Granfield, The Limits of the Papacy: Authority and Autonomy in the Church, Crossroad, New York 1990; L.M.Bermejo, Infallibility on Trial: Church, Conciliarity and Communion, Christian Classics, Westminster 1992; H.Küng, Infallible? An Inquiry, Collins, London 1971; SCM, London 1994; P. Dentin, Les privilèges des papes devant l’écriture et l’histoire, Cerf, Paris 1995; P. Collins, Papal Power, Harper Collins, Australia 1997; M. Fiedler & L. Rabben (eds.), Rome has Spoken …, Crossroad, New York 1998; E. Stourton, Absolute Truth, London 1998; J.Manning, Is the Pope Catholic?, Toronto 1999.
  7. Thomas Aquinas, Scriptum super IV libros Sententiarum dist. 38, q.1, sol. 1 ad 1; D. M. Prümmer, Manuale Theologiae Moralis, Freiburg 1936, vol. II, ‘De Voto’, pp. 326-348.
  8. A.D. Sakharov, Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom, Pelican 1968.
  9. For instance, G. Gutiérrez, ‘Notes for a Theology of Liberation’, Theological Studies 31 (1970) pp. 243-261; C. Torres, Revolutionary Priest, Pelican 1973.
  10. H. Gollwitzer, Veränderungen im Diesseits. Politische Predigten, Munich 1973.
  11. J.B.Metz, Unterbrechungen. Theologisch-politische Perspektive und Profile, Gütersloh 1981; R. van Eyden, ‘Womenpriests: Keeping Mum or Speaking Out?’, (2 November 1996); english text on www.womenpriests.org/teaching/eyden.htm.
  12. E. McCarthy, ‘Soline Vatinel, the Archbishop and Me’BASIC Newsletter(19 January 2000) pp. 26 – 31.
  13. In the diocese of Augsburg, Germany; see Diakonia 24 (May 1993) nr.3.
  14. Both are an absolute must for WO campaigners. WOC National Office, PO Box 2693, Fairfax, VA 22031, USA. Tel. + 1 – 703 – 352 1006. Email: woc@womensordination.org.
  15. The details of these machinations were narrated to me, in a personal discussion, by Fr. D. S. Amalorpavadass, one of the two Secretary Generals at the Synod. See The Tablet, 6 November 1999, pp. 1506-1507.
  16. Romans 8, 26-27.

Overview Strategy Presenter’s Pack

  1. Reclaim the centre ground
  2. Learn and educate for change
  3. Break barriers and make women visible
  4. Promote integrity