Women Clergy for Rome?
by Rosemary Lauer
The Christian Century, Vol. LXXXIII, No.37, Sept.14, 1966.
There is a good bit of evidence that the Holy Spirit is answering this question affirmatively.
Miss Lauer, one of 21 professors dismissed from St. John’s University in New York last December, this fall will be writing, studying, and serving as a residence counselor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.
Whether or not to ordain women, one would think, is a problem that ought to be one of the minor obstacles to reunification of the Christian churches. It seems however that it is going to prove if not a major at least a very troublesome obstacle. For example, Ernest Marshall Howse, moderator of the United Church of Canada, recently found it necessary to say quite flatly (in the United Church Observer) that the projected union between his church and the Anglican Church of Canada cannot proceed unless the United Church’s half a hundred ordained women ministers are accepted without reservation in the new church. But the Anglican Church, while for the past 50 years it has regularly discussed the ordination of women at its Lambeth conferences, has just as regularly come to a negative decision.
Still, that negative decision has never been the result of theological argument only. Every time Lambeth rejected the proposed admission of women to the ministry the telling argument was that Anglican women priests, or even deacons, would present an insuperable barrier to reunion with the Roman Catholic Church, since there wasn’t a chance in the world that Rome would ever accept female clergy. Fortunately, at the very time the Anglican Church is finding itself pressured in the name of ecumenism to accept women as equal in the ministry, large cracks are beginning to appear in the solid wall of opposition formerly presented by the Roman church.
Pope John Cracks the Wall
Pope John XXIII may have put one of the first significant cracks in this wall when he said in Pacem in Terris: “Human beings have the right to choose freely the state of life which they prefer and therefore the right to set up a family, with equal rights and duties for man and woman, and also the right to follow a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life.” There are those who think that Pope John, like the prophet he was, was actually saying more in this passage than he realized, that this is the sort of statement that future theologians may claim embodies papal teaching that women, as “human beings” have a “right to follow a vocation to the priesthood.”
Whatever the merit of this prediction about future theologians (who are at any rate rather unlikely to be as concerned with “papal teaching” as their predecessors were), the fact is that recognizing women as human beings with “equal rights and duties” cannot but have repercussions on a theological position founded on an assumption of female inferiority and subordination. Pope John, of course, was not claiming to have made any discovery that such an assumption was unwarranted; he was simply saying that the modern world has made this discovery and that the church had better recognize it if it does not want to be isolated from the society it is supposed to leaven.
Comments at the Council
Many of the council fathers saw this clearly and stated as much. Thus for the first time in the recorded history of the Roman church a general council heard it said that the role of women in the church must be re-examined. Cardinal Suenens said that “in an age in which women travel almost to the moon” they might at least be admitted as observers to the council — and, mirabile dictu, they were, though of course no woman was allowed to cast a vote. Melkite Archbishop George Hakim of Galilee complained that the Schema on the Church was so silent on the place of women in the church that one might think they didn’t exist, whereas the church was missing the boat by not taking advantage of the dedicated service of women.
Again, Bishop Gerard-Marie Coderre of St. Jean, Quebec, declared that the church must accept and promote the evolution of woman’s social status. Archbishop Joseph Malula of Leopoldville asked that the church give an example by “abandoning its distrust of women and granting them a larger share in [its] work.” Bishop Baurlein of Djakovo, Yugoslavia, maintained that all human beings should be treated alike, without regard to race, sex or social status. It is not enough, he said, to recognize this equality in theory; “it must be translated into action.” Bishop August Frotz of Cologne remarked that modern women expect to be accepted as equal partners with men in intellectual and cultural life, and that therefore women in the church must be treated as “grown-up daughters and not just as children.” (Bishop Frotz has also spoken and written on the subject outside the council, pointing out, for example, that the social status of women in the early Christian centuries undoubtedly influenced St. Paul’s attitude toward women and that biblical study must “sift what is of value and lasting from what is passing and conditioned by local custom.”) Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban, South Africa, predicted in a press interview that “there are going to be some fantastic developments” in the role of women in the church.
But the only council father to ask for the ordination of women was an American, Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan of Atlanta. In a written intervention which came nearly at the close of the council (an intervention that received a mysteriously silent treatment in the American Catholic press — as if it were thought that Archbishop Hallinan had taken leave of his senses and his lapse into insanity ought to be shielded from the ugly glare of publicity; or perhaps that the reading public needed to be protected from exposure to such dangerous views) the Atlanta prelate said that it was about time the church assumed some responsibility for furthering the emancipation of women. As practical measures he suggested that women be permitted to act as lectors and acolytes at mass, that they be encouraged to become theologians and teachers of theology, that nuns be represented on the commission to revise canon law and on the Sacred Congregation for Religious, and that women be made deaconesses with authority to preach, to baptize and to distribute holy communion.
Meanwhile, however, Catholic theologians of note were making statements that went far beyond anything said in the aula of St. Peter’s. Fr. Jean Danielou, S.J., expressed himself as being in favor of the ordination of deaconesses “without delay and therefore before the end of the Council.” Avant garde as his statement may seem, it was not made in a theological vacuum. In 1962 Fr. Haye van der Meer, S.J., with Fr. Karl Rahner as his mentor, completed a doctoral thesis at Innsbruck titled “Theologische Uberlegungen uber die Thesis: subiectum ordinationis solus est mas” (“Theological Reflections on the Thesis: the male alone is fit for ordination”). The author considers the usual arguments for excluding women from ordination — arguments from Scripture and traditional theology — and concludes that there is no valid reason for continuing the exclusion. Moreover, he claims that Canon 968, Section 1, limiting ordination to a vir baptizatus, requires clarification. The canon has ordinarily been interpreted as forbidding the ordination of women, but it seems more likely that what it forbids is the ordination of non-baptizatus. Thus ordination of a femina baptizata was never contemplated by the framers of the canon; so they could scarcely have intended to legislate against it.
At about the same time that Fr. van der Meer was working on his dissertation in Innsbruck another Jesuit, Jose Idigoras, was pursuing a similar investigation at the Catholic University in Lima, Peru. Adapted excerpts from his doctoral thesis, “La Mujer dentro del Orden Sagrado” (“Woman in Relation to Holy Ordination”), were printed in the widely circulated Informations Catholiques Internationales in 1963 and 1965. Idigoras also examines the usual antifeminine arguments and, like van der Meer, concludes that the church not only may but must admit women to orders if it is to be true to the gospel and to St. Paul’s obviously doctrinal statement (opposed to the discriminatory disciplinary statements) that in Christ “there is neither male or female” (Gal. 3:28).
A North American, Fr. Charles R. Meyer of the Mundelein seminary faculty in the Chicago archdiocese, takes up in an article in a recent issue of Chicago Studies (excerpted in the popular Catholic Digest) the problem of whether, as Fr. Idigoras claims, some of St. Paul’s female assistants were genuinely ordained deaconesses — a problem which is crucial, since the Catholic Church regards admission to the diaconate as so related to ordination that women could not be capable of the diaconate unless they were also capable of the priesthood. Fr. Meyer’s study concludes:
We must, I think . . . admit that the theologians and canonists of our time have been . . . guilty of some dishonesty in treating the question of the ordination of women in the early Church. In their treatises on the matter there seems to be a selective presentation of the facts, if indeed any attempt at all is made to do other than merely repeat what their predecessors have said. . . . But the time for complete honesty is at hand . . . now theologians must make a careful and unprejudiced re-examination of the whole question. This is the least they can do.
Other theologians who have discussed this problem publicly are Fr. Hans Kung and Fr. George H. Tavard, who have said that they know of no valid theological objection to the ordination of women.
The Women Speak Out
But the women, who are most concerned, have not been standing around passively while waiting for the men to settle their fate. This past year Sister Vincent Emmanuel Hannon of the Pontifical institute Regina Mundis in Rome presented a thesis on “Women and the Priesthood” in which she marshals arguments to show that the ordained state of deacons in the primitive church stands or falls with that of the deaconesses. In Germany two years ago Elizabeth Schussler, in her Der Vergessene Partner (“The Forgotten Partner”), called for a complete restudy of the status of women in the church. In the Netherlands Govaart Halikes, in her Storm Na de Stilte( Storm after the Stillness, published in 1964) argues that the old reasons brought against the ordination of women are no longer tenable.
Three German women — Josepha Münch of Neukirch über Friedrichshafen and Iris Müller and Ida Raming of Munster — have completed the ordinary theological courses in state universities (making them Volltheologinnen) and keep up a constant barrage of privately circulated articles and letters asking for admission of women to the priesthood. Iris Müller has particularly good reasons for the urgency of her request: before her conversion to the Roman Catholic Church she was a Protestant parish vicar.
Gertrud Heinzelmann, a lawyer in Zurich, Switzerland, dispatched to the preparatory commission of the Vatican Council a lengthy document detailing the falsity of the premises, adopted largely from Thomas Aquinas, basic to the church’s official attitude toward women, and requesting that the church reject Thomistic teaching in this matter and eliminate antifeminism from church practices. Her petition, Frau und Konzil (“Woman and the Council”), was translated into English (with adaptations) and published in the United States by the Davenport Catholic Messenger. Also published in English was Dr. Heinzelmann’s “The Priesthood and Women,” in Commonweal, January 15, 1965. The same number of Commonweal had another article on the same subject, “A Built-in Bias,” by Mary Daly, the first American woman to receive the degree of Doctor of Sacred Theology, which she took at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.
The change in Roman Catholic attitudes vis-a-vis the ordination of women has been definitely evidenced in popular Catholic journals also, such as the Friar, the U.S. Catholic, Sign, Ava Maria and the Liguorian. There the theological arguments on the subject have been presented, though in simplified form, with at least an open mind. Nor have the “traditionalists” been silent. The Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano recently ran a series of articles by Gino Concetti, a Franciscan, saying that the authoritative teaching of the church is that divine apostolic precepts exclude women forever from the church’s ministry. (Which, incidentally, prompted Msgr. George C. Higgins, director of the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s social action department, to remind a press conference in Rome that “L’Osservatore Romano may have a lot of power but it does not constitute official church teaching.”)
Auxiliary Bishop Walter Kampe of Limburg, Germany, complained in 1964 that Protestants were undermining ecumenical efforts by persisting in ordaining women. “If the Protestant side,” he said, “has voiced the expectation that the Vatican Council will not proclaim new dogmas that could not be recognized by all Christians, we in turn must expect the Protestant churches not to create any institution which must become a new source of controversy.” Charles Boyer, S.J., seemed to be like-minded in his appraisal of the World Council of Churches’ publication L’Ordination des Femmes, all of whose contributors except the Orthodox approved such ordination. “The priesthood is reserved to men,” Fr. Boyer said. “This, as everybody knows, is the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. … If women were capable of that sacrament, the Church could not have deprived them of that grace for so many centuries.” Msgr. George W. Shea, rector of Immaculate Conception Seminary in Darlington, New Jersey, declared in a press interview his firm belief that “Christ taught that only a baptized male can be a priest” and that the burden of proof rested with the opposition. If women were ordained before the least shadow of doubt were removed from the question, “the mass and the sacraments would be exposed to invalidity.” Msgr. Shea did not say why Christ should have made such an exclusion, but a seminary rector trained in scholastic methods would hardly want to maintain that Christ acted without reason.
Someday, Perhaps a Woman Pope
The traditional reasons sound not only fallacious but downright absurd today. To maintain that women are by nature lacking certain virtues and the ability to acquire them can only be dismissed as unscientific and quaint. But the claims are still made. For example, Fr. Desmond F. McGoldrick, a Redemptorist, writes in a book addressed to nuns on the subject of obedience, Independence Through Submission (Duquesne University Press, 1965):
The tendency of many Sisters is to live a virtuous life out of contact with the practical issues of reality. It is a tendency peculiar to their sex as a whole. Because of the endowments of nature, women possess a very sensitive emotional field. They are prone to contact reality only at the emotional level. They allow their feelings to interpret truth, and to become the premises from which they draw conclusions. A thing is judged right or wrong, good or bad, in accordance with how it affects them personally. This is the general pattern of woman’s life.
This sort of attitude persists in the unconscious even of people who, on the conscious level, are quite emancipated. Witness the laughter at the recent international theological conference at Notre Dame University when Fr. Bernard Häring said that, while he was open-minded on the question of women priests, he would advise women not to make claims on the episcopacy or the papacy. What is so absurd about a women bishop or a woman pope if women are not somehow inferior? Moreover, the relationship between priesthood and episcopacy is somewhat like that between diaconate and priesthood: whoever is capable of one is capable of the other.
Yet there have been a few breakthroughs in the practical order that may have real significance. In Brazil, under the pressure of a severe shortage of priests, Sisters of the Missionaries of Jesus Crucified have been given complete control of a parish at Nisia Floresta, a remote village in the interior. The sisters run the parish (the superior has the title of parish vicar, with the power canon law accords a vicar), hold two prayer services in the church daily, teach catechism, pray with the dying and administer baptism in emergencies. That is, they are in effect deaconesses, but without ordination.
Last year Benedictine Fr. John Bloms of Ada, Oklahoma, gave a press interview in which he said that his practice of letting girls and women function as acolytes was completely in accord with Scripture and canon law, and that many other priests in the area agreed with him both in theory and practice. Within two weeks his bishop, Victor J. Reed, sent a communication from Rome ordering that the practice be stopped immediately. One gets the impression, however, that in this case, as in many another where innovations have been officially censured, the offense was not so much what was done as it was letting it become publicized.
Quite recently Fr. Annibale Bugnini, secretary of the postconciliar liturgy commission and also of the Congregation of Rites, said in a document circulated to the world’s Catholic bishops that women are not to be permitted to function at mass in any capacity that is properly ministerial. However, this document, which is advisory in nature, made allowance for certain exceptions prompted by local customs as, for example, in parts of Africa. One might ask why such exceptions should not apply to parts of Oklahoma as well. That is, Fr. Bugnini’s statement ought not to be interpreted simply as a negative attitude toward women’s participation in the ministry, but as a quasi-official recognition of the fact that exceptions to the general rule can be made and that therefore women’s exclusion is neither a matter of natural nor of divine law, to which no exceptions can be admitted.
Pressure Must Persist
Catholic women will have to continue exerting pressure if the ultraconservative elements which control Roman church discipline are to be overcome. Unfortunately, amid the plethora of Catholic organizations there seems at present to be only one which has taken any official position on the question of women’s status in the church. St. Joan’s International Alliance (originally the British Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society), with sections in England, the United States, Australia, France, Germany and Belgium, reaffirmed at its latest annual international conference, in Rome, September 1965, its resolutions that women be admitted to theological schools on the same basis as men, that the revived order of a permanent diaconate be opened to women as well as men, that in the coming revision of canon law all canons discriminating against women be eliminated, and that “should the Church in her wisdom and in her good time decide to extend to women the dignity of the Priesthood, women would be willing and eager to respond.” Almost all the women mentioned above as involved in the struggle for equal rights in the church are members of St. Joan’s Alliance.
But a single organization cannot by itself overthrow the centuries of deeply ingrained prejudice and custom. Consequently Catholic women who are aware of the need for change are grateful for the stand of men like Ernest Marshall Howse, who refuse to sell women down the river in the interests of ecumenism. On the question of the ordination of women, as in so many other areas of theology and practice, the Protestant churches, because of their greater flexibility and less centralized control, have been much more open to necessary adaptation and reform than the Roman church. It would be a pity indeed if Protestants were not to insist, in all ecumenical conversations with Catholics, that Catholics shall not reject out of hand anything that Protestants regard as a working of the Holy Spirit. It is high time that Catholics got rid of their hoary prejudices and listened humbly and prayerfully to what the Holy Spirit has to say to them about the ordination of women. There is a good bit of evidence that the Spirit has already begun to speak.
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