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Break barriers by making women visible in the Church

How to get the Church to accept women as priests. Strategy Presenter’s Pack, part 3.

Note for presenters. A diagram for printing out and distributing to your listeners can be downloaded here: Breaking Barriers Programme.

A  lesson we can learn from psychology is that providing correct information is not enough. Prejudice gets its best chance to flourish and grow through what has been called ‘social distance’. It is broken down by creating familiarity.

Why is this programme necessary? Well, to stay with the example of Afro-Americans since the phenomenon was widely studied, people prejudiced against ‘blacks’ rarely knew them as intimate friends. In this context, psychologists identified six circles of closeness: (1) kinship by marriage; (2) personal friends; (3) neighbours; (4) colleagues at work; (5) immigrants; and (6) visitors to one’s country. A research from 1928 showed that standard white Americans would admit white Englishmen or Canadians to circles of family and friendship, would hesitate about Spaniards, Italians and Jews, and would positively bar Negroes, Chinese and Indians. On the other hand, once individuals from these suspect nations were admitted to closer circles, prejudice was more easily broken down.1

I do not know if you have heard the story about the surgeon who arrived late at the hospital and rushed into the operation theatre where a young man was waiting to undergo emergency surgery. On seeing the patient, the surgeon exclaimed: “He is my son!” The patient opened his eyes and said: “Hi, mum!” — Surprised? We are still not accustomed to think of women as surgeons. And what about the young man who said “Hi, mum!” to the bishop?

Familiarity is the key word here. Catholics are used to see only men officiating at the altar, only men taking all decisions in the diocese and the parish. Unconsciously they associate liturgical functions with men. The more they see women in roles that border on the priestly ministry, the more they will overcome inner psychological resistance.

Principle. The women’s ordination movement should promote all developments through which women are given more responsibility in the Church.

In other words: the intermediate steps too count. Psychological barriers have to be broken down by women assuming a more visible presence in the Catholic community – even in roles less than the ordained priesthood.

Women should be at the altar in liturgical settings.

Though the priestly ministry extends much wider than presiding over the Eucharist, it is women’s closeness to the Eucharist that will serve as a powerful symbol for traditional Catholics.

  • Women already function in eucharistic worship as members or directors of the choir. This is an advance, since until 1917 women were forbidden to be members of the choir by Church law. This ridiculous prohibition was reiterated more than once by the Sacred Congregation for Liturgy. “Neither girls nor adult women may be members of a church choir” (decree 17 Sept. 1897). “Women should not be part of a choir; they belong to the ranks of the laity. Separate women’s choirs too are totally forbidden, except for serious reasons and with permission of the bishop” (decree 22 Nov. 1907). “Any mixed choir of men and women, even if they stand far from the sanctuary, is totally forbidden” (decree 18 Dec. 1908).
  • In many places women are beginning to function as Mass servers, readers, ministers of holy communion, preachers and as presiding over communion services. Here too we have made progress. The 1917 Code of Law restricted all ministries at the altar to males (CIC 813). The new Code of 1983 which is still in force today, allows lay people, including women, to be readers, Mass servers, cantors, preachers, leaders of prayer services, ministers of baptism and communion, but only by a ‘temporary deputation’ (Canon 230, §2-3).

  • Inclusive language should be used at all times during liturgical services. Even if the officiating priest forgets to do this, other ministers such as readers and preachers should observe the rule. People will get the point.
    · During the prayers of intercession, a regular petition could be inserted asking the Holy Spirit to guide the Church in the matter of the ordination of women, or some such prayer. The formulation has here deliberately to be left open for two reasons: (a) we should not dictate to the Holy Spirit what she should do; (b) all members of the community should be able to join in the petition, whatever side they are on regarding women priests.

2. The movement should encourage all situations in which pastoral authority is entrusted to women.

Present Church law forbids women to be clerics and so deprives all women of clerical offices which require the power of order or the power of jurisdiction [=church governance] (can. 219, §1 & 274 § 1). On the other hand, Church law allows women to be appointed to many tasks and this should be exploited to the full:

  • To be a member of the pastoral council of the diocese (can. 512 § 1) and of the parish (can. 536 § 1).
  • To be full members of provincial councils of bishops (can. 443 § 4), diocesan synods (can. 463 § 2 & 1.5), the finance committee of the diocese (can. 492 § 1) and of the parish (can. 537). To be a financial administrator of the diocese (can. 494).
  • To be consultors on the appointment of parish priests (can. 524) and the appointment of bishops (can. 377 § 3).
  • To preach in a church or oratory though not the homily (can. 766).
  • To be catechists (can. 785) and to give assistance to the parish priest in the catechetical formation of adults, young people and children (can. 776).
  • To assist at marriages under certain conditions (c.1112).
  • To assist the parish priest in exercising the pastoral care of the community, as parish assistants, or as chaplains in hospitals, colleges, youth centres and social institutions (can. 519).
  • To be to be entrusted with a parish because of a shortage of priests (can. 517 § 2).
  • To administer certain sacramentals (can. 1168).
  • To hold offices in an ecclesiastical tribunal, such as being judges (can. 1421 § 2), assessors (can. 1424), auditors (can 1428 § 2), promotors of justice and defenders of the marriage bond (can. 1435).
  • To hold the diocesan offices of a chancellor or a notary (can. 483 § 2).

The women’s ordination movement should promote the ordination of women as deacons as a first step.

The Church has a well-established tradition of women deacons. It is possible that Rome will make some concession in this regard.

  • Women who feel called to the ministry should be encouraged to study full theological courses.
  • Suitable candidates should be prepared to serve as deacons. However, the women’s ordination movement should never accept a watered-down version of the diaconate for women. If women are ordained deacons, this should be done on the understanding that the sacrament of the diaconate is administered to them as to male deacons.2

All the above tasks can be taken up by women under the existing law and the opportunities offered here are not fully utilised. It is encouraging that various bishops’ conferences are promoting a better integration of women into leadership roles.3 At the same time, women are already developing new ministries in pastoral settings of North and South America, Africa, Asia and Europe. These may well herald the way in which a reformed priestly ministry will function in the future.

John Wijngaards


  1. E. M. Bogardus, Immigration and Race Attitudes, Heath 1928, pp. 13 – 29; see also M. Banton, ‘Social Distance: a New Appreciation’, The Sociological Review, December 1960.
  2. The Maria von Magdala group in Germany is actively preparing for women’s diaconate. Contact: Angelika Fromm, Fritz Kohl Strasse 7, D 55122 Mainz, Germany.
  3. (The Netherlands) Vrouw en Kerk, Raad voor Kerk en Samenleving, Kaski 1987; ‘Oog voor verschil en gelijkwaardigheid’, Kerkelijke Dokumentatie 4 (1998) no 5, pp. 47-53; (USA) NCCB Committee on Women, ‘From Words to Deeds: Continuing Reflections on the Role of Women in the Church’, Origins 28 (1998) no 20.

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