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Ordination: A Questionable Goal for Women by Ann Kelley and Anne Walsh from 'Women and Orders'

Ordination: A Questionable Goal for Women

by Ann Kelley and Anne Walsh

from Women and Orders, pp 67-73, edited by Robert J.Heyer. Paulist Press, 1974.

Women in the movement are always asked, “What is it you want, to be just like men?” There have always been some women who have called their sisters to more than this. American suffragist Frances Dana Gage, speaking in 1851, urged women to look for a “better country” than the “old land of political, social, economic, and religious privilege” they saw around them. This seems to be an applicable vision for the question of the ordination of women. Do women really want to gain participation in the present clerical structure, even to perpetuate it, or do they want to work for a better and more Gospel-like ministry for all?

Priesthood as Caste

Judging from the practice of priesthood as we know it, there must be a better country for religious leadership than the privileged clerical land we know, one more in harmony with Gospel examples and mandates, one more appropriate to the definition of ministry as believing, hoping, loving service. Priesthood is only one aspect of ministry defined in this way, but we have so identified the two terms of priest and minister that women interested in equality in the Church are forced to consider ordination.

Let us look at what has been made of the ministry of the ordained. Ordination gives those ordained power over other people. Martin Luther said it long ago: when people believe that the sacraments are means of grace, that sacraments are necessary for salvation, and that priests are the usual ministers of the sacraments, then they exercise power over people’s souls. It gives the ordained what Hans Küng calls a “global superiority” over the rest of women and men.

Ordination is an entry into a power structure that opens the way to privilege. The priest has access to advantages that lie outside the life patterns of most of the community. Their position exempts them from job hazards, financial worries, and personal responsibilities in ways the rest of the world does not share. A priest practices his ministry with an immunity from job competence and evaluation that is unknown to other service personnel. Such security is unavailable to most people. Once ordained, always ordained: regardless of performance, the priest still speaks, celebrates, represents, and makes policies.

With the exultation of these men, the rest of the people of God are diminished. Wisdom, discernment, and leadership opportunities are localized in the few, while the collective wisdom of the community or the insights of individual nonclerical members are neglected or repressed. Critical faculties and responsible judgments of the Christian people are not cultivated, for there are authorities to speak to every question. The few elect speak on. behalf of the immature others. In effect, the Christian community is divided; there are priests, and there are “others.”

It is difficult to picture Jesus validating his ministry by the credentials we use today. Jesus resisted any such signs of kingship. His Incarnation has equalized all men and women, has affirmed them, and has bound them together to build the Church. There are no “others,” no marginal persons, no ruled or governed in the community. All persons are called by baptism to commitment and reconciliation; in the community, life itself ordains us. The call to ministry does not make the Church into an unequal society. The charity of service does not create structures of domination.

The question women need to resolve, then, as they work for equality and full sharing in the Church is this: Is the power and privilege of the ordained an abuse and corruption of the office, or is it inherent in office itself? Is renewal of office possible, or does office automatically create an elite group different from the rest of the people of God? Perhaps only experience with offices used differently and by a diversity of people make a definitive answer available. Certainly some of the glorification of the ordained comes not from the office but from the expectations of the people who themselves are caught in a system that has formed their concepts of priests and Church authority. Their formation led them to see the priest as hero. Some of the disillusionment with clerical authority and behavior is accentuated by the turmoils of particular times when the clerical voice and witness is discredited by circumstances, silence, or irrelevance.

The present caste system victimizes priests as well as the non-ordained. They must attempt to meet the expectations of the system and of the community, while holding on to their personal integrity. Maintaining this balance, while being all things to all men and women, while being heroes, is a most difficult job description.

Women as Ministers

Nevertheless, whether it is office or the use of office, it seems clear that the priest is heir to a line of cultic caste system so potent and so fixed that any significant changes will not come from those in power. If the changes come, it will be from those who were excluded from the caste on principle, from women. It is women who have the opportunity to either validate ministry outside the old concepts of office or to so renew office that it becomes what it was meant to be - service, acceptance of the community and accountability to it, responsive to needs, and open to individuality and diversity.

Indeed, the traditions of women in ministry point to works consistent with these principles of ministry. Their work was usually not defined as ministry, so narrowly have we used the term, but it was ministry. Since the early Church their work was not officed; even those women who have taken religious vows have had none of the prerogatives of office. But they have built rich traditions:

The ministry of women has been that of service. Women have been willing to go anywhere, undertake any cause, make any sacrifice.

The ministry of women has been varied, suited both to their individual gifts and charisms, and responsive to particular needs of the human community in a given time and place.

The ministry of women has been marked by those virtues foolish to men; weakness, poverty, and powerlessness. (Frances Dana Gage, quoted in Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle: The Women’s Rights Movement in the United States, Cambridge, Harvard Univ., 1959.)

We see moving examples of these characteristics in our time. Women like Dorothy Day, Mother Theresa of Calcutta, Edith Stein and countless others have done work not dictated by ordination. Their concern was justice, not status, and they were able to bring new life to many while being part of them.

Since Vatican II women working in pastoral ministries are called ministers, and they have been able to change the expectations of women and of ministry in their colleagues, their communities, and in themselves. They have not been officed, but have depended on the informal commission and acceptance of the people they serve.

Office, then, is not necessary for ministry, but should some women wish to test a formal identification of office, these ministries cannot be lesser, subordinate, or more private than the priestly office, either by practice or by attitude. Women might strive to combine their past traditions with office, that is, work to make their various ministries, such as serving, healing, comforting, and prophesying, commissioned offices equal but complementary to those of the priesthood. Such commissions should be as valid, as public, and as representative as the priestly ministry. These offices should be different from the deaconial office, but not related to it in an hierarchical sense. The priestly ministry would then become one of many ministries; it would be surrounded by many other forms of officed service in the Church. It then would cease to be a caste. Only then will it be open to women.

Perhaps these ministries would lead to a sacramental commission in response to a call of the community, or new modes of ritualization and expression may emerge appropriate to the particular situation. It may be judged better, rather, to respect the many functions of ministry witnessed to in the New Testament. Experience may even prove that office is not desirable at all. Since the future is so uncertain, women need time and experience to define for themselves the direction which their struggle for equality in the Church must take.

The better country for religious life and values will be difficult to reach. Frances Dana Gage reminded her audience that, “There are mountains of established law and custom to overcome; a wilderness of prejudice to be subdued, a powerful foe of selfishness and self-interest to be overthrown." She added, “For the sake of our children’s children, we must begin.” . . . a worthy call.

If we want to change the Church-clerical caste system, women will have to think of themselves as models for the future, and go beyond what is the most obvious present sign of equality in the Church, that is, ordination as we know it. Models they may find will probably also recall the origins of Christian ministry, and will point to better ways of ministering for both women and men.

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