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Chains that Bond: Creating the Future Church. Questions for the Future by Anne E. Carr, B.V.M. New Woman, New Church, New Priestly Ministry. Proceedings of the Second Conference on the Ordination of Roman Catholic Women November 1978, Baltimore, U.S.A.

Chains that Bond: Creating the Future Church

Questions for the Future

by Anne E. Carr, B.V.M

New Woman, New Church, New Priestly Ministry

Proceedings of the Second Conference on the Ordination of Roman Catholic Women
November 1978, Baltimore, U.S.A. pp 71 -75 .
Published on our website with permission of the Women's Ordination Conference

Anne Carr.BVM, currently is Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School where she received her Ph.D. She spoke at the first ordination conference in 1975 and co-authored the Catholic Theological Society's Research Report on "Women in Church and Society." She is a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Dubuque, Iowa.

I was asked to reflect theologically on the summary analysis of the pre-conference process,(1) as well as on the stories gathered from women who have experienced a call to ordination,(2) and to do this specifically in the light of the future: what new questions need to be raised? Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza has already referred to these materials in analysing the present state of the questions, Neither of us worked alone. Together we met with a brainstorming group from around the country, and discussed various issues which emerged from our reading of the statements. The ideas I will offer come primarily from that group. That fact has special symbolic importance, I think. The vision of a new woman, new ministry, new church which is the theme of this conference embodies that ideal of collaboration and mutuality. It is an ideal strikingly and movingly expressed in the reports and stories we read; in some it is already a reality, in others a vision for the future that is held with courage and love despite present situations that are painful and destructive.

Since Margaret Brennan and Richard McBrien will speak to specific topics of ecclesiology and ministry, I have focused on more general issues. In suggesting them as questions for the future, I realize that they are already part of our ongoing agenda. But I have no predictive power beyond the ordinary, and will simply suggest several areas of concern that emerged in our reflection, questions we need to think about together.

1. The first issue I call that of power, innocence and service. I group these words together because they arose in our discussion as a collection of questions about women’s self-understanding as women. At the last ordination conference, and in the material we read, the idea was often expressed that women seek not power but service. And I think we know what is meant: a vision of ministry as service to people in contrast to images of clerical power and prestige, a vision surely modeled on Jesus’ servanthood. The power which is denied by all of us as a goal (and which some of our critics have accused us of seeking) is that which has been called exploitative or manipulative power.

But there is another polarity, popularized in the early 1970’s by Rollo May in the terms power and innocence. May contrasts power as good, as essential to human being, acting and growing, with innocence, or better, pseudo-innocence as a naive, childish sort of romanticism, an ignorance or denial of the fact of evil, of sin in ourselves, in others, in our common life, and of our complicity in it. Powerlessness in this sense of pseudo-innocence is evil, a lack of self-affirmation and self-assertion that ineluctably leads to repression, violence or even madness. The appropriation of the power that is good, that is given with and meant to be developed in every human life leads, in May’s psychological terms, to the healthy, mature adult who is strong in being, decision-making, and action and has the capacity for wisdom. May calls such power integrative power, a power presupposed by the ability to love. It also presupposes the capacity for, and the authentic good of, anger.

Such themes as these, I believe, deserve theological reflection as we think about the future. The dangers of power as control, coercion or the privilege of caste are more than equally matched for women by the dangers of pseudo-innocence, of not-acting, of chosen powerlessness. Service can seem a way of remaining innocent, but authentic service requires our having ourselves fully in hand, empowered to give. Theologically, we are empowered by God in our very creation as God’s images to affirm our own being, to develop the seeds of power we have been given and to grow. In modeling our lives Christologically, after the image of Jesus, we must be careful not to mistake his powerlessness in the face of evil for ignorance, indecisiveness, or lack of strength. Rather, the Gospels portray Jesus as one who exerted his human power in his mission, who spoke out and acted with purpose, who called others to realization of their deepest power. Is there a way in which we as women attempt to remain innocent, like children, in which we are afraid not to be nice, not to be approved of, when we are called to the affirmation of our power as adult Christians? Is our ministry to children deemed only too appropriate for us — and if so, why? Do we often wait for permission to use our power? And from whom does our power come? From God, from the community of which we are part, from the hierarchy, from the Holy Spirit, from ourselves?

And do we know how (and when) to be angry, the importance and value of anger, and how to handle it? May writes of anger in this respect, as does Sidney Callahan, whom I’d like to quote:

Anger is important because until one feels anger at one’s oppression one has neither much sense of self nor a sense that one has a right to be angry. Anger is a sign that the individual, alone or as a member of a group, is now beginning to stir and to be touched. Anger... is a sign of life, a sign of movement... Before being capable of anger one is ... (un)able to see personal expectations. Once there is a sense of movement of reaction, anger appears as a sign that one takes oneself seriously. Finally the rules of justice to which a person may have given lip service can now be applied to one’s self as well as others. For women, particularly, this process can be difficult. Many women have been so trained to submissiveness . . . that they cannot be angry. They cannot take themselves seriously or value their own aspirations. They do not see that at a certain point sacrifice becomes suicide. Liberation is meaningless because they have never been angry at being denied justice. They cannot seek equality and a new identity because they are not able to feel indignities or a sense of outrage at their own oppression. Women can help women to value themselves and feel a rising anger. And together they can rejoice that... the power of God can make all things new. A person may begin again and a society as well , . . Once the sense of injustice and an awakening is experienced, then there is a rise in feminine consciousness and self-worth. Ambition and independent effort follow, and we shall see more women coming into positions of leadership and ascendancy in the public world as well as in the private sphere ... Women’s power will be a different power...

(The Magnificat)(3)

Sidney Callahan’s words point to the connection not only of anger with power, but also of power with leadership. Our work in the church’s ministry requires the development of authentic leadership, and leadership is an exercise of power. Such power includes ambition — yes, even ambition is good — and responsibility, and creativity. But we need to think about and question the meaning of these words in the context of our situation in the church. Do we need to develop our own theology of praxis and power as critically as women in business and the professions have developed theories of power? The experience of women, in team ministries and team leadership could lead to new models of Christian power and leadership. But do we agree that even the best models of the past and present need to be critically questioned and creatively reimagined if we are to outgrow our pseudo-innocence, to grow into and claim our God-given power?

2. The second issue is that of Christian feminism. Our reading and discussion revealed an ambivalence among us with regard to what is termed the secular women’s movement. On one hand, some of us feel very much a part of the wider women’s movement in our culture. Others of us feel that the call for the ordination of women is a separate issue, one which has its roots in a purely religious source: the desire for broadened and fully integrated service in the church. As a matter of fact, there even seemed to be a fear on the part of some of the secular women’s movement, a fear of being labeled “strident” feminists, or even as Christian feminists. Again, we wondered if this was an attempt to preserve our innocence, as a kind of self-righteousness, and our cause as holier than the wider cause of women in society.

Reflecting on this theologically, I thought we could apply to our situation the analogy of the church in the world. That is, just as the church adapts itself to the world and to the experience of the world in which it lives and of which it is a part, without losing itself in accommodating entirely to that world, so we might affirm our relationship to feminism generally. As the church seeks to maintain a critical edge, a healthy abrasiveness in relation to its culture, but without complete withdrawal, we might develop a similar stance toward secular feminism. Certainly we can and must assert our difference, and we may disagree on many issues. But in affirming ourselves as Christian feminists, and in offering the kind of reflection that our particular resources provide, we might make ourselves heard in new ways. In principle and theologically, there is nothing holier about women seeking justice in the church than women seeking justice in society, because the church exists for the world. Much of sexism generally has religious roots, and the women’s movement recognizes and supports the work of women in the church. Historically, we are part of that broader movement in recognizing and working against sexism, and we have benefitted overwhelmingly from it.

Can we find models of intelligence, strength and courage - a needed hardheadedness— outside the church as well as within? And can the work of secular feminists help us to sharpen our critical skills and develop our strength? Can we at the same time contribute to the broader movement by the particular perspectives we can offer on delicate moral and social issues? This would, of course, mean educating ourselves in absorbing some of the key literature and key issues in that wider social movement, in order that our dialogue be prepared and serious. And can we learn a kind of worldly wisdom from our sisters outside the church? I think, of how we might disabuse ourselves of the notion that simply because we are women, we will automatically do things differently. The literature of that movement will surely teach us something of the discipline, reflection and courageous action required for us to make even the smallest changes in the sexist structures which surround us.

Jesus, as the Gospels show, was himself a kind of feminist, calling, judging, being present to women as persons, as adults, in contradiction to some of the deepest taboos and accepted niceties of his culture. In our times, the world-wide women’s movement has been recognized by the documents of Vatican Council II, and in the writings of Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI. Should we be afraid to recognize ourselves seriously as Christian feminists?

3. The third issue is that of the place of the ordination question. Ordination, I believe, is an important symbolic issue. It is the symbol and focus of all the theological and justice questions touching on women in the church and thus it signifies a wider set of issues beyond itself. As the conference has stressed, ordination must be placed in the context of a new woman, a new ministry, a new church. New women, that is, in affirming ourselves as in God’s image. As Mary Daniel Turner says, we are not called to be like men, nor to be like women, but to be like God. New ministry, meaning that our goal is not simply to have present structures opened to women, but the transformation of those structures themselves into a more authentic ministering community. New church, as a vision, an ideal of a church that is responsive to human need, that is a witness and model of the mutuality, respect and justice among peoples that it advocates for and to the world in its Gospel message.

Thinking needs to be done about how to further the single symbolic issue, central and important as it is, within the context of the wider renewal we seek. It was commented in our discussion, for example, that if women were ordained tomorrow, it wouldn’t change a thing. You may not entirely agree, but the issues we must think about are clear; on what grounds would women accept ordination? Would there be terms that we women would set for our acceptance of the testing of our call? Would we insist that the issue be placed in the context of other justice issues facing us, and the entire church, today? Particularly, of course, the wider sexism, racism, and classism that Rosemary Radford Ruether has pointed to as interpenetrating in every social structure, and the peculiar forms these take in the church. How will we insure the adequate inclusion of all racial and ethnic groups in our cause which is thus far very white, middle class, highly educated? How will we address the classism between religious and lay people, between the married and the unmarried, the celibate and the non-celibate? How far will our sisterhood extend? There is the question of money, financial compensation, particularly difficult in the context of ministry, but clearly calling for our serious consideration and unified action, entailing as it does questions of justice and exploitation. And how will we address the clerical issue, avoid becoming what someone called pseudo-clerics? Would we be more effective outside the church’s official structure, or inside working for change? Or do we need people in both situations?

Such questions, I believe, are integral to our discussion of sacraments and Eucharist, ministry, and ecclesiology as these are seen in their deepest theological significance. Jesus’ message of the kingdom was of such magnitude that it meant nothing less than a total change of mind and heart. And it included in a special way the poor, the socially and politically unacceptabie groups, the marginal classes of his time.

4. The fourth issue I call personal integration. By the word integration I hope to suggest the conjunction in our lives of the inner and the outer, the private and the political, the individual and the social, the spiritual and the theological. Our traditional spiritualities have led us to see the spiritual life as a place apart. We need to reflect, it seems to me, on ways to integrate an intense, authentic life of prayer with a wider consciousness of social justice. Or better still, to understand our spiritual lives as permeating our entire lives, our whole ways of living and acting in the world. This may seem an old problem, but it has taken striking new shape in the church at the present.

There have been times, in the historical past of the church, when powerful consciousness of one’s individual life with God sent Christians forth to the transformation of society. If women in the church, and in authentic though “quiet” ministries were really to exert their latent power, the power emanating from the intense inner lives witnessed in the stories we read in corporate, public action, the effect on society would be extremely significant: if we were to focus our integrative power not simply on the individuals but on the structures around us that are not just, if we were to name the injustices that we do increasingly see, then we might be real agents of change. Do we tend to become confused, in this area, because we see thoughtful and loving people working in systems which are themselves unjust, and fear confusing individual persons with systems and structures that are clearly wrong? We need to learn, with increasing sophistication, and even a kind of asceticism, how change really occurs in the Catholic Church, lest political naiveté lead to discouragement and loss of hope.

Theologically, I believe, the message of the Gospel is a fundamentally religious message. But as our lives are one — inner and outer, private and public, personal and political — our inner lives have social and political consequences. Do we tend to see our calls to ministry, to ordination, as purely personal issues? Do we need to reflect on ways of deeper integration? Is there a chasm between those of us whose fundamental focus is inward, those, for example, who have had intense charismatic experience, and those whose focus is social justice? Great work is already being done in this respect — witness the recent publication of the Quixote Center, The Wind is Rising: Prayer Ways for Active People. Such work from both sides needs to be continued and developed in order that the desire for priesthood that some among us have expressed be integrated with a genuine prophetic voice. This is not an easy task; traditionally priest and prophet have represented two different voices, and have been in no little conflict. Can we imagine ways in which priestly and prophetic voices can be integrated? What creative visions might we explore of bringing into productive interplay the contemplative, inward aspect of our lives with the critical and the social? The message of Jesus integrates the most intense prayer to his Father with outspoken criticism of legal, social, political patterns that laid burdens on people’s lives. His conflict with such powers ultimately brought him to his death, and to his resurrection which is the foundation of our faith.

5. The question of pluralism is the fifth issue. We are not all the same. William McCready reports about data gathered in 1977 at the National Opinion Research Center on the divergent attitudes of American Catholic women: “There are many different kinds of opinions on many different subjects and simplistic moral ideologies will not appeal to many people. If coalitions for the future are to be built they will have to embrace some of these divergent views into a compromise position which can attract enough people to form a base or constituency. Catholic women represent the same kind of diversity that exists in our society as a whole and any strategy for organization which assumes they ‘all think alike’ is doomed to fail in its very inception” (Overview, July, 1978). In reflecting theologically on the obvious pluralism among ourselves, several further issues emerge.

(a) The first is that of unity in diversity. Like the one faith that today expresses itself in a pluralism of theologies, we need to distinguish the ultimate from the preliminary, i.e., our final from our relative, proximate and short-range goals. We must be able to effect a division between the ultimate goal, in theological terms, the eschatological kingdom of God in Christ, the renewed universal church of equality and mutuality expressed in responsive ministries where there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female — that ultimate goal must be distinguished from the preliminary ideas, purposes, strategies, even, I suggest from the immediate goal of the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church. If we are able to keep one eye on the issue before us, the issue that has gathered us together once again, and another eye on the ultimate goal in Christ, our diversity will not fracture our unity.

(b) A second theme which relates to the question of pluralism is that of our need for a principle of openness and self-criticism, of continuing conversion. Persuaded as we are of the theological integrity and the authentic justice of our cause, we will be tempted to confuse the ultimate goal — equality, mutuality, a renewed church and ministry — with our own ideas, positions, plans of action. A principle of self-criticism can be provided by an awareness of our finitude, our limitations, indeed our sinfulness, as a Christian realism in contrast to the temptations of a feminist romanticism. Such an abiding principle will enable us to challenge and criticize one another’s beliefs, values and understandings in the spirit of mutuality, respect, and concern for truth. A continuing sense of self-criticism and openness among us will insure the inner testing and discipline necessary for a strong and unified movement in the church and the world at large. We will be guilty but forgiven, fearless but not self-righteous as we seek our goal of effective ministry in today’s world.

(c) A third theme emerging from an awareness of our pluralism is the recognition that as our movement grows, it will produce a variety of visions and enactments of those visions of the desired goal. Divergent and even contradictory positions will emerge. I think we must prepare for this, and not be surprised or threatened by our differences. A spirit of ultimate hope and present relativity, of openness and self-criticism will enable us to really hear one another, to be willing to compromise for the sake of the larger goal, and even to delight in our diversity. Social scientists say that women more than men have the flexibility to see the broader picture, to facilitate unity out of conflicting perspectives. This may be another stereotype but I think it can be true for us, if we want it to be. Our goal of mutuality and respect in the church, however, should make us extremely sensitive to whether every voice, in principle at least, can be heard, respected, and finally become part of the movement forward. The movement which Jesus began is one which, already in New Testament times, proliferated in a variety of expressions and issued in a variety of ministries. As his message caught hold in different persons and communities its transformative power did not destroy differences but produced manifold distinctive forms of the one Gospel.

6. The final issue is that of education for ministry. This issue arose from our reflection on the practical problems of job placement for women in ministry and the fact that women, even in those churches which now ordain women, experience second-class citizenship. It was noted that seminaries which accept women — lay or religious — should in justice have placement services which not only enable women to find positions in ministry, but actively work in the larger church structure to increase the numbers and kinds of positions available to women. There was the further question of whether the Master of Divinity degree was becoming a kind of prestige symbol, whether the purely academic model of preparation for ministry was only one among many possibilities, and one likely to create a new kind of elitism. Do we recognize that there is an emerging class of “professionals” among us — lay women who are no longer lay in the professional sense—highly educated individuals who may lack not only personal and professional support systems but also structures of accountability? We also talked of the financial problems attendant on seminary education for women: while men are supported by dioceses and religious orders, only some women religious can get financial help from their congregations and lay people have to search hard for any financial assistance. These practical issues certainly deserve wider reflection in the future: thought must be given to the question of how the whole church supports those in ministerial training. Certainly this has begun, but it deserves sustained thinking, writing, and really public discussion.

Our thought then turned to more fundamental questions of ministerial education for women. Some of this thinking has already begun, for example, in Washington, D.C. But all of us need to ask about what kind of preparation is appropriate for women in ministry. We need some hard data about the experience of women in seminaries, about the experience of parishioners and other groups to whom women have ministered, about the needs and desires of those to whom women might minister. Beyond the stories of women who experience a call to ordained ministry which we are beginning to collect, we need to hear from those individuals and communities who themselves call women — both those whose experience has led them to say it makes sense (and the stories abound with these) and those who do not. With such data in hand, we might reflect more deeply in the future on what effective ministry really is, and how we can prepare most appropriately for it. Does effective ministry occur despite what happens in seminaries or because of it? What is an appropriate “spiritual” formation for women ministers? If women thought and planned creatively, unburdened of past images of seminary training, might we come up with new qualifications and credentials? What continuities with the past and what novel aspects would be essential? Present systems of seminary education are the historically determined constructions of men; what would a really androgynous model of ministerial education look like? I submit that our mutual collaboration and creativity would produce some horizon-expanding visions, and our corporate power could make some of these visions become reality.

Would not such ministerial education for women encompass exploration of the themes the pre-conference materials brought to light? Would it not focus deeply on a Christian anthropology that takes seriously questions of the human person and the theological dimensions of power and feminism? Would it not place the question of women in ministry in the wider context of renewed anthropology, Christology, ecclesiology? Would it not address radically the relation of spirituality and theology, prayer and politics, sacraments and social justice, with each side addressing the other in critical dialogue? And would it not focus on pluralism in the church as a central theological issue, distinguishing the ultimate from the relative, engendering Christian principles of self-criticism, and enabling the development of diversity within unity? The Gospels portray Jesus as proposing a kind of education for ministry for his disciples, a preparation involving the assimilation of his message, a simple life-style, practice on their own of unadorned preaching of God’s love and forgiveness in his name. He acknowledged that he was sending lambs among the wolves, and urged them to be cunning as serpents, guileless as doves, ready for persecution yet confident that the Spirit will speak through them.

I have tried to suggest that the sacramental issue which is the symbol and focus of our gathering runs broad and deep in its signification, touching on some very homely aspects of our lives. Like the word of God which the sacrament embodies and proclaims, it challenges us as Christian women in particularly difficult ways today. If our movement is to be judged a movement of the Spirit, and by the quality of its fruits, it must bear the deepest imprint of Christ in its love and power and justice, its deaths and resurrections, its faith and its hope, its simplicity and its wisdom. This, I think, is what we seek most as we move toward the future.


1. See synthesis of the pre-conference process, page 159.

2. Pomerleau, Doily, ed.. We Are Called (Rochester: Women’s Ordination Conference, 1978).

3. Callahan, Sidney, The Magnificat: The Prayer of Mary (New York: Seabury Press, 1976), pp. 56-59

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