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>Those who Want to Stratergize on the Issue. Stratergies for Transformation: Healing a Church by Patricia Hughes. Proceedings of the Second Conference on the Ordination of Roman Catholic Women<BR>November 1978

Those who Want to Stratergize on the Issue

Stratergies for Transformation: Healing a Church

by Patricia Hughes

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 133-140.
Published on our website with permission of the Women's Ordination Conference

Patricia Hughes holds a Master of Divinity degree from Jesuit School of Theology, Chicago, and is currently the Director of Campus Ministry at Mundelein College, Chicago.

About one month ago, as I entered the final phase of preparing the remarks to be made here this afternoon, I took the opportunity to spend a day and a half of reflective retreat time at a favorite pilgrimage place of mine near Chicago. The time and the space were ideal for sifting through the experiences of these last few years, asking of them the outline for future strategies.

As I was leaving the retreat center after my interval of theological reflection, I chanced to overhear a conversation that at last provided the jumping-off place, shall we say, for this presentation. Three people were enthusiastically discussing a newly published book which recounted one woman’s earnest attempts to discern and respond to God’s will for her life. “She went to prayer,” said one reader, “and was given to understand that it was God’s will that she live on the San Andreas Fault. Now this made her quite depressed and so she returned to prayer, only to learn that her mission was not merely to risk living on the San Andreas Fault, but to pray for its healing. Specifically, she was to pray for the Pacific Northwest, that disaster be averted.”

My eavesdropping over, I began my drive home chuckling gratefully that, at least for the time being, such a specific and demanding charismatic challenge was not being made to me. Well, I hadn’t passed more than three exits on the Tollway when the parallelism hit home. For that story summed up the last several years of my life, and perhaps yours, with uncanny precision.

Seeking a home in this contemporary community of faith, you and I have asked God for guidance and direction. Where is to be our dwelling place? And we have come to understand that we are to live along the San Andreas Fault. Sometimes exhilarated, but often depressed, we’ve wanted to renegotiate this precarious covenant of ours. We do experience a potentially devastating upheaval in our Church; tremors rock the land of structures on which we stand as levels of authority and leadership shift, collide, and resettle in a new relationship.

Conceding that in this moment of history, the institutional Roman Catholic Church is still burdened with an authoritarian model of decision-announcing, we are part of an enormous pressure coming from below, pressure which could wrench apart the surface fissures of our Church and leave chasms of division in its wake. If we experience ourselves as living along an ecclesiastical San Andreas Fault, then, I suggest, we are to pray for its healing.

The strategies which I submit for your consideration this afternoon will be consistent with this fundamental orientation. They are action guides for systemic transformation of ministry within the Roman Catholic Church. The ordination of women to the priesthood is one aspect of that transformation, as indispensable as it is partial.

In the planning process for this gathering I was presented with a hypothetical situation: “If the Pope were to decree tomorrow that women were to be accepted as candidates for sacred orders, how would you respond?” My initial discomfort was with the situation as given. I have said before, and profess before you publically today, that I am a candidate for orders. As the ordination ritual will invite me to respond, “I am ready and willing.” But tomorrow or even the day after tomorrow, it would be a perpetuation of unilateral, unshared responsibility, and a denial of the presence of the Spirit in the larger Church community, if the Pope alone were to take me at my word.

Having rejected the given hypothetical situation, what I am asking for, perhaps with you, is a process that will set in motion an all-embracing pastoral plan whereby the entire church can test and affirm the call.

But even with this qualification, you may question my readiness and willingness to work from within the ordained ministry. Almost all of us, I suspect, accept the goal of “New Church . . . New Priestly Ministry.” But some of us would seek orders, are seeking orders, in a future priesthood now. How did I arrive at this decision? The answer will influence the strategies we choose, as well as those we set aside as inconsistent or counterproductive.

I am convinced that we are the Church. We are in desperate need of conversion, both as individuals and as a people. But prior to conversion must come a profound self-acceptance. We are tempted to trust that we are saved by our innocence, and so we cover the evil within us with self-righteousness and erect barriers to protect ourselves against accusations of further need for reform. But salvation history yields precious little account of innocence. We are saved not by innocence, but from sin in the hurting/healing event of redemption.

We are so loved by God that we can accept ourselves. Gradually, then, we become aware of our sinfulness and then, more gradually still, we accept the courage to be made new. We are asked to love the Church, to accept the Church — and to share the burden of its sinfulness whether or not we are ordained.

The Church will always be in need of reformation. I do not believe we have the luxury of waiting on the threshold of any of its needed renewal before fully entering in. As we acknowledge and name the sin, in ourselves and in this Church to which we are so passionately committed, we will be utilizing the most fundamental preliminary strategy. Consciousness-raising is in itself a call to conversion. Speaking the truth in love, we can label the contradictions and make apparent the inequities; we can ask for the creative grace to replace domination with mutuality and disillusionment with a vision of new possibilities. We can focus the anger that wells up within us, recalling with Beverly Harrison that anger is the fruit of love. It presupposes caring.(1)

Using the exclusion of women from ordained ministry as a symptom, I have selected three areas of current ministerial policy in the Church which, in my opinion, need transformation. The description of each area will be followed by the proposal of corrective strategies. A final pre-note: The ordination of women is not an end in itself; it is not a panacea, it will not in and of itself make total the transformation. Continued resistance to the ordination of women, however, reinforces our corporate sinfulness in these three modes.

I. The Sin of Idolatry.

As Church, we give only lip service to the transcendent dimension of vocation. The Church, it appears, has domesticated God, denying the Spirit the opportunity to ferment new wine, or at best, relegating the perceived scarcity of new wine to its sad oversupply of old skins.

We have been made victims of the survival mentality, accelerating recruitment campaigns and increasing our slick advertising, all the while appealing to individuals to consider what responses God is asking of them. The question is a traditional one and retains its validity. But are the structures of ministry in the Church expanding to accommodate the multiplicity of responses being made?

Our heritage of vocational discernment is a rich one. We are the recipients of an ascetical tradition that issues to all the baptized a lifetime challenge: “Listen to your heart.” And yet today, as hundreds of candidates, married and single, women and men have faith communities which confirm the message of their hearts, they are being turned away. In effect, “Listen to your heart again,” they are being told. “You could not possibly have heard correctly.”

We name the sin of idolatry, the absolutizing of structures which once developed historically to translate and so to preserve the vitality of the Gospel message. Here are four strategies which could serve to reestablish the centrality of God’s initiative and dominion.

1) Become familiar with and encourage the “telling of the story.” Called to Break Bread(2) Fran Ferder’s report of the psychological study of one hundred women professing a call to priestly ministry, bears eloquent witness to the grounding of such a call in authentic communal and personal vocational discernment, Encourage single male candidates who are currently “acceptable” to the institutional Church to tell their stories, too. This process will heighten awareness of the similarity of God’s action and establish a faith framework for mutual trust and collaboration in the common ministerial enterprise.

2) Continue to support — prayerfully, emotionally, materially — the women and men who have yet to have their vocations tested and confirmed. Dennis Geaney, OSA, emphasizes the need for such support in Women and Priesthood: Future Directions.(3)

3) Challenge the theological community to develop a consistent and convincing theology of vocation — a theology to be implemented in the policies of diocesan vocation, coordinators of permanent diaconate programs, ministries of service formation programs. And let all of us care enough about pastoral change in the Church that such a theology will be shared by the Serra Clubs as well.

4) The fourth vocational strategy flows from the overall notion of systemic change. Currently, the institutional Church considers the ultimate confirmation of an ecclesial vocation to be an episcopal right and responsibility. And so our bishops, by their own self-understanding, are entitled to the good news. Women are being called. The communities which they serve must testify to demonstrated competency in pastoral care, genuine dedication to the upbuilding of the community and then, like the importunate widow of the Gospel, demand to know the reason for justice delayed and so denied. Let there be no bishops in the National Conference who have not been personally confronted with women candidates for orders. Without such called and presented women the issue of ordination remains speculative and theoretical. But heavy is the burden of those servants who fear to employ the talents which, in these candidates, the master entrusts to their stewardship.

A precedent-setting implementation of this strategy has been utilized by the Chicago Sisters of Mercy. As a canonical community of women religious they have steadfastly committed themselves to the prophetic path so seldom traveled by those with something to lose. But with courageous community leadership enabling the process, the province has presented one of its members to the Church, in the person of the Cardinal Archbishop, for ordination to the priesthood. The Sisters of Mercy are deserving of solidarity and imitation.(4)

II. The Sin of Exclusivity/Elitism

The second area of needed reform is readily apparent. As a Church we give inadequate witness to the universality and mutuality of ministry. Currently we lack sufficient means whereby local communities are engaged in the process of discovering and utilizing the ministerial gifts of all of their members. Some fear that the perpetuation of an ordained ministry prevents or minimally delays, the coming of that day in which service in its diverse forms will be accepted as shared responsibility — where there will no longer be servants and the served in an unhealthy dominant/dependant relationship.

My vision of a renewed, yet still ordained priestly ministry is other. Because the community has been graced with such diverse charisms, given to individuals for the sake of the whole, these gifts must be differentiated and valued in their unique necessity. No one way of serving can be singled out as preeminent. No one form of service can be inflated to a distorted and grotesque omni-competence that trivializes the indispensable complementary contributions made by the others. Ministries are interdependent, as must be those of us, all of us, who are their recipients and agents.

It is for this very reason that I would strongly maintain that ministries need to be ordered. Ordered, that is recognized, differentiated, and respected. Ordering does not imply the conferral of varying degrees of esteem, prestige, or status. Neither does it require subordination which for so many centuries served as the false rationale for the exclusion of some members, or classes of members, of the community of the baptized from the exercise of some ministries. “Inferior” persons were unfit to serve in “superior” ministries — such was the determination of the venerable “tradition.”

But ordering is essential if needs are not to go unmet. That which is everyone’s concern is potentially no one’s. In the finest of our ever ancient, ever new, innovative, even improvisational tradition, new ministries can be required, named and commissioned. Familiar functions can be redistributed among those whom the community selects as capable of their exercise.(5) But let there be some ordering, that all of us may become accountable to one another.

We name the sin of exclusivity/elitism which stunts the organic growth of the serving community. The Spirit will continue in us the dreaming of dreams, but we are barred from sharing the tasks needed to clothe those dreams in reality. I would suggest, again, four strategies for working towards an ordered, non-exclusive ministry.

1) Refuse to be an accomplice in a discrimination which values one ministry over another. One of the most glaring ways that this discrimination is acted out in our Roman Catholic community is that the financial resources for the whole community are exhausted, for the most part, in preparing candidated for ordained ministry alone. There do exist programs of ministerial preparation open to all the people of God, single and married, female and male. Let us applaud these, defend their prophetic stance, their contribution to the development of a renewed Church. But whenever and wherever our support is requested for the maintenance of seminaries that shore up the existence of an exclusive, clerical elite, we must cry “No!” confident that our refusal will deny life to that which itself denies life to and in us. This specific strategy has already been implemented by the Catholic Women’s Seminary Fund and other “alternative” funds which enable individuals to underwrite justice(6)

2) We must challenge any structure which retains ordination as a prerequisite for decision making. This is self-evident, and as Marge Tuite would say, “clean.”

3) We can fashion ways to ritualize mutual ministry. When communities gather, let each member be charged with a share of the common task. Let all be supported in that service by the memory of an event whose message was that no one serves alone. Let all bless — let each be blessed.

4} And lastly, we must struggle to root out excessive deference. Love always calls forth mutual respect and never demands preferential treatment. And are we not called to love one another? How did it ever happen that we so sadly forgot our own human dignity, that to compensate we came to call our cardinals princes, our bishops Your Excellencies, and our priests fathers? Now we must undo the damage we have done to them and to ourselves. Let us embrace as sisters and brothers, embrace in a gesture of equality and reconciliation.

III. The Temptation of Self-Sufficiency

The third and final area of transformation to which I would like to speak is the growing tendency, not only within the Roman Catholic feminist movement, but without it as well, to deny the need for an ordained ministry. It is an illusion to envision the Church present where individuals gather to meet their own needs. The Church is not an end in itself, but exists always as means to mission. The Church is persons gathered in community to receive the revelation of God’s incarnate love and to be the environment where that incarnation can be experienced and extended to our own day. Paradoxically, that which binds us together as Church is the dynamic that compels us to reach always beyond ourselves.

And so, what of Church ministry? The task of enabling the coming of the Kingdom is entrusted to the entire community. Anyone who ministers does so in the name of that one body. I believe in an ordained ministry precisely for the service of unity and interdependence within the one body of Christ, I believe that we must be as radical in our remembering as in our redefinition. While painfully conscious of the deficiencies within the ordained ministry as we experience it today, with Raymond Brown, in his preface to Priest and Bishop: Biblical Reflections. “I am not so naive to think that every development within the Church is the work of the Spirit; but I would not know what guidance of the Church by the Spirit could mean if it did not include the fundamental shaping of the special ministry which is so intimately concerned with Christian communal and sacramental life.”(7) And with feminist theologian Letty Russell, I am persuaded that there does exist within our tradition a “usable history,”(8) a history that can ground us while in partnership we forge the future.

We name, if not the sin, then at least the temptation of self-sufficiency, and ask for a renewed appreciation of the fidelity of a God who has never abandoned us, a God who frees us for the foolishness of a trust that does not provide for itself. A final four brief strategies towards a transformed, ordained ministry:

1) Women are preaching the word. The entire community is called upon to preach the word in season and out of season. Women who have been chosen by their local communities of faith to proclaim the Gospel and to homilize are doing so “out of season,” if you will. In many churches, yet to hear a woman-word, it is winter still. Let the Office of Preaching be open to additional designated ministers-women as well as men, married as well as single.

2) Each of us must testify to the contradictions of current pastoral ministry: for example, the inadequacy of the imported, itinerant celebrant, himself unknown to the community while ostensibly presiding in its name. The inauthenticity of sacramental strangers, and so the increasing inaccessibility of the sacraments. We must, in public places, dare to expose the erosion of priestly identity so that those who bear it today, and those of us who will share it tomorrow, need no longer be larger than life.

3) Ordination ceremonies must speak a prophetic word. It must be demonstrated that when the community gathers in these days to accept and ratify the call of some, it rejects and denies the call of others. In this not-yet-time, we have no right to unmuted joy. Exclusion must be made visible in prayer as public as the laying-on-of-hands. Let our prayer be for conversion. Let our ritual reflect an anguish that refuses to go unshared.

4) The Women’s Ordination Conference and Priests for Equality can speak our common determination to assist in the birth of a New Church and a Renewed Priestly Ministry. Let us hold ourselves steadfast in both of these movement-organizations. We need each other.

And so we conclude, having named two sins and a temptation, twelve strategies, and one woman — ready and willing. The additional reasons I could cite for that readiness and willingness have personal names — like Kathleen and Bob and Avis and Jim, Martha, Paulette, Tom, Jean, and on and on and on.

The sins and the strategies could never, ever keep me living on the San Andreas Fault of our Church, living there and praying for its healing. But you can and you do, and I am grateful. It is because of you that God has tempered my most crippling fears. There still may be an earthquake, but now I trust that it would surely be followed by a tidal wave, baptizing and new-naming a ministry for tomorrow — in the name of God who creates us, Jesus who saves us, and the Spirit who ever sets us free.

So be it — Amen.


1. “Anger is the fruit of love, admittedly ambiguous. But it signals, always, the presence of caring.” In “The New Consciousness of Women: A Socio-Political Resource,” Cross Currents, Vol. XXIV, Winter, 1975, p. 456.

2. Ferder, Fran, FSPA, Called to Break Bread? Quixote Center, 3311 Chauncey Place, #301, Mt. Rainier, Maryland 20822, 1978.

3. Geaney, Dennis J., OSA, “Dialog with Women on their Call to Ministry and Priesthood,” in Women and Priesthood: Future Directions, Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP, editor, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1978, p. 155.

4. Further information on the process utilized may be obtained by writing the Sisters of Mercy Chicago Provincial House, 10024 S. Central Park Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60655.

5. Rahner, Karl, “The Point of Departure in Theology for Determining the Nature of the Priestly Office,” Theological Investigations XII, The Seabury Press, New York, 1974, pp. 31-38.

6. The Catholic Women’s Seminary Fund is a national organization founded to help meet the financial needs of women called to priesthood. Overhead expenses are met by individual or group memberships. Local chapters (which may be as small as three persons) coordinate their fund appeal to coincide with the collection for the diocesan seminary and provide an alternate place for giving. The Board of CWSF coordinates the awarding of scholarships and attempts to collaborate with individual bishops on a matching basis. For further information write: Catholic Women’s Seminary Fund, Inc., 10375 Cavey Lane, Woodstock, Maryland 21163.

7. Brown, Raymond E., SS, Priest and Bishop: Biblical Reflections, Paulist Press, New York, 1970, p 4.

8. Russell, Letty M., Human Liberation in a Feminist Perspective — A Theology, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1974, pp. 80-85.

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