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Roman Catholic Ministry: Patriarchal Past, Feminist Future by Mary E. Hunt from Proceedings of the Second Conference on the Ordination of Roman Catholic Women November 1978, Baltimore, U.S.A.

Roman Catholic Ministry: Patriarchal Past, Feminist Future

by Mary E. Hunt

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 31 - 43.
Published on our website with permission of the Women's Ordination Conference

Mary E. Hunt holds a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and is currently a candidate for a Ph.D. in Philosophical and Systematic Theology at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. In addition she is working toward a Master of Divinity degree from Jesuit School of Theology and served in Clinical Pastoral Education at the California Institute for Women, a large women’s prison. She has a book in progress, Perspectives on Feminist Theology.

I would like to set a tone for my remarks this morning by having us settle into our chairs, feet on the floor, bodies relaxed and actively receptive. I invite you to look at your hands, while I read from May Sarton’s poem “An Observation.” May Sarton is a contemporary novelist, poet and journal writer — in fact, my favorite living author. She observed her mother tending flowers, and remarked on her mother’s rough, scarred hands which delicately nurtured little plants. Learning from her mother’s hands, Sarton writes that our task is

To move among the tender with an open hand
And to stay sensitive up to the end
Pay with some toughness for a gentle world.(1)

May Sarton describes exactly what I intend to do this morning. I intend to move between the toughness of analysis, namely, how we make sense of our current ministerial scene, on the one hand, and the gentleness of ministry, specifically, how we respond to the Christian vocation of service, on the other.

My plan is to explore with you what I call Feminist Liberation Theology. This theology is an analytic tool for understanding the patriarchal past of Roman Catholic ministry, and a strategic tool for broadening and deepening the scope of ministry, as we move into a feminist future. Please note from the outset that my concern is with ministry.

It will become clear as I proceed this morning that ordination plays a key role in the discussion of ministry. However, I refuse to deal exclusively with the question of ordination. I am not interested in an “add women and stir” approach to Roman Catholic ministry. Our refusal to limit our concern this weekend to what we can do to enlarge the limited and shrinking clerical pool, is an active refusal. It is the pledge of a people determined to use our collective energy to respond in love and justice to the Gospel mandate of liberation for all. This requires large-scale change.

Our common concern with the renewal of ministry springs from what scientists call a paradigm shift.(2) Imagine the confusion for scientists when they discovered that the earth was not the center of the solar system! And imagine how they had to rearrange their concepts and rewrite their theories in order to speak and act meaningfully. The traditional categories of analysis no longer worked. Old ways of thinking no longer fit reality.

We as a Church are in a similar state of confusion. Our paradigm has shifted. A new model is emerging. No longer is God exclusively or even predominantly Father. No longer is male-ness considered to be constitutive of the human, and female-ness considered to be derivative and subordinate. Equality has a new force, and with it is coming a new theological and ministerial model. The paradigm of Church has shifted from that of a male-dominated transnational religious corporation based in Rome, to that of a people’s Church with a people’s ministry, nurtured locally in parishes and base communities throughout the world. It is a renewed Church. It is a Church always and everywhere united by belief in a loving God, and held together by a commitment to active witness for justice as exemplified by Jesus.

Those of us who realize that the paradigm has shifted must also realize that widespread recognition of such change comes more like a marathon than a sprint. The shift involves us in a basic change in the power structure from hierarchical to communal. But change requires preparation, openness and a sense of humor! Those who must give up power in order for the new paradigm to take hold are always resistent to change. Those of us who are in the process of naming and claiming our rightful responsibility in the new paradigm need to be conscious of and sensitive to these realities. In order to facilitate the process of change, in order to speed it up to what we call in running terms a “conversational pace,” we develop new frameworks for understanding the new reality. Let me outline the elements of a theological framework which will be adequate to this new reality.

Clearly this theology is Christian. Before the word gets away from me, let me spell out my Christian presuppositions, at the risk of being considered too Christian by some and not Christian enough by others. I am painfully aware of the contradictions which many of us, especially women, experience in the outdated hierarchical Church. Its masculinist assumptions and male clerical caste, its habit of arriving a little breathless and a little late on the social justice scene, and myriad other problems have been more than adequately catalogued by feminist philosophers and theologians like Mary Daly and Rosemary Ruether. It becomes a supreme act of faith to put one’s eggs in such a Christian basket.

The following four presuppositions are rooted in my faith experience and ground my struggle for a post-patriarchal Christianity:

1. Forgiveness is possible. Even in the face of centuries of discrimination, reconciliation is available.

2. Hope is warranted. Resurrection faith means change can happen, monolithic structures notwithstanding.

3. Courage to act justly is expected. Community provides the strength necessary to struggle against oppression.

4. Starting point is always with the most oppressed. The needs of “the least of our sisters and brothers” ground our inclusive analysis and strategy.

With these four cornerstones of a post-patriarchal Christian faith, let me move on to the “Feminist” dimension of Feminist Liberation Theology.

First, what Feminism is not. Feminism is not the media-hype image of white middle class women wanting more dishwashers. It is not a set of buzz words or rhetoric. Let me be precise about what Feminism is, so that we will all be talking the same language. Feminism is a sincere engagement with a serious justice concern. It is an analytic framework for understanding the historical and contemporary oppression of women, as well as an inclusive strategy for ending oppression. Feminist analysis takes various forms in different cultures. But in each situation, especially where we find women the oppressed of the oppressed, Feminism is necessary for naming and countering sexism, the irrational discrimination against persons because of gender. Feminism, like Christianity, is concerned with human dignity.

Sexism pervades structures and organizations, individuals and communities. Its result is patriarchy, a situation in which the normative value of maleness prevents the full expression of femaleness, and subsequently obscures any possible experience of true humanity. Just as Marx did not invent the socio-economic classes he named, neither did feminists invent sexism. We have simply named it out of our experience of misogyny, that is, out of our experience of the hatred of women.

In the Church, misogyny is expressed in subtle forms like male exclusive language (e.g., God the Father, Mankind, all men — the ecclesiastical pornography which is still available) and in its not so subtle forms, like the exclusion of women from the exercise of ministerial gifts. Elimination of misogyny in the Church means a fundamental change in power structures. This change will result not simply in equality, but in new forms of mutuality. We are seeking not some form of ecclesiastical ERA, but a complete structural change which turns the power model upside down by giving those who have been excluded, women, Blacks, gay people, the poor, equal voice in the Church.

Men as well as women can be feminists. For example, our brothers here from Priests for Equality have embraced what I call a feminist perspective. They realize that women are oppressed in Church and society, and they seek to eliminate this oppression. In so doing, they recognize the socio-cultural sexism which forces them into dying structures and dead roles. We embrace them as comrades. However, we cannot forget that a basic feminist analysis of power reveals that all men receive male privilege in a patriarchal society whether they want it or not, just as all whites receive white privilege in a racist society. Of necessity, then, a male feminist response will be one of relinquishment in solidarity.(3)

Feminists have learned that sexism, while it may be our entree into Oppression writ large, is only one form of oppression. Instead of rank ordering oppressions (from best or worst?) we place our experience of sexism in the complex interstructuring of racism, classism, heterosexism and imperialism, as we try to develop a wholistic analysis and strategy. This inter-structuring is part of the data for doing theology. It helps to explain and to shape the new reality.

With an understanding of Feminism, let us move on to the “Liberation” dimension of my Feminist Liberation Theology. The elitist model of theologians “telling it like it is” receives a long overdue challenge from Latin American Liberation Theology. Theology is second level reflection on praxis, or, as Gutierrez remarked, the time to do theology is only after the pastoral work is finished. Concretely, this means that theology emerges not from predetermined philosophical categories and Tradition, but from changing, revolutionary situations and contents of struggle where people are trying to survive physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Liberation theology reminds us that the social sciences are relevant and necessary data for theology. Sociology, and particularly economics, help to explain, for example, why married clergy are banned or why women’s ministry is often seen as volunteer work. During a recent conversation with a chancery official about employment in my diocese, I was asked if I wanted to be paid!

In Liberation theology Scripture is read with attention to the cultural and class biases which obtain so that the Word can emerge afresh in new situations. Above all, in Liberation theology the power model is changed from that of experts issuing the latest theological press releases, to the people taking responsibility for asking and answering our own questions of ultimate meaning and value in a communal context. Theologians do not go on unemployment. Instead, we begin to understand ourselves as facilitators of the theologizing process and as chroniclers of the history of a community.

A redefinition of theology arises out of feminist and liberation strands. Theology, according to this model, is the organic and communal process of sharing insights, stories and reflections toward questions of ultimate meaning and value. This is a somewhat abstract way of saying that in a people’s church, in base communities, theologizing is similar to what we are doing here. One Women’s Ordination Conference member remarked to me that many theologians seem to have opted out of this process by now. If this is the case, I am disturbed by the narrow definition that such theologians use for our task. But I even find myself falling into the same trap when I jokingly say that the people here in Track 2 (i.e., those who are working on the theological aspects of the ordination issue) have a short agenda, and can catch the sights in Baltimore!

The new situation demands that we broaden our understanding of theology. In short, it means that we change the power model from a pyramid to a pinwheel so that as the Spirit blows through the Church, the previously stilled voices can join in theological chorus, and God can be known and praised more abundantly.

One implication of the Feminist Liberation Theology which I outlined is that it forces the acknowledgement of the partial, limited and contextual nature of all theology. Theology arises from particular political situations and emerges as strategy to deal with those situations. Theology about women in priestly ministry is no exception. Dorothee Soelle reminds us that all theology is political, whether one knows the program or not.(4) Paulo Friere insists that in a class stratified society politics serves the interests of the dominant class, but in a revolutionary society politics serves the interests of the people.(5) I like to think of the Christian Church as a revolutionary society, or, at least, with the potential for such an identity. Politics is nothing new in the history of theology. But articulating and celebrating the process of theologizing from the ground up is refreshingly novel.

With this sketch of Feminist Liberation Theology as a backdrop, we turn our attention to Roman Catholic ministry. Ministry “happens” when basic needs are perceived and met. It is, if you will, a kind of “creative loitering.” It means being actively and mutually present to a person in need. It may take the form of comforting the dying in their last moments, helping a prisoner locate her/his children on the outside, providing a wino with a warm place to sleep. Ministry is service to a community struggling to witness its faith. This may mean leading communal reconciliation services, representing the Christian family in lobbying efforts for gay rights, or keeping parish finances in order. Whatever its form, ministry is not easy work. It requires sensitivity, skills, stamina and Spirit.

Christian ministry derives its meaning from the Eucharist. Our part in the death and resurrection of Jesus, brought to expression in the sharing of bread and wine in a fellowship meal, is the model for personal and communal sharing of selves and gifts. This is the wellspring of ministry. We are a priestly people because we unite around the sacrificial meal. But just as the responsibility for health does not rest solely with the physician, nor the responsibility for justice solely with the judge, neither does the responsibility for ministry rest solely with the ordained person.

The ordained person is one whose primary work is ministry, just as the doctor or judge has her/his primary work in the medical or legal field. But the ordained person’s ministry is a sign of the vocation to service which is the responsibility of each Christian. It is not a calling to power and rank, position and authority. But it is an invitation to service after the fashion of Dorothy Day, Helder Camara, Mother Theresa and Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo.

This model of ministry is always ministry with and not ministry to. It is collegial, communal and cooperative. The minister acknowledges that she/he needs and receives as much ministry as she/he gives. Mutuality is its power model, a mutuality which is rooted in the Eucharist. Hence, any arbitrary limits on who may gather the family for the meal profane the constant source of Christian ministry, the Eucharist itself.

A quick glance at the development of Christian ministry reveals that this sharing model is not new. It is important for our concern, as we seek inclusivity, that we understand ourselves as part of a long tradition of Christians who have shaped ministry to fit the needs of the people. Church history shows that the spirit of ministry has always been one of flexibility and variety, even if the flesh has appeared rigid and hierarchical. We know that titles like Bishop, Presbyter and Deacon, which now evoke images of power and authority, originally signalled function not dignity of office. In the Jerusalem Church, for example, the community was held together by a Council of Elders (Acts 11:30). Their coordination task was probably no more glamorous than the running of a copying machine is in our own day.

The Pauline Church seems to have functioned quite effectively on a “ministry of gifts” model: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given us, let us use them.” (Romans 12: 6-8). Job descriptions were not divinely dictated. Even amid the complex history of the relationships between bishops and their co-workers, a communitarian model prevailed, whether out of necessity or theology. Given our model of how theology develops, we would undoubtedly interpret the reason as political theology.

The obvious absence of women in this period is much debated. Elizabeth Carroll’s article “Women and Ministry” for example needs little elaboration.(6) But a few observations may be helpful. History is always written by the victors about the vanquished, as Simone Weil reminded us. Hence, it is no surprise that we do not find much material about how women functioned ministerially. Instead, we can assume that women probably functioned within the confines of a culture which assigned them a very limited and usually domestic role. Deaconesses and widows were undoubtedly not the only women who ministered. The rich apostolate of the laity was largely the work of women, who, in their marginality, tended each other and their families while the power plays and intrigues of the early centuries took the time and talents of professionals.

In arguing for a change in the power model, I am concerned, however, with the development of the ministerial tradition in general. I see no reason to dwell in hindsight on what we know from a 20th century worldview should have been or might have been the case for women in a patriarchal culture. My scholarly sisters have brilliantly clarified past inequalities. The reality which I am addressing today has totally different assumptions about women. But I am enough of a traditionalist to be excited by the fact that models of ministry have always conformed to the needs of the situation, though it should be noted that these models were not exclusively ordained, clerical ones. Our efforts this weekend can be understood as being squarely in line with the best of the tradition!

Changes in the presbyterate are a good example of how ministry conformed to the needs of the times. By the fourth century, when bishops could no longer celebrate the eucharist for the growing number of urban and rural Christians, the role of the presbyter took a dramatic turn. He was suddenly expected to share in the episcopal task of carrying on the apostolic tradition in the Eucharist. In the fifth and sixth centuries the various forms became even more pronounced. In Rome presbyters were functionaries of their bishop, while in Gaul and Spain they led parishes. One scholar summed up the situation:

Despite the diversity of forms, it can be said that there is a basic continuity from one form to another, and that the determining factor in deciding the particular form was the pastoral situation with which the church was confronted.(7)

Such a conclusion makes it clear that Feminist Liberation Theology is not something new under the sun. It is simply the expression of our age’s continuity with the changing tradition of the Church. It is our way of addressing the pastoral situation of our time. In this context, equality for Christians demands the concrete bringing about of equality for women, Blacks, gay people, the poor, all who have been oppressed in Church and society. The emergence of this theological framework, and the insistence on a model of ministry which is inclusive, are the latest steps in Christian tradition.

Of course Scholasticism brought with it a unique brand of patriarchal plenty. With it came the reification of orders and of the character of ordination. The splitting off of a clerical caste became more pronounced by a vocabulary and symbol system which made it seem as if the ordained person received something called orders, which could be packaged like a Christmas gift, and a character, which was something akin to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval! While such images made sense in a medieval worldview, they are more than a tad anachronistic today.

Sadly, I must report that remnants of these relics still linger. I recall vividly the day last spring when my classmates were ordained to the presbyterate. I writhed in the cathedral pew when they were subjected to and participated in a ceremony which, they knew as well as I, was inadequate to express communal affirmation of their calling to ministry. I was not only offended by the all male procession of priests who laid hands upon them, and the spirit of exclusion which the act engendered, but I was struck once again by our impoverishment as a Church. For us, ordination must be a symbol not primarily of entrance into the collegium of those already ordained. Rather, it is a symbol of the call of each of us to Christian ministry. It is a symbol brought to expression in the lives of those who have chosen and are chosen to develop their gifts for the ongoing work of the Church. That fine spring day in San Francisco I wept for my brothers, I wept for my Church, I wept for myself. I could only conclude that the Church was in need of a new theology, and a renewed priestly ministry ... in desperate need.

To understate the case, the 20th century has not been kind to the priesthood. Pius X in 1907 stated it bluntly: “May the spirit of innovation be far, far removed from the priesthood.”(8) Vatican II efforts to strengthen the apostolate of the laity are found alongside the notion that ordained clergy “perform their priestly office publicly.”(9) It is almost as if the rest of us are closet ministers! The result is an impossible role for clerics, and essentially no role for the rest of us.

On the brighter side, there are numerous references in the Vatican II materials which not only reinforce but mandate the theologizing in which we are engaged. For example, we are told that it is our duty

... to cooperate in one way or another, by constant prayer and other means at their (our) disposal, so that the Church may always have the necessary number of priests to carry out her divine mission.(10)

Developing new forms of priestly ministry is our answer to this mandate. Or, from the same source we read the following with regard to vocation:

This voice of the Lord in summons ... is rather to be detected and weighed in the signs by which the will of God is customarily made known to prudent Christians.(11)

While it would be arrogant of me to translate the will of God, I can go out on a limb and affirm us as a group of prudent Christians!

From a Feminist Liberation Theology perspective, the evidence is overwhelming that the paradigm has shifted. No longer is clerical, celibate, hierarchical ministry adequate to the pastoral needs of our day. The decline in male applicants to the priesthood, the exodus of men from the clerical ranks, the growing number of women in theological schools, the general ferment around the ordination question in the United States and elsewhere, tell us loudly that the people are more than ready. The need is real; the response is genuine. We are responding to the Spirit’s expression of pastoral need. We are the people who have suffered from the delayed vocations of perhaps thousands of women. There is hint of miracle about it all. Women, “faithing” in a future of jobs unseen, insist that we too are called to ministry.

To look beyond the old model to a feminist future, I begin with my Clinical Pastoral Education experience as a chaplain in a women’s prison. As many of you have done in hospitals, schools and parish settings, I ministered to women inside who cared not whether I was ordained, but whether I was available, spiritual and skillful. I recall how much sense it made for the Spiritualettes, a group of gospel singing inmates, to lead the worship, and for me to take my cues from them. It set in motion a power model of mutuality. It was important to them, and to me, that I was a woman as I gathered the community for the sharing of bread and wine. It was important because such was a natural part of my role, complementing the counselling and teaching that I did daily. Women prisoners affirmed my vocation. As usual, the people lead us beyond our theological hangups toward wholeness.

A feminist future is complicated by what I call “presbyterogenic” problems, that is, priest-caused problems. While Rome seems to have sounded its own death rattle on the issue with the publication of the “Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood,” the clerical, celibate, hierarchical priesthood remains. It does not fit in a feminist future. It is an ecumenical embarrassment, and a cause of serious scandal and alienation. When I hear people say that they are against the ordination of women, what I really hear is a resounding “No” to more of the same.

The “No” is to more members of a clerical caste, even women, who are set aside for a specific function. While for some clerics this has meant access to ecclesiastical power, women know that being set apart really means being marginalized. Most male clergy have felt the same way, being told that they should not participate in politics, that they must not have an emotional/relational life, and that their social role is to keep the sanctuary lights burning. Such marginalization would be nothing new for women, but I strongly advise against accepting it as the price for full ministry. All ministers of the Gospel belong in the world.

Celibacy, like clericalism, is dubious for women. Many male priests urge optional celibacy. Current regulations are based on a view of women as evil, economically dependent and relationally draining. Worse yet, the compromise view as manifest in the permanent diaconate program is one of women as an unpaid support system whose lives and work are subservient to their husbands’ vocations. In many dioceses wives go through training and counselling in order that their husbands may be ordained. The compromise means the creation of another denomination’s ministers’ wives. It is a compromise which I cannot support.

We as a Church need a whole new theology of sexuality, but that is material for a later conference. At the very least, we need ministers who are open to loving, responsible relationships which may include sexual expression unfiltered by guilt. For women to embrace mandatory celibacy as a criterion for ministry would be to betray our brothers and ourselves.

The hierarchical aspect of contemporary ministry has been alluded to throughout my remarks. The same imperialism which keeps patriarchal theology from expressing ultimate meaning and value for most people keeps a hierarchical Church from embodying the lives and faith of most people. It is a power model based not on a 20th century worldview of interdependence, but on a medieval concept of lord and serf, master and slave. It is unfaithful to the biblical witness of equality, and stands in the way of mutuality.

There is no reason to suspect that adding women to this structure will break it down. But there is every reason to believe that changing the model to a radical equalitarian one will bring about the inclusion of women and other marginated persons.

Let me suggest what a new model might look like. In addition to experience, I draw upon tradition. A renewed understanding of the evangelical counsels, an understanding which would call all Christians to account for poverty, chastity and obedience, makes a good first step toward renewing ministerial models.

Poverty, seen as sharing the earth’s goods with the earth’s people, is consistent with personal and communal ecology. Chastity, understood as responsible commitment in relationships, is a useful norm for interpersonal life. Obedience, lived out as communal accountability for decision-making, provides a workable model for families and groups. These are guidelines for Christian life. They are not the exclusive property or burden of people in religious communities. Embracing these as normative for all is the first step toward expecting no more, and certainly no less, from ordained ministers.

What of ordination itself in this new model? Changing Canon 968 to include women among those who receive ordination validly is not enough to effect the fundamental change I am advocating. Women and men are already ministering in a variety of ways. Our aim is to recognize and affirm these ministries and to remove artificial restrictions which prevent full ministry for some and any ministry for others. These barriers include classism, racism and heterosexism.

In the United States, for example, new ministerial models will be developed with attention to class issues. We must make sure that it is not only the upper middle class and/or those who have the support of their religious communities who gain access to theological training and who have time to discern their calls. Racial and ethnic considerations are part of a new ministerial model. We must be open to the changes which will come about in our liturgies and theologies when Black and Spanish-speaking persons are taken seriously as full ministers. A new model of ministry will be inclusive of homosexuals. This will signal our belief, a Christian belief, that love comes in many forms, and that honesty and responsibility in love are far more important than the gender of the partners.

Clearly I am advocating massive change. You might ask why I am not suggesting that we work from the inside out, that we ordain women to a clerical, celibate, hierarchical priesthood, and hope that simply adding women will bring about sufficient change. I can suggest three reasons for not going this route.

First, history has proved it inadequate. Swedish Lutheran and Anglican women report that they are stuck with trying to become old girls in an old boys’ club. They are perceived as priests in the traditional fashion. Most do not recommend it very highly.

Second, women have special gifts to bring to ministry. At this time in history one of our gifts is a new model of mutuality. Settling for less means a failure to actualize our gifts. We have done this for too long already.

Finally, the old model is dead. Priests are telling us that a straightjacket with a Roman collar is not very comfortable. The people are saying that enough is too much. This is our chance to make substantive change, for ourselves, for our brothers, for our Church.

These for me are reason enough to move into a feminist future with the revamped understanding of ministry which I have begun to articulate. I cannot give you a blueprint for building the new model. It is emerging out of our common work. But I can, in conclusion, invite you to focus on your hands again.

Are they hands which “move among the tender” ministering in mutuality? Are they hands which are “sensitive up to the end” to the needs of the oppressed? Are they hands which are ready to “pay with some toughness for a gentle world” where gifts are shared? If so, join hands with me as we move faithfully into a feminist future.

Thank you.


1. May Sarton, “An Observation,” Collected Poems, New York: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1974, page 271.

2. The classic formulation of paradigm shift is by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962, 1970.

3. The term “relinquishment” is developed by Marie Augusta Neal as the appropriate response of persons in power to the need for a shift in the allocation of power. Cf. A Socio-Theology of Letting Go: The Role of a First World Church Facing Third World Peoples, New York: Paulist Press, 1977.

4. Dorothee Soelle, Political Theology, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974.

5. Paulo Friere, Pedagogy in Process, New York: The Seabury Press, 1978, p. 78.

6. Elizabeth Carroll, R.S.M., “Women and Ministry,” Theological Studies, December, 1975, pp. 660-687.

7. David N. Power, Ministers of Christ and His Church, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1969, p. 111.

8. Pope Pius X, Pascendi dominici gregis (8 September, 1907).

9. Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priest, paragraph 2.

10. Ibid., paragraph 9.

11. Ibid., paragraph 11.

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