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Translators' Afterword from 'Women Priests in the Catholic Church?' by Haye van der Meer

Translators’ Afterword

Women Priests in the Catholic Church?
by Haye van der Meer, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1973, pp. 163-166.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

It is little more than a decade since Father van der Meer wrote the first version of this book, but even in those few years there have been deep changes of attitudes in church and society which have affected the possibility of the ordination of women.

=The first is the massive impetus of Vatican Council II, which took place from 1962 to 1965, immediately after Dr. van der Meer completed his research. In Vatican II the Catholic Church publicly committed itself in the most official and solemn way possible to a thorough reform and renewal of its own structures. The Decree on Ecumenism, for example, issued by the Pope and all the Catholic bishops gathered together, stated in a very clear, even blunt, fashion:

Christ summons the Church, as she goes her pilgrim way, to that continual reformation of which she always has need, (art. 6)

Finally, all are led to examine their own faithfulness to Christ’s will for the Church and, wherever necessary, undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform. (art. 4}

Catholics’ . . . primary duty is to make an honest and careful appraisal of whatever needs to be renewed and achieved in the Catholic household. (art. 4)

Such a thoroughgoing reform of course includes that key element in the Church, the priesthood; the Council devoted not only a large section of its Constitution on the Church to the priesthood and its renewal, but even composed an entirely separate document on the meaning and renewal of the priesthood. The need to carry out this reform grew critical in the next few years, as tens of thousands of priests all over the world left the active priesthood.

One serious attempt to face the problem was the intense study of the priesthood sponsored by the American Catholic bishops (see page xxii of the Translators’ Foreword). Another was a recent investigation by members of several Catholic and Protestant ecumenical institutes in Germany of what they described as “one of the problems of the greatest import within and between the Christian confessions today, . . . the problem of church ministry.” They noted that progress toward a rapprochement between the churches will take place “only if the symptoms and causes of the crisis are precisely analyzed, and if, through a reflection on the basis of the common foundation of the Christian churches, a decision is made to reform the understanding and structure of church offices.”(1)

Clearly such an openness to change will be needed for any serious discussion of a topic as significant as the ordination of women to the priesthood. Outside an era committed to the reform and renewal of the Church in general and the priesthood in particular, the issue of the ordination of women priests would likely remain an academic question. But in the post-Vatican II era such a reform is a real possibility.

The second area of great change in the past decade is the status of women. Several times in the present book the author has paused to ask, “Are we perhaps speaking of something different today when we use the word woman?” There are many women today who would not only assert that our understanding of woman has changed but who would rise to speak directly to Father van der Meer’s point that:

The unsuitability of woman for the contemporary pastoral office is obvious. But that is at least partly because the pastoral office in its traditional form is formed by men. This book, then, was not written to come to the aid of those young women who would like to be ordained to the priesthood now. For such young women desire to be something which they can have experienced affectively only as something typically masculine.

The female voices would be raised not only in America but also in Western Europe — particularly in the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Germany, and England — and they would find an echo in the Marxist countries and even in unexpected places such as some of the Islamic lands.

Within the past decade the orientation of the feminist movement has turned from an attempt to adapt to the established norms and structures, to an attempt to work out an approach to living based on the “feminine experience.” No longer is the masculine — or the feminine — role in contemporary society seen as a norm or ideal; the completely human, it is asserted, can only be discovered once the sexual and professional roles imposed by society are exposed and analyzed. The present priesthood, obviously, is one of the many roles which have been formed to a great extent by such extrinsic forces.

The women who have only recently begun to enter the American Catholic seminaries have all been formed by — and have in their turn helped to form — many of the new attitudes and values of the contemporary feminist movement. They come with professional backgrounds in social work, education, and journalism; they know who they are in a way that would not have been possible a mere decade ago.

But besides the fact that such women would not exercise the priesthood in anything but a womanly way, it is argued that these feminine approaches and values are sorely needed in today’s priesthood and that the priesthood cannot be reformed and renewed without both female theologizing and female experience. This last, of course, suggests that the ordination of women must come not as a result of a renewal of the priesthood but as a preliminary to a real renewal. Otherwise even a newly reformed priesthood will be another masculine model “unsuitable for women.”

The structure of the Catholic Church today as compared to the structure of a Women’s Liberation group is relevant here. It should be noted too that there are women theologians who see the women’s movement as a religious movement with religious values and goals.

The structure of the Church is, of course, mainly hierarchical. In a feminist group, on the other hand, the leadership floats: a typical group will rotate its leadership position to give each member a chance for responsibility and for growth. Similarly, routine chores will be shared. Each person will be aided in the performance of her or his responsibilities not by an internalized theology of hierarchical authority but by the freely expressed supportive attitude and atmosphere within the group.

Such a structure is clearly foreseen in the concepts of co-responsibility promoted by Cardinal Leo Suenens of Belgium; the emphasis on mutual support and solidarity likewise finds a vital point of contact with Vatican II’s stress on the Church as the People of God; the reforms in the Catholic liturgy promote a greater sense of community. The Church in many ways is heading, although slowly, toward the steps already taken in women’s circles.

A team ministry in which the members bring not only their differing talents but their special training and varying experiences to a leadership community which acts by consensus rather than by unilateral authority; a parish in which a parish council truly representative of the constituency assumes responsibility for major policy decisions and planning; a church community which provides opportunities for genuine service to the world and its unfortunate; a religious community which encourages each member to develop and express in freedom his or her growth in the joy of God’s grace — all this is dimly seen in the future of the Catholic Church, though it is already breaking through into the world within the new feminist movement. A renewed priesthood within such structures would hardly be the traditionally “masculine” one that Dr. van der Meer rightly warned women today not to hanker after.

A church in which the nature of authority has changed drastically will, according to feminist theologians, liberate both men and women to discover the fully human in them, the male and the female. Tenderness and strength, an ability to feel and an ability to think, receptiveness and assertiveness will grow within each individual, who will thus more nearly attain the full range of human virtues exemplified in Jesus Christ.

At the same time, the paths toward a common humanity, beginning as they do too often today at stereotyped poles of aggressive masculinity and passive femininity, will come from almost opposite directions. This polarity means that the leadership and the guideposts for women must be far different from those for men. Women priests would therefore seem to be an absolute necessity as spiritual directors, moral and ascetic theologians, and, perhaps most important, models for women.

Within just the past few years there has been a shift from arguing only that there are no real impediments to the ordination of women — an argument which many people believe is finally completed in the present book — to an assertion that there are strong positive reasons for ordaining women priests in the Catholic Church.

Footnote

1. Reform und Anerkennung kirchlicher Ämter, Ein Memorandum der Arbeitsgemeinschaft ökumenischer Universitätsinstitute (Munich-Mainz, 1973), p. 13. An English translation of the joint memorandum is scheduled for the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, vol. 10, no. 3 (Spring, 1973). The memorandum included a recommendation for the ordination of women.

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