Women in Ordained Ministry: A Sociologist Raises a Question by Marie Augusta Neal, from 'Women in Ministry: A Sisters' View', National Assembly of Women Religious, Chicago, 1972

Women in Ordained Ministry: A Sociologist Raises a Question

by Marie Augusta Neal,

from Women in Ministry: A Sisters' View, National Assembly of Women Religious, Chicago, 1972, pp. 119-122.

NEAL, S. Marie Augusta SND. PhD Sociology, Boston. Heads Sociology Department, Emmanuel College; member of USCC Advisory Council; consultant on education for African Bishops; research committee, Leadership Conference of Women Religious and designer of CMSW Survey on American Sisters 0967). Has published: Values and Interests In Social Change; contributed to: Religion In America, The Changing Sister. The New Nuns, Vows but No Walls.

For six years we have been studying the changing role of women religious in the Church. The pattern of response to the invitation to renew—characteristic of religious orders of women—has been first to focus on dress, then on life styles, then on choice of ministries, with the recurring refrain: “But what about prayer?” All of this has taken place within the context of a changing liturgy not yet set in any meaningful direction.

In the winter of 1971 I attended a meeting of 225 campus ministers assembled to consider liturgical, communal and apostolic dimensions of their roles. In the process of intense consideration of conscientization and the Call to Action, Pope Paul’s letter to Cardinal Roy in May 1971 on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, we examined together the American response—or lack of response—to the call of our brothers and sisters in Bangla Desh for support of their will to rule themselves, expressed In their elections of December, 1970.

We reflected on the oppression of this will in the imprisonment of the winning party leader in March, 1971, followed by the blood bath of supporting students and faculty of Dacca University on March 25, 1971...the declaration of independence in the late fall of 1971...the response of Indira Ghandi and her call for aid from our government and the United Nations...then on India’s invitation of support, alone, while the great powers sat in judgment and—with the exception of Russia—identified with the aggressor. Bangla Desh, the eighth largest nation of the world, thus came into existence with the poor aiding the poor while the rich stood in international judgment.

Usually it would require courage to take the prophetic stand that this historic moment called for: The support of our poor brothers and sisters despite the risk of being rejected by the rich nations. This time it took meditative vigilance even to know what was going on. The campuses were weary and too close to their already experienced oppression in support of the cessation of the war in Vietnam. But who is supposed to keep the watch in the night?

As we deliberated our failures to respond to this most pressing need and then recalled the current tortures of the ministry in Brazil, the deporting of missionaries in South Africa, and reviewed our ignorance of our struggling black brothers and sisters in Rhodesia where the ordained ministries are trying to give support against the British settlement, we were sad and thoughtful, wondering at our awareness. In this context we considered the quality and the content of our liturgies during these trying months, shared in a liturgy of repentance, and questioned our own silences: We who are dedicated to the elimination of the causes of human oppression, the commitment of Vatican II.

Out of this group of 225 ministers, 45 were women. One of these women rose and expressed with candor her readiness to accept the role the Church has asked us to take in the 80th year letter, but said that frankly she was afraid. At this someone called for the laying on of hands, for her ordination. The presiding bishop, himself one of the courageous ones, explained with simple dignity why it could not be, even though he personally had no objections. He felt that the time is not now.

The ordained ministers expressed their agreement with the bishop that this was not the immediate need and gave as evidence that they, although they were ordained, still feared the responsibility of their role. They did not all speak. But those who spoke were ordained ministers and the rest assented by their silence when the moment called for affirmation, if there were a belief to be affirmed.

The sociologist’s interpretation: The ordained ministers in the Catholic Church welcome the assistance of their sisters in pastoral work. They recognize their individual talents and respect these. Women in general for them fall into the categories of attractive helpers. They feel no need at the present time to extend the prerogatives of their role to the women who work with them. So women must still be assistants in their kind of ministry, even if they feel called to lead.

If some women feel called to action to prepare the community for the elimination of oppression of the two-thirds of our brothers and sisters in the world who are oppressed by material poverty...who are sick, blind, lame and ignorant...then these women are freer to choose because few men are opting for this priestly role. The world’s spirit is poor and God waits to respond. The poor cannot rise within the structure as it is.

Technologically we have the potential to provide for their needs. Socially we retain a will to repress the poor. This will is reinforced by our present worship. We have a call to reconstruct, to transform the world in Christ. Restructuring calls for a change in role relations. We have the call to action and we have the suffering poor. We lack the will to act and we need leaders for the community worship. Who will respond to the call?

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