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Those who Want to Stratergize on the Issue. The Ordination of Women: A Statement of Stratergy by Eileen Stenzel from Proceedings of the Second Conference on the Ordination of Roman Catholic Women November 1978, Baltimore, U.S.A.

Those who Want to Stratergize on the Issue

The Ordination of Women: A Statement of Stratergy

by Eileen Stenzel

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 141-146.
Published on our website with permission of the Women's Ordination Conference

Eileen Stenzel holds a Ph.D. in theology from Notre Dame and is currently Associate Professor of Human Services and Director of the Human Services Programme at Calumet College of St Joseph.

There are three assumptions about strategy which serve to inform my remarks prepared for this afternoon. The first is that how a problem is defined controls how a problem is resolved. The second is that who controls the definition of problems also controls the solution. The third is that those who wish to develop strategies for change must, of necessity, be involved in the intellectual analysis of the problem or situation. The title of my talk suggests that strategy conveys a position. Therefore, my first observation about strategy-building for the ordination of women reflects on the organizing principles of our conference. It is unwise to separate the issues of theological exploration and strategy. Likewise, it is unwise to separate those who personally feel called to ordination from those who wish to work for the ordination of women.

Because of this inter-relatedness of position and strategy, my talk will do two things. First, I will outline my analysis of the issue of the ordination of women into the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church. Second, I will offer guidelines for development of strategies consistent with that position.

The questions with which I began to prepare my remarks are: What does it mean to seek the ordination of women? What does it mean to those who wish to be ordained as well as to those who wish to experience a Church which no longer refuses to ordain women because they are women? Does seeking the ordination of women mean the same thing as ‘seeking ordination’ does to men, to the institutional Church, to the Church-at-large? Should it?

This session of the Ordination Conference is concerned with the issues surrounding the development of strategy toward the ordination of women. When asked to speak with you today, I agreed to present a very simple thesis based on the Call given to attend this Conference: to seek a new woman, a new Church and a new ministry. The thesis which I submit to you today is as follows: If the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church is to mean a new woman, a new Church and a new ministry, then the process of seeking ordination must, itself, involve new women, a new Church and a new ministry.

I would like to develop that thesis around the following three questions. First, what is the relationship between the refusal to ordain women and the coming of new women? Second, what is the relationship between the struggle to become new women and the coming of a new Church? Third, what is the relationship between collective identification with women and the coming of a new ministry?

The final part of my paper will present guidelines for strategy consistent with the position developed in response to these questions.

The Refusal to Ordain Women and the Coming of a New Woman

To seek the ordination of women means that we as women and men have looked at why women are refused ordination. It means that we have continued to ask ‘why’ in spite of our own fears at hearing the answer. We have read and heard and seen the reasons for what they are: an insistence that there are roles for women and roles for men, a system of dualism which is the foundation of sexism. To seek the ordination of women means, in light of the refusal to ordain women, that we reject the tradition on which ordained ministry within the institutional Church rests: the denial of female autonomy and female power. We understand, as we struggle, that that tradition has been institutionalized in Church teaching, preaching and service and has been internalized by women and men. Therefore, to disengage ourselves from that tradition necessitates a process whereby we recover our autonomy and power. To confront ourselves on the edge of time by insisting on full and rightful autonomy as persons. That is to say, we seek what is essential to our personhood: the ability to be ‘engagingly moral,’ i.e. to be able to decide among alternatives and to be able to accept responsibility for the consequences.

The Relationship Between the Struggle to Become New Women and the Coming of a New Church

The struggle to become new women is the struggle to come to attain a self-understanding which is rooted in a deep sense of one’s own autonomy and an understanding of the absolute necessity of autonomy in human community at any level: interpersonal, inter-racial, inter-cultural. At its deepest level, the struggle to become new women involves a perception of sexism within patriarchal cultures and systems as the denial of sexual, political and moral autonomy to women. It is further to understand that as long as sexism continues, communities of men and women are impossible. Likewise, until men and women both take the dynamics of sexism seriously and commit themselves to struggle with them as deeply institutionalized and internalized, communities of men and women are impossible. For that understanding and that commitment are the first steps in bringing those communities to life.

Thus, the moral imperative by which we envision human communities — male and female — is the imperative of an alternative future. Whereas our engagement in the refusal to ordain women led to seeking the ordination of women by breaking with the tradition on which ordination rests, our engagement in the struggle to become new women is the initiation of a new tradition through which ordination can be re-examined and understood anew. That tradition will be one which ceases to make persons of public ministry functions of institutional continuity. It will, rather, provide the basis whereby ordained ministry, if it continues to be characterized by sacramental leadership roles, will be understood in such a way as to recognize that sacramental power is a metaphor of the community, not of the ‘priest.’ Sacramental experience will, likewise, be inclusively understood, i.e., in a context that is immediately social, immediately personal and immediately political.

The Relationship Between Collective Identification with Women and the Coming of a New Ministry

At the previous ordination conference, Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza observed: “The demand of women for ordination has to be rooted in a theology and praxis of sisterhood which is not based on sexual identification.” To place ourselves where women are: in factories, in homes, in schools, in welfare offices, in hospitals, in corporations, in mental institutions, in novels of alleged fiction, and research of alleged facts is to learn that the sexual gratification to which Elisabeth referred is a power system. The development of priesthood into a system of active male leadership over against a passive “female-like” participation has become characteristic of the hierarchical, male and celibate church.

To be grounded in collective identification with women — the experience of sisterhood — is to be rooted in a human praxis which itself betrays the confinement of the power-paradigm of conventional priesthood. It suggests, to the contrary, that feminist experience as radical discontinuity with prevailing normative structures contains the paradigms around which genuinely human communities can be understood.

There are three primary paradigms which grow from this feminist experience of discontinuity. The first is the paradigm of sisterhood: the experience of coming to autonomous consciousness of one’s self-as-woman and a collective identification with the impact of sexism on the personhood of all women. The second is the paradigm of sexual-politics. It suggests that human encounters are genuinely liberating only to the degree that persons move past the perception of others as property and commodities for possession and exchange. More specifically, it rejects the dominance-subordinance model proscribed for male-female relatedness. The third is the paradigm of mutuality and friendship. It suggests that the most genuine forms of human community and service occur within the context of felt solidarity with other human beings.

These paradigms, when examined theologically, suggest that it is no longer sufficient to use the term “priesthood” to identify Christian leadership. The tradition on which it rests: the dominance of active “male-like” leadership and the subordinance of passive “lay” participation characteristically “female” is no longer plausible.

Conclusion: Guidelines for Strategy

In light of the position outlined above I would like to suggest the following guidelines for strategy-building.

First, I would suggest that the process of seeking the ordination of women must be one that is inclusive and collective. That is to say, the process should develop in settings which include women from all strata and should overcome the hierarchically imposed divisions among women, especially religious and lay. It should likewise be one which continues to engage us in re-examination of what we seek and how we seek it.

Second, I would suggest that the process of seeking ordination be one in which the understanding of what we are about identifies the refusal to ordain women as primarily a manifestation of ecclesial sexism rooted in a now untenable ecclesial theory and praxis. Therefore, it must be one which strengthens us to 1) refuse the tradition on which ordination rests; 2) experience our discontinuity with that tradition as a struggle toward personal, political and moral autonomy for all; and 3) identify ministry in relation to a process which enables responsibility for the future perceived in a global context.

Third, I would suggest that the process of seeking the ordination of women, if it is to support as well the autonomy of all women, should keep itself free from dependency on systems and approaches which require the subordination of women.

Fourth, I would suggest that the process of seeking the ordination of women must call into question all forms of sexual politics, i.e. sexual stratification among persons and the perpetuation of the dominance-subordinance model among males and females. The process of seeking the ordination of women should, therefore, include a re-examination of mandatory celibacy as an extension of this paradigm.

Fifth, I would suggest that the process of seeking the ordination of women must be one that fosters the economic independence of all women. It should, therefore, involve a thorough review of how women’s economic resources are being used, especially in ways that support systems which deny women’s autonomy.

Sixth and last, I would suggest that the process of seeking the ordination of women must involve the experience and recognition of the ordination of women. That is to say, it must acknowledge women’s ability to directly experience the roots of power and to engage in the public, professional ministry of the Church. It must do this in recognition of what Rosemary Ruether pointed out to us at the Detroit Conference: all ministries are the creation of the historical Church. The ordination of women will be, in this sense, no exception.

Track III Responses

In Track III, the following proposals for strategy were made. Since the pre-conference process, which WOC members were asked to sponsor in their local areas, was a successful strategy used to surface responses to a new priestly ministry and since the “feedback” from the process indicates:

1. Serious need for Church renewal, and
2. Insertion of women’s presence in ministerial priesthood

We urge the core commission committees of WOC to:

1. Develop a vehicle of communicating the results of this May, 1978, process
2. Encourage repetition* of this process at least three times before September, 1979, thus preparing local area women/ men to local ordination conferences, these repetitions to include even expanding groups of people, especially, minorities, all classes in both urban/rural areas.

Furthermore, the completed document of the process held in 1978 (and those to be held regionally in 1979) be forwarded to the bishops in which this process occurred.

Local Strategies that have worked

Four or five women of different backgrounds each prepare 5-minute autobiography and interact with larger group (detailed account available through WOC office)

>Using existing programs, e.g. Genesis 2, to convene groups from this point of departure move to raise consciousness and concerns of women (married, divorced, single, widows, former religious)

Where possible, enter diaconate program with purpose of raising consciousness, particularly at ordination time.

Declare “state of emergency,” empowering selves as ministers of community and defining your own liturgy

Important: Document your experience!

Surface needs of women in the community (urban/rural). Working to meet needs can bond people who otherwise might not meet

Form groups of women (members of religious communities and other women) who are concerned about women’s issues from Call to Action (modeled by Chicago Catholic Women)

Request the bishops encourage parishes to have women preach on at least one Sunday a year. (How about trying for the same Sunday?)

Women make a point of getting involved in own parishes at any level.

Slide shows, newspaper articles, etc., can be organized to show various ministries women are engaged in.

Call a local press conference following WOC-publicize what happened in Baltimore

Obtain press release from WOC and publicize what happened in Baltimore

To Core Commission — Suggested Strategy

We propose that the women’s ordination conference inaugurate regional conferences to be held, between regularly scheduled national conferences, on a common meeting date for the purpose of wider outreach and in order to encourage and foster international solidarity.


As a response to the needs of God’s People and the call of the Spirit within individual persons, and in order to avail resources for ministry-training among women/men, we propose that the Women’s Ordination Conference encourage local WOC groups to initiate and maintain regular dialogue with rectors of diocesan/religious seminaries.

To WOC Core Commission

Since the entire Christian community is called to “proclaim the Word in season and out of season,” we affirm that the gift and ministry of preaching should be exercised more widely. To this end we recommend that WOC sponsor the publication of a brief pamphlet on the vocation of all Christians to preach the Word. (Several members have offered to work on this project.)

Reaffirmation of the need of pastoral teams — all full time and part time pastoral staff

Inclusion of women and men ministers — ordained and non-ordained— in all sacramental celebrations

Incorporation of women on all levels of parish and diocesan life— particularly leadership positions, through heightened awareness and consciousness-raising

To name and encourage new and existing ministries

To eradicate sexist language

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