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Letter to Women

Chapter 4.

The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church,

Unmasking a Cuckoo's Egg Tradition.

By John Wijngaards

Published by Darton Longman and Todd, London 2001.

© John Wijngaards. Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

The focus of this book

As Vicar General of the Mill Hill Missionaries it was my pleasant duty once a year  to visit our communities and institutions in the USA.  In 1978 I managed to arrange the visitation schedule in such a way that I could attend the National Women’s Ordination Conference in Baltimore. It turned out to be an event I will never forget. I was excited by the range of speakers. I listened spellbound to theologians who have since then achieved international acclaim such as Mary Daly and Rosemary Radford Ruether.  I joined the demonstration march that carried a mile-long chain of bondage and I joined in triumphantly  tearing it into pieces. But what impressed me most were the almost 2000 participants who crowded the central lecture hall and adjoining workshops. They consisted overwhelmingly of women, from a wide spectrum of professions: doctors, teachers, lawyers, business executives. There were religious sisters among them as well as married women. Commitment to the Catholic faith reigned supreme notwithstanding common dismay at what Rome was doing.


Though in general I felt very welcome indeed and shared deep insights with wonderfully sensitive people, I also had sobering experiences that taught me a lesson or two. On one occasion I was bluntly refused entry into a workshop simply because I was a man. I remonstrated that I had just published a book defending the ordination of women. The answer was: “So far you men have done all the talking in the Church. It is about time women have their say!”  “Touché”, I thought, “but can’t I be a friend?”  One campaigner  maintained that, in order to celebrate the full sacramental eucharist, ordination was not necessary at all.  Another criticised my book for analysing the Roman arguments.  By discussing the ordination of women on Rome’s terms I had already lost half the battle. Another theologian, from my own native Holland I am sad to report, persuaded me to part with a copy of my book, but then, two months later, published one of its chapters in the leading Dutch Catholic weekly de Bazuin without ever acknowledging her source.


Such negative incidents have not dented my overwhelmingly positive remembrance of Baltimore. I felt that I had met the enormous strength of thinking, caring, competent Catholic women. It filled me with hope.  I knew then that the Church would never be able to stop this tide. The dedication, the quality, the Christian faith of women in the Church would win the day. But the confrontations also served a purpose. They prepared me for what was to come. I learnt that the issues surrounding women’s ordination are highly complex, and subsequent developments have borne this out.  Wounds need to be healed, ancient injustices undone.  Women need to have the freedom to operate theology in their own way. Though men can be sympathetic to it, a real feminine and feminist contribution should come from women. Moreover, the ordination of women is embedded in wider questions such as the nature of the Christian community and of ministry themselves.  The extreme, suppressive measures emanating from Rome under Pope John Paul II raise further questions of strategy.  Should the power structures in the Church not be reformed first? In this arena it makes sense for me to say what I am trying to do in all this.

Early champions

It is indisputable that women theologians have changed the face of Catholic theology, especially since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). It was when the Council began that women found their voice. As we review the historical record we can see how an age-old pain and anger at having been excluded now found expression in different parts of the Catholic community and all at once. As far as the ordination of women was concerned, there have been pioneers  in many countries. I will briefly sketch some of their early work.


To start with England - since this is where I live at present -, the St. Joan’s International Alliance had been active since its British foundation in 1911. It aimed to change the attitude of the Church towards women’s rights -- political votes for women, support for marginalised women, recognition for women in the apostolate. The exclusion of women from ordination became a pronounced issue in 1928.[43] Joan Morris whom I was privileged to know personally and who left part of her library to me, studied archives all over Europe to document the involvement of women in Church ministries and jurisdiction in the early Middle Ages. After decades of research it resulted in the classic Against Nature and God.[44]


            The young German theologian Josefa Theresia Münch wrote letters to Pope Pius XII in 1953 and 1954 expressing her desire to be ordained a priest and protesting the invalidity of the official theological stand against it. When the Vatican Council was announced in 1960, she wrote to Rome to request the alteration of Canon 968, §1, to the effect that it should no longer read, “Only a baptised man can validly receive priestly ordination.” but, “Only a baptised person can validly receive priestly ordination”, adding her reasons. When the Council opened in October 1962, she travelled to Rome and during the first press conference of the Council caused a stir by asking: “Why have women not been invited to the Council?” The question was dismissed by Bishop Kampe of Limburg, the official spokesman, but the issue received full attention in the press. A year later Cardinal Suenens of Brussels spoke up during a general session in the Council hall: “Half of humanity is made up of women. In the Church too, at least half of it, is made up of women; here at the Council, where are the women?”   He received tremendous applause. It led to  Paul VI appointing 16 women as auditors - among 2000 male participants.[45]


 Meanwhile the  Swiss lawyer Gertrud Heinzelmann had been longing for the admission of women to the priesthood from an early age. “Already when I had to make my first confession (in 1924), I felt a deep desire for a woman priest. I knew I would have revealed myself so much more easily to a woman than to a man since a man does not understand the fears and worries of a small girl . . . The woman whom I sought in my spiritual need did not exist.” Since official theological studies were not open to her, she pursued them privately, next to her legal career. So she was ready when the Council was announced. In May 1962, she submitted a well-documented proposal regarding women’s ordination to the preparatory committee of the Second Vatican Council. It was the only proposal of its kind to make it into the official Council documentation. It detailed the untenable bias against women in traditional theology and called for a true equality for women in the Church, including openness to all ministries. Her writings attracted international attention.[46]  In 1964 she published the explosive book We won’t keep Silence any longer. Women Speak out to Vatican Council II.[47]


Since that time an avalanche of ground-breaking publications appeared. The Dutchman Haye van der Meer, who had started revolutionary research under Karl Rahner even before the Council, exposed the flimsy basis of medieval reasonings.[48] Sister Vincent Hannon in England challenged the traditional stand.[49]  Mary Daly, who had studied at Fribourg and who was the first American woman to obtain a doctorate in theology, wrote her initial feminist critique.[50]  The German Ida Raming published a classic study that documented the origin of anti-feminine bias in Church law.[51]  A ‘select’ bibliography on the ordination of women for 1965-1975 lists 36 books and 175 articles.[52] The 1970s ushered in the golden period of Catholic feminist theology.


I can do no more than sketch developments at this point. The scandalous inequality between men and women, tolerated for so long, began now to be described and exposed in all areas of Catholic life: in worship and spirituality, in the parish and in the home, in theology as well as in law.[53]  The roles of women in the early Church, both during apostolic times and the house-church communities, were being re-examined, and consequences from this drawn for New Testament exegesis.[54]  Women’s lives during various periods of the Church’s history were studied in detail.[55]  Much more clarity was gained from a woman’s perspective on matters of language, imagery and church symbolism.[56]  At the same time, and as a result of much of this research, it became clear that  women’s ordination cannot be separated from other reforms needed in the Church.

The wider picture


The feminist impulse no less than Rome’s intransigence on women’s ministries served as catalysts to unmask the underlying assumptions regarding the priesthood  itself.


Since the Middle Ages, the priest had been conceived of as a ‘sacred person’, a sacerdos. In this view, a priest is constituted into this status through the sacred rite of ordination that imprints an indelible character on him and that consecrates him to perform acts of ritual sacrifice. However it is clear from Scripture that Jesus never saw himself in this light. Nor did he envision such a status for his disciples. The apostles ‘laid hands’ on their successors whom they thereby commissioned to be ‘elders’ of the Christian communities, presbyteroi.  Certainly, Jesus is called a ‘highpriest’ in the letter to the Hebrews, but with no other purpose than to bring out how he abolished and transcended the system of ‘sacred’ priestly functions as understood in the Old Testament.[57]


The Second Vatican Council wanted to redress this balance by stressing again the presbyter function. “Priests have as their primary duty the proclamation of the gospel of God to all. In this way they fulfil the Lord’s command: ‘Go into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature’ (Mk 16,15). Thus they establish and build up the People of God.”[58] But the Roman magisterium has over the last 3 decades done all in its power to re-inculcate the old concept of a cultic, sacrificial, sacralised, and therefore celibate, priesthood. “It is the same priest, Jesus Christ, whose sacred person his minister truly represents. Now the minister, by reason of the sacerdotal consecration which he has received, is truly made like to the high priest and possess the authority to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself.”[59] In the revised General Instruction on the Roman Missal (August 2000) all the stress is on ‘sacred things’: the sacred sanctuary, sacred ambo, sacred altar, sacred vessels, sacred vestments and, of course, the sacred priest. Even the chair on which the ‘consecrated minister’ sits in the sanctuary shares in his sacredness. It has to be “visibly distinguished from chairs used by others who are not clergy”.[60]


The Vatican Council struggled with two conflicting paradigms of the Church. The medieval model saw the Church as a clerical and hierarchical institution with sacred power percolating down from the top. An earlier, scriptural model on the other hand considered the Church rather as the People of God, with stress on communion, co-responsibility, and Christian values such as grace and love. Though it could not free itself totally from the hierarchical model, the Second Vatican Council did attempt to promote the People of God concept.[61]  The authorities in Rome on the other hand cling firmly to the hierarchical model and try to re-inforce what has recently been called “a very authoritarian, absolutist, completely un-Christian structure”.[62] It has become clear that an integration of the best in both models can only be achieved by a genuine reform in the way the Church operates.[63]


Many women who feel called to the priesthood are now searching for more communitarian models of ministry.[64]  Positions are hardening. Many declare that they would not accept ordination to the present clerical, celibate, hierarchical priesthood. Women who insist on receiving such an ordination are ultimately condoning and confirming a system that, in fact, excluded women.[65]

My objective in this book


I share the view that the Church and its ministries urgently need to be reformed - according to the genuine vision of Vatican II and beyond it. I agree totally that the ordination of women should be seen as part of a much wider aggiornamento of Church structures. I am a member of various organizations: St. Joan’s International Alliance, Catholic Women’s Ordination (UK) and ‘We Are Church’ (UK), all of which sponsor the admission of women to reformed ministries. But in this book I will limit myself to unnerving the traditional arguments against ordaining women.


Some theologians have already so utterly dismissed the traditional arguments that they consider it below their dignity to even discuss them. Though I share their feelings of distaste and impatience, I do not share their disdain of discussion. The traditional arguments against women priests are still the official arguments of the teaching authority in Rome. In various forms they are still re-published in Catholic weeklies and supported by bishops, priests, religious and lay people. Reform will not come about without dialogue and discussion. I want to take all sections in the Catholic community seriously, also those who accept Rome’s  views uncritically because they feel it is their  duty to do so, or others who cling to conservative views because the information they have is incomplete. To them I say: “Look at the evidence. What Rome says is untenable even by traditional standards. Does true loyalty not demand that we speak the truth?”


Yes, there is a danger in dialogue on Rome’s terms. I do not intend to sell out on my own principles in this book. I do not support antiquated views on priesthood or power-hungry clericalism.  On the other hand, I will not throw out the baby with the bath water. I come from a Catholic family in the Netherlands that remained Catholic through four centuries of persecution. I do believe in the sacramental order in which Christ dispenses grace and love, and which pervades the whole Christian community. Within that sacramental order there is room for bishops and priests who guide, heal, and preside at the eucharist. There is also room for real authority and the primacy of Peter’s successor. The Second Vatican Council is a good basis for Church reform and our exasperation with the present leadership in the Church should not make us go ‘over the top’. I passionately believe women should be ordained because it is the only truly Catholic response. If devotion to Mary is the hallmark of correct Christology, the full integration of women in all levels of the Church is the hallmark of genuine Catholic salvation.


Some of my priest colleagues have accused  me of defending women priests ‘because it is politically correct’.  Others tell me Rome would not have reacted so fiercely  if it had not been for the ‘extremism of feminists’.  In some ecclesiastical circles feminists are viewed as incurable men-haters who pursue a policy of Church subversion. This totally unfounded perception seems due to the harsh (but often true) language of some feminists, the wounded pride of their male audience and, I am sorry to say, spiteful slander by other women.[66]  The unfortunate outcome is that quite a few people in the Church dismiss the ordination of women as ‘just another cause pushed by fanatic feminists’.  It is here that my contribution may be of use.


Though, with St. Paul, I fully subscribe to women being treated on equal terms as men in the Church, I am not a feminist. I am a man, and I cannot speak from my Christian experience as a woman, nor judge issues from a specifically womanly perspective as women theologians do. Neither did I enter the field with a feminist agenda, as I narrated in the first chapter. I am approaching the question of women’s ordination as a theologian. And as other theologians - both men and women -, I have come to the clear recognition that the reasons for barring women from ordination cannot be substantiated from scripture or tradition. Sacred Scripture leaves the question wide open. In so-called Catholic ‘tradition’ women were excluded from ministries because of social conditions and cultural prejudice. I will validate these claims in the next chapters. I am defending these conclusions as a man, as a professional theologian and as a Catholic. 


          My thanks go to the members of my Housetop team who have helped me write this book: Roy Barton, Jackie Clackson, Deirdre Ford, Anne Miller and Barbara Paskins. I am grateful to Professor Mary Grey, Professor van Eyden and Professor Peter Nissen for reading the manuscript and sharing their comments and suggestions with me.



Ida Raming
Obituary of Gertrud Heinzelmann
'Naissance et développementdu movement pour l'ordination des femmes dans l'eglise catholique romaine d'Europe'
Iris Müller
'Katholische Theologinnen - unterdrückt, aber dennoch angepasst und ergeben'
Marie-Thérèse van Lunen Chénu
'Marie-Thérèse is definitely not a 'son' of the Church!'

[43] Diplomatically hinted at by Phyllis Challoner and Vera Laughton Matthews in Towards Citizenship - a Handbook of Women’s Emancipation, London 1928.

[44]  Joan Morris, Against Nature and God. The History of Women with Clerical Ordination and the Jurisdiction of Bishops, London 1973.

[45] Josefa Theresia Münch, ‘My Letters to the Pope’, translated from the German by Sr. Kira Solhdoost, The Catholic Citizen, vol 72 (1991) no 1, pp. 18-29.

[46]  E.g. G.Heinzelmann, ‘The Priesthood and Women’, Commonweal  81 (1965) pp. 504-508.

[47]  Interfeminas, Bonstetten 1964, a joint German-English publication; the book also contained contributions by  Mary Daly, Rosemary Lauer, Iris Müller, Josefa Münch and Ida Raming.

[48]  Haye van der Meer, ‘De positie van de vrouw in de Rooms-Katholieke Kerk’, Council Documentation paper no 194, 1965; Priestertum de Frau?, as manuscript Innsbruck 1962, published Freiburg 1969; Women Priests in the Catholic Church?, Philadelphia 1973. Another Dutch theologian, René van Eyden, published in Dutch and German from the early 1960s; cf. René van Eyden, ‘Women Ministers in the Catholic Church?’, Sisters Today 40 (1968) pp. 211-226 (shortened version).

[49]  Vincent Emmanuel Hannon, The Question of Women in Priesthood, London 1967.

[50]  Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex, New York 1968.

[51]  Ida Raming, Der Ausschluss der Frau vom priesterlichen Amt, Cologne 1973; The Exclusion of Women from the Priesthood: Divine Law or Sex Discrimination?, Metuchen 1976.

[52] Donna Westley, ‘A Selected Bibliography’, in Anne Marie Gardener (ed.), Women and the Catholic Church, New York 1976, pp. 199-207.

[53]  Rosemary Radford Ruether, The Radical Kingdom. The Western Experience of Messianic Hope, New York 1970; Sexism and God-Talk. Toward a Feminist Theology, Boston 1983; Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, Boston 1973; Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Der vergessene Partner, Düsseldorf 1964; In Memory of Her, New York 1983; Discipleship of Equals. A Critical Feminist Ecclesia-logy of Liberation, New York 1993; etc.

[54] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, New York 1983; Bread not Stone: the Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation, Boston 1984; But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation, Boston 1992; Karen JoTorjesen, When Women Were Priests, New York 1993; Luise Schottroff, Lydia’s Impatient Sisters: A Feminist Social History of Early Christianity, Louisville 1995;  Anne Jensen, God’s Self-Confident Daughters: Early Christianity and the Liberation of  Women, Louisville 1996; Ute E. Eisen, Amtsträgerinnen im frühen Christentum, Göttingen 1996; Luise Schottroff, Silvia Schroer and Marie-Therese Wacker, Feminist Interpretation: The Bible in Women’s Perspective, Mineapolis 1998; etc.

[55]  For instance, the Storia delle Donne in Occidente, Laterza, Rome 1991, five large volumes, now in many languages; Hulia Bolton Holloway et al. (ed.), Equally in God’s Image - Women in the Middle Ages, New York 1990; Glenna Matthews, The Rise of Public Woman: Woman’s Power and Woman’s Place in the United States 1630-1970, New York 1992; Susan Hill Lindley, ‘You Have Stept Out of Your Place’, A History of Women and Religion in America, Louisville 1996.

[56]  Ann Belford Ulanov, The Feminine in Jungian Psychology and Christian Theology, Evanston 1971; Receiving Woman: Studies in the Psychology and Theology of the Feminine, Philadelphia 1981; Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, Cambridge MA 1982; Charlene Spretnak (ed.), The Politics of Women’s Spirituality, New York 1982; Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, The Divine Feminine: the Biblical Imagery of God as Female, New York 1983; Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, Ithaca 1983; Janet Martin Soskice,  Metaphor and Religious Language, Oxford 1985; (ed.) After Eve - Women, Theology and the Christian Tradition, London 1990;  Demeris S. Weir, Jung and Feminism: Liberating Archetypes, Boston 1987; Mary Grey, Redeeming the Dream. Feminism, Rdemeption and Christian Tradition, London 1989; Tina Beattie, God’s Mother, Eve’s Advocate. A Gynocentric Refiguration of Marian Symbolism in Engagement with Luce Irigaray, Bristol 1999; etc.

[57]  Hebrews 7,1 - 10,18. About the presbyter-sacerdos shift in Church thinking, see H.Küng, Why Priests?, London 1972; E. Schillebeeckx, Ministry, London 1981.

[58]  Presbyterorum Ordinis, § 4.

[59]  Catechism of the Catholic Church, London 1994, no 1548.

[60]  J. Wijngaards, ‘Don’t cage the sacred’, The Tablet, 23 September 2000, pp. 1256-1257.

[61]  Lumen Gentium, § 9 - 17. H.Holstein, Hiérarchie et Peuple de Dieu d’après Lumen Gentium, Paris 1970; L. Boff, Die Kirche als Sakrament, Paderborn 1971; A. Acerbi, Due ecclesiologie. Ecclesiologia giuridica ed ecclesiologia di comunione nella Lumen Gentium, Bologna 1975.

[62]  Hermann Häring, ‘The Authority of Women and the Future of the Church’, Concilium  38/3 (June 1999) pp. 117-125; here p. 119.

[63]  H. Küng, ‘The Charismatic Structure of the Church’, Concilium 4,1 (April 1965) pp. 23-33; G. Hasenhüttl, Charisma, Ordnungsprinzip der Kirche, Freiburg 1969; H.Haag, Worauf es ankommt. Wollte Jesus seine Zeit-Stände-Kirche?, Freiburg 1997; L. Boff, ‘The Uncompleted Vision of Vatican II: The Church - Hierarchy or People of God?’, Concilium  38/3 (June 1999) pp. 31 - 39; see also the last chapter in this book.

[64]  See e.g. Lynn N. Rhodes, Co-Creating. A Feminist Vision of Ministry, Philadelphia 1987; Lettie M. Russell, Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church, Louisville 1993.

[65]  Marianne Bühler, Brigitte Erzner-Probst, Hedwig Meyer-Wilmes and Hannelies Steichele, Frauen zwischen Dienst und Amt. Frauenmacht und -ohnmacht in der Kirche, Düsseldorf 1998.

[66]  Donna Steichen, Ungodly Rage. The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism, San Francisco 1991.

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