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Why we do not promote illegal ordinations

This text is based on the address by John Wijngaards at the First International Conference of Women’s Ordination Worldwide, June 2001. Read the full text here!

Our campaign for the ordination of women in the Catholic Church should stay squarely within the body of the Church. In other words: we want women to be ordained priests because we are Catholics and we know that opening the priesthood to women agrees with our deepest Catholic convictions.

But if we do not want others to push us out, we ourselves should also refrain from doing anything that would put us outside the community of the Church. I refer in particular to arranging for women to be ordained by bishops who are not in communion with the Catholic Church or by building up fringe Churches with their own independent bishops.

I am not speaking here of individual women who may discern that in their own case, their priestly vocation weighs heavier than service within the Catholic community. Given the present lack of prospect for ordination in the Catholic Church, I can understand that such women may have valid motives for joining another Sister Church and offering themselves for the ministry there. They should have our full support. But this is quite different from whole organisations, or the women’s ordination movement as such, promoting the ordination of women by ‘illegal ordinations’. Such an approach would be misplaced for many reasons.

Reasons for effecting reform from within the Church

* The hierarchy, however much it needs reform in the way it is organised and in the way it often operates, is part of the sacramental communion of the Church. Christ said about bishops and priests: “Who sees you sees me”. However imperfect a bishop may be, he or she brings Christ present to his/her community. In our – legitimate – desire to see women included, we may not minimise the sacramental value of the priesthood itself, thus ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’. And we should not destroy the unity of the Church for the sake of an inner-Church reform.

* By going outside the Catholic Church for ordinations, the movement would lose the goodwill of many bishops, priests, religious and lay leaders who, though in silence, are at present on our side.
* We should support the ordination of women by a local Catholic bishop, or bishops belonging to a national bishops’ conference, who in this way build up their own local Church. We have the admirable example of the Czech Bishop Felix Davidek of Brno who ordained women during the communist regime in the 1970s. Bishops are ‘vicars of Christ, not vicars of the Roman Pontiff’ and they carry immediate responsibility for their flock ‘in their own right’ (Lumen Gentium). Of course, they too have to balance the spiritual welfare of their own people against the good of maintaining Church unity. But they might well legitimately decide on scriptural, traditional and theological grounds that, in view of local pastoral needs, the unjustified interference by Roman authorities should be ignored.
* Our purpose is to enable the whole Catholic Church to admit women to all ministries. We will have failed if we do not get our reforms incorporated in all structures and levels of the Catholic Church. Leaving the Church does not serve that purpose. At present we experience a serious brokenness in the Church as half its members are excluded from the ordained ministries. But will the new wholeness we desire not be achieved rather through a confrontation with the hierarchy, however painful, than through any step that would remove us effectively from the body of the Church?
* It is not our aim to make the priestly ministry possible for a small number of women. We want all Catholic women to enjoy the right to full participation in all ministries, including the episcopate and the papacy. This is a more difficult target, but the only one that will do justice to our Catholic sense of faith.

John Wijngaards, August 2001