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Reclaim the centre ground!

How to get the Church to accept women as priests. Strategy Presenter’s Pack, part 1.

Note for presenters. You can download a pdf version of the diagram for printing and distribution to your listeners here: Reclaiming the centre ground

Those who oppose the ordination of women usually claim that the desire for ordination arises from the contemporary drive for equal rights. They portray the demand for women priests as a modern and novel idea, a secular invention, the intrusion of profane social equality into the sacred precincts of the liturgy, a giving in to strident feminist bullying. Inter Insigniores blames both women’s emancipation and ecumenical pressure from other Churches.2 But while it is true that the climate of social emancipation has helped to raise the question of women’s absence from the ministries, the real origin of the demand lies in our common baptism.

Since Vatican II women theologians have brought a new dimension to the Church. They began to systemically expose the inequality between men and women in all areas of Catholic life: in worship and spirituality, in the parish and in the home, in theology as well as in law.3 They re-examined the roles of women in the early Church and drew consequences from this for New Testament exegesis.4 They studied in detail women’s lives during various periods of the Church’s history.5 They brought new light, from a woman’s perspective, on matters of liturgical language, imagery and church symbolism.6 But none of these women theologians, to my knowledge, claimed that the equality of women in Christ derives from secular or civil rights. We have to carefully distinguish between external impulses on a doctrine and its Christian source.

The Second Vatican Council recognised that the Church should pay attention to what modern society is telling us. We should listen to the signs of our times. We are told to “decipher the authentic signs of God’s presence and purpose in the happenings, needs and desires which Christians share with other people of our age”.7 The Council endorsed present-day society’s concern for equal rights and it singled out the emancipation of women as an important issue. “For in truth”, the Council declared, “it must be regretted that fundamental personal rights are still not being universally honoured. Such is the case of women who are denied the right to choose a husband freely, to embrace a state of life or to acquire an education or cultural benefits equal to those available to men.” 8 Now it is a fact that the rise of women in society does put pressure on the Church. It forces Catholics to answer the question: “Why are women still denied the sacrament of ordination and access to power structures in the Church?”9 But these wholesome external promptings are not themselves the justification for demanding women’s ordination.

That demand comes from our common baptism in Christ. For there is nothing that distinguishes the baptism of a man from that of a woman. As Paul said: “all who are baptised in Christ have put on Christ himself. So there is no difference between men and women … You are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3, 26-28). Because we do not live any longer in Old Testament times, we do not realise how significant this fact is. The Israelites were God’s people, yes, but the men were more God’s people than the women. Men did not only dominate in the home and in society. Men enjoyed a privileged status in religion. Only the men were circumcised. The covenant was made directly with them. Women belonged to the covenant through their fathers and husbands. The men had to sacrifice in the Temple. The men read the Torah in the synagogues. Women could take part if they wished, but then from a distance. Christ overthrew this fundamental discrimination.10

Both men and women equally die with Christ and rise with him to new life. Both men and women become members of his new covenant, and share in his eucharistic meal on an equal footing. Both men and women in like manner share in Christ’s priestly, prophetic and royal dignity. The openness of women to the ordained ministry arises from within the sacrament of baptism itself. The cry for social equality may have woken us up. The truth of equality in Christ’s covenant has always been there.

The demand for the ordination of women arises from the centre of our Catholic faith.

  • It stems directly from the equality of men and women in Christ’s universal priesthood, acquired through baptism.
  • It derives from the nature of the Church as the People of God in which women as much as men are full and equal members.
  • It is implied in women’s full participation in the whole sacramental order.
  • It is testified to in the sense of faith carried by Catholics who instinctively know that it is not God or Christ who bans women from the priesthood.

There are some important consequences in all this for our strategy. The first one is that we need to reclaim the centre ground. We are in the core of the Church and that is where we should remain. We should transform the whole Church from its centre.

Principle. The movement for the ordination of women needs to position itself squarely in the heart of the Church.

  1. The ordination of women priests is part of a much wider reform in the Church. The need of reform does not limit itself to the question of women’s ordination. Other linked issues are: pastoral re-shaping of the ministries, lay participation in Church administration, sexual morality (including responsible use of contraception, optional celibacy, re-evaluation of homosexuality), more co-responsibility on all levels (bishops’ conferences, dioceses, parishes), etc. Though the ordination of women is a valid issue in its own right, its effective implementation demands structural reform in many other areas of the Church’s life and practice.
  2. The movement addresses all sections of the Church. It is characteristic of a movement, in distinction from an association, that it influences society gradually and in all directions, as yeast transforms the dough. All members of God’s People: the pope, bishops, priests, religious and the laity, need to re-discover the full equality of men and women in Christ. We will not be satisfied until the whole community of the faithful, led by its pastors, recognises that women should be admitted to holy orders.
  3. The movement aims at transforming the whole Church from within. Full participation of women in all ministries will require an overhaul of church law, of seminary training, ecclesiastical structures, pastoral practices.
  4. The movement should stay squarely within the body of the Church. We should not allow the movement for the ordination of women to be pushed to the fringes, or even: down the cliff, on a rubbish heap outside the Church. This is what our opponents would love to do: to get rid of us as an invasion of aliens, a secular infection, a lump that needs to be amputated.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. On no account will we allow ourselves to be manoeuvered outside the Catholic community.

I am told that, last century, one of my ancestors in Holland clashed with his parish priest, a disagreement that lasted for 20 years. The reason was that the parish priest levied rent on the seats in the parish church, with the front seats costing more. Sunday after Sunday, my ancestor, Klaas Wijngaards, kept standing up at the back of the church. One day, the PP called out from the pulpit: “For God’s sake, Klaas, why don’t you come forward and take a seat?”
Klaas refused.
“Then go home and leave the church!”
“I won’t”, Klaas shouted back. “This is my church as much as yours!”

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.
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 ‘outside bishops’. Such an approach would be wrong for many reasons:

  • 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”. 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’. 11 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 the new ‘wholeness’ we desire will 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.


  1. The cartoons in this paper are from Kritische Trouw, R. Bunnik (ed.), Arnhem 2000, here re-printed with permission.
  2. Inter Insigniores, 15 October 1976, § 1-4; see also the ‘Official Commentary on Inter Insigniores‘, § 1-12, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 69 (1977) 98-116.
  3. Ida Raming, The Exclusion of Women from the Priesthood: Divine Law or Sex Discrimination?, Metuchen 1976; 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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, Redemeption 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.
  7. Gaudium et Spes, § 11.
  8. Gaudium et Spes, § 29.
  9. Marie-Thérèse Van Lunen Chenu, ‘Human Rights in the Church: a non-right for women in the Church?’ in Human Rights. The Christian contribution, July 1998.
  10. John Wijngaards, Did Christ Rule out Women Priests?, Great Wakering 1977, pp. 63-71; see also The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church. Unmasking a Cuckoo’s Egg Tradition, Darton, Longman & Todd, London 2001.
  11. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium § 27.

John Wijngaards

Overview Strategy Presenter’s Pack

  1. Reclaim the centre ground
  2. Learn and educate for change
  3. Break barriers and make women visible
  4. Promote integrity