Educate people for change – the truth will set us free!

How to get the Church to accept women as priests. Strategy Presenter’s Pack, part 2.

Note for presenters:  diagrams for printing and distribution to your listeners can be downloaded here: (1) Traditionalist Discussion Agenda; (2) Ministry Reform Discussion Agenda.

Campaigners for women’s ordination sometimes think that beating the drum of women’s rights will bring opponents round – but will it? Do we then not underestimate the power of defence mechanisms? Did the Protestant ridicule of Mary in previous centuries not result in more fervent devotion to her among Catholics? Have we not seen that forced religious attendance in Catholic schools produced youngsters who hated going to Mass? Does external pressure not often generate the opposite effect?

Moreover, opponents of women’s ordination, whether church leaders or individual Catholics, are usually convinced the priesthood of women is excluded by Scripture, Tradition and the Teaching Authority. They are right to be concerned about what they believe is part of revealed doctrine. Haven’t martyrs died for their refusal to betray Christian faith?  So we have to take their arguments seriously. It is only by showing them that the traditional arguments are wrong that we can help them accept the need for change. We need to be prepared to listen to their objections and give them satisfactory rebuttals. We have to be prepared to engage in the traditionalists’ discussion agenda.

And our responsibility does not stop there. OK, the old arguments are wrong. But do we have positive evidence of our own, evidence springing from the sources of our belief: Scripture and Tradition, to show that women’s capability to minister as priests is part of our faith. Yes, we have.  But that implies that we have to be familiar with this evidence so that we can share it with others. We need to be experts in conducting the discussion agenda on reform of the ministries.

All those arguments, whether rebutting the opposition or defending change, are worked out in detail on our www.womenpriests.org website.

The right approach

In its origin, and at times in people’s present attitude, opposition to women priests is basically a prejudice. As psychological studies have shown, prejudice feeds on its own kind of reasoning. Prejudice justifies its hostility through arguments that pretend to be reasonable. “Prejudice is an emotional rigid attitude that leads one to select certain facts for emphasis, blinding one to other facts.”1 Prejudice bases itself on “selective, obsolete and faulty evidence”.2 The bias against American Africans (‘blacks’), for instance, rested on the claim that they were an inferior race, less intelligent, happy-go-lucky, unreliable.3

With regard to women as priests, prejudice has ready-made arguments that go back to the Middle Ages. “Jesus did not choose women priests. The Church has never admitted women to holy orders, and-so-on”. Arguments used to shore up a prejudice have to be taken seriously because the first step in dismantling a prejudice is for those who hold it to recognise that its basis is false. It requires challenging the truth of one’s reasons and one’s rationalisations. Overcoming the bias against blacks, for instance, called for a recognition of their intelligence, strength of character and reliability. Bishops, priests or lay people who think it was Jesus who excluded women, should be brought to an awareness of the emptiness of that claim. And their smug assertion that “it was never done” can be demolished by the indisputable evidence that women were admitted to the holy orders of the diaconate through a full sacramental rite of ordination.

The need of a concerted effort to spread correct information follows also from the behaviour of social groups when faced with outside criticism. Remember ‘group indoctrination’, a phenomenon well known from present-day ‘sects and cults’ who try to immunise their members by inculcating their own world view. Throughout the centuries the Church has often acted in a similar fashion. Because of Protestant propaganda and even persecution in some countries, the post-reformation Catholic Church screened itself off as a fortress ‘to protect the faithful’. It produced catechisms to counteract attacks by opponents. A similar development is happening now.

Church leaders are well aware of the pressure exerted by women’s emancipation in society. Over the past thirty years they have built up an official ideology that tries to spell out ‘why the Catholic view is different’. For people who feel insecure in their Catholic identity, the ‘official position’ is gratefully seized upon. It is not uncommon for women, for instance, to defend the ban against women priests with an appeal to the traditional arguments. 15 They need those arguments to explain to themselves and to others why the Pope is right when he says that the exclusion of women from the ministry is not a denial of their dignity or equal status in the Church.

What we should note is that the ‘equal rights’ argument will not convince such people. Their reaction will be: “So what? This is not an equal rights issue. It is Jesus himself who wanted it this way. And he had good reasons.”

The consequences of all this are clear.

Principle. The women’s ordination movement needs to sustain a programme of education for change.

  1. Our core members need to be thoroughly briefed so that they can act as facilitators.

    It is not enough for our key members to support the ordination of women on the general axiom of ‘equality in Christ’ (however valid that basic axiom is). They will have to know the arguments for and against.

    • No dialogue with traditionalist members of the Church is possible without understanding their way of thinking. Regretfully, facilitators need to be familiar with the main grounds on which women are banned from ordination, and the theological reasons that invalidate these grounds.
    • Facilitators also need to be clear on positive reasons from Scripture and Tradition for the ordination of women; and on questions of strategy.
    • The Catholic Internet Library on Women’s Ordination offers a short Internet course on the women priest question that covers the main areas of debate (http://www.womenpriests.org/interact/course.asp).
  2. Via the media, the general public should be involved in an informed discussion.

    We live in a media age and people pick up ‘the truth’ from the media. Fortunately, the media are interested in the issue of women’s ordination (they love conflict), but they are liable to overstress the equal rights angle in the sense of: “The Catholic Church is the last bastion of male monopolies”. While this may be true, it will arouse defence mechanisms in the minds of many Catholics. It is important, therefore, that the theological arguments also be addressed.

    • Documentaries, panel discussions, interviews, in-depth articles can raise a genuine awareness of the real religious issues that are at stake and of the flimsy basis for traditionalist claims.
    • This needs to be planned with the help of professional media personnel. Too often we are at the mercy of the media’s own agenda.
  3. We need to keep discussion alive among opinion leaders in the Church.

    In the Catholic Church the main opinion leaders are: bishops, priests, theologians, editors, authors, lecturers and teachers. All these groups belong to organisations and have regular meetings. Many of these opinion leaders are sympathetic to the cause of women priests, but they may need to be prodded to put the issue on their ‘consultation agendas’.

    • We must promote seminars, workshops and conferences on the ordination of women wherever possible.
    • Organisations should be asked to devote a regular event (for instance, their annual meeting) to this topic.
  4. Our facilitators could conduct awareness ‘courses’ on local level.

    Most parishes have prayer groups, bible groups, advent or lent groups, women’s or men’s associations that might be open to such courses.

    • A series of meetings (e.g. five evenings) could be organised by a local facilitator during which the issues are presented and discussed. Suitable material for this should be prepared that could include: a small guide, reading matter and accompanying videos.
    • Institutions that run theological formation programmes for priests, religious or the laity could offer specific courses on the women priest discussion.
  5. Our educational programmes will also inspire confidence.

    Struggling against patriarchal structures often seems like fighting for a lost cause. Signs of despondency soon set in. Support is essential, both through proper information and by mutual solidarity. The Church has faced this kind of crisis before, and reforms have happened. We can move forward with the firm conviction that what we are working and praying for, will one day become a reality.

    John Wijngaards

Footnotes

  1. G.E. Simpson and J.M.Yinger, Racial and Cultural Minorities. An Analysis of Prejudice and Discrimination, New York 1972, p. 24.
  2. M. Macgreil, Prejudice and Tolerance in Ireland, Dublin 1977, p. 9.
  3. J.W. van der Zanden, American Minority Relations, New York 1972, p. 22.

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