Open Letter to John Paul II
This Open Letter, which has been in the public domain for some years, was sent to the Pope, on the 31st of October 1994, by 14 Religious Sisters, all qualified theologians & academics, who belonged to 10 different Congregations.
As we know from reliable sources, in response to this letter pressure was put by the Vatican on the Bishops and Religious Superiors of these Sisters. Usually this took the form of reprimands and cautions communicated through the Apostolic Nuncio in New Delhi.
The Pope himself did not deign to reply.
To: Holy Father John Paul II
00120 Citta del Vaticano.
Response to the apostolic letter of Pope John Paul II
on Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men alone,
dated 22 May 1994.
We are women religious from India, proud of our membership in the Catholic Church and the gift of faith we received in her. We are a movement just five years old. We do not have as yet an institutional structure or an office building. The address given above is that of a member who has a permanent residence. We meet once a year to discuss some significant issues in the life of women and in our own experiences and try through theological reflection to deepen our faith and commitment. We write this letter to you with filial confidence that you, as the father of all Christian people, will listen to our response to the tone and content of your letter on reserving priestly ordination to men alone (22 May 1994).
I. From our anguished hearts
There are some statements in the letter that are extremely painful for us to read. No1, para. 2 says “…her teaching authority which has constantly held that the exclusion of women from priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for the Church”. The phrase ‘exclusion of women’ seems -to negate our very membership in the Church. We do have full membership in the Church through the sacraments of initiation namely Baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist. Then why should we as a class be prevented from certain. functions in the Church? Dear Father, who decides what is God’s plan for the Church? Is it not the people of God? Do you as the father of this family of faithful exclude us from the people of God even in the common search for God’s will for the Church today?
II. God’s plan in the fullness of time
“When the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman… ” (Gal. 4:4). It was the divine plan to choose a woman to enter into the divine saving act in a unique way. She brought into this world the Incarnate Son of God without the help of a man. How can those who believe in the call of Mary to be the mother of Jesus exclude women from bringing in the Sacramental Presence of Christ in the Eucharist? The divine call is gratuitous and how can human decisions bind God not to give a specific call to an entire class of people, in fact half the number of human beings based merely on gender differences?
III. The signs of the time – Dialogue
1. All around us we find different sections of the world community in dialogue with one another. In the political, scientific, economic, cultural and religious fields there are constant dialogues going on for better understanding of others holding different opinions, resolving conflicts and building up mutual respect among groups to make the world better place to live in. Even in the Church, dialogue among Christian Churches is encouraged. Why does the Church not think of entering into dialogue among its own members?
2. In the Church there are pastoral magisterium, the scientific magisterium composed of scholars who are involved in research, reflection and writing in Scripture, theology, Church history etc. and the people of God in general. In all these groups the voices of women should be considered as significant especially because it is a group which was and still is continually and systematically suppressed. With the growing consciousness in the world, women are slowly discovering their dignity as children of God and raising their voices.
3. Since 1976 a great deal of research, study and writing had been done on the subject of the Church’s practice of reserving priestly ordination only to men. Articles and books by scholars showed the intrinsic weakness and inadequacy of the arguments addressed in favour of the official position to exclude women. According to these works, there is no scriptural or theological basis for such an exclusion. All these sincere efforts and hard work by so many men and women of faith and scholarship have been just pushed aside and ignored by this letter. Why is dialogue in this matter so completely denied? In the Church which is the People of God, ever led by the Spirit towards all the Truth (Jn.16:13), is not dialogue the way to discover Truth?
IV. Legitimising oppression of women
1. We express our feelings of hurt, pain and humiliation at the fact that this letter completely ignores the struggles of women especially the religious women oppressed by the male clergy. Actually it legitimises the oppression. The entire sacramental system, jurisdiction, decision making, administration, in fact every adult function in the life of the Church is in the hands of male clergy. Women are kept for ever in total dependency. In plain language, we are relegated to perennial childhood and made to depend on the male clergy for living our Christian religious life. Priests make use of this inequality to their maximum benefit by extracting cheap labour from us. They do not hesitate to put us to moral torture íf we do not comply with their unjust demands. Often we, women religious wonder if dedication of our lives to God is only to be the handmaids of celibate priests. They do not consider us as human persons who need time and necessary means for ourselves to meet our psychological, intellectual and spiritual growth and the freedom to decide our apostolate according to our Constitutions. The fact that our Constitutions are approved .by the Holy See has very little meaning because we are just expected to fulfil the demands of the clergy who think we exist merely to do what they tell us. We can give you thousands of, examples from our own experience. Do you not see that such oppression is legitimised and perpetuated by this letter? Does the voice of the oppressed within the Church go unheeded?
2. The letter seems to suggest that you have no intention of having any dialogue with us. I t is strange that even in this 20th century, men presume that the Divine plan is made known only through them. Are not women, members of the Church? Does not the Spirit dwell in us? How come that the Church symbolised as a woman in the scripture is all-male in its official functioning?
V. Making doctrines out of a culture of dominance and subservience
The occasional praise in the recent encyclicals of the so called womanly characteristics do not please us at all. In the name of feminine virtues only servitude and self-negation are praised. The studies in social psychology show that the so called womanly qualities are what the dominant class lay down for the subservient or oppressed class as conditions to win acceptance and appreciation from their oppressors. Since the survival of the oppressed depends on the acceptance by the dominant class, they develop these qualities and train their young ones also in these qualities, establishing them as characteristics of their class. Should .the Church see this culture of dominance and oppression as divine ordinance and make doctrine out of it calling it theological anthropology? How can the Church be the mediator of Christ’s redemption to all peoples when it keeps half its members (women) in abject subservience and the worst type of dependence?
VI. Concocting arguments to exclude women
Drawing Mary into this question seems to us that arguments are concocted just to exclude women from priesthood. How could Mary claim priesthood when there was no priesthood during her time? Did Jesus ever claim priesthood? Does not the gospel show us that the Christ-movement was an attempt to liberate people from the dominance of cultic priestly class and lead them to worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth (Jn. 4:23)?
VII. Priesthood – instituted by the Church and not by Christ
1. The letter insists again and again that priesthood was instituted by Christ and that He ordained only men so the Church has no authority to change it. Is it not a strategy in religions that whatever was instituted by the priestly class was told to people that it originated from God so that people practise it unquestioningly? We have examples in the Old Testament too e.g. the laws in the chapters 21, 22, 23 of Exodus.
2. The words ‘Do ..it in memory of me’ are a reference to Yahweh’s instruction to Israel to have an annual celebration of the Passover as a memorial of His saving act in liberating Israel from the slavery in Egypt. They were used by Jesus to make His disciples understand that He was instituting a new Passover and a new covenant which would involve not only political liberation as in the Old Testament but the total liberation of the human person. It was an expression of His desire that such a liberative thrust should continue in the Christ-movement.
3. During the apostolic times, the imposition of hands (now the main ritual in priestly ordinatíon) was used to impart the spirit to preach the gospel and not to ordain them to priesthood (Acts. 9:17, 13:3, 1 Tim. 4:13-14). In the case of deacons (Acts 6:6), it is clearly stated in the Acts that the apostles said “it is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore…” Christ did not ordain priests and there was no priestly class during the New Testament times. Later when the Church adopted the clerical and hierarchical structure, it absorbed elements of the highly patriarchal Judaic religion from which it originated and the socio-political structures of the Roman Empire where it took root. The Roman Empire had collapsed and after centuries we had moved away as an independent religion from Judaism. Should we still cling on to those elements which we imbibed from these two realities nineteen centuries ago?
Dear Father, we love the Church, that is why we are concerned and write to you. In the Vatican documents, frequently the people of God are exhorted to respond to the signs of the time. May we request you to see the signs of the time in the voices of women and what is happening in the other churches and society? Threatening the Churches that ordination of women is a block to dialogue and union seems to us that the Church prefers to sit in an ivory tower refusing to see the activity of the Spirit in today’s global scenario in which dialogue is the mode of interaction, communication and growing together.
When women’s issues do not even have the dignity to be an object of open dialogue, we feel that our very membership in the Church is negated.
Sr.Margaret Shanti, I.C.M. – St.Joseph’s Hospital Dindigul-624 007.
Sr.Corona. Mary, O.S.M., Jegamatha Ashram, Tiruchirapalli-620 004.
Sr.Rose Paul, F.M.M., Providence Convent, Bangalore-560 029
Sr.Pushpa Jyothi, S.M.M.I., St.John’s Medical College & Hospital, Bangalore-5 60 034
Sr.Clare Muthakattil, M.M.S., Kottayam-686 002.
Sr.Kochurani Abraham, Snehvardhini, Varse-402 116
Sr.Marie De Britto, St. Joseph Convent, Madurai-625 009
Dr. Sr.Gentiana, St.Xavier’s Hospital, Purathakudi-621 111.
Sr. Corona Mary, O.S.M., Jegamatha Ashram, Tiruchirapalli- 620 004.
Sr. Jacinta, St.Mary’s Convent, Mysore-570 008.
Sr. Antony Xavíer, C.I.C., Loretto Novitiate, Madurai-625 008.
Sr.Irene Fernandez M.M.S., Medical Mission Sisters, Bibwewadí, Pune-411 037
Sr.Shanti Fernandes, C.P.S., Ashram, Shivajinagar, Pune-41 1 005
Sr.Mary George, Holy Cross Compound, Wadagamcheri, Pune-411 014.
Sr. Mary Lobo, Nari Jagran Manch, Bodh Gaya-824 231.
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