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Is Our Institutional Church Unjust?

Is Our Institutional Church Unjust?

by Emmy Silvius, first publ. 2011 on www.catholica.com.au

Republished here with the necessary permissions.

Today's Prophets...

Admittedly, some may view this question as provocative or at least challenging. How can an institution that has faith in an all-loving God as its foundations be unjust? However, unless God is actually "running" this concept called Church, then like any institution it is prone to the weaknesses of humans, who despite the best of intentions, bring their own interpretations and understandings to how their services can best be carried out. Thankfully, as we have seen throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, there is a role for prophets brave enough to question powerful structures — directing all to return to the basics and review afresh the 'what and how' of what they wish to achieve.

Today's prophets are calling for change of views within our church structure. The topics being discussed worldwide are as varied as the people who make up the Body of Christ. One of the issues that not only keeps surfacing but has been increasing in frequency over the past thirty years is that of the ordination of Catholic women to the priesthood.

The huge Christian ambiguity of the place and role of women...

Sadly, regarding women's issues, a huge ambiguity runs through our Christian heritage. Tertullian said women are the second Eve, the gateway to the devil. Augustine said women's souls are OK but their bodies are not in the image of God. Aquinas said that women are defective males. We are all heirs to this way of thinking. And as with any prejudice, these thoughts become accepted and the internalisation of this inferiority becomes a pervasive idea that affects men as well as women.

No one can deny the growing number of women in the life of the Church today. More than 80 percent of ministry is done by women. Nonetheless Church authorities have been telling us throughout the centuries that women cannot be ordained priests because Jesus had male apostles. Yet Jesus did not ordain anyone! In fact priesthood and Eucharistic worship as we know it did not come about until the 4th Century AD. The twelve apostles appointed by Jesus represented the twelve tribes of the restored Israel. This category of "The Twelve" was not continued by the early Christian communities. At the time worship often took place in the homes of women, with both men and women providing leadership. The style of worship was prophetic and charismatic, which was in keeping with what the first followers of Jesus had known of him and his mission.

While Jesus did not ordain anyone, he did call both men and women to discipleship. Luke mentions in 8:1-3 that Mary Magdalen, Joanna and Susanna were among the women who travelled with Jesus. That these women are mentioned by name is significant as women were only ever mentioned in ancient writings if they had considerable wealth or had achieved some social prominence. Through the letters of St Paul we learn that women in the early churches were called and chosen for discipleship and leadership. Let us remember that women disciples were the last to see Jesus at his death, and the first to see Him risen. I wonder what Jesus had in mind when he commissioned Mary Magdalen to go and tell her fellow apostles that He had, indeed, risen from the dead?[1]

The Magisterium — the official teaching of the Church — claims that only man, through his natural resemblance to Christ, can express sacramentally the role of Christ himself in the Eucharist. Following this thought, some have in fact argued that if God had wanted women priests then Jesus would have been a female. This is being quite presumptuous. How can one even claim to be able to rationalise God's thoughts? Still, if Jesus had been a woman — and there is no way he could have been both man and woman or we would be celebrating the birth of twins at Christmas — I can't help but wonder if men would today be needing to fight as equally hard to earn their rightful place within the Church or within society for that matter...? All humans are made in the image and likeness of God! This begs the question of what sex God then could be? But this is a discussion for another time. Also, how do we know that the Incarnation of 2,000 years ago is or was the only Incarnation to ever take place? We have only recently discovered that our planet is but one of billions in a galaxy and that our galaxy is but one of many millions. How can we even attempt to know or understand what else is out there, let alone in what ways God makes God-self known to ALL creation? Surely we are but a speck of dust compared to all that is and all that will be?

In Galations 3:28 St Paul tells us that all Christians, both male and female, share in and make up Christ's risen body, not by imaging the maleness of Jesus, but by participating in the paschal mystery through Baptism. Many qualified women experience a call to priestly ministry, but because of their gender, have never been given the opportunity to test their vocation. It is interesting that the Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism acknowledges the action of the Holy Spirit in other denominations, who have women serving as priests by stating: "Whatever is wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brothers and sisters can contribute to our own edification." (Ch1, Art4) It would seem that Catholicism has something to learn in our journey to ecumenism.

The only human that God exalted above all others was Mary, a woman. Why then, is no woman in any serious decision-making position in the Church? The most important decision made in Christian history was Mary's: whether or not to accept divine motherhood. If her decision, a perfectly free one, had not been affirmative, there would have been no Christian Church as we know it.

According to the New Testament, all are called by God, all are justified by Christ, all are sanctified in the Spirit, we are all invited to faith and active love. Consequently we are all the chosen race, the royal priesthood, the holy people. And in this sense, in principle, we are all equal in the church. (Hans Küng)

Historical evidence for women priests...

There is meaningful evidence that there were churches in the fourth to sixth centuries that remained in communion with Rome and also had women priests. Dr Giorgio Otranto, Director of the Institute for Classical and Christian Studies at the University of Bari, Italy, discovered iconographic evidence of women presiding over the Eucharist in ancient catacomb frescos. Otranto cites a letter from fifth century Pope Gelasius I scolding bishops in southern Italy for allowing women "to officiate at the sacred altars, and to take part in all matters imputed to the offices of the male sex..." He also points to the letters of a ninth century Italian bishop, Atto of Vercelli, substantiating the use of the word "presbytera" to refer to women priests [2].

In the early 1970's Roman Catholic married men and women priests were ordained in Czechoslovakia by Bishop Felix M. Davidek[3] to meet the needs of the underground church, in which single males were highly suspect, and to minister to Catholic women in prison. One of these women, Ludmilla Javorova, told The Tablet (11/11/95) that she had explained all the circumstances of her ordination to Pope John Paul II in a letter, but had not received a reply.

In Germany 1.8 million Catholics signed a petition in December 1995 asking that ordination be open to married people and women, that sexuality is celebrated as a gift, that the laity participate in the selection of bishops and that married people be consulted and included in teachings about sexual morality. Shortly after, 500,000 Austrian Catholics added their signatures to the petition. In that same period Archbishop Maurice Couture of Quebec promised to take the results of a clergy-laity synod asking to reopen the question of women's ordination to Rome.

Dutch author, theologian and ex-priest John Wijngaards (ordained in 1959) has written extensively on the subject of women's ordination, questioning the church's teaching in this area. In 1998 he resigned from the priesthood in protest against Pope John Paul II's decrees 'Ordinatio Sacerdotalis' and 'Ad Tuendam Fidem' which forbids further discussion of the women priests' issue in the Catholic Church. In his 2001 book, The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church – Unmasking a Cuckoo's Egg Tradition, Wijngaards explains in a methodical and highly readable fashion how the practice of not ordaining women in Catholic Tradition came in from outside the Church. It did not find its origin in Sacred Scripture or in other Christian sources, but in pagan Roman law which had excluded women from holding any public responsibility.[4]

The injustice handed out to women must end...

The struggle for voting rights has taught women to ask questions about education, property and legal rights. Our foremothers protested the right of women to go to university and equip themselves in professional, academic and research fields. Our schools are shaped by the access they won. Women have spoken out so that society is not only acknowledging domestic violence as an offence, but also putting strategies in place to enable victims to become survivors. The list of practical concerns goes on in many other areas. Can we believe that women are created in God's image and argue against these developments? A 1980 United Nations Report points out that despite the fact women do two thirds of the world's work, they only earn one tenth of the world's income and own less than one hundredth of the world's property. It seems that thirty years on, not much has changed in this regard.

In the USA there is a growing group of Catholics connecting with the 'FutureChurch' movement. These Catholics seek the full participation of all baptised Catholics in the life of the Church. They advocate that Eucharistic Celebration is available universally and at least weekly to all baptised Catholics. FutureChurch promotes widespread discussion on the need to open ordination to all baptised Catholics who are called to priestly ministry by God and the people of God. They seek to participate in formulating and expressing the Spirit inspired beliefs of the faithful through open, prayerful and enlightened dialogue with other Catholics locally and globally. The decreasing number of parish priests is their main concern. Their discussions with the local Bishops are focused on women's ordination and priestly celibacy. They seek women's full inclusion at every level of decision making in the church from Rome to the local parish. In making their needs known to their Bishops, members of FutureChurch are following the Canon Law of the Church, which states "Christ's faithful have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the church." (Canon 212, par 2)

In the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) we are told that through the power of God's Spirit the Church is a sign of salvation in the world. As the bearer of the gospel it discloses to people the mystery of God and the meaning of their own existence. It calls them to consider central questions about their origin and destiny and helps them to 'name' the true goal of their searchings. At the same time, the Church profits from the experience and questions of each culture and age in which it lives. It draws on the philosophies, language and concepts of the social milieu to express and clarify the gospel message. Gaudium et Spes is Latin for 'Joy and hope' — yet if there has been a time to speak out on the wrongs of cultural thinking, now is one of them. Remember the wrong done to Galileo? Well, now the wrong is being done to women. For hope to remain alive we need to be firm, dare to speak up and voice our honest concerns.

Reality is the only thing we have that can possibly nourish hope. Hope is not based on the ability to fabricate a better future; it is grounded in the ability to remember with new understanding an equally difficult past — either our own or someone else's. The fact is that our memories are the seedbed of our hope.[5]

Keeping the discussion open does not mean being disloyal, on the contrary it is our duty to express what we believe as Jesus taught us to. The challenge is to create an environment for honest exchange; where the truth can be spoken in love. As Sonia Wagner sgs. pointed out recently, we need a Catholic culture where questions about the participation of women are acceptable and even welcomed.[6]

Enriching the dialogue and enhancing life...

Many women and men want their experience to be heard, honoured, integrated and absorbed; they want their church to be affirming to all and welcoming to all those currently excluded. They want a process of listening that is not condemnatory. Not dictatorial. They want a development of more adequate theology that speaks to matters of sex and sexuality, open and honest dialogue, wherein disagreement should not be feared. They want a church that looks for genuine healing and not just sustenance, a church that will look for remedies. And they want a spirituality that is reflected in rituals and celebrations that encourage and celebrate life while specifically addressing the stresses and strains of modern living. They want women in leadership roles and they want women to be able to choose to be ordained. It is not about trying to take away from any structure that has existed for thousands of years, it is all about trying to enrich the dialogue and enhance the life of the church.

There is no shortage of vocations if we count everyone who experiences a call to priestly ministry. There are numerous women and men, both single and married, who feel called to the priesthood, but not necessarily to celibacy. It is a hopeful sign for the future of the church that women and men from England, Ireland, Belgium, Australia, Germany, France, Canada, the USA and the Netherlands have organised to work for women's ordination. This issue will not disappear — throughout the Catholic Church a certain restlessness with the current position has set in. Many Catholics feel deep within their hearts that women should not be refused ordination.

Emmy Silvius Jan2011


[1] For a closer look at the New Testament evidence — both pro and contra – on the ordination of women go to http://www.womenpriests.org/classic/fuller2.asp for an article by Reginald Fuller.

[2] See http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/otran_1.asp for a translation of his work. A recovery of women's full participation in early Christianity may be one means of confronting the persistent perception of women as subordinate in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches today, "Images of the past that we carry within us do help to shape both our present and our future. A new set of images may have a liberating effect not only on scholars, with their specialized concerns, but also on the culture of which they are a part."

[3] Christa Pongratz-Lippitt, 'Davidek: mad or a genius?' The Tablet, 8 March 2003, Accessed 9 January 2011 http://www.thetablet.co.uk/article/3614 See also 'A Priest called Ludmilla' (6 Oct 2001) by the same author at http://www.thetablet.co.uk/article/4873.

[4] The following website was established by John: www.womenpriests.org. It is very up-to-date in presenting its evidence. Following up a reference by consulting the writings of various theologians presents no difficulty here. For example, it is easy to read and print the text from John Duns Scotus's (1266-1308) commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, on the question of 'Whether the female sex or youthful age should impede the taking of Orders' - in the original Latin, if one wishes. Bernadette Toal in The Furrow 53 (2002) no 5, May, pp. 316-317.

[5] Joan Chittister in Scarred by Trouble: Transformed by Hope, (William Eerdmans, Michigan, 2003), p 104.

[6] Sonia Wagner sgs, Woman and Man: One in Christ: A Retrospective. Paper presented at the Conference Women: Gathering, Affirming, Celebrating, held in Canberra 26-28 August 2009. A copy of her talk can be obtained from http://www.cacw.catholic.org.au/from-the-office/45.html (see link under: A great gathering!) Sonia used to be Deputy Chair of the Commission for Australian Catholic Women. In her book Into the Vineyard, she states: "The refusal to admit women to ordination is just one of the symptoms of the disorder that exists in our Church." Source: http://www.ad2000.com.au/articles/2001/sep2001p9_606.html


* AD2000 – A Journal of Religious Opinion – www.ad2000.com.au/index.html

* Commission for Australian Catholic Women website (CACW) –was established by the Australian Catholic Bishops’ conference in December 2000 as a consequence of the 1999 report Woman and Man - One in Christ. In 2006, this Commission became a Council for Australian Catholic Women (CACW) advisory to the Bishops commission for Church Ministry with a changed Mandate. At the same time, the Office for the Participation of women (OPW) was set up.

* Future Church website – see for example www.futurechurch.org/sopc/dutchdominicans.htm for an interesting account of the forward thinking vision of the Dutch Dominicans in relation to the role of the laity at Eucharist. At their 2005 Chapter, Dominicans in Holland formed a committee of experts to study "whether celebrating the Eucharist depends on the ministry of ordained men, or whether it is possible that the Church community it has appointed, celebrate the Eucharist themselves." In August 2005, the outcome: "The Church and the Ministry" was sent to every parish in Holland.

* Ordination of Catholic Women (OCW) website – "OCW maintains links with international organisations committed to the ordination of women and has a representative on the Women's Ordination Worldwide (WOW) Steering Committee as well as being a signatory to the eleven resolutions passed at the inaugural conference of Women's Ordination Worldwide held in Dublin in July 2001." See www.ocw.org.au

* The Tablet – the International Catholic Weekly – www.thetablet.co.uk

* Women Priests website – founded by John Wijngaards – www.womenpriests.org

Emmy Silvius Emmy Silvius has a Degree in Theology (Melbourne College of Divinity), works in the social services sector and has a passion for social justice.

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