Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
Women's Ordination: Barriers and Boundaries

Women’s Ordination: Barriers and Boundaries

by Marie Louise Uhr

This paper was first given as a talk to the Australian Feminist Theology Foundation, then in updated form to the 2000 AGM of the Ordination of Catholic Women. It was published in WomenChurch 28 (2001) pp. 11-16. It is here re-published with permission of the author (given on 14 May 2001) who, unfortunately died soon after. ‘Women-Church’ can be ordered from Irene Stevens (irenes@compassnet.com.au) or from GPO Box 2134, Sydney, NSSW, 1034, Australia.


In September 1993, Zoe Hancock and I set up the group Ordination of Catholic Women (OCW) to be an Australian group working nationally for the ordination of women into the Catholic Church. It is clear to anyone following the fortunes of the Catholic Church that we have not achieved our goal. So, after seven years as National Convener, and with the goal seemingly nowhere in sight, I’d like to try to express what the struggle has meant for me and why, indeed, I think we have to struggle at all.(1) As I have said elsewhere,(2) be in Holy Saturday time, held between Good Friday and Easter. It is what George Steiner once called ‘the long day’s journey of the Saturday. Between suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste on the one hand and the dream of liberation, of rebirth on the other’.(3) Those of us struggling for the full inclusion of women into the Church know suffering, aloneness and feelings of unutterable waste only too well; we also dream of tomorrow’s liberation and the church’s rebirth

1. my faith and feminist theology/ies

Yet, in spite of all the recent Vatican pronouncements, I remain a card-carrying member of the Catholic Church. To remain a person of faith, I need to remain in community. My faith depends on the faith of others; I believe we go to God in community. The community into which I was born was christian/catholic, my heritage is judeo-christian, my understanding of God comes from and through this community. If I’d grown up in another faith community, I’ve no doubt I’d be Jewish, or Hindu, or Buddhist.

Regardless of how difficult I find it at times to remain within this community, I hold to what I see to be the principal tenets of my Christian faith: that God is in someway equal persons in loving relationship (and not a lonely monad); who desire closeness, intimacy, relationships; who choose to be present in the finality and frailty of human beings and enter into their sufferings and life experiences; that Christ is our shining symbol of this God. I suspect we’ve barely begun to understand incarnation or to consider its deep theological implications.

It needs no demonstration here that many traditional theological interpretations and structures built on our judeo-christian heritage are gravely hostile to health and well-being. Critical analysis of this heritage is essential; feminist theology/ies are desperately needed. I like Lucy Tatman’s comment,(4) that ‘theologies are a vital, necessary part of "life abundant": that life is somehow not whole without a sacred dimension’ and it’s the job of the theologian to ‘try to put the sacred momentarily into words’. It is a sacred charge. And I agree with her that theologies should ‘not become displaced or silenced in favour of tales of individual spiritualities’, which concentrate on the personal and the private at the expense of the public. The work of activists and/or scholars trying to remake the world is public work. And remaking the churches is a fundamental part of that remaking, for whether we want it or no, churches are a large part of that world, and affect the lives, thoughts and world-views of many people.

2. why work for women’s ordination

But the next question is why, in staying, I choose to work for women’s ordination. After all, not all Catholics deeply troubled by the Vatican’s position and longing for a church of equals deem this a sensible thing to do. Some, particularly I think many of the Religious, reject it. Some insist that the church is too hopelessly patriarchal for them to want to see women aspiring to leadership roles: for them the church must change first. But if we stay outside an organisation because it’s deemed too patriarchal, we must absent ourselves from most professional activities, from medicine, from the law, from academia to name a few.

Others argue that first priority must be given to a re-ordering of all ministry before the specific issue of the priesthood can be dealt with.(5) But unless it is agreed at the outset that women are included fully and equally in all ministries, then re-ordering them or re-naming them seems pointless. And it is this for which we are struggling. Yet other women see no need for any ordinations, whether of women or of men; some declaring they are ‘beyond it’. Many of these have been celebrating small home eucharists without aid of the ordained for years. Now I don’t deny the patriarchal nature of the church and I’ve no objections to small home eucharists or rituals of other types. What does concern me is limiting community worship to private liturgies — even when these are led by women. However liberating these liturgies are for the group concerned, I think that the church is fundamentally a public place (even if Rawls etc put it in a third category between public and private).

A traditional argument against women’s ordination has always been that women don’t belong in the public world. Nineteenth and twentieth century feminists struggled to achieve a world in which women could take their rightful public leadership roles. Marilyn Lake has recently told the story of feisty Australian women and their battles for equality in her book Getting Equal.(6)In working for women’s ordination, I believe we are continuing that struggle and must continue to do so until women have access to church leadership roles and are able to celebrate public liturgy with a public community. Retreating to the private world is a backwards step. Indeed I believe that such private eucharists are unwittingly supporting the present structures and upholding hierarchy — and I suggest the silence of the bishops on these Eucharists confirms this.

It is fascinating how the Vatican continues to recite its ‘mantra’ about how the church does not have the authority to ordain women, quoting bits of scripture in support, in spite of about 30 years of work from scripture scholars and theologians round the world who have pointed out, over and over again, the poverty of the scholarship. Not one move is made to meet the scholarly objections. Only power and authority are used. Yet the Report on the participation of women in the church shows that calls for women’s ordination continue to come from committed Catholics all round the country.(7) Clearly the Vatican fails to persuade and yet refuses to change its tune.

In the absence of logic and articulate discussion, the puzzled faithful start to look for underlying reasons and subconscious attitudes which form the Vatican’s position. Perhaps the question should be: of what is it afraid? Does a woman as priest or presbyter challenge Rome’s understanding of the nature of women; would she threaten their understanding of priesthood; or would an ordained woman weaken the separation of the catholic church from other churches and from the world?

3. the work to be done:

I believe our work in OCW is two-fold. First we need to remain active in the public sphere, as visible signs of our refusal to accept the unscholarly teachings of the Magisterium on this issue; visible signs, if you will, of our refusal to obey, a challenge in this way too to their ever more repeated claim as to the virtuous nature of obedience.(8) In our public stance for women’s ordination, we need to make it plain that we are part of a world-wide movement — Women’s Ordination Worldwide (WOW) has allied groups in Europe (including Britain and Ireland), North America, South Africa, India, Japan, South America, New Zealand, and of course Australia. So news and plans for public actions are spread rapidly round the world. The public actions aim to be gentle, colourful, and prayerful. A symbol such as the purple stole, recently introduced from Europe and taken up by OCW at its 1999 conference, fits the bill: it is simple, cheap, and challenging; and turns the priestly symbol around. With this pope, and with the next and probably the one after, we need to keep acting — in the wonderful phrase that Heather Thomson gave us at that Conference — with SHEER HOLY BOLDNESS. And I have great hope of change.

Second, we need to continue to search for the psychological and theological bases for the Vatican position, and continue to try to have open conversations about this. The decision by the Australian bishops in their response to the Report to put out guidelines for dialogue with such as us should give us good openings for such conversations. And at these, we have to present alternatives to the present hierarchical system, the Father-Son system on which their whole theology seems to be founded; for which I like the phrase of Jacques Lacan, the Law of the Father. Clearly we depend on professional theologians to lead the way.

This work requires challenging the present symbolic world, placing women at the centre of the symbolic system: Luce Irigaray’s ‘feminine divine’ is one way to express it. The resistance to this are enormous, as all who have worked for change for many years are aware. I suspect feminist theologians will still be struggling with this many years from now.

4. some considerations — priesthood, sacrifice and boundaries.

Publicly we seem stuck in Father Law and Father/Son theology — church fathers and civic fathers hold fast to it. Where is the mother-daughter relationship? Irigaray says that in order to ‘re-establish elementary social justice … we must restore this missing pillar of our culture: the mother-daughter relationship. … This will require changes to symbolic codes, especially language, law and religion’.(9) Much work to challenge the traditional structures, though not necessarily in this language, has already been done, especially by such fine theologians and scripture scholars such as Elizabeth Johnson and Elaine Wainwright.

Two questions particularly concern me: the powerful symbol of a sacrificial priesthood, and in the placing of boundaries; and I think these are connected with one another and with the prohibition on women’s ordination. Which is why I think confronting the prohibition on women’s ordination is central to trying to change the whole symbolic system.

The meaning of sacrifice, its place in Catholic theology especially Eucharistic theology, and its implications for women are under serious consideration today. One problem is that there is no agreed definition of sacrifice. For the influential scholar Girard,(10) all sacrifice is based on violence, on the collective killing of a human who is made the community’s scapegoat for its envies and hatreds, with subsequent ritualization. Unfortunately his work includes no analysis of gender. This led the sociologist Nancy Jay to her classic work on gender and sacrifice, work which includes a helpful division of sacrifice into expiatory sacrifices in which a victim is killed and offered up — these are the only ones Girard really considers — and communion sacrifices in which food is consecrated and shared.(11) Other scholars, including William Beers(12) and Kelley Raab,(13) have used a psychological or psychoanalytical approach, while Mary Condren, who started as an activist working for ordination, uses especially the work of Julia Kristeva.(14) Of particular help to me has been the work of a recent doctoral student from the University of Sydney, Damien Casey, who working with the philosophy of Irigaray, found himself caught up in the issue of Women’s Ordination — and kindly sent me draft of his thesis chapter on Sacrifice and Sacramentality which I shall use here.(15)

My question is: is a theology of eucharist which stresses eucharist as an expiatory sacrifice one of the subterranean supports for the categorical refusal of the Vatican to consider women’s ordination. If so, of course it operates as a hidden idea in the sense that no-one says women can’t be ordained because they can’t offer sacrifice. But scholars such as Kelley, Condren and Casey are suggesting a link.

Nancy Jay’s sociological analyses of sacrifice and priesthood revealed that women are not allowed to offer sacrifice in cultures in which sacrifices have a hegemonic function. Moreover, she found that in all sorts of societies, ‘sacrificing produces and reproduces forms of inter-generational continuity generated by males, transmitted through males, and transcending continuity through women’.(16) This sounds just like apostolic succession.

In his study, William Beers considered sacrifice from a psychoanalytical perspective and concluded that fear of women and of their generational power lies behind the determination of men in most religions to limit sacrificial priesthood to men. Now, as I understand it, psychoanalytic orthodoxy considers that the primary function of sacrifice, both communion ones and expiatory ones (to use Nancy Jay’s terms), is to constitute identity and community through integration and separation. It creates culture; its logic founded upon the binary logic of A/not-A. It is a social creation supported by nothing in nature. This means it requires continual maintenance. Moreover, Casey says that ‘The maintenance of masculine identity, and the symbolic order as isomorphic with that identity, requires that it is women that need to be overcome and their power appropriated and controlled’.

The universality of sacrifice, moreover, tells us that simply repudiating it is not enough; we need to understand why humans cry out for this mode of commerce with the divine; only then can we be free from it — and I would hope understand how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, ‘who refused to sacrifice individuals to the universal claims of the Law’, can transform our symbolic system.

In the world of the early church, sacrifice was a principal means of communicating with the divine and christians were suspected of atheism because they did not offer sacrifice as those around them understood it. ‘Sacrifice’ in the New Testament is primarily noncultic — the whole community is called priestly — and those presiding over the Eucharist in the early church were not called priests and their activities were not considered priestly, at least not in the cultic and hierarchical sense.

And if, in the culture of the times, only males could offer priestly sacrifices, perhaps it is not surprising to find that an understanding of Eucharist as expiatory sacrifice paralleled the exclusion of women from leadership in the early church. Casey contends ‘that so long as the religious authority of women was affirmed, Christianity would maintain some immunity to the logic of sacrifice. … The presence of women at the altar or even at Calvary, may have been enough psychologically to circumvent the logic of sacrifice’. He concluded that there was a relationship between the presence of women in leadership positions within the early Church and the non-sacrificial orientation of that Church.

But with the ascent of Constantine and the acceptance of the Church as official public religion, the Eucharist began to function as official state sacrifice — and women were excluded from leadership. Casey sums up what is happening when he writes that ‘The Eucharist in the maintenance of the Empire is conscripted to construct and maintain boundaries’.

Which brings me to my second question: the creation and upholding of boundaries and women’s ordination. Is this what it is all about?(17) We have had a plethora of Vatican documents recently insisting on the importance of boundaries.

The Catholic Church by its stance on Women’s Ordination is demonstrably separating itself from many other Christian denominations by insisting that women may be in the image of God but cannot be, sacramentally, in the image of Christ. Both Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II have reminded the Anglican Communion that ordaining women raises obstacles to church unity.

Mark Chaves has suggested that more than interdenominational boundaries are at stake.(18) He suggests that the real reason for the Vatican’s stance might lie in a determination to uphold the boundaries between the sacred and the secular. He suggests that the Catholic Church is again fighting the anti-modernist battles of the nineteenth century. If battles over the separation of Church and State and Darwinian evolutionary theory are lost, a new stand can be made on the issue of gender equality. In upholding gender inequality the Vatican ‘continues the long-term effort to mark a boundary between a sacramental world and the liberal world’, between the sacred church and the dangerous secular society.

The importance of boundaries to Rome can be seen in the very metaphors they choose to describe God and church. Increasingly, this Vatican is returning to asymmetric gendered images, with a male, father, God and a dependent, female people; Mother Church and the Bride of Christ. And, as Mary Douglas work demonstrates,(19) such body images are boundary images. The first boundary delineated is that between Christian denominations; and the Rules on the reception of communion mark this boundary (the body of Christ as a boundary marker). The second boundary is between the church and the world.

What mark both boundaries are the bodies of women. The idealized abstractions of women which are used as metaphors for Church are creations of men, products of the male gaze. One wonders to what extent they reflect the longings and aspirations of their creators; they certainly fail to reflect the truth about women. Meanwhile, the bodies of real women endure real suffering. They bear the brunt of abuse and rape by fathers; of genital mutilation; of bearing and nurturing more children than their bodies or spirits can nourish; while the official church, silent on so much of this, thunders about the wickedness of contraception and abortion, which have become, along with the ordination question, boundary questions separating the church from secular society.

The two Curial documents, the Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest (released August 1997) and the Statement of Conclusions directed at the Australian church,(20) would seem to confirm this. Both call for a return to structures and practices which distinguish Catholics from the rest of the world. They call for the setting up and reinforcing of boundaries, for demarcating and separating what the Vatican sees as essential differences between the ordained and the lay; the sacred and the secular; the church and the world. The Vatican defines and patrols the boundaries; the local bishops are enrolled as subsidiary guards. Moreover, this emphasis on boundaries of lay-priestly differentiation is usually accompanied by a greater emphasis on the Eucharist as a sacrifice.

In the statement to the Australian bishops, women are portrayed as a danger, and feminist theologians are accused of challenging traditional Christology and anthropology. The boundaries are drawn to exclude and silence women, who are seen as out of their kitchens, out of their convents, out of control. Women are again (or still are) the tempters. Now the temptations to lead others astray are theological rather than sexual — Eve is a feminist theologian.

5. conclusion:

These thoughts bring me back to OCW and why we continue. There are multiple reasons, of course. Some members are energised by their own sense of call to ordination, a call they cannot ignore. Supporting them is an essential part of OCW’s work. Others are driven by a sense of justice; they seek the clear and unequivocal recognition of the true equality of women and men in the church. Others emphasise the enormous problems they have with the all-male image of God which the all-male priesthood and present liturgies uphold, and hence see women’s ordination as a liberating act. Others long to see the gifts of all the people of God being used in the Church’s ministry.

I believe we must have women at the heart of the symbolic system: going for priesthood is going for the centre of that tradition. Casey notes that Irigaray sees Eucharist as ‘a concrete site for the transformation of the Symbolic order’.

To me the present papal ‘no’ is not firmly founded on Scripture or Tradition, nor based on proper, widespread consultation with the whole church; it is harming relationships with other Christian churches and with the wider world; and, above all, is causing deep hurt and great distress to the people of God. I am tired of the pain. But I believe we need to continue to work for a church in which all ministries are open to women and to men, to single, married, celibate, divorced; to people chosen from their communities for leadership regardless of sex, gender, race or class.

For me, this means public action as well as it means theoretical considerations. We work for transformation and we join in conversation with many others in struggling to envisage what those transformations might be. Logos becomes dialogue.


1. This paper is based on a talk first given to the Australian Feminist Theology Foundation at its 1999 AGM, and also in updated version to the 2000 AGM of OCW.

2. Uhr, Marie Louise, ‘Women’s Ordination and the Report: A Saturday Journey’, National Outlook, 22, September 2000, 20-21.

3. Steiner, George, Real Presences (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991) p.232.

4. Tatman, Lucy, ‘Thoughts and Hopes on the Future of Feminist Theology/ies’, Feminist Theology, 22, 93-100, 1999.

5. For example, see Ann Tuohy, ‘Responding to the Response’, National Outlook, 22, October 2000, 4-5.

6. Lake, Marilyn, Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism, Allen & Unwin,. St Leonards, 1999.

7. Macdonald, Marie, et al., Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus. Report on the Participation of Women in the Catholic Church in Australia, HarperCollinsReligious, Melbourne, 1999.

8. For a consideration of obedience as virtue, see my article, ‘Obedience a Questionable Virtue’, St Mark’s Review, 173, 3-9, 1998.

9. Luce Irigaray, The Forgotten Mystery of Female Ancestry Thinking the difference for a peaceful Revolution, Routledge, New York, 1994, 112.

10. See for example, Girard, René, Violence and the Sacred, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1979; Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1987, The Scapegoat, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1986.

11. Jay, Nancy, Through Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion and Paternity, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992, 32.

12. Beers, William, Women and Sacrifice: Male Narcissism and the Psychology of Religion, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1992.

13. Raab, Kelley A., When Women Become Priests: The Catholic Women’s Ordination Debate, Columbia University Press, 2000.

14. Condren, Mary, ‘Mercy Not Sacrifice: Toward a Celtic Theology’, Feminist Theology, 15, 31-54, 1997; ‘Women, shame and abjection: reflections in the light of Julia Kristeva’, Contact 130, 10-19, 1999.

15. Casey, Damien, personal communication.

16. Jay, op. cit., 32.

17. I’ve considered this in more detail in Uhr, Marie Louise, ‘Fixing the Boundaries: Traditional Asymmetric Gender Imagery of Church and its impact on women’ in Developing an Australian Theology, Peter Malone, ed., St Pauls Publications, Strathfield, 1999, 149-164.

18. Chaves, Mark, Ordaining Women. Culture and conflict in Religious Organizations, Harvard University Press, Mass., 1997, 126.

19. Douglas, Mary, Purity and Danger (London: Ark Paperbacks, 1984).

20. The Statement of Conclusions is a document written by the Vatican Curia as a summary of discussions in Rome in December 1998 between some Australian bishops and some senior Curial officers about the state of the church in Australia as they saw it.

See also the Archive of papers by Marie Louise Uhr.

Please, credit this document
as published by www.womenpriests.org!

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.