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Women in Priestly Ministry

Women in Priestly Ministry

With a recommendation by the Dutch Pastoral Council on the long road to better times

by René van Eyden,
Acht Mei Post 17 (2003) pp. 9-11

The author is a former professor of Practical Theology at the Catholic Theological University in Utrecht, specialising in the field of church and ordination and theological women studies.

“It is imperative for women to become as soon as possible more involved in all those church matters in which their appointment is not or only little problematic. Further development should focus on their being empowered to execute all church functions, including presiding at the Eucharist.” This recommendation was accepted in January 1970 by the Pastoral Council of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands. So what has happened to the interest in the theme of ‘Women and Ordination’ in the last thirty years?

The optimistic expectation raised by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was kept alive for some time. The ordination of women seemed a real perspective. In the seventies women began to study theology hoping one day to be ordained priests. This hope was strengthened by the fact that several Christian churches decided to allow women into the ordained ministries.

The appearance of pastoral workers, male and female, in the Catholic Church, which was at first seen as a temporary solution for a shortage on the horizon of ordained ministers, turned into a lasting innovation. Soon the woman pastor was felt to be an official of equal value. The positive experiences with women’s pastoral leadership confirmed the feeling that women should also be given a chance to function as ordained priests. The theology of Schillebeeckx and other theologians enhanced the view. With the recommendation of the Pastoral Council of 1970 cited above Dutch Catholics were leading in innovatory zeal. The pastoral councils in Switzerland (1972) and in Germany (1975) recommended only the opening of the deaconate for women, but stopped short of a recommendation to ordain women priests. The recommendation of the Pastoral Council of 1970 has remained alive, as a recent survey shows. An overwhelming majority of 86% of all Roman Catholics who were interviewed and of the Catholic elite holds that women are insufficiently given their due and that they should be allowed into the priesthood. And among pastoral workers (men and women) as many as 91% share that view, according to T. Bernts and J. Peters in their survey ‘Dichtbij en veraf’ 1999.

During the last years the issue of ‘Women’s Ordination’ has twice come up explicitly for discussion in the ‘Acht Mei Beweging’. At the symposium on ‘Ordination and Laity’ ( Sept. 15, 2001) in Utrecht John Wijngaards gave a talk on ‘Thought Patterns in the Early Church, which little by little banned Women from Being Ordained’. The next year (Nov.1, 2002) an Eight of May Meeting was held on the occasion of the presentation of the Dutch translation of his book‘The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church. Unmasking a Cuckoo’s Egg Tradition’. In discussions about the presentation of this book the question arose whether in The Netherlands there is still - especially among women pastoral workers - an active interest and specific commitment to have women ordained priests.

What strikes one is that in other countries organisations have been established specifically and in a concrete manner aimed at this issue. What are the factors that play in the Dutch situation?

Remarkable efforts

As for the organisations abroad we mention first of all the ‘International Movement We Are Church’, originally founded in 1995 in Austria, Switzerland and Germany, and rapidly spreading to countries in and outside Europe. The several national organisations united with the ‘International Movement We Are Church’ (IMWAC). The purpose, a fundamental renewal of the church, has been laid down in five essential points, the second of which is as follows:

“Equal rights for women’s involvement and participation in all sections of the church. Opening of the diaconate for women. Admission of women in priestly ministry. There is no biblical foundation for the banning of women from church offices.” There are also many smaller groups that labour for the ordination of women in the Catholic Church. The oldest and most influential group is ‘Women’s Ordination Conference’ in the United States. There are similar active groups in various countries as in Britain, Germany, Austria, Canada, Australia, South Africa. They have united into an international network ‘Women’s Ordination Worldwide’. This WOW was founded in 1996 in Gmünden at the European Women’s Synod. In 2001 women from all over the world came to participate in the first WOW Conference in Dublin for “the celebration of the vocation of women to a renewed priesthood in the Catholic Church (see Acht Mei Post, Oct. 2001).

Worldwide attention

In The Netherlands, too, a section of ‘We Are Church’ was established. It was called ‘Kerk Hardop’ (= Voice of the Church).Here also the attention for women’s ordination is part of a wider orientation on fundamental church renewal. At present however, a separate organisation that like the WOW groups strives for women’s ordination will not be found in The Netherlands.

There is one exception: Tiny van Lieshout’s Foundation Vrouwmens. It fought for 10 years (until 2000) for the opening of the diaconate to women, via judicial trials in civilian courts, up to the highest level, namely Strasbourg. They lost the trial but gained worldwide attention for the issue. They kept in contact with a large number of groups abroad so that this voice from The Netherlands was widely heard. In the years following The Second Vatican Council there have been countless discussions and publications in The Netherlands about women in church and ministry, especially in reaction to Roman documents, but it has not resulted in the establishment of special action groups. There was no need. Nowhere else had the transformation of the former male church into a community of faith of men and women taken place so successfully as among the Catholics of The Netherlands. The attention on equal responsibility of women was a regular topic in parishes, in ‘Women and Faith’ groups, in committees and councils such as the study group Woman-Man-Church’ within the framework of the St. Willibrordvereniging.

In the Eight of May Movement’, there was special concern for this issue at manifestations and in the Commissions on ‘Inequality of Power’ and on ‘Human Rights within the church’. In these groups the subject of ‘church ministries for women’ was mostly discussed not per se, but in the larger context of the equal position of women in all sectors of church life. Lecturers on theology, too, seldom opted for the actual problems around women and ordination as separate themes for study. Only a handful of theology students wrote papers on it with striking titles such as ‘Do They not Like Me, or Has God Really Forbidden It?’ and ‘The Ordination of Women, no Innocent Issue’.

I would rather be a pastoral worker.

What do women pastors in Dutch dioceses think of priestly ministry for women? This is an obvious question: in their pastoral functioning they rub shoulders with it and have ample opportunity to reflect on it.

Sooner than in other countries the functioning of women pastors was integrated in the parish ministry Pastoral workers are colleagues of priests and deacons and work together in a flexible structure of ministry. They apply themselves to professional formation. Much attention is paid to the development of personal qualities which are important for an individual style of leadership. All this is dealt with in close connection with the formation of a pastoral spirituality, the sinew of pastoral action. Women find great satisfaction in their ministry, notwithstanding occasional resistance and open or hidden forms of non-acceptance.

A large majority of pastoral workers male/female reject the traditional view of church and its companion view of priesthood. They share that attitude with most Catholics in our country. The more the renewal of the church occasioned by the Second Vatican Council was reversed by Roman authorities, so was the distance from the institutional church increased. Not long ago Cardinal Walter Kasper described the present situation as ‘mentally and practically a schism’: the present standards of the church centre and the practice of local churches are growing more and more apart, many of the faithful and pastors no longer understand the decrees and ignore them.

Understandably the women pastoral workers shared the estrangement from the hierarchical church even more than their male colleagues. In the present situation only few of them would opt for priesthood, given that it were possible. Even the women that initially had wanted to be priests have mostly given up that ideal. They see engagement and pastoral expertise as more important for pastoral functioning than ordination. Moreover ordination would imply too strong a relationship with the hierarchical system with which they cannot and will not be identified.

A two-track road of thought

The position regarding the ordination of women among pastoral workers is ambiguous: the survey we mentioned earlier shows that 91% of them hold that women should be ordained, in other words nearly all women endorse this view. At the same time we saw that almost all women pastors decline priestly ordination for themselves and implicitly for other women. Whence this ambiguity?

It is no longer possible to have an overall view of the vast diversity of viewpoints in the movements for church renewal. For our subject I will confine myself to a fundamental question. In the nineties a discussion started in theological women’s studies with two opposing schools. The point under discussion is a difference in views of the nature of the problem and consequently the strategy that should be chosen.

The problem is that in the traditional patriarchal church women are banned from Holy Orders. The ministries are all male, from top to bottom. However, that is only the visible tip of the iceberg of the age-old colossus of patriarchal structures and ideologies. Will it suffice to change the tip or does the whole iceberg have to go?

What is at stake in the discussion is the following: What will the arrival of women change in the ministries? Some people expect that women, once they begin to function in those ministries, will be able to work for the necessary changes from within. When women hold office, the office ‘is changed’. Or, in the words of one theologian: “When a man takes up a position at the altar, the man changes, but when a woman takes up a position at the altar, the altar changes.” That is why it is utterly desirable that women should be accepted. That is the expectation of e.g. the WOW groups. A well known spokeswoman for that school of thought is German theologian Ida Raming.

Other people expect just the opposite: the admission of women priests will in fact lead to a strengthening of the existing hierarchical church. They will become part of the clerical system, curtailed by sacral structuring of functions. Not before the patriarchal shape of church and ministry will be thoroughly changed will the phenomenon of women priests be advisable. That is why women no longer strive for priesthood in its present shape. It is the development of liturgical and diaconal activities with which they concern themselves with. In these new practices a gradual transformation of the ecclesiastical structure begins to become visible. This position has been thoroughly elaborated in Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza’s theology and in her wake by many other theologians.

It is to this school of thought that the position of women pastors in The Netherlands is essentially related, but in personal motivation the struggle for a change in patriarchal structures is less accented than the search for a personal shaping of their ministry. The outrage at being excluded and the protest against it have not gone away. On the other hand they have found a useful and inventive way to be close to people on the joint search for God in the new function of pastoral workers.

A long road

On the surface the two directions seem to be counter exclusive, but they are two roads to the same destination. The ecclesiastical reality is complicated and shows conflicting aspects. So we should give ample room to diversity in vision and strategies of change, as well as real solidarity with one another on the long road to better times

The spearhead of Rome’s policy is no longer maintaining mandatory celibacy but the oppression of discussion and consciousness raising in the matter of women, priesthood and diaconate. The fact that last-ditch means are used, such as infallibility and excommunication shows how violent the clash of spirits is. A community of faith in which men and women as followers of Jesus bear equal responsibility is still a long way off, yet already faintly visible. That is why we continue to proceed, because we have faith in ourselves, in each other, and at the deepest level faith in the Spirit that breathes whichever way she wants till the dawning of a new Pentecost.

A Prophetic Sign

In German speaking regions the discussion about women ministers has become particularly intensive. In 1999 the ‘Network Women’s Diaconate’ in Germany started a three-year course for women in order to prepare them for the function of deacons. The 14 women participants finished their training on September 21 2002 and received their certificates. They get appointed to do the work of a deacon but without the ordination. A year before Rome had forbidden the education. Nevertheless a second course, but with a new name, started in 2003. In Austria 12 women theologians took part in a three-year-course in preparation for the office of priest. It was an intensive training programme and after a final exam seven of them were ordained priests on June 29 2002. Rome excommunicated them, but Catholics inside their own circles and outside of them invited them to lead them in the administering of sacraments. In autumn 2002 Vienna started another preparatory course. The book ‘Wir sind Priesterinnen’, which these women had written, appeared on the day of their ordination. It had to be withdrawn at the order of Cardinal-Archbishop Friedrich Wetter of München.

These events received applause and criticism, also in the movements for renewal. The International Committee on Theology of the Roman Catholic Church declared in October 2002 that women have never received the sacramental diaconate, not in the Early Church either. The reflection on the importance of this priestly ordination is still going on. Evidently this ‘ordination against the law of the church’ does not constitute a breakthrough in the Roman church policy, but it is equally evident that it makes a prophetic sign, encouraging many Catholic women and men.

See also by Prof René van Eyden Women Ministers in the Catholic Church? and The Creation of Womanhood: A Hierarchical Construction


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.

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