Human Rights and Women’s Ordination
The exclusion of women from the Catholic priesthood is more and more seen as an act of discrimination notwithstanding Rome’s profession to the contrary. The last decades have seen a phenomenal increase of international sensitivity regarding women’s rights and the need to redress injustices committed in the past. The United Kingdom accepted the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975. The European Economic Community passed a law in 1976 which included the principle of equal treatment for men and women. On 18th December 1979 the General Assembly of the United Nations endorsed an International Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. This has now been ratified and passed as law in a majority of member nations. Whatever excuses or legal loopholes traditionalists may resort to, in the world of tomorrow an exclusively male priesthood will appear a discriminatory anachronism.
This has been pointed out to Rome repeatedly. The most celebrated case was Sister Theresa Kane’s intervention to John Paul II in October 1979. As president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, she addressed the Holy Father during his visit to Washington. She said:
‘As women, we have heard the powerful messages of our Church professing dignity and reverence for all persons. As women, we have pondered upon these words. Our contemplation leads us to state that the Church in its struggle to be faithful to its call for reverence and dignity for all persons must respond by providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of our Church’.Origins 18 October 1979, p. 285.
The Pope refused to enter into dialogue. Even in subsequent years various attempts by Sister Kane to obtain an interview with the Holy Father failed. The Vatican version of the incident was that she had overstepped her limits. But the enormous publicity given to the event by the world media and the wide support she received, show that she had expressed something many Catholic women feel: ‘the Church treats us unjustly.’
When I wrote Did Christ Rule out Women Priests? in 1976, I reflected on the question of equal rights. I decided not to bring them into the discussion. I wanted to meet Rome on its own theological ground. I also felt uneasy about associating ordination and rights. I felt and still feel that a person should be called to the ministry – called that is by the community, the Church. No one can claim the ‘right’ to be ordained. But I have now come to see that ‘rights’ do come in from another angle.
It is one thing to hold that no individual has the right to be ordained, quite another to refuse ordination because he or she belongs to a particular group, class or nation. Should we not speak of discrimination if all Chinese, all Mexicans, all New Zealanders were excluded from the priestly ministry simply because they belong to those nations? Excluding women because they are women is a similar act of discrimination.
The Task Force of the Catholic Theological Society of America, in its report on ‘Tradition and the Ordination of Women’, mentions another reason important in moral theology: the banning of women ‘does not make sense’.
“The argument from divine law, that ‘Christ established things this way’ (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis § 2), is not in itself sufficient to satisfy questions of unjust discrimination. The insufficiency here lies not so much in the fragility of scriptural and historical warrants for the argument, but in its failure to meet the demands of traditional Catholic moral theology. That is, the Catholic moral tradition has consistently premised itself on the belief that the divine will is not arbitrary, and that moral norms must thus overall ‘make sense’. Hence, it is never sufficient to simply say: ‘This is the law’. God asks not only for obedience but also for some degree of understanding.”
The Report ‘Tradition and the Ordination of Women’ was endorsed the Catholic Theological Society of America on 6 June 1997.
Pretending there is no discrimination ‘because it was Christ’s will’, does no more than shift the blame on Christ. He is then presented as one of the worst discriminators in the history of the world – one of the worst as it victimises so many people and as it deprives them of such deep spiritual values. It will be clear from all that the evidence presented on this website that this claim would be preposterous. It is not Christ who has kept women from ministering his saving power.
- Marie-Thérèse Van Lunen Chénu and Louise Wentholt, ‘The Status of Women in the Code of Canon Law and in the United Nations Convention’, Praxis juridique et religion 1 (1984) pp. 7-18.
- Marie-Thérèse Van Lunen Chenu, “Human rights in the Church: a non-right for women in the Church?” in Human Rights. The Christian contribution, July 1998.
- Kari Elisabeth Børresen, Religion Confronting Women’s Human Rights: The Case of Roman Catholism, Ch.24 in Facilitating Freedom of Religion or Belief, ed. Tore Lindholm e.a., Derk Book, the Hague, 2001.
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