Women's Ordination: Barriers and
A Talk given to AGM of Australian Feminist
Theology Foundation, December 5, 1999
by Marie Louise Uhr
been asked to say something about why, in spite of consistent opposition from
the official church, I continue to work for women's ordination in the Catholic
Church. The last time I was able to be at an AFTF AGM, the speaker was Elaine
Wainwright and to follow her is an awesome prospect. This is much more
rambling, more unfocused; a sort of work in progress: I guess my reasons for
acting are always 'in progress'.
1. My faith and
I take it that you
are familiar with the Vatican's stance on women's ordination in the catholic
church. It has become the marker of orthodoxy which in itself might be
enough reason to challenge it.
For all its
troubles, I remain a card-carrying member of the Catholic Church - however much
I question or reject many Vatican pronouncements. 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. And the community needs, for me, to be a
community of like and unlike and not a cosy and comfortable group.
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
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
relational (and not a lonely monad); a God who desires closeness, intimacy,
relationships; who chooses to be present in the finality and frailty of human
beings and enters into their sufferings and life experiences. I believe we've
barely begun to understand incarnation or to consider its deep theological
It needs no
demonstration here that much traditional theological interpretations and
structures built on our judeo-christian heritage are gravely hostile to health
and well- being. You don't need convincing by me that feminist theology/ies are
desperately needed. I liked the recent article by Lucy Tatman1 in
which she says 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
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 (and I'll return to this division later).
Our work (scholars and activists) is to continue trying to remake the world.
And I see remaking the churches a fundamental part of that remaking: whether we
want it or no, churches are a large part of that world, and affect the lives,
thoughts, world-views of many people.
2. why work for
If that's roughly
why I stay, and why feminist theolog/ies fascinate me, I'll consider 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, usually declaring they are 'beyond it'. Some insist 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.
Others see no need
for any ordinations, whether of women or of men. Many of these have been
celebrating small home eucharists without aid of the ordained for years, (as an
aside, I find it fascinating that the hierarchy have never publicly challenged
this; we're the ones they go for.) 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. I'm concerned with limiting community worship to private liturgies even
when those 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).
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 take their rightful public leadership roles. I
have delighted in Marilyn Lake's Getting Equal2 with its story of
fiesty Australian women and their battles for equality. Hence I believe women
must have access to church leadership roles and be 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 confirms this. Moreover, the Report on the participation of
women in the church shows that calls for women's ordination are coming from
committed catholics all round the country.
fascinating issue is how the Vatican can continue to recite its 'mantra'
about how the church doesn't have the authority to ordain women, quoting bits
of scripture in support, in spite of about 30 years in which scripture scholars
and theologians round the world have said, over and over again, you can't argue
like that. Yet not one move has been made to meet the scholarly objections.
Only power and authority are used.
In the absence of
logic, 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 challenge Rome's
understanding of the nature of women; would she threaten the meaning 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
So I think our
work in OCW is two-fold:
(a) first we need
to remain active in the public sphere, visible signs of our refusal to accept
their unscholarly teachings 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 (perhaps closer to one of the seven
We need, too, to
make it plain that we are part of a world-wide movement Women's
Ordination Worldwide (WOW) has allied groups in Europe, North America, South
Africa, India, Japan, (South American links are being formed, Elfriede Harth
comes from Colombia), New Zealand, and of course Australia. Actions go round
the world. For instance, this week Elfriede and Ida Raming for WOW put out a
press release in response to the recent Papal statement to german bishops in
which he called the prohibition 'infallible'. And I was able to ensure that
Sydney Morning Herald got it the same day.
have to be rapid, colourful, and prayerful. Symbols such as the purple stole,
recently introduced from Europe and taken up by OCW at our recent Canberra
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 gave us at our recent conference with
SHEER HOLY BOLDNESS. And I have great hope.
(b) Second, we
need to continue to search for the psychological and theological bases for
their position, and continue to try to have open conversations about this. We
have to present alternatives to the present hierarchical system, the Father-Son
system on which their whole theology seems to be founded; and for which I like,
whether I'm using it correctly or not, the phrase of Lacan's, the Law of the
Father. Clearly we depend on professional theologians to lead the way.
This work requires
and this is no news to any of you here challenging the present
symbolic world, placing women at the centre of the symbolic system: I guess
Irigaray's 'feminine divine' is one way to express it. The resistance to this
are enormous, as those of you who have been working at it for many years are
aware. I suspect feminist theologians will still be struggling with this many
years from now.
considerations - priesthood, sacrifice and boundaries.
We are stuck in
Father Law and Father/Son theology and the 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.'3 I'm not suggesting that much work has not already been
done, especially by such fine theologians as Elisabeth Johnson and many
interested in the powerful symbols of priesthood and sacrifice, and the placing
of boundaries; and I think these are all 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
I've found a few other people who seem to have arrived at the same place. First
is sociologist Nancy Jay and her classic work on sacrifice4; second
William Beers, working with a psychoanalytical approach5; also Mary
Condren who started as activist working for ordination6; and finally
and closest to home a PhD student at U of Sydney, Damien Casey, who flying
around in the philosophy of Irigaray found himself having an intellectual
conversion re women's ordination and has sent me draft of thesis chapter
on Sacrifice and Sacramentality7.
around here. I want to know the extent to which seeing the eucharist as an
expiatory sacrifice is central to objections to women's ordination. Mind you,
this is never mentioned. No one says women can't be ordained because they can't
But 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, 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'8. Which 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
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
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 help us 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 called priestly. In any case,
presiding over the Eucharist in the early church was certainly no priestly
activity, at least not in the cultic and hierarchical sense.
So perhaps it is
not surprising to note how an understanding of Eucharist as 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. ... [a]
relationship between the presence of women in leadership positions within the
Church and the non- sacrificial orientation of that Church. The presence of
women at the altar or even at Calvary, may have been enough psychologically to
circumvent the logic of sacrifice'.
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. "The Eucharist in the maintenance of
the Empire is conscripted to construct and maintain boundaries'.
Which brings me
to upholding boundaries and women's ordination. Is this what it is all
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. 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 thus upholding
gender inequality the Vatican 'continues the long-term effort to mark a
boundary between a sacramental world and the liberal world'10,
between the sacred church and the dangerous secular society.
The importance to
Rome of boundaries can be seen in the very metaphors they choose to describe
God and church. Increasingly, this Vatican is returning to asymetric 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, such body
images are boundary images. The first boundary delineated is that between
Christian denominations, and the ability to receive communion marks this
boundary (the body of Christ as a boundary marker). The second boundary is the
church and the world.
What marks the
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.
documents, the Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration
of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest and the
recent Statement of Conclusions directed at the Australian church, 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.
And in the
statement to the Australian bishops, once again women are portrayed as a
danger. 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) the tempters. Now the temptations to lead others astray
are theological rather than sexual Eve is a feminist theologian.
Which brings me
back to OCW and why we continue. There are multiple reasons, of course. Some of
the women 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 an
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 with you all in struggling to envisage what those
transformations might be. Logos becomes dialogue.
1. Lucy Tatman, 'Thoughts and Hopes on the Future of Feminist
Theology/ies\ Feminist Theology, 22, 93-100, 1999.
2. Marilyn Lake, Getting Equal: The History of Australian
Feminism, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1999.
3. Luce Irigaray in The Forgotten Mystery of Female Ancestry
Thinking the difference for a peaceful Revolution,New York, Routldege,
4. Jay, Nancy, Through Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice,
Religion and Paternity, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992,
5. Beers, William, Women and Sacrifice: Male Narcissism and
the Psychology of Religion, Wayne State University Press, Detroit,
6. Mary Condren 'Mercy Not Sacrifice: Toward a Celtic
Theology', Feminist Theology 15, 31-54, 1997.
7. Damien Casey, personal communication.
8. Jay op cit. p32.
9. I've considered this in more detail in Uhr, Marie Louise,
'Fixing the Boundaries: Traditional Asymmetric Gender Imageiy of Church and its
impact on women' in Developing an Australian theology, Peter Malone ed,
St Pauls Publications, Strathfield, 1999, pp 149-164.
10. Chaves, op cit.