The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church,
Unmasking a Cuckoo’s Egg Tradition.
By John Wijngaards
Published by Darton Longman and Todd, London 2001.
© John Wijngaards. Republished on our website with the necessary permissions
Women with a priestly vocation
On October 19, 1997, St. Thérèse of Lisieux was officially declared a Doctor of the Church. Although the Roman authorities may not have realised this, their recognition of Thérèse’s orthodox faith and soundness of teaching has consequences for the ordination of women. For St. Thérèse had a profound longing to be a priest and so, implicitly, gave testimony to her deep ‘Catholic sense’ that women can and should be ordained.
“If I were a priest, how lovingly I would carry you in my hands when you came down from heaven at my call; how lovingly I would bestow you upon people’s souls. I want to enlighten people’s minds as the prophets and the doctors did. I feel the call of an Apostle. I would love to travel all over the world, making your name known and planting your cross on a heathen soil”.
Céline, Thérèse’s sister who was closer to her than anyone has ever been, tells us: “The sacrifice of not being able to be a priest was something Thérèse always felt deeply. During her illness, whenever we were cutting her hair she would ask for a tonsure, and then joyfully feel it with her hand. But her regret did not find its expression merely in such trifles; it was caused by a real love of God, and inspired high hopes in her. The thought that St. Barbara had brought communion to St. Stanislaus Kostka thrilled her. ‘Why must I be a nun, and not an angel or a priest?’ she said. ‘Oh! What wonders we shall see in heaven! I have a feeling that those who desired to be priests on earth will be able to share in their honour of the priesthood in heaven’.”
Priestly vocations among women
In the past, calls to the priesthood among women were simply squashed by the weight of official prejudice. The issue has become more visible in our own day with thousands of Catholic women expressing the call to the priesthood. Every vocation needs to be tested, of course. But if a Catholic woman, after a process of prayer and discernment, shows all such signs of a genuine vocation as are generally accepted for men, may we say that her vocation cannot be from God just because she belongs to the female sex?
Over the past few years I have collected the testimonies and life stories of more than eighty Roman Catholic women who feel called to the priestly ministry. Some I know personally. Some have corresponded with me. Some have left the record of their inner searchings and their pastoral involvements in magazine articles and books. They hail from all over the globe: Australia, Canada, the USA, England, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands.
What will strike any unbiased observer is that the women speaking in these testimonies are balanced, dedicated, spiritual and competent people. Almost all possess theological qualifications. Many have proved their mettle in prolonged and demanding pastoral ministries. We are not dealing here with fanatics or with women who want to be ordained to redress a psychological hurt. We are listening to women who care and who know they cannot give others the spiritual and sacramental support they should be able to, as priests.
Claire Daurelle, who died in October 1998, ministered in la Duchère, a run-down parish of Lyons, for 25 years. “I discovered my vocation gradually and reluctantly”, she told La Croix in an interview. “I have been commissioned to preach, baptise, wed and bury. I keep saying to my bishop: ‘Complete the job and impose your hands on me!’ He answers that he may not.”
A lay missionary who prefers to remain anonymous, serves rural communities in a remote corner of Africa. She does everything for her people: conducts Sunday service with sermons and communion, teaches the catechism, baptises and blesses marriages. What she cannot do is hear confession, preside at the eucharist and anoint the sick. For this she relies on the occasional priest who visits every two or three months. “I am the priest for these people day in day out”, she tells me. “Can this really be God’s will that an outsider, who doesn’t even speak the people’s language, represents Christ better only because he is a man? What message does this give to my people about the dignity of women in the Church? Or about Christ’s priority of love?”
Thirty years old Ulrike Murr from the archdiocese of Munich in Germany has studied both theology and chemistry. She earns her living as a college lecturer, but spends most of her free time serving in the parish. “I have known myself called since I was young”, she says. “I have wrestled with my priestly vocation. I have tried to run away from God, but I cannot. My spiritual director and many of the people entrusted to my care affirm that I would make a good priest. I cannot understand the hierarchy. Here I stand offering a precious gift: the total dedication of my whole life to be another Christ. But the door is slammed in my face. At the same time we are urged to pray for vocations.”
On Maunday Thursday every year Catholic women hold prayer vigils in front of key cathedrals all over Britain. They wear something purple to symbolise their mourning for women’s lost and rejected gifts. “We sing, we pray, we keep silent and we think of our foremothers who have been such an inspiration to us”, says Helen Blackburn who feels a personal call to the priesthood. Born in Lancashire, she now represents the Catholic Women’s Ordination in Scotland. “For some reason, those opposed to women’s ordination often seem to think it is perfectly acceptable to be rude to people like myself”, Helen continues.
“I have had people who barely know me demand to know what kind of books I read and whether I go to Mass. Even priests have made unpleasant jokes at my expense. One or two have even asked me why I don’t just become an Anglican. At the Chrism Mass last year, a woman to whom I was handing out a leaflet at the cathedral door, took it, ripped it in half and almost flung it back at me. She was so angry, but the incident made me feel sad. I put the torn pieces into my pocket and kept them for several days. I just couldn’t stop wondering what it is about the issue of women’s ordination that brings out so much emotion in people. Does ripping a leaflet in half make someone feel better? Is it fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of what the hierarchy might think? I don’t have any answers but I do think the ban on discussion contributes significantly to the problem.”
No isolated phenomenon
Formerly any potential vocations to the priesthood among women were quickly nipped in the bud or side-tracked into religious life, and their historical record wiped out. Now, with the cultural prejudices gradually melting away, the promptings of the Spirit can no longer be ignored. And it is clear that many Catholic women in many different circumstances are hearing the call.
In 1973 a network of about 80 women who felt called to the priesthood existed in the French speaking countries of Europe. They decided to preserve anonymity because of the official Church’s attitude. A study on 100 women in the USA who felt a priestly vocation, was published in 1978. Twenty-seven women called to the priesthood in the German speaking countries published their testimonies in 1998.
The American study describes the findings of a thorough investigation by trained psychologists and spiritual guides. After rigorous tests and personal interviews, surpassing even those normally applied to male applicants for the priesthood, the researchers concluded that 54% of the female candidates had a mature personality, and 37% a developing personality. Only 9% were rated unsuitable. Moreover, 44% of the applicant women were rated as definitely making effective ordained ministers and 33% probably so. The success of the remaining 23% was deemed less certain. In other words: three quarters of the women who felt called were spiritually, psychologically and pastorally suitable for the ministry of the priesthood. 
The official line on women’s priestly vocations is that they can safely be dismissed on the grounds that they lack the Church’s seal of approval.
“A vocation within the Church does not consist solely or primarily in the fact that one manifests the desire for a mission or feels attracted by an inner compulsion. Even if this spontaneous step is made and even if one believes one has heard as it were a call in the depths of one’s soul, the vocation is authentic only from the moment that it is authenticated by the external call of the Church.”
The Church is, indeed, the authenticator of vocations to the extent that the community of believers plays a role in assessing new candidates. This is why at ordination the bishop asks the people whether they judge the ordinand to be worthy. Nowadays the question is usually answered by the rector of the seminary where the person was trained, but even then he speaks on behalf of the assembled faithful. Also, the bishop’s final call does add some kind of institutional approval, but to state that vocations are only authentic ‘when candidates are externally called’ by the Church, makes no sense.
From time immemorial, priestly vocations have been ascribed to God. In spite of, and in the middle of, their human origins and human growth, vocations are inspired by the Holy Spirit we were told. It is God who calls. It is God’s voice youngsters are urged to discern in the stirrings of their heart and in the encouragement of other believers. How may that same pull of God be ignored when God speaks in the spiritual awareness of women? Do we not have a parallel case here to Peter’s discerning the Holy Spirit in the faith of Cornelius and his Gentile household? Should the Church, like Peter, not recognise: “God is no respecter of persons. Could anyone refuse to ordain these women who have received the call of the Holy Spirit as much as we have?”
Pope John Paul II has spoken of his own vocation as God’s mysterious inner voice.
“I am often asked, especially by young people, why I became a priest. Maybe some of you would like to ask the same question. Let me try briefly to reply. I must begin by saying that it is impossible to explain entirely. For it remains a mystery, even to myself. How does one explain the ways of God? Yet I know that, at a certain point in my life, I became convinced that Christ was saying to me what he had said to thousands before me: ‘Come, follow me!’ There was a clear sense that what I heard in my heart was no human voice, nor was it just an idea of my own. Christ was calling me to serve him as a priest.”
“What I heard in my heart was no human voice, nor was it just an idea of my own.” Since men and women are one in Christ and share the same life of the Spirit, how may we declare God’s call in women invalid? Is the Spirit not free to call whom she wishes? Does authentication by the Church imply the right to ignore true vocations?
Moreover, if the hierarchy is the sole authenticator of vocations, why does the Church “not have the power to ordain women”, as Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger have stated a number of times? If it is the hierarchy, and not specifically God, who is the sole arbiter of whose ‘calling’ is authentic and whose not, how can the hierarchy maintain that it does not have the authority to ordain women to the priesthood? If the hierarchy is the sole decision maker, how does it not have the authority?
Readings from Women Priests web site
Testimonies of women called to the priesthood
* Claire Daurelle (France)
* Iris Müller (Germany)
* Vivian Rotering (USA)
* Soline Vatinel (Ireland))
* Josefa Münch (Germany)
* Monique (missionary in Africa)
* Helen Blackburn (Scotland)
* Colette Joyce (England)
* Denise Donato (USA)
* Andrea Mayerhofer (Germany)
* Olive Powell (England)
* Renate Put (Switserland)
* Rosa Maria Miguel (Spain)
* Alice (USA)
* Ulrike Murr (Germany)
* Anne Brown (England)
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