I am not a natural rebel, but when Cardinal Ratzinger stated in 1998 that those who think women can be ordained priests are no longer in communion with the Church, I resigned; not from the Church, but from my active priestly ministry. I did so in public protest as a loyal Catholic. I had to, in conscience. For I could not, and will not, share in a conspiracy of silence while Church leaders excommunicate Catholics for holding a conviction that I as a theologian know to be perfectly compatible with our Catholic belief.
As I am getting older, I am becoming more conscious of my roots. I see my present conflict with Rome foreshadowed in my parents. Their being staunch Catholics did not dispose them to stomach nonsense, precisely because their faith meant so much to them. An incident will illustrate the point.
My father was headmaster of a mission school in Surabaia, Indonesia - we are talking of the 1930s - and my mother sat on the board of the adjoining girls school. They also prepared people for Mass on Sunday in one of the class rooms. One day the parish priest came to visit them and announced: "I received a new chalice from Holland!" He produced it from his bag and put it triumphantly on the table. My mother lifted it up, to admire it more closely.
"My God! Mrs. Wijngaards, what are you doing!" the parish priest called out.
"Doing what?" my mother asked.
"This is a sacred vessel. No woman may touch it!"
"I sank through the ground", my mother would tell me later a dozen times. "I felt hurt, humiliated, angry. Why should I be kept from touching a sacred object just because Im a woman? Am I so dirty or profane?" She only put the chalice down after having scrutinised it carefully.
As a theologian, so many years later, I can give the answer to her "why?". Women were, indeed, from at least the 5th century considered second-rate, sinful and ritually unclean, yes unclean on account of menstruation. A Church ordinance in France forbidding women to touch sacred objects was deviously published under the name of Pope Soter and handed on as part of the so-called False Decretals. From there it entered the Decree of Gratian (1040 AD), a collection of laws that became the source for all later Church legislation. Church lawyers explained the reasons: "A woman is an animal that menstruates. Through touching her blood fruits fail to get ripe. Mustard degenerates, grass dries up and trees lose their fruit before time. Iron gets rusted and the air becomes dark. When dogs eat it, they acquire rabies. That is why women are kept away from the altar."
Medieval theologians considered the prohibition to touch sacred objects a major argument to exclude women from the priesthood. Richard of Middleton thought so, and so did John Duns Scotus, Durandus a Saint-Pourçain and other key witnesses quoted by Rome to prove the presumed Tradition against women priests. The prohibition stayed in force until the new code of canon law promulgated in 1983. But Rome has not grasped that removing this and other prejudices has in fact shattered the theological grounds on which the exclusion of women was based.
I am often asked why it is necessary to rake up the past. Can we not leave all the antiquated reasoning alone, and focus on the present? The answer is that the antiquated reasoning still casts its spell today. We suffer their effects in Church legislation, like in canon 1024 which lays down that "only a baptised male validly receives sacred ordination". While lay men may be installed as readers and distributors of holy communion, women may only be given such tasks "by a temporary deputation" (canon 230). The skeletons in our ecclesiastical cupboard cannot be buried until they have been uncovered for what they are: dangerous skeletons. The official justification for banning women from the priesthood rests on the scaffolding of social prejudice and irrational practice.
The incident I related was just one of my mothers many clashes with the official Church. She remained largely unaware of all the complex theological confusion that dominated Church thinking for so long and which I am trying to document fragment by fragment on www.womenpriests.org. However, she was right in her basic conviction that in Christ women and men are truly equal, with all the liberating consequences of that truth. I feel deeply united to her Catholic sense, her sensitivity to Christs Spirit, and I know that the invincible power of that Spirit will bring about the reforms that are needed. My mother died and I will die, but the truth will live.
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