WOW 2005 Programme Outline

Women's Ordination Worldwide
1st International Conference

Dublin 2001

Discerning the Spirit's New Creation

John Wijngaards

I do not know if you have heard the apocryphal story that the Congregation for Doctrine in Rome met in an emergency session. "We have done everything possible", a monsignore reported, "but many people in the Church still believe women can be ordained. We have forbidden all discussion on the topic. CartoonWe have appointed only bishops who promise not to promote women priests. We make parish priests swear an oath of loyalty. Theologians who speak out are on our black list and are being expelled from their congregations or teaching jobs. It doesn't seem to help."
"We could burn their books!" one consultor proposed.
"We tried. It created the wrong kind of publicity."
"We could ask the Pope to write another encyclical on women", someone else suggested.
"No use. After Mulieris Dignitatem two-thirds of Catholics still think women would make excellent priests!"
"Then we have no other choice", the Prefect of the Congregation sighed. "We have to stop women from being baptised!"1

Where do we go from here?

Those who oppose the ordination of women usually claim that the desire for ordination arises from the contemporary drive for equal rights. They portray the demand for women priests as a modern and novel idea, a secular invention, the intrusion of profane social equality into the sacred precincts of the liturgy, a giving in to strident feminist bullying. Inter Insigniores blames both women's emancipation and ecumenical pressure from other Churches.2 But while it is true that the climate of social emancipation has helped to raise the question of women's absence from the ministries, the real origin of the demand lies in our common baptism.

Since Vatican II women theologians have brought a new dimension to the Church. They began to systemically expose the inequality between men and women in all areas of Catholic life: in worship and spirituality, in the parish and in the home, in theology as well as in law.3 They re-examined the roles of women in the early Church and drew consequences from this for New Testament exegesis.4 They studied in detail women's lives during various periods of the Church's history.5 They brought new light, from a woman's perspective, on matters of liturgical language, imagery and church symbolism.6 But none of these women theologians, to my knowledge, claimed that the equality of women in Christ derives from secular or civil rights. We have to carefully distinguish between external impulses on a doctrine and its Christian source (see Diagram no 1).

The Second Vatican Council recognised that the Church should pay attention to what modern society is telling us. We should listen to the signs of our times. We are told to "decipher the authentic signs of God's presence and purpose in the happenings, needs and desires which Christians share with other people of our age".7 The Council endorsed present-day society's concern for equal rights and it singled out the emancipation of women as an important issue. "For in truth", the Council declared, "it must be regretted that fundamental personal rights are still not being universally honoured. Such is the case of women who are denied the right to choose a husband freely, to embrace a state of life or to acquire an education or cultural benefits equal to those available to men." 8 Now it is a fact that the rise of women in society does put pressure on the Church. It forces Catholics to answer the question: "Why are women still denied the sacrament of ordination and access to power structures in the Church?"9 But these wholesome external promptings are not themselves the justification for demanding women's ordination.

That demand comes from our common baptism in Christ. For there is nothing that distinguishes the baptism of a man from that of a woman. As Paul said: "all who are baptised in Christ have put on Christ himself. So there is no difference between men and women ... You are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3, 26-28). Because we do not live any longer in Old Testament times, we do not realise how significant this fact is. The Israelites were God's people, yes, but the men were more God's people than the women. Men did not only dominate in the home and in society. Men enjoyed a privileged status in religion. Only the men were circumcised. The covenant was made directly with them. Women belonged to the covenant through their fathers and husbands. The men had to sacrifice in the Temple. The men read the Torah in the synagogues. Women could take part if they wished, but then from a distance. Christ overthrew this fundamental discrimination.10

Both men and women equally die with Christ and rise with him to new life. Both men and women become members of his new covenant, and share in his eucharistic meal on an equal footing. Both men and women in like manner share in Christ's priestly, prophetic and royal dignity. The openness of women to the ordained ministry arises from within the sacrament of baptism itself. The cry for social equality may have woken us up. The truth of equality in Christ's covenant has always been there.

The demand for the ordination of women arises from the centre of our Catholic faith.

  • It stems directly from the equality of men and women in Christ's universal priesthood, acquired through baptism.
  • It derives from the nature of the Church as the People of God in which women as much as men are full and equal members.
  • It is implied in women's full participation in the whole sacramental order.
  • It is testified to in the sense of faith carried by Catholics who instinctively know that it is not God or Christ who bans women from the priesthood.

That demand comes from our common baptism in Christ. For there is nothing that distinguishes the baptism of a man from that of a woman. As Paul said: "all who are baptised in Christ have put on Christ himself. So there is no difference between men and women ... You are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3, 26-28). Because we do not live any longer in Old Testament times, we do not realise how significant this fact is. The Israelites were God's people, yes, but the men were more God's people than the women. Men did not only dominate in the home and in society. Men enjoyed a privileged status in religion. Only the men were circumcised. The covenant was made directly with them. Women belonged to the covenant through their fathers and husbands. The men had to sacrifice in the Temple. The men read the Torah in the synagogues. Women could take part if they wished, but then from a distance. Christ overthrew this fundamental discrimination.10

Both men and women equally die with Christ and rise with him to new life. Both men and women become members of his new covenant, and share in his eucharistic meal on an equal footing. Both men and women in like manner share in Christ's priestly, prophetic and royal dignity. The openness of women to the ordained ministry arises from within the sacrament of baptism itself. The cry for social equality may have woken us up. The truth of equality in Christ's covenant has always been there.

The demand for the ordination of women arises from the centre of our Catholic faith.

  • It stems directly from the equality of men and women in Christ's universal priesthood, acquired through baptism.
  • It derives from the nature of the Church as the People of God in which women as much as men are full and equal members.
  • It is implied in women's full participation in the whole sacramental order.
  • It is testified to in the sense of faith carried by Catholics who instinctively know that it is not God or Christ who bans women from the priesthood.

There are some important consequences in all this for our strategy. Each of the various groups that together form Women's Ordination Worldwide has already spent much time on planning practical strategies and concrete proposals. I see it as my task to formulate a few important aspects of strategy that may further our common purpose. Without claiming to be exhaustive, I will propose four principles that I trust will lead to fruitful discussion.

Principle One. The movement for the ordination of women needs to position itself squarely in the heart of the Church.

  1. The ordination of women priests is part of a much wider reform in the Church. The need of reform does not limit itself to the question of women's ordination. Other linked issues are: pastoral re-shaping of the ministries, lay participation in Church administration, sexual morality (including responsible use of contraception, optional celibacy, re-evaluation of homosexuality), more co-responsibility on all levels (bishops' conferences, dioceses, parishes), etc. Though the ordination of women is a valid issue in its own right, its effective implementation demands structural reform in many other areas of the Church's life and practice.

  2. The movement addresses all sections of the Church. It is characteristic of a movement, in distinction from an association, that it influences society gradually and in all directions, as yeast transforms the dough. All members of God's People: the pope, bishops, priests, religious and the laity, need to re-discover the full equality of men and women in Christ. We will not be satisfied until the whole community of the faithful, led by its pastors, recognises that women should be admitted to holy orders.

  3. The movement aims at transforming the whole Church from within. Full participation of women in all ministries will require an overhaul of church law, of seminary training, ecclesiastical structures, pastoral practices.

  4. The movement should stay squarely within the body of the Church. We should not allow the movement for the ordination of women to be pushed to the fringes, or even: down the cliff, on a rubbish heap outside the Church. This is what our opponents would love to do: to get rid of us as an invasion of aliens, a secular infection, a lump that needs to be amputated.

    In other words: we want women to be ordained priests because we are Catholics and we know that opening the priesthood to women agrees with our deepest Catholic convictions. On no account will we allow ourselves to be manoeuvered outside the Catholic community.

I am told that, last century, Cartoonone of my ancestors in Holland clashed with his parish priest, a disagreement that lasted for 20 years. The reason was that the parish priest levied rent on the seats in the parish church, with the front seats costing more. Sunday after Sunday, my ancestor, Klaas Wijngaards, kept standing up at the back of the church. One day, the PP called out from the pulpit: "For God's sake, Klaas, why don't you come forward and take a seat?"
Klaas refused.
"Then go home and leave the church!"
"I won't", Klaas shouted back. "This is my church as much as yours!"

But if we do not want others to push us out, we ourselves should also refrain from doing anything that would put us outside the community of the Church. I refer in particular to arranging for women to be ordained by bishops who are not in communion with the Catholic Church.
I am not speaking here of individual women who may discern that in their own case, their priestly vocation weighs heavier than service within the Catholic community. Given the present lack of prospect for ordination in the Catholic Church, I can understand that such women may have valid motives for joining another Sister Church and offering themselves for the ministry there. They should have our full support. But this is quite different from whole organisations or the women's ordination movement as such promoting the ordination of women by 'outside bishops'. Such an approach would be wrong for many reasons:

  • The hierarchy, however much it needs reform in the way it is organised and in the way it often operates, is part of the sacramental communion of the Church. Christ said about bishops and priests: "Who sees you sees me". We should not destroy the unity of the Church for the sake of an inner-Church reform.
  • By going outside the Catholic Church for ordinations, the movement would lose the goodwill of many bishops, priests, religious and lay leaders who, though in silence, are at present on our side.
  • We should support the ordination of women by a local Catholic bishop, or Bishops belonging to a national bishops' conference, who in this way build up their own local Church. We have the admirable example of the Czech Bishop Felix Davidek of Brno who ordained women during the communist regime in the 1970s. Bishops are 'vicars of Christ, not vicars of the Roman Pontiff' and they carry immediate responsibility for their flock 'in their own right'. 11 Of course, they too have to balance the spiritual welfare of their own people against the good of maintaining Church unity. But they might well legitimately decide on scriptural, traditional and theological grounds that, in view of local pastoral needs, the unjustified interference by Roman authorities should be ignored.
  • Our purpose is to enable the whole Catholic Church to admit women to all ministries. We will have failed if we do not get our reforms incorporated in all structures and levels of the Catholic Church. Leaving the Church does not serve that purpose. At present we experience a serious 'brokenness' in the Church as half its members are excluded from the ordained ministries. But the new 'wholeness' we desire will be achieved rather through a confrontation with the hierarchy, however painful, than through any step that would remove us effectively from the body of the Church.
  • It is not our aim to make the priestly ministry possible for a small number of women. We want all Catholic women to enjoy the right to full participation in all ministries, including the episcopate and the papacy. This is a more difficult target, but the only one that will do justice to our Catholic sense.

The truth will set us free

Campaigners for women's ordination sometimes think that beating the drum of women's rights will bring opponents round - but will it? Do we then not underestimate the power of defence mechanisms? Did the Protestant ridicule of Mary in previous centuries not result in more fervent devotion to her among Catholics? Have we not seen that forced religious attendance in Catholic schools produced youngsters who hated going to Mass? Does external pressure not often generate the opposite effect? (see Diagram no 2)

Let us not forget that opposition to women priests is basically a prejudice. As psychological studies have shown, prejudice feeds on its own kind of reasoning. Prejudice justifies its hostility through arguments that pretend to be reasonable. "Prejudice is an emotional rigid attitude that leads one to select certain facts for emphasis, blinding one to other facts."12 Prejudice bases itself on "selective, obsolete and faulty evidence".13 The bias against American Africans ('blacks'), for instance, rested on the claim that they were an inferior race, less intelligent, happy-go-lucky, unreliable.14

With regard to women as priests, prejudice has ready-made arguments that go back to the Middle Ages.Cartoon "Jesus did not choose women priests. The Church has never admitted women to holy orders, and-so-on" Arguments used to shore up a prejudice have to be taken seriously because the first step in dismantling a prejudice is for those who hold it to recognise that its basis is false. It requires challenging the truth of one's reasons and one's rationalisations. Overcoming the bias against blacks, for instance, called for a recognition of their intelligence, strength of character and reliability. Bishops, priests or lay people who think it was Jesus who excluded women, should be brought to an awareness of the emptiness of that claim. And their smug assertion that "it was never done" can be demolished by the indisputable evidence that women were admitted to the holy orders of the diaconate through a full sacramental rite of ordination.

The need of a concerted effort to spread correct information follows also from the behaviour of social groups when faced with outside criticism. Remember 'group indoctrination', a phenomenon well known from present-day 'sects and cults' who try to immunise their members by inculcating their own world view. Throughout the centuries the Church has often acted in a similar fashion. Because of Protestant propaganda and even persecution in some countries, the post-reformation Catholic Church screened itself off as a fortress 'to protect the faithful'. It produced catechisms to counteract attacks by opponents (see diagram no 3). A similar development is happening now.

Church leaders are well aware of the pressure exerted by women's emancipation in society. Over the past thirty years they have built up an official ideology that tries to spell out 'why the Catholic view is different'. For people who feel insecure in their Catholic identity, the 'official position' is gratefully seized upon. It is not uncommon for women, for instance, to defend the ban against women priests with an appeal to the traditional arguments. 15 They need those arguments to explain to themselves and to others why the Pope is right when he says that the exclusion of women from the ministry is not a denial of their dignity or equal status in the Church.

What we should note is that the 'equal rights' argument will not convince such people. Their reaction will be: "So what? This is not an equal rights issue. It is Jesus himself who wanted it this way. And he had good reasons."

The consequences of all this are clear.

Principle Two. The women's ordination movement needs to sustain a programme of education for change. (See diagram no 4)

  1. Our core members need to be thoroughly briefed so that they can act as facilitators.

    It is not enough for our key members to support the ordination of women on the general axiom of 'equality in Christ' (however valid that basic axiom is). They will have to know the arguments for and against.

    • No dialogue with traditionalist members of the Church is possible without understanding their way of thinking. Regretfully, facilitators need to be familiar with the main grounds on which women are banned from ordination, and the theological reasons that invalidate these grounds. (See diagram no 7).
    • Facilitators also need to be clear on positive reasons from Scripture and Tradition for the ordination of women; and on questions of strategy. (See diagram no 8).
    • The Catholic Internet Library on Women's Ordination offers a short Internet course on the women priest question that covers the main areas of debate (

  2. Via the media, the general public should be involved in an informed discussion.

    We live in a media age and people pick up 'the truth' from the media. Fortunately, the media are interested in the issue of women's ordination (they love conflict), but they are liable to overstress the equal rights angle in the sense of: "The Catholic Church is the last bastion of male monopolies". While this may be true, it will arouse defence mechanisms in the minds of many Catholics. It is important, therefore, that the theological arguments also be addressed.

    • Documentaries, panel discussions, interviews, in-depth articles can raise a genuine awareness of the real religious issues that are at stake and of the flimsy basis for traditionalist claims.
    • This needs to be planned with the help of professional media personnel. Too often we are at the mercy of the media's own agenda.

  3. We need to keep discussion alive among opinion leaders in the Church.

    In the Catholic Church the main opinion leaders are: bishops, priests, theologians, editors, authors, lecturers and teachers. All these groups belong to organisations and have regular meetings. Many of these opinion leaders are sympathetic to the cause of women priests, but they may need to be prodded to put the issue on their 'consultation agendas'.

    • We must promote seminars, workshops and conferences on the ordination of women wherever possible.
    • Organisations should be asked to devote a regular event (for instance, their annual meeting) to this topic.

  4. Our facilitators could conduct awareness 'courses' on local level.

    Most parishes have prayer groups, bible groups, advent or lent groups, women's or men's associations that might be open to such courses.

    • A series of meetings (e.g. five evenings) could be organised by a local facilitator during which the issues are presented and discussed. Suitable material for this should be prepared that could include: a small guide, reading matter and accompanying videos.
    • Institutions that run theological formation programmes for priests, religious or the laity could offer specific courses on the women priest discussion.

  5. Our educational programmes will also inspire confidence.

    Struggling against patriarchal structures often seems like fighting for a lost cause. Signs of despondency soon set in. Support is essential, both through proper information and by mutual solidarity. The Church has faced this kind of crisis before, and reforms have happened. We can move forward with the firm conviction that what we are working and praying for, will one day become a reality.

Creating contrary experiences

Another lesson we can learn from psychology is that providing correct information is not enough. Prejudice gets its best chance to flourish and grow through what has been called 'social distance'. It is broken down by creating familiarity (see diagram no 2, bottom half).

To stay with our previous example of Afro-Americans since the phenomenon was widely studied, people prejudiced against 'blacks' rarely knew them as intimate friends. In this context, psychologists identified six circles of closeness: (1) kinship by marriage; (2) personal friends; (3) neighbours; (4) colleagues at work; (5) immigrants; and (6) visitors to one's country. A research from 1928 showed that standard white Americans would admit white Englishmen or Canadians to circles of family and friendship, would hesitate about Spaniards, Italians and Jews, and would positively bar Negroes, Chinese and Indians. On the other hand, once individuals from these suspect nations were admitted to closer circles, prejudice was more easily broken down.16

I do not know if you have heard the story about the surgeon who arrived late at the hospital and rushed into the operation theatre where a young man was waiting to undergo emergency surgery. On seeing the patient, the surgeon exclaimed: "He is my son!" The patient opened his eyes and said: "Hi, mum!" -- Surprised? We are still not accustomed to think of women as surgeons. And what about the young man who said "Hi, mum!" to the bishop?

Familiarity is the key word here. Catholics are used to see only men officiating at the altar, only men taking all decisions in the diocese and the parish. Unconsciously they associate liturgical functions with men. The more they see women in roles that border on the priestly ministry, the more they will overcome inner psychological resistance.

Principle three. The women's ordination movement should promote all developments through which women are given more responsibility in the Church. (see diagram no 5)

In other words: the intermediate steps too count. Psychological barriers have to be broken down by women assuming a more visible presence in the Catholic community.

Women should be at the altar in liturgical settings.

Though the priestly ministry extends much wider than presiding over the Eucharist, it is women's closeness to the Eucharist that will serve as a powerful symbol for traditional Catholics.

  • Women already function in eucharistic worship as members or directors of the choir. This is an advance, since until 1917 women were forbidden to be members of the choir by Church law. This ridiculous prohibition was reiterated more than once by the Sacred Congregation for Liturgy. "Neither girls nor adult women may be members of a church choir" (decree 17 Sept. 1897). "Women should not be part of a choir; they belong to the ranks of the laity. Separate women's choirs too are totally forbidden, except for serious reasons and with permission of the bishop" (decree 22 Nov. 1907). "Any mixed choir of men and women, even if they stand far from the sanctuary, is totally forbidden" (decree 18 Dec. 1908).
  • In many places women are beginning to function as Mass servers, readers, ministers of holy communion, preachers and as presiding over communion services. Here too we have made progress. The 1917 Code of Law restricted all ministries at the altar to males (CIC 813). The new Code of 1983 which is still in force today, allows lay people, including women, to be readers, Mass servers, cantors, preachers, leaders of prayer services, ministers of baptism and communion, but only by a 'temporary deputation' (Canon 230, §2-3).
  • Inclusive language should be used at all times during liturgical services. Even if the officiating priest forgets to do this, other ministers such as readers and preachers should observe the rule. People will get the point.
    · During the prayers of intercession, a regular petition could be inserted asking the Holy Spirit to guide the Church in the matter of the ordination of women, or some such prayer. The formulation has here deliberately to be left open for two reasons: (a) we should not dictate to the Holy Spirit what she should do; (b) all members of the community should be able to join in the petition, whatever side they are on regarding women priests.

2. The movement should encourage all situations in which pastoral authority is entrusted to women.

Present Church law forbids women to be clerics and so deprives all women of clerical offices which require the power of order or the power of jurisdiction [=church governance] (can. 219, §1 & 274 § 1). On the other hand, Church law allows women to be appointed to many tasks and this should be exploited to the full:

  • To be a member of the pastoral council of the diocese (can. 512 § 1) and of the parish (can. 536 § 1).
  • To be full members of provincial councils of bishops (can. 443 § 4), diocesan synods (can. 463 § 2 & 1.5), the finance committee of the diocese (can. 492 § 1) and of the parish (can. 537). To be a financial administrator of the diocese (can. 494).
  • To be consultors on the appointment of parish priests (can. 524) and the appointment of bishops (can. 377 § 3).
  • To preach in a church or oratory though not the homily (can. 766).
  • To be catechists (can. 785) and to give assistance to the parish priest in the catechetical formation of adults, young people and children (can. 776).
  • To assist at marriages under certain conditions (c.1112).
  • To assist the parish priest in exercising the pastoral care of the community, as parish assistants, or as chaplains in hospitals, colleges, youth centres and social institutions (can. 519).
  • To be to be entrusted with a parish because of a shortage of priests (can. 517 § 2).
  • To administer certain sacramentals (can. 1168).
  • To hold offices in an ecclesiastical tribunal, such as being judges (can. 1421 § 2), assessors (can. 1424), auditors (can 1428 § 2), promotors of justice and defenders of the marriage bond (can. 1435).
  • To hold the diocesan offices of a chancellor or a notary (can. 483 § 2).
The women's ordination movement should promote the ordination of women as deacons as a first step.

The Church has a well-established tradition of women deacons. It is possible that Rome will make some concession in this regard.

  • Women who feel called to the ministry should be encouraged to study full theological courses.
  • Suitable candidates should be prepared to serve as deacons. However, the women's ordination movement should never accept a watered-down version of the diaconate for women. If women are ordained deacons, this should be done on the understanding that the sacrament of the diaconate is administered to them as to male deacons.17

All the above tasks can be taken up by women under the existing law and the opportunities offered here are not fully utilised. It is encouraging that various bishops' conferences are promoting a better integration of women into leadership roles.18 At the same time, women are already developing new ministries in pastoral settings of North and South America, Africa, Asia and Europe. These may well herald the way in which a reformed priestly ministry will function in the future.

Overcoming organisational control

In recent years Rome has unleashed an unprecedented 'reign of terror' in the Church with the express purpose of suppressing all further discussion on women priests. This springs, no doubt, from the conviction that the ordination of women contradicts Scripture and Tradition, and that the faithful should be spared the ordeal of going through uncertainty and confusion. Powerful measures of organisational control have been put in place and are being constantly monitored (see diagram no 3, bottom half).
  • Bishops. Only those men are elected as candidates for the episcopacy who undertake, probably on oath, Cartoon not to promote the ordination of women. Constant pressure is put on bishops 'to resolutely refuse any support to those people, whether individuals or groups, who defend the priestly ordination of women, whether they do so in the name of progress, human rights, compassion or whatever reason it may be'.19 Individual bishops receive detailed instructions from Rome regarding supposed 'dissidents' in their dioceses. The Synods of Bishops, which were instituted by the Vatican Council to curb curial monopoly, have been deprived of any real influence by a rigging of the agenda, by saturating committees with members of the Roman Curia, by a subtle censorship of bishops' contributions, by selectively omitting resolutions voted on by the bishops.20
  • Religious Superiors. Whenever a man or woman religious expresses disagreement with Rome's view on women priests, Roman Congregations lean on the Superior General concerned. Usually this happens behind the scenes and religious superiors are urged to keep Rome's intervention secret, but some cases have come out into the open. In October 1994, fourteen prominent Religious Sisters in India belonging to ten different Religious Congregations addressed their objections to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in a letter to the Holy Father. All the Congregations were leaned upon.21
  • Theologians. Professors in seminaries and theological colleges are required to swear the oath of loyalty which now, since Ad Tuendam Fidem (28 May 1998),Cartoon includes agreement to the ban on women priests. Theologians have been dismissed from their teaching posts because of their views on the ordination of women. Others have been warned that they will be dismissed if they speak out on the issue. Rome has issued new instructions that put Catholic Colleges under more direct ecclesiastical control. I know of cases where theologians have been admonished by their bishops, on instigation of Rome, because they had allowed their articles to be published on the women priests' web site. Last year the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales withdrew sponsorship of a theological conference in Newman College, Birmingham, because I was one of the speakers.22
  • Editors, Writers, Publishers. Many Catholic newspapers and magazines are vulnerable because they are owned by dioceses or by publishing houses owned by religious congregations. Rome has issued strict instructions to book censors not to give the Imprimatur or Nihil Obstat to books favourable to women priests. The Liturgical Press of St. John's Abbey, Minnesota, North American publisher of Woman at the Altar by Lavinia Byrne, allegedly burnt its stock of 1300 copies when it was informed by the local bishop that Rome was displeased with the book. A number of Catholic publishers to whom I showed the manuscript of The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church. Unmasking a Cuckoo's Egg Tradition, responded with: "We'd love to publish a book like that, but we can't in the present climate in the Church!"
  • Parish Priests, Lay leaders. Through the new oath of loyalty priests too are put under pressure to fall in line with Rome's opposition to women priests. The ban to women priests has been incorporated into central Church documents: Church Law (can. 1024), the official Catechism (§ 1577).
  • Congresses and Meetings of Catholic Organisations. The outcome of such consultations is often manipulated by Roman interference. An infamous example is the Third World Congress for the Lay Apostolate (Rome 1967) that manifested the wide range of 'hierarchical control mechanisms' that Rome has used ever since.23
The intimidation from above has resulted in a climate in which many individuals and groups act and speak against their better knowledge. They feel trapped between conflicting loyalties. On the one hand, they do not want to disobey authority or risk their jobs and positions. On the other hand, they realise that Rome's stand against women priests is really untenable and is doomed to fail. This becomes a problem of conscience which is 'resolved' with the help of classical rationalisations:
"Authority has spoken. I have to obey."
"Everybody else toes the party line. Why should I risk my neck?"
"Another Pope will surely change this policy, meanwhile I better comply . . ."
"It is better for the people entrusted to me that I keep my job."

It is not my intention here to condemn the persons who are caught in this terrible dilemma. Their struggle is real. As a professor of Sacred Scripture in the missionary college in London I experienced the same trauma. I continued to teach, saying to myself: "Surely the Church will come round soon! It's better for my students that I stay. I can prepare them for the future ... " That was before Ad Tuendam Fidem that imposed the oath. The problem is that, while everyone finds excuses, integrity, truth and credibility suffer. If people comply, and even swear oaths, with bad consciences, the Church itself is gradually being corrupted. For what is more important in theology than that the truth be fearlessly sought out and freely discussed? And what is more important for the teaching authority than that its opinions can be trusted? And what is more dreadful to the People of God than that they are reduced to a bunch of puppets held by a string?

The abuse of power by the Roman Curia calls for an urgent reform of how authority is structured and exercised in the Church. 24 It also calls for special steps on our part.

Principle Four. The movement for the ordination of women should promote integrity at all costs. (see diagram no 6)

  1. Pastoral leaders should be encouraged to speak out.

    In recent years a number of bishops, religious superiors, parish priests and theologians have spoken out. They deserve our full support and their statements should be widely publicised to encourage others to do the same.

    In this context it is useful to remind all concerned that Church functionaries who have sworn the 'oath of loyalty' are not bound by the oath as to parts which go against their conscience. Bishops, for instance, who have promised not to promote the ordination of women as a condition of their admission to the episcopacy, are able to change their position once they realise that the ban against women priests is based on faulty evidence. Bishops know from their study of moral theology that a promise, even if made under oath, ceases to oblige if (a) a substantial error affected their knowledge regarding the object of the promise, or (b) if an error affected the purpose of the promise (e.g. what is good for the Church), or (c) if the promise was made under fear, or (d) if the object of the promise has become impossible or harmful. The promise ceases ab intrinseco, as Thomas Aquinas taught: "Whatever would have been an impediment to the making of a promise if it had been present, also lifts the obligation from a promise that has been made."25

  2. We must 'disrupt the system' by voicing protests on all suitable occasions.

    It has become clear from many studies that oppressive systems are kept in power through the complicity of silent majorities who disagree, but who allow the oppression to continue. Cartoon This applied to the Soviet Union26 and to dictatorial governments in Latin America,27 and it has consequences for Christians,28 also in the context of the women priests' question. Church leaders will continue to ignore the issue unless we constantly remind them of the anomaly. This is known as 'disrupting the system'. 29

    Women's movements in many countries are already engaged in such activity: rallies in front of the diocesan cathedral on regular days; parish priests who refuse to take the oath of loyalty;30 male pastoral workers who decline the diaconate until their women colleagues will also be ordained;31 public billboards demanding 'Ordain Women' and many other actions. The North-American Women's Ordination Conference is leading the way, and publicising ideas through its email newsletter Action Alert and its quarterly NewWomen, NewChurch.32

    It is imperative that such demonstrations be stepped up and maintained.

  3. We must expose all forms of behind-the-scene pressure.

    Many Catholics would be appalled if they knew how much pressure Rome is putting on bishops, religious superiors, heads of colleges, theologians, editors, publishers and writers. Rome often succeeds because it simultaneously imposes a duty of 'silence'. No one is supposed to know. But, unless there is a genuine case in which confidentiality needs to be maintained for some personal reasons, this secrecy plays into the hands of those who abuse their power. The answer lies in openness and in revealing publicly what is happening.

    At the Synod on Evangelisation in 1974, Vatican organisers surreptitiously withdrew a report of what the 200 participating bishops had suggested in their various workshops and substituted it with a document they themselves had already prepared in advance. The new document was presented as if it was a summary of the bishops' suggestions. The ploy was only frustrated by some participants courageously unmasking the deceit in a general assembly.33

    Public awareness in the Church will be aroused if more and more of such cases are brought out into the light for all to see.


The Catholic Church will eventually ordain women as priests. How long we will have to wait for this will depend on a number of factors: the emergence of new leaders, external circumstances such as the loss of membership and the lack of priests that may force the Church to re-consider its traditional stand, and the degree to which rank-and-file bishops, priests, religious and lay people are willing to challenge the system. But the Holy Spirit to should not be underestimated. It has already shown the way in other Christian Churches.

The Catholic Church has gone through crises before. Often the struggles and agonies of its committed members led to revolutionary changes that went even beyond people's hopes and visions. The Spirit wrests new beginnings from suffering and defeat. Old structures need to be knocked down for life to produce new shoots. For our campaign is not just our own, it is the never-ending struggle of the Holy Spirit herself who, in the words of St. Paul, groans in us as we, first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly waiting for our full identities to be set free. And we can be full of hope.

"For the Spirit comes to help us in our weakness. When we cannot find the right words for our prayer, the Spirit herself expresses our plea in a way that could never be put into words. And God, who knows everything in our hearts, knows perfectly well what the Spirit means. For the pleas of the faithful expressed by the Spirit are according to the mind of God."34

John Wijngaards


  1. The cartoons in this paper are from Kritische Trouw, R. Bunnik (ed.), Arnhem 2000, here re-printed with permission.
  2. Inter Insigniores, 15 October 1976, § 1-4; see also the 'Official Commentary on Inter Insigniores', § 1-12, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 69 (1977) 98-116.
  3. Ida Raming, The Exclusion of Women from the Priesthood: Divine Law or Sex Discrimination?, Metuchen 1976; Rosemary Radford Ruether, The Radical Kingdom. The Western Experience of Messianic Hope, New York 1970; Sexism and God-Talk. Toward a Feminist Theology, Boston 1983; Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation, Boston 1973; Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Der vergessene Partner, Düsseldorf 1964; In Memory of Her, New York 1983; Discipleship of Equals. A Critical Feminist Ecclesia-logy of Liberation, New York 1993; etc.
  4. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, New York 1983; Bread not Stone: the Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation, Boston 1984; But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation, Boston 1992; Karen JoTorjesen, When Women Were Priests, New York 1993; Luise Schottroff, Lydia's Impatient Sisters: A Feminist Social History of Early Christianity, Louisville 1995; Anne Jensen, God's Self-Confident Daughters: Early Christianity and the Liberation of Women, Louisville 1996; Ute E. Eisen, Amtsträgerinnen im frühen Christentum, Göttingen 1996; Luise Schottroff, Silvia Schroer and Marie-Therese Wacker, Feminist Interpretation: The Bible in Women's Perspective, Mineapolis 1998; etc.
  5. For instance, the Storia delle Donne in Occidente, Laterza, Rome 1991, five large volumes, now in many languages; Hulia Bolton Holloway et al. (ed.), Equally in God's Image - Women in the Middle Ages, New York 1990; Glenna Matthews, The Rise of Public Woman: Woman's Power and Woman's Place in the United States 1630-1970, New York 1992; Susan Hill Lindley, 'You Have Stept Out of Your Place', A History of Women and Religion in America, Louisville 1996.
  6. Ann Belford Ulanov, The Feminine in Jungian Psychology and Christian Theology, Evanston 1971; Receiving Woman: Studies in the Psychology and Theology of the Feminine, Philadelphia 1981; Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development, Cambridge MA 1982; Charlene Spretnak (ed.), The Politics of Women's Spirituality, New York 1982; Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, The Divine Feminine: the Biblical Imagery of God as Female, New York 1983; Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, Ithaca 1983; Janet Martin Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, Oxford 1985; (ed.) After Eve - Women, Theology and the Christian Tradition, London 1990; Demeris S. Weir, Jung and Feminism: Liberating Archetypes, Boston 1987; Mary Grey, Redeeming the Dream. Feminism, Redemeption and Christian Tradition, London 1989; Tina Beattie, God's Mother, Eve's Advocate. A Gynocentric Refiguration of Marian Symbolism in Engagement with Luce Irigaray, Bristol 1999; etc.
  7. Gaudium et Spes, § 11.
  8. Gaudium et Spes, § 29.
  9. 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.
  10. John Wijngaards, Did Christ Rule out Women Priests?, Great Wakering 1977, pp. 63-71; see also The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church. Unmasking a Cuckoo's Egg Tradition, Darton, Longman & Todd, London 2001.
  11. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium § 27.
  12. G.E. Simpson and J.M.Yinger, Racial and Cultural Minorities. An Analysis of Prejudice and Discrimination, New York 1972, p. 24.
  13. M. Macgreil, Prejudice and Tolerance in Ireland, Dublin 1977, p. 9.
  14. J.W. van der Zanden, American Minority Relations, New York 1972, p. 22.
  15. Read, for instance, Joanna Bogle, Does the Church Oppress Women?, Catholic Truth Society, London 1999.
  16. E. M. Bogardus, Immigration and Race Attitudes, Heath 1928, pp. 13 - 29; see also M. Banton, 'Social Distance: a New Appreciation', The Sociological Review, December 1960.
  17. The Maria von Magdala group in Germany is actively preparing for women's diaconate. Contact: Angelika Fromm, Fritz Kohl Strasse 7, D 55122 Mainz, Germany.
  18. (The Netherlands) Vrouw en Kerk, Raad voor Kerk en Samenleving, Kaski 1987; 'Oog voor verschil en gelijkwaardigheid', Kerkelijke Dokumentatie 4 (1998) no 5, pp. 47-53; (USA) NCCB Committee on Women, 'From Words to Deeds: Continuing Reflections on the Role of Women in the Church', Origins 28 (1998) no 20.
  19. Letter of the Congregation for Doctrine to Bishops, Osservatore Romano 13 September 1983.
  20. This has been documented in detail for the Synod on the Family. See J. Grootaers and J. A. Selling, The 1980 Synod of Bishops On the Role of the Family, Louvain 1983, 375 pages. Similar manipulations took place at the Synods on Evangelisation, on the Laity, on Africa, on Asia, on Europe, to mention but a few (see The Tablet, correspondence 16 Oct - 20 Nov 1999).
  21. 'Women Religious in India respond to John Paul II', Worth (10 October 1994), Jegamatha Ashram, Ponmalaipatti, Tiruchirapalli 620 004, India.
  22. Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham, prompted by Rome, demanded that I undertake in writing not to raise the question of women priests. I refused to do so even though my topic was not directly related to women priests. See The Tablet, 24 June 2000, pp. 875-876.
  23. J.G.Vaillancourt, Papal Power. A Study of Vatican Control over Lay Catholic Elites, Berkeley 1980.
  24. B. Tierney, Origins of Papal Infallibility, Brill, Leiden 1972; A.B. Hasler, Wie der Papst unfehlbar wurde, Munich 1979; P. Chirico, Infallibility: The Cross roads of Doctrine, Michael Glazier, Wilmington 1983; J.M.R.Tillard, The Bishop of Rome, Michael Glazier, Wilmington 1983; P. Granfield, The Papacy in Transition, Gill, Dublin 1981; P. Granfield, The Limits of the Papacy: Authority and Autonomy in the Church, Crossroad, New York 1990; L.M.Bermejo, Infallibility on Trial: Church, Conciliarity and Communion, Christian Classics, Westminster 1992; H.Küng, Infallible? An Inquiry, Collins, London 1971; SCM, London 1994; P. Dentin, Les privilèges des papes devant l'écriture et l'histoire, Cerf, Paris 1995; P. Collins, Papal Power, Harper Collins, Australia 1997; M. Fiedler & L. Rabben (eds.), Rome has Spoken ..., Crossroad, New York 1998; E. Stourton, Absolute Truth, London 1998; J.Manning, Is the Pope Catholic?, Toronto 1999.
  25. Thomas Aquinas, Scriptum super IV libros Sententiarum dist. 38, q.1, sol. 1 ad 1; D. M. Prümmer, Manuale Theologiae Moralis, Freiburg 1936, vol. II, 'De Voto', pp. 326-348.
  26. A.D. Sakharov, Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom, Pelican 1968.
  27. For instance, G. Gutiérrez, 'Notes for a Theology of Liberation', Theological Studies 31 (1970) pp. 243-261; C. Torres, Revolutionary Priest, Pelican 1973.
  28. H. Gollwitzer, Veränderungen im Diesseits. Politische Predigten, Munich 1973.
  29. J.B.Metz, Unterbrechungen. Theologisch-politische Perspektive und Profile, Gütersloh 1981; R. van Eyden, 'Womenpriests: Keeping Mum or Speaking Out?', (2 November 1996); english text on
  30. E. McCarthy, 'Soline Vatinel, the Archbishop and Me', BASIC Newsletter (19 January 2000) pp. 26 - 31.
  31. In the diocese of Augsburg, Germany; see Diakonia 24 (May 1993) nr.3.
  32. Both are an absolute must for WO campaigners. WOC National Office, PO Box 2693, Fairfax, VA 22031, USA. Tel. + 1 - 703 - 352 1006. Email:
  33. The details of these machinations were narrated to me, in a personal discussion, by Fr. D. S. Amalorpavadass, one of the two Secretary Generals at the Synod. See The Tablet, 6 November 1999, pp. 1506-1507.
  34. Romans 8, 26-27.
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