Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Third Challenge: The Roles of Women in the Church

by Paula Ruddy

Continuing with our special Countdown to Synod 2010 series . . .

In his book Church: Living Communion, Paul Lakeland begins his description of the third challenge for Catholics with the bald and indisputable statement that the Roman Catholic Church is a sexist institution. The magisterium has a two-fold-problem.

First, the reasons it gives for not ordaining women are not persuasive to a significant number of the faithful. They have not peacefully and joyfully received this ruling because, it seems, the reasons given for it do not convince them.

What is the argument the magisterium uses?

The case against ordaining women is made today almost entirely on the argument of unbroken tradition. Priesthood, so it goes, can be traced somehow back to Jesus Christ, and despite his well attested and even notorious openness to women he chose only men to be apostles. Faithful to this pattern the Church throughout history has only ordained men as bishops, priests, and deacons. So unbroken is the tradition, it constitutes a fundamental of the Church that could not be changed, even if the Church thought it was a good idea. It is beyond debate. (p. 77)

The argument “it has never been done” is not persuasive to many reasonable 21st century Catholics. Attributing the exclusion of women to Jesus adds weight to the argument from tradition, but it prompts a question about the reasons Jesus could have had for excluding women, which makes the argument from tradition dependent on some other reasons that then have to pass muster. Other possible objections Paul does not elaborate are that Jesus did not establish the communal function of priest at all and that the early Church did accept women in that role when the function was established.

Arguments that cite Jesus’ intentions to link himself in the Eucharist as bridegroom and the Church as bride require us “to get into the murky Christological waters of what Jesus might or might not have intended.” (Not to mention the murky implications of the metaphor.)

The response to this first problem is obvious: either the official Church has to admit that their arguments are insufficient and proceed to ordain women or find more persuasive ones.

The second problem is that the official Church professes the equality of women, but it finds itself in a moral contradiction. Women are equal but they can’t be appointed to leadership positions because only ordained people are appointed to those positions. The magisterium has made rules that prevent it from supporting the values it professes. “Only a second class citizen is excluded as a matter of course from leadership positions.” (p. 82)

Whether or not women are ordained, Paul recommends their promotion in large numbers to roles of leadership in all areas:

(1) gender-blind hiring practices for staffing diocesan seminaries, (2) opening the ranks of the Vatican‘s diplomatic corps to Catholic women diplomats from around the world, and (3) gender-blind staffing of all levels of the Roman Curia….If this did not happen then it would mean only one of two thing: either not enough suitably qualified women came forward for the selection process, which would be easy to determine, or the commitment to equal treatment of women was not being taken seriously. (p. 81)

NEXT: The Fourth Challenge: Church Teaching and the Individual Conscience.

To read about and discuss the first challenge, Identity and Commitment, click here. For the second challenge, Ministry - Ordained and Lay, click here.

Theologian and author Paul Lakeland will be the keynote speaker at the Catholic Coalition for Church reform's September 18 Synod of the Baptized: "Claiming Our Place at the Table." For more information about this event and to register, click here.


  1. Chuck Pilon called me citing a problem with this sentence in Paul's Chapter 2 at pages 75-76: "Those who desire to ordain women cannot simply thumb their noses at the fact that this has never been the practice of the Church." We'll have to ask Paul about that sentence. We are hearing that there is evidence that women were accepted in all roles that existed in the early Church's liturgical life. Dorothy Irvin will comment further about this early next week. Does anyone else have research on this question? We'll go with the recommendation not to thumb our noses, however.

  2. Excellent post here, Paula. If I may insert somethings I have learned from a recent book I have read called: "Gay Unions In Light of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason" by Rev. Canon Gray Temple who was Rector of St. Patrick's Episcopal Church in Dunwoody, Georgia.

    The Biblical writers actually had no concept of what we call heterosexuality or homosexuality. Sexuality was understood as a stronger vs weaker. The Biblical writers of the Old Testament had a concept of women as property, as the weaker of species and they were to be bought and sold as the property of men.

    When Jesus came, among the many things he did, he changed the concept of domination vs. submission. Jesus constantly avoided those who tried to dominate him.

    Even the Virgin Birth has an entirely different context to it other than Jesus was conceived without the help of a man. When looked at in the context of John's Gospel "To all who received Jesus, who believed in Jesus' name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of human beings, but of God." (John 1: 12,13). The point of the Virgin Birth was to show that all can be reborn in God through Jesus the Christ.

    When Jesus was born through the womb of Mary, Jesus raised the vocation of womanhood from being subjective to men, to becoming partners with God. When Mary sings her Magnificat in Luke 1: 48-55 she sings about how the "mighty have been thrown from their thrones, and that the lowly have been raised up." How "God has filled the hungry with good things and the rich have been sent away empty." What is meant here? That God has shifted the power of those who once dominated others, to becoming servants with one another, including women.

    Mary is considered the first disciple, because she followed Jesus who had begun the work of restoring the dignity of women, and those who were marginalized by society. Mary is also the first female Priest. Mary offered herself in service with God and others, while also offering up Jesus as he hung on the cross for the sins of humankind.

    The whole Church needs to be open to the Holy Spirit so that she may "guide us into all truth" (Jn 16:13). We are not totally there yet. No Church is.

    Peace upon all.

  3. P.S. Rosemary Radford Ruether has a great article on the ordination of women in the recent NCR. It is linked in the column to the right, second on the list of news links.

  4. what irks me most is that the right wing Catholic now looks smugly at me when this discussion comes up and says, "we really wish we could ordain women, as does the Pope, but he of course tells us he doesn't have the authority." So sad, too bad. Yeah right.

  5. I invite people to check out the book: Gay Unions in Light of Scripture, Tradition and Reason by the Rev. Canon Gray Temple. In the Book Fr. Temple talks about how the Biblical writers did not have the concept of heterosexual and homosexual. Instead the authors know of sexuality as a "stronger vs. weaker" concept. It was a demonstration of power and control.

    Even the Virgin Birth takes on a new meaning, to show that all who are reborn in Baptism are Born of God, not of water, blood, but of God.

    St. Mary the Virgin, is the first female Priest who offers herself in service with others both male and female, and she offered up the gift of her Son on the altar of the Cross. Both women and men are perfectly capable to share in the ministry of Priesthood.

  6. Well , there is indeed good evidence that women have served the Church in all sorts of ways, from the early deaconesses and the female leaders of house churches (who would have presided at the memorial meal in their own house) to the fabled abbesses of the middle ages who seem to have held many of the roles now supposedly reserved to ordained clergy. However, what I think we can say is that once the "sacrament of orders" becomes sedimented into the deacon/priest/bishop model that we know today, these offices are reserved to men. So I suppose all one can say with any accuracy is that liturgical leadership has been reserved to men since the time when liturgical leadership was first reserved to men. It's an unbroken tradition since it became an unbroken tradition.
    I'd also add that in my view even if one accepted the official position that women never led liturgy in the early Church that would have precisely nil significance when it came to asking how ministry should be imagined today.

  7. I recently read a book entitled: "Gay Unions in the Light of Scripture, Tradition and Reason" by The Rev. Canon Gray Temple. In the book, Fr. Temple wrote about how the Biblical authors did not have a concept of heterosexuality and homosexuality. Sexuality in the Bible was about the "stronger vs. the weaker" as women were regarded as property.

    When Jesus came as the Word made Flesh, Jesus among the things that Jesus challenged was the concept of the stronger dominating the weaker, and seeking to make all people equal and servants with each other.

    I also wrote that even the Virgin Birth is given a new understanding, because when Jesus was conceived it had nothing to do with the idea of being conceived without the intervention of a man. It was a message that all individuals born through Baptism are in fact born of God. Not of the flesh, not of blood,but of God.

    St. Mary was the first female Priest, because she offered herself in the service of God and others, and offered her Son on the Altar of the Cross. There is no reason that women or men cannot serve with their sisters and brothers as Priests.

  8. The apostles were sacred because of who they served, not because they were male.