Church without women
Will women ever govern the Roman
by John Wijngaards
from the Geneva Post Quarterly, November 2006.
Online links added.
The Catholic Church has moved on since the day, on 29 July 1904, when
Pope Pius X instructed the bishops of Italy not to trust the intelligence or
reliability of women.
In public meetings, never allow women to take the word, however
respectable or pious they may seem. If on a specific occasion bishops consider
it opportune to permit a meeting for women by themselves, these may speak but
only under the presidency and supervision of high ecclesiastical
personalities. (P. Gaiotti de Biase, Le origini del movimento
cattolico femminile, Brescia 1963, p. 74.)
Church authorities have now come to terms with the fact that women are
capable of heading academic faculties, running major corporations, ruling their
countries as prime ministers or presidents. But such secular competence does
not empower women to assume spiritual leadership in the Church.
Pressed on this issue during a meeting with the clergy of Rome, Pope
Benedict XVI recently asserted that women contribute to the government of the
Church through their manifold services. He mentioned a number of women saints
of the past who have made their mark. But these services, though crucial to the
Church, are purely of an auxiliary, charismatic nature, he said. The true
government of the Church is reserved to men.
The priestly ministry of the Lord, as we know, is reserved to
men, since the priestly ministry is government in the deep sense, which, in
short, means it is the Sacrament [of Orders] that governs the Church. This is
the crucial point. It is not a particular man who does something, but the
priest in him governs, faithful to his mission, in the sense that it is the
Sacrament, that is, through the Sacrament it is Christ himself who governs,
both through the Eucharist and in the other Sacraments, and thus Christ always
presides. (Osservatore Romano 3 March 2006)
The implication of this piece of typical ecclesiastical jargon is that
women have no authority whatsoever in the government of the Church. Catholic
belief holds that Christ entrusted authority over his Church to the apostles
and their successors. This authority is threefold: the authority of teaching
(imposing doctrine), the authority of consecrating (presiding at the eucharist,
performing ordinations, etc.) and the authority of ruling (imposing moral
obligations, forgiving sins, taking all major decisions regarding Church
Pope Benedict reiterates that all these forms of authority are imparted
only by the sacrament of holy orders, which is reserved to men. As he stated in
an interview on Vatican Radio of 13 August 2006: The power to take
legally binding decisions is limited to those in sacred orders, that is: to
men. Indeed, Church Law puts it succinctly:
Only a baptized male validly receives sacred ordination
(Can. 1024). And: Only those who have received sacred
orders are capable of the power of governance, which exists in the Church by
divine institution (Can. 129, § 1).
In short: no Church leadership for women! You may rule a country,
youll never rule a diocese!
Where does this discrimination
Although present-day Church authorities attribute the ban of women from
church leadership to Jesus Christ himself as I will report in a later section,
historical research makes clear that its origin lies in Roman Law.
The influence of the Roman Empire on the organization of the Catholic
Church is undeniable. In fact, the influence has been beneficial in many
respects. For the Romans were great administrators. They understood the need of
good infra-structures, such as roads, office buildings and a universally
accepted currency. Their military and governmental officials were given clearly
circumscribed duties and responsibilities. The Romans hated confusion and
It was a great Roman, Pope Gregory the Great (540-604), who put his
stamp on church administration. Gregory belonged to a patrician family and had
served as prefect of the city of Rome for a couple of years before entering
church service. When he was elected Pope, he immediately began to centralise
the entire papal administration. He laid down rules on the liturgy and pastoral
ministry. He co-ordinated new missionary efforts, such as the conversion of
England. He asserted papal authority in face of Byzantine claims. He left a
lasting stamp on the way the official church was run by applying Roman
principles and Roman systems of management. He is considered by many historians
as the architect of the later medieval papacy. ( F. H. Dudden, Gregory the
Great, his Place in History and in Thought, London 1905; B. Colgrave,
The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great by an Anonymous Monk of Whitby,
Cambridge 1985; R.A. Markus, Gregory the Great and his World, Cambridge
The Romans were also good lawgivers. The great contribution of Roman
legislation was its laying down of simple and clear principles. Roman law was
detailed, specific, practical. It lent itself to resolving disputes. It was a
form of law developed by people who were able administrators and efficient
organizers. In fact, no system of law has been so influential in the world as
that which arose in the city of ancient Rome. Its thinking dominated the Roman
empire for more than a thousand years, and in the Byzantine empire it remained
in use till 1453. It formed the basis for the law codes of most western
countries. More important for us: it shaped much of church law in the Catholic
church. But laws often hide structural prejudice, and this is what happened in
the case of women. For Roman law was hostile to women. Roman family law was
based on the principle that the father of the family (pater familias)
had complete authority both over the children and his wife. This was defined as
paternal power (patria potestas). The wife depended totally on her
husband, being in fact his property. He could do with her as he liked. He could
punish her in any way, even kill her, or sell her as a slave -- though this
last punishment was forbidden after 100 BC. And as far as family property was
concerned, the wife herself did not own anything. Everything she or her
children inherited belonged to her husband, including also the dowry which she
brought with her to her marriage.
In later time this absolute power of the husband was
somewhat diminished leading to what was known as a form of 'free marriage'
which husband and wife could agree upon. However, even in this new situation,
the husband had the right to make the final decisions in all questions
concerning the family: for instance the place of residence which the wife had
to share with him, the education of the children, the exclusive rights on her
wifely duties, while the husband himself could make love to other women with
The rights of women in general civil Roman law were not much better.
Although the woman was considered a Roman citizen, she obtained her position
only through her husband. Women could not carry their own name, as little as
slaves could. Only men enjoyed this distinct sign of their being a Roman
citizen. Moreover, a woman was excluded from all public functions and rights:
Women are excluded from all civil and public responsibility and
therefore can neither be judges nor carry any civil authority, they cannot
bring a court case, nor intercede for someone else nor act as
Women could not function as witnesses, whether at the drawing up of a
last will, or in any other form of law. Like minors, slaves, the dumb and
criminals, women could not be trusted. Women were also reckoned to be incapable
of representing themselves in law because of the infirmity of their sex
and because of their ignorance about matters pertaining to public life.
(H.Heumann and E.Seckel, Handlexikon zu den Quellen des römischen
Rechts, Graz 1958, pp. 246 and 265. L.Wenger, Institutes of the Roman
Law of Civil Procedure, Littleton 1940; F.Schulz, Classical Roman
Law, London 1951; M.Kaser, Roman Private Law, Oxford 1965.
For Roman Law, see here.
Assimilation into Church
If we understand that this was the condition of women by civil law, a
law which everyone greatly respected, we can appreciate how this devaluation of
women slipped into church thinking. The inferior status of women was so much
taken for granted that it determined the way Latin speaking theologians and
church leaders would look on matters relating to women. Just listen to this
reasoning by Ambrosiaster (4th cent) which is typical of the time:
Women must cover their heads because they are not the image of
God . . . How can anyone maintain that woman is the likeness of God when she is
demonstrably subject to the dominion of man and has no kind of authority? For
she can neither teach nor be a witness in a court nor exercise citizenship nor
be a judge -- then certainly not exercise leadership! (On 1
Corinthians 14, 34)
Ambrosiaster states that woman has no kind of authority.
Why not? Because by civil law a woman could not hold any public function or
exercise any authority. He goes on to say that she cannot be a witness in
court, or exercise citizenship [ = take part in public meetings] or be a
judge. Why not? Because civil law forbade it.
Now notice the argument. Woman does not bear the image of God because
she is manifestly subject to man as we can see from civil law! The real
argument rests on Roman law which is taken as right and just. And here the true
culprit is revealed. The cuckoo raises its ugly head. The position of woman is
not really decided by any Christian tradition or inspired text, but by the
pagan Roman law which was believed to be normative.
Unfortunately, the thinking of the Latin Fathers of the Church became
part of Church Law, the Corpus Iuris Canonici, because the first compiler of
that law, the monk Gratian, adopted all their prejudices against women (Bologna
- Because of her state of servitude a woman is subject to her
husband in everything.
- Even if a woman is educated and saintly, she still should not
presume to instruct men in a [church] assembly.
- Women may not teach or baptise or distribute communion . . .
Women may not touch sacred objects . . . Women may not wear or touch sacred
vestments . . . Women may not be part of a church choir.
- Women cannot be promoted to the priesthood or even the
diaconate. Woman is not called woman (Latin mulier)
because of the sex of her body but because of the weakness (Latin mollicies) of
her mind. Read here.
J. Wijngaards, The Ordination
of Women in the Catholic Church. Unmasking a Cuckoo's Egg Tradition,
London 2000; New York 2001.
The Corpus Iuris Canonici remained the Catholic Churchs official
lawbook till 1910. But long before then the inferior position of women had also
enjoyed the attention of theological speculators.
The era of
The early Middle Ages saw the start of systematic theology. Thinkers
began to demand reasons for everything, including for the exclusion of women
from the ministries. Women were obviously substandard, they knew, but were
there no exceptions? What about
Mary, the mother of Jesus?
Or Mary of Magdala,
who had preached to the apostles?
There is evidence that in the 13th century there was still room for
explaining the omission of women from sacred orders as purely a church
practice, a custom that could be changed. Bonaventure (1217-1274), for
instance, states: all agree that women ought not to be promoted to
Orders; but as to whether they are capable [of Orders], there is doubt.
(Bonaventure, Commentarium in IV Libros Sententiarum Magistri Petri
Lombardi, div. xxv, art. ii, qu. 1; published in Opera Omnia, Quaracchi
1882-1902.) Full online text here.
Theological ranks, however, soon closed solidly behind the
Churchs stand against women. A multiplicity of reasons were generated,
including ridiculous ones such as that women talk too much, or that it is not
becoming for them to wear the clerical tonsure. The justifications that gained
most ground were these:
- Women are not created in the image of God; their purpose is to serve
- Women still carry the curse of Eves sin.
- Jesus Christ did not include a woman among the apostolic
- Paul forbade women to teach in church.
- Women are not perfect human beings and thus cannot represent
The arguments of 29 medieval
theologians in excerpts of their writings have been published online here.
In recent Church documents only the last three justifications have been
retained in a slightly modified form. It was Jesus Christ himself, we are told,
who excluded women from the ministries for all time to come. That is why the
Church has, in fact, never ordained women. Neither does the Church possess the
power to change this practice. For Christ was a man, and God wants him to be
represented only by men in the leadership of the Church. (
Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Apostolic Letter by
Pope John-Paul II on Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone, 22 May
Ad Tuendam Fidem, Motu Proprio
by Pope John-Paul II, May 28 1998;
Commentary on Ad Tuendam Fidem, by
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith, 29 June 1998.)
This reasoning is so faulty and unsubstantiated that it would be
dismissed out of hand by most present-day scholars if it were not presented in
serious documents by the highest teaching authority in the Church. The
Vaticans arguments, it seems to me, are as pathetic to any professional
theologian as a creationists boast that the finding of dinosaur fossils
confirms the world was created 6000 years ago.
At the risk of boring my readers to tears, let me sketch the theological
jousting with some cartoon-like strokes.
can be read in full on the internet. Nowhere does Jesus Christ explicitly
exclude women from leadership in his community.
- The fact that the first twelve apostles were only men
The first twelve were all Jews. Does that mean only Jews can be priests?
- Yes but, the Vatican retorts, Jesus ordained the apostles at the last
supper when he said: Do this in commemoration of me, and only men
were present. Were they?
We know now that women
too must have been there for the last supper was a paschal meal. Exodus 12
prescribes that women and children too had to share in a paschal meal.
- Moreover, whereas previously only men joined the covenant directly
through circumcision, entrance into Jesus community comes about
by baptism which is the same for men and women.
- Paul states the consequence clearly: through your common
baptism in Christ there is no longer any distinction between Jew and Greek,
slave and free, male and female (Galatians 3,28).
And what about the claim that the Church never admitted women to holy
orders? It simply is not true. For at least nine centuries the Catholic Church,
especially in its eastern provinces, routinely ordained women as deacons. This
diaconate was imparted through an ordination rite that, in todays
terminology, has to be judged to be fully sacramental. The bishop
imposed hands on each candidate, invoking the Holy Spirit for the specific
purpose of assigning the woman to the ministry of the diaconate. The ordination
rites for male and female deacons were identical in all essential elements.
Both men and women deacons received the diaconate stole. Church legislation
regulated the rights and duties of women deacons as much as that of the men.
Women therefore did take part in holy orders and, according to the old
principle ex facto sequitur posse (from it having been done it follows it
can be done), the Church can ordain women because she has done so in the
past. (John Wijngaards, No Women in Holy Orders? The Women Deacons in the
Early Church, London 2002; Women Deacons in the Early Church. Historical
Texts and Contemporary Debates, New York 2006.)
Online documentation here.
Is there any validity in the rationale of Jesus Christ as a man
requiring a male representative? Thomas Aquinas (1224 - 1274), who is quoted by
the Vatican as a source for this opinion, believed women were less perfect
biologically because only the male seed carried future offspring. Every woman
is born incomplete, a monster, an accident of nature.
Small wonder Thomas taught that only a perfect human being, that is: a male,
can represent Christ. The Vatican, while not sanctioning Aquinass
biological ignorance, yet holds on to the biological pre-eminence of men by
seeing a significant divine symbolism in Christs incarnation as a man.
Aquinas texts online here)
The fact that Christ is a man and not a woman is neither
incidental nor unimportant in relation to the economy of salvation . . .
Gods covenant with men (!) is presented in the Old Testament as a nuptial
mystery, the definitive reality of which is Christs sacrifice on the
cross . . . Christ is the bridegroom of the Church, whom he won for himself
with his blood, and the salvation brought by him is the new covenant. By using
this language, revelation shows why the incarnation took place according to the
male gender, and makes it impossible to ignore this historical reality. For
this reason, only a man can take the part of Christ, be a sign of his presence,
in a word represent him (that is, be an effective sign of his
presence) in the essential acts of the covenant. (
Commentary on Inter Insigniores
§ 100 - 102. See also
Mulieris Dignitatem § 25-26; Christifideles Laici § 51. com.
The reasoning is seriously flawed. Its derivation from prophetic imagery
and Ephesians 5,21-33 is arbitrary. It contradicts the traditional doctrine
that Christ was incarnated as a human being (not just as a man). In the words
of Elizabeth A. Johnson:
The old principle states: What is not assumed [into
Christs humanity] is not saved. If maleness is constitutive for the
incarnation and redemption, female humanity is not assumed and therefore not
saved. (She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological
Discourse, New York 1992, p. 153.)
Also, the symbolism limps. If the Church is the bride and Christ her
groom, how can the Vatican exclude women from representing the groom while
including both women and men in the bride? And if Christs maleness and
the maleness of his priests is so crucial in Gods plan of salvation, has
the phallus not become the defining symbol of Christ in the eucharist? Hans Urs
von Balthasar, who inspired much of the Vaticans thought in this matter,
states so explicitly.
The priestly ministry and the sacrament are means of passing on
seed. They are a male preserve. They aim at inducing in the Bride her function
as a woman. (Wer ist Kirche?, p. 24)
What else is Christs eucharist but, at a higher level, an
endless act of fruitful outpouring of his whole flesh, such as a man can only
achieve for a moment with a limited organ of his body? (
Elucidations, trans. John Riches, London 1975, p. 150. See also Tina
Beattie, Gods Mother, Eves Advocate. A Gynocentric Refiguration
of Marian Symbolism in Engagement with Luce Irigaray, Bristol 1999, p.
The truth of the matter is that few Catholic theologians subscribe to
these official rationalizations.
Stand off between the Vatican and
As I have stated elsewhere (John Wijngaards, Women Bishops? Views
in the Roman Catholic Church, official and otherwise, in Women and the
Episcopate, London 2006, pp. 37-48), by all evidence available to me, I
estimate that at least three-quarters of Catholic theologians disagree with the
official position held out by the Vatican. They do not accept as proven that
Jesus Christ himself excluded women from future ministries. They ascribe the
woman-hostile church practice of previous centuries to cultural bias. They see
no valid reason why the Church could not admit women to all ministries and
I say: by all evidence available to me, for a blanket of
silence has descended on the theological community after Ordinatio
Sacerdotalis (1994) which effectively forbade discussion on the question.
Theologians serving seminaries and universities under Church control are, after
all, required to swear an oath of loyalty that implies agreement with the
Vatican. As one theologian put to me: I have three good reasons to keep
my mouth shut. They are called Sharon, Alice and Bob - my children whom I need
With Polish rigour and German thoroughness, the whole Church apparatus
has been rigged to conform. The Vatican Curia has consistently tried to fill
all leadership positions with candidates favourable to its own views. Bishops
are only chosen if they have first indicated that they agree with the Vatican.
Bishops are like the flagstones in St. Peters, one Vatican
source observed. If you lay them down properly from the start, you can
walk over them for the rest of their lives. It is not unlike the old
Soviet Russia where all top officials had to be screened and appointed by the
central Polit Buro.
The CDF (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) follows up on this
structural control by censuring anyone who steps out of line. The Vatican
criticises bishops in person if they have organizations in their jurisdiction
that favour women priests. The Vatican sends letters to bishops ordering them
to reprimand and punish church personnel who support womens ordination,
often mentioning dissident persons by name. The party line has been clearly
The bishop should prove his pastoral ability and leadership
qualities by resolutely refusing 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, of human rights, compassion or for whatever
reason it may be. (Letter to Bishops from the CDF, Osservatore
Romano 13 September 1983. The injunction is frequently repeated on the
occasion of Ad Limina visits of bishops.)
All such repression of open discussion happens in flagrant contradiction
to the solemn stipulation of the Second Vatican Council that all the
faithful, both clerical and lay, should be accorded a lawful freedom of
inquiry, freedom of thought and freedom of expression (Gaudium et
Spes, § 62).
As a result of Vatican pressure, most Roman Catholic theologians do not
publicly discuss the issue. But I know what they think from private
correspondence and from personal contacts. I am a member of the Catholic
Theological Association of Great Britain, the Catholic Theological Association
of Europe and the Catholic Theological Society of America. The credibility of
the magisteriums banning women from ordination borders on zero. Scholars
agree with Elisabeth Johnson, not with Joseph Ratzinger.
It could have been so different .
Forty years ago the Catholic Church seemed to steer free from its inborn
reactionary and dictatorial tendencies. Between 1959 and 1965 I witnessed a new
spring. The Second Vatican Council opened windows in all directions and
provided the first chance of real Church reform. I was lucky enough to be in
the eternal city during those exciting days. Everything suddenly seemed
possible. Even for women! The current joke was: at the next Council,
bishops will be invited to bring their wives, at the one after that to bring
Do not forget that for the first time in the Churchs history
women were actually allowed to be present in St. Peters Basilica, the
Council hall, even though the lucky ones were only a handful with no more than
observer status. But Gertrude Heinzelmann and other intrepid women managed to
hand in a formal request that womens ministries should be considered. The
issue was on the table, though it did not make it onto the agenda.
Cardinal Ottaviani embodied resistance to change. He was Prefect of the
Holy Office and so Cardinal Ratzingers worthy forerunner. His official
motto read: Semper Idem - Always the Same. He suffered
significant defeats. One liberating document after the other was accepted by
the Council fathers. I remember the day when Ottaviani overran the ten-minute
time limit put on speakers and Cardinal Alfrink of Utrecht, Council moderator
for the day, forced him to stop. The Council fathers applauded. Ottaviani
stepped down with a red face. It was the end of Ottavianis dominance. Or
so it seemed to optimists like me.
In India I witnessed the Churchs genuine efforts at reform. It
affected worship, religious life, seminary training, dialogue with other
religions and many other key apostolates. The energy created was astounding.
Apart from some grumpy old stick-in-the-muds who dug in their heels, bishops,
priests, religious sisters and lay leaders eagerly joined in. We felt happy,
enthusiastic, exhilarated by the new prospects. It made us overlook the storm
clouds that were building up in the Vatican centres of power. In 1975 I
suggested to an all-India seminar that the bishops should look into the
possibility of admitting women to holy orders.
What had meanwhile taken place in Rome is only now becoming clear. We
should have known. We should have noticed the first symptoms.
Cardinal Ottaviani had been restored to considerable influence under
Pope Paul VI. When the international committee of experts recommended that
contraceptives could legitimately be used by married couples in certain
circumstances, Ottaviani and three allies blocked the report. They persuaded a
worried Paul VI to reject the committees findings and sign the now
infamous encyclical Humanae Vitae that bans contraceptives always and
everywhere. It goes against nature, we are told. The Churchs stand has
had serious consequences for a country like India where poor women often have
no way of protecting themselves from violent husbands who stumble into the hut
after a binge on local gin, and demand sex. It is deadly in countries where
Adaptation to Indian forms of worship was proceeding well. Ten special
indults were granted by the liturgical office in the Vatican during the first
years of sincere reform. Then the frost set in. The archconservative Cardinal
Knox took over liturgy. He had been appointed away from Sydney because people
there could not understand his kind of humour, it was said. Ottaviani did. He
and Knox refused approval to a new eucharistic prayer for India that had been
prepared by Indian liturgists during years of consultation. Reason: it included
Indian theological terms!
I have painted the scene because this was the context in which the
question of womens ministries was raised, and aborted in the womb!
What? Surely no women at the
1971 was a year of promise. Representatives from all over the world
gathered at the Bishops Synod in Rome. The Canadian Bishops
Conference - God bless them! - through their spokesman Cardinal Flahiff,
formally requested the Church to open the discussion on admitting women to all
the ministries. Others concurred. How would the Vatican respond?
The Canadian request was timely from point of view of the Churchs
rank-and-file members. That is: the ordinary faithful, carriers of inerrancy
according to Vatican II. However, from a Church political point of view, the
timing could not have been worse. Conservative forces were reorganising
themselves under the leadership - you have guessed it! - of Cardinal Ottaviani.
These could not possibly conceive of a change so fundamental as women entering
holy orders. Absurd!
But the Vatican authorities went through the motions. A special
commission was set up to study the Function of Women in Society and the
Church (1973). The Biblical Commission was asked to look at the question
from a scriptural angle. It would all work out, they were sure.
Imagine their surprise and panic when support for women as priests
welled up spontaneously in many official bodies. The Vatican acted immediately
to stamp out such signs of rebellion. The commission on the Function of Women
was directed not to discuss womens ministries, even though this had been
the reason why it was set up. Dissenting voices (1974 - 1975) were suppressed
as we know from the records of Rie Vendrik, a Dutch representative. (Dirkje
Donders, The Tenacious Voice of Women. Rie Vendrik and the Pontifical
Commission On Women in Society and in the Church, Utrecht 2002.
Online report here.)
The final report of the commission was never published.
The Pontifical Biblical Commission (1975)
came out in favour of the ordination of women. In response, its report was
withheld from publication. And, to muzzle the commission for good, it was
henceforth made totally subject to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith, as the Holy Office was now called. The truth only emerged when the
commissions chairman, Fr. Stanley, resigned, and when the report was
leaked to the press.
Meanwhile the worldwide Anglican Church had been involved in discussions
on ordaining women. In November 1975, a theological working group of the
Anglican/Roman Catholic International Consultation met in Assisi to consider
women priests. Rome appointed two Catholic specialists: Frs. Eric Doyle OFM and
Hervé Legrand OP, to represent the Catholic Church, expecting them to
defend the traditional position. They did not. Both expressed support for the
ordination of women from a scriptural/theological point of view. Rome promptly
refused to acknowledge the Assisi report. Fortunately the Anglicans published
it. Rome then put pressure on the Catholic theologians to revise their opinion
- which they refused to do. (Brenda Abbott, What is the Lasting Significance
of Eric Doyle's Contribution to the Debate on the Ordination of Women in the
1970s?, Canterbury 2003.)
Online documentation here.
By this time Ottavianis group had thoroughly woken up. They felt
they had to nip this in the bud: this dangerous rebellion from grassroots
theologians. In 1975 and 1976 Pope Paul VI repeatedly wrote to Archbishop
Donald Coggan, the primate of the Church of England. These letters tried to
demolish any illusion that the Catholic Church might one day be willing to
ordain women. Also, in 1976, Paul VI firmly ruled out womens ordination
in Inter Insigniores, the first document by a modern pope to raise the
question. The echo we hear right through is Ottavianis Semper
Idem. Unwittingly he may have played his trump card by appointing Joseph
Ratzinger as a permanent member to the CDF.
Then John Paul II became Pope, a man of philosophy and ferocious faith
who was disgusted at the degenerate West with its culture of
death. The restoration of ancient values, including womans place as
mother of the family, was now going to be promoted with ruthless zeal. Hands
off the chalice, back to pushing the pram!
Leaders in a dysfunctional
It is blind religious zeal that undoubtedly drives the small group that
has seized almost unlimited control of the structures of the Church. Pope
Benedict XVI has clearly indicated that fighting relativism is his
main objective. Relativism is the central problem for faith today
(Cardinal Ratzinger's address to doctrinal commissions in Latin America, May
1996; read also his inaugural speech as Pope.)
Eradicating relativism validates the abuse of papal authority, the
silencing of prophecy in the Church, the reduction of bishops to rubber-stamp
officials, the repression of academic research and dismantling of free
discussion. All to defeat the relativism of a multi-faith society, accountable
sexual ethics, critical journalism, open TV and radio, scientific bible
studies, rights campaigns by celibates, gays and women!
The return to 19th-century piety undoubtedly comforts a small
traditional minority and, perhaps, uneducated Catholics in Asia, Africa and
Latin America. For the others, the official Church is a source of conflict and
unrest. Condemnation of contraceptives that everyone uses. Insistence on
unmarried priests in the face of clerical child abuse and dwindling vocations.
No human rights in the Church. Censure of freedom of expression and other
modern values to which we owe so much. Brutal treatment of individuals while
preaching love, blaming Jesus for discrimination against women. Small wonder
that the clerical Church we have become has been compared to a dysfunctional
In these families an addictive father sets up a pattern of
control and abuse. In order to survive, everyone colludes and tries to placate
and appease him by turning inward to protect the familys reputation. The
dominant abuser determines everything that the family will do and think:
loyalty to him becomes the test of membership. In this process everyone becomes
co-dependent in the addiction, and thus the system continues. (P.
Collins, Papal Power. A Proposal for Change in Catholicisms Third
Millennium, London 1997, p. 103; see N. and T. Ormerod, When Ministers
Sin: Sexual Abuse in the Churches, Sydney 1995, p. 80.)
The papacy has consolidated its power under Pope John Paul II, but its
inner credibility has been hollowed out. When Romes stranglehold
eventually collapses, as I am sure it will one day, reform will focus on
restoring proper authority to bishops, theologians and lay people, and reducing
the power that the papacy has unlawfully appropriated to itself.
Read P. Chirico, Infallibility: the Crossroads of
Doctrine, Wilmington 1983; J. M. R. Tillard, The Bishop of Rome,
Wilmington 1983; P. Granfield, The Limits of the Papacy. Authority and
Autonomy in the Church, New York 1990; L. M. Bermejo, Infallibility on
Trial: Church, Conciliarity and Communion, Westminster 1992; A. W. R. Sipe,
Sex, Priests and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis, London 1995; J. Berry and
G. Renner, Vows of Silence. The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul
II, New York 2004.
On that day the Catholic Church can also shed its fear of our
relativistic and secular world. The lasting solution to the present
religious crisis lies neither in the outright rejection of the newly discovered
values, nor in a compromise that would water down our Christian faith. The
answer lies in true integration: in allowing the salvific words and deeds of
Jesus Christ to take root once more in the new secular realities and so
transform them from within.
It should be recognised that the scientifically-minded, autonomy and
fulfilment-seeking culture of our western countries is a distinct new culture,
like cultures the Church meets in any other missionary situation. Here, like
elsewhere in the world, the Word of God needs to be incarnated, with the
preservation of all that is good in our culture. The Second Vatican Council
spelled it out.
The seed which is the Word of God grows out of good soil, watered
by the divine dew. From this soil the seed draws nourishing elements which it
transforms and assimilates into itself. Finally it bears much fruit . . . From
the customs and traditions of their people, from their wisdom and their
learning, from their arts and sciences, local churches borrow all those things
which can add to the glory of their Creator, manifest the grace of the Saviour
or contribute to the right ordering of Christian life. (Ad Gentes
The Catholic Church needs to shed unnecessary past accretions, such as
the bias against women, and adapt itself to the new world in which we find
ourselves, as the Church has done during other crucial periods in its history.
Evangelisation means continuous incarnation, in which the Word can only become
new flesh by taking that flesh seriously.
Will women be ordained leaders in the Catholic Church?
I look at history. The ruthless migrating nations that ravished the
Roman Empire destroyed Christian communities. They also laid the foundation of
flourishing Christian medieval societies. I see that atrocious horror, the
second world war, paradoxically giving birth to computers, travel by jet,
nuclear energy and satelite communication. It also liberated women in many
countries and brought the United Nations closer together. I see communism,
contrary to everyones calculations, crumbling in Eastern Europe even
though it seemed secure under a canopy of terror.
Yes, women will become leaders in the Catholic Church: deacons, priests,
bishops and popes. Perhaps sooner than we dare expect. Christs Spirit has
not died. She is very active in the body of the Church. Though she works
through human instruments, she will not fail.