One church, one issue

by Phyllis Zagano

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Pope Francis has a lot on his to-do list: reform the Curia, clean up Vatican finances, defend both the disenfranchised and the planet from rapacious economic systems, and, by the way, bring about world peace. All depend on the message of the Gospel.

Anything missing?

It is one thing for a humble, holy pope to preach the Gospel with and without words. It is quite another thing for the corporation that is church to do the same. The disconnect remains. It has to do with women.

At the Catholic Theological Society of America’s annual meeting last June, knots of priests (including a few Jesuits) repeated the same mantra: The question of women is the single most important crisis facing the church.


Well, for starters, who controls the family checkbook? For the past 50 years or so, Catholic women have walked away from the constraints of Catholic teachings. In larger numbers than they admit, women stopped attending Mass — and bringing their husbands and children along.

With the Baby Boomers gone, the church looks to the next generation. Yes, many married “in the church.” But precious few now send their children to be catechized to the faith of their grandmothers.

Their issues are obvious.

Despite Pope Francis’ suggestion that Catholics need not reproduce “like rabbits,” official teachings banning birth control remain in place. Despite Pope Francis’ support of women religious, pastors continue closing parish convents, creating serious housing problems for the nuns. Despite Pope Francis’ preaching the Gospel’s core message, the church seems unconvinced that women are equal in the eyes of God.

The underlying problem is ordination. Unless and until the church as a whole takes the International Theological Commission’s 2002 advice and seriously looks into returning women to the ordained diaconate, most anything else the hierarchy says will fall flat.

Too many bishops will not talk about returning women to ordained ministry. Some fear their senior bishops and their colleagues. Some keep quiet because they are looking for a better job. And, last but worst: Some believe notions of Catholic teaching published by the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Gerhard L. Müller. He is convinced that women cannot image Christ. Yes, despite the fact that we are all “made to the image and likeness of God” (See The New Baltimore Catechism, Question No. 48), Müller says women cannot image Christ.

If Catholic teaching is that all are made to the image and likeness of God and that Christ is God, why would anyone — let alone a Curia official — hold that women cannot image Christ?

Well, for starters, the ordained person is said to image Christ. The priest is and acts in the person of Christ the head of the church, the deacon in the person of Christ the servant.

However, the church bars women from priestly ordination because it believes it does not have Jesus’ authority to create women priests. On the other hand, the church has a long history of ordaining women as deacons, an office formalized by the apostles who called forth servants from the community.

Back at the Curia, Müller is clearly of the “ordaining a woman is like ordaining a lamppost or a cat” school. He and a miniscule minority hold that women cannot image Christ. That is a flat out denial of the core Gospel teaching Francis so energetically professes. It confuses the restricted human male Jesus with the risen Christ. True, women cannot “image” Jesus, but that is not the question. Women can, and do, image the risen Christ.

That is what Francis teaches. He does not ask for DNA samples before he recognizes the Christ in the crowd. Francis sees Christ in every person he meets.

If Francis could convince his bureaucrats to do the same, the church and its issues would be well on the road to recovery. If he cannot, the pope will still meet huge crowds and face full churches, but the rest of the world’s bishops will continue to see the people walking away.

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. Her books include On Prayer: A Letter to My Godchild and In the Image of Christ: Essays on Being Catholic and Female.]

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