The good cardinal's revealing interview

by Thomas C. Fox

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Cardinal Sean O'Malley is pastoral to the core. He's also an intelligent person. It's good he has the ear of Pope Francis. This was the theme of a telling "60 Minutes" segment Sunday on CBS. During the interview, the good cardinal was open and honest, navigating some tough questions by correspondent Norah O'Donnell.

However, before the interview was over, he revealed clearly the increasingly untenable nature of the Catholic teaching that women cannot be ordained priests.

I applaud O'Malley for his candor. This was especially clear when asked about the Vatican crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

First, listeners heard this voice-over: "The cardinal's careful candor isn't limited to the church's mishandling of abuse. Take the Vatican doctrine office's crackdown on American nuns for focusing more on social justice than issues like abortion and contraception -- placing the nuns under the supervision of three bishops."

Then, O'Donnell said, "It looked like a crackdown from men at the Vatican on ..."

But before she could finish her sentence, O'Malley finished for her: "A disaster."

O'Malley's frankness appeared to take O'Donnell off guard.

"A disaster?" she asked.


The cardinal, of course, was saying what most reasonable Catholics have known and said for years. Yet it was refreshing to hear such reasonableness from a Catholic prelate.

Candor. Alas, we've come to expect so little from our hierarchy.

The interview continued as O'Donnell brought up the issue of women and women's ordination. She was strong; O'Malley defended church teachings as best he could.

Traditionalists were likely pleased; advocates of change, of an inclusive priesthood, me included, were frustrated.

But in his own way, O'Malley's remarks more than anything seemed to underscore the weakness of church teachings. As when he admitted that if it were his church, not Jesus', he would do it otherwise. He would include women in the priesthood.

That was a remarkable admission. One that speaks to O'Malley's strength as a thoughtful and caring Catholic and, at the same time, to the strict nature of a clerical group drifting away from the rest of the church and wider society.

Here's the CBS transcript of the exchange:

O'Donnell: The church says it's not open to the discussion about ordaining women. Why not?

O'Malley: Not everyone needs to be ordained to have an important role in the life of the church. Women run the Catholic charities, the Catholic schools, the development office for the archdiocese.

O'Donnell: Some would say women do a lot of the work but have very little power.

O'Malley:  Well "power" is not a word that we like to use in the church. It's more service.

O'Donnell: But they can't preach. They can't administer the sacraments.

O'Malley: Well ...

O'Donnell: I mean, some women feel like they're second class Catholics because they can't do those things that are very important.

O'Malley: Well, they, but they're, they have other very important roles that, you know, a priest cannot be a mother, either. The tradition of the church is that we have always ordained men. And that the priesthood reflects the incarnation of Christ, who in his humanity is a man.

O'Donnell: But in spite of that, does the exclusion of women seem at all immoral?

O'Malley: Well, Christ would never ask us to do something immoral. And I know that women in ...

O'Donnell: The sense of equality. I mean, just the sense of sort of the fairness of it, you know. You wouldn't exclude someone based on race. But yet you do exclude people based on gender.

O'Malley: Well, it's a matter of vocation. And what God has given to us. And this is, you know, if I were founding a church, you know, I'd love to have women priests. But Christ founded it and what he he has given us is something different.

"What God has given to us?" "I'd love to have women priests. But Christ founded it and what he has given us is something different." These are especially revelatory statements given O'Malley's stature, pastoral nature and intelligence.

Personally, I found myself reacting to O'Malley's remarks in much the same way I did years ago, listening to my freshman roommate at Stanford defending the Mormon church's teaching that blacks cannot be ordained to the Mormon priesthood because they "carry the sin of Cain": with more sadness than anger. His was an untenable position, and he felt obliged to uphold it. This Mormon teaching changed in 1978 with a revelation that repudiated the teaching that "black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse."

Then, it was the Mormons and race; today, it is still Catholics and sex.

Consider some history:

The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in 1976 stated that the Catholic church does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.

Reasons? Constant tradition. Fidelity to Christ's will.

Pope John Paul II upheld the doctrinal congregation's decision in 1994, stating the Catholic priesthood is a role set out by Jesus when he chose 12 men out of his group of male and female followers.

The doctrinal congregation in 1995 affirmed John Paul, saying that while his words were not infallible, they belong to the timeless deposit of the faith of the church. Case closed. There could be no more discussion.

Except there has been. And the questions do not stop coming, as O'Donnell's interview testified.

It was in 1976 the Pontifical Biblical Commission released a study examining the exclusion of women from the ministerial priesthood from a biblical perspective, stating: "It does not seem that the New Testament by itself alone will permit us to settle in a clear way and once and for all the problem of the possible accession of women to the presbyterate."

When presented, the few arguments for the ordination ban seem unconvincing to many, resting mainly on past precedents and adverting to vague ideas about gender imagery and complementarity that imply women and men must have different vocations for service in the church. Services that involve total inclusion of authority and total exclusion of authority. This has given us a distinctly two-tier church. 

Meanwhile, appeals to constant teaching continue to fall flat. The church has changed its "definitive teachings" repeatedly -- in regard, for example, to liberty of conscience, Jews, the Crusades, slavery, usury and torture, to name a few.

The road to an inclusive church, one in which all are equal, all are blessed, all are called, will not come easily. O'Malley has again affirmed this reality. But distinctions that set people apart, into classes of greater and lesser authority and power, cannot last, cannot withstand increased access by laity, including women, to education, particularly theological education. In the end, the ban will fall because it misreads the teachings of Jesus. 

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