It’s been 40 years since the creation of the Women’s Ordination Conference in the United States, and more than 20 years since WOW, Women’s Ordination Worldwide, was formed in Europe. But the dreams of Catholic women who either wish to be priests, or who support the ordination of women, remain unfulfilled — at least at the official level.
Calling attention to that reality and advocating fundamental equality in the church in the roles of women was the mission of the WOW conference held this past weekend in Philadelphia. The timing was no accident. The conference is delivering its message to Pope Francis, who will soon visit the United States, as well as to the world.
There are Roman Catholic women priests who have been ordained — about 200 of them these days — but they are not officially recognized by the hierarchy. In fact, they have been declared “excommunicated.” They, of course, do not believe that. so it does not keep them from ministering and celebrating the Eucharist. They are more and more visible in local Catholic life.
This issue: the ordination of women, and indeed the whole question of gender equality in the church, has not really been addressed by Pope Francis, except to say that the “door is closed.” But — as one of my guests on Interfaith Voices put it this week — “You know what they say about doors: They are meant to be opened.”
And I predict it will open. When, I can’t predict, but it will because it must. Why must it? First, at the practical level, we are facing a growing shortage of priests, which will soon become critical. Yes, it’s possible that Pope Francis will permit a married clergy (there are rumors to that effect) and that will help, but it will not solve the problem. And second, the lack of gender equality in the church is increasingly embarrassing in a faith community that claims to live out the Gospel claims of justice. We even have Pope Francis calling for “equal pay for equal work” for women and men not too many months ago, so, many will ask: How about “equal work” itself — equality in ministry — in the church?
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It’s also embarrassing that a pope who talks about the poor of the world (an emphasis that I applaud) does not link it with gender discrimination. The vast majority of the poor of this world are women and the children they are trying to raise. And why are women disproportionately poor? The answer: gender discrimination. (I am old enough to remember the days in the U.S. when it was thought OK to pay women less because they were really only “second breadwinners” in their families! And people said that with a straight face!)
So, if the church ended gender discrimination and proclaimed the equality of all human beings loud and clear, it would send a message to the world that would reverberate across oceans. And, over time, it would be an important lever in overcoming women’s poverty. Not overnight, but with time.
It would also reverberate in other faith traditions. I moderated an interfaith panel at the WOW conference. Movement toward gender equality in Roman Catholicism would have ripple effects in Mormonism, Islam and Orthodox Judaism.
If Pope Francis is looking to be truly “interfaith” in his embrace of the world, moving Catholicism toward full gender equality is one of the best moves he could make.