Editorial: We need fearless discussion on women's ordination

by NCR Editorial Staff

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In an interview with The Irish Catholic newspaper, former Irish President Mary McAleese calls Pope Francis "by far the most intriguing pope of my lifetime." She says, "His greatest legacy to the church has been his welcoming of debate after the stultifying and suffocating imposed silence" of his two immediate predecessors.

"I think Francis is allowing the church to breathe and that is a wonderful thing," she says. Many of us agree with that sentiment, as well as with the qualification that follows: On the issue of women, Francis has been unwilling to include or accompany the largest marginalized group in the community.

"My church's long history of misogyny" has more than once driven her to "looking at options," said McAleese, but she's never been able to actually leave. "The Catholic church is woven into me, and I relate to it, and for all its messiness it calls me home."

Many Catholics, women especially, but also men, resonate with McAleese's statement. Despite recognizing the injustice that surrounds them, many can't bring themselves to walk away from their home. The church hierarchy has counted on this reluctance to leave as a final measure of control, but these constraints are weakening, especially among younger Catholics.

The constraints on those who would speak up while remaining at home are also evidently weakening. A group of 12 Irish priests has issued a statement protesting the "strict prohibition" against speaking about the question of women's ordination, rightly noting that the Vatican decree simply has not worked. It is all but inhuman to demand that people not think about or discuss a question that is so compelling for so many.

When Pope John Paul II issued Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in May 1994, writing that the church "has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women," he meant to close the door to any discussion of ordaining women.

Eighteen months later, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the ban on women's ordination belongs "to the deposit of the faith." Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI upheld these teachings, keeping the door closed.

Francis, while praising the "feminine genius" and calling for more roles for women in the structures of the church, has refused repeatedly to consider ordaining women, echoing his predecessors.

That door may be closed, but like the persistent widow in Luke's Gospel, we stand outside knocking and saying, "Render a just decision for me." We would urge Francis to lean heavily on that metaphor and perhaps find both reason and will to push the door open a bit.

He would find considerable support among Scripture scholars, theologians, quite a few bishops and probably even a cardinal or two should he allow the discussion to take place.

We are led to believe by experts who have studied the issue that the most abundant scholarship exists justifying the ordination of women to the diaconate. That would be a start. Anyone with any experience in the church knows that women have provided most of the service and ministry in the church over many decades.

The issue is hardly settled. Indeed, the gap between the rationales offered for prohibiting women's ordination and the growing global reality of women overturning centuries-old conventions to make significant contributions in previously all-male settings, is embarrassingly large and growing.

We must be persistent in reminding Francis, who advocates bold discussions and fearlessness in pursuing the truth, of his own words. Most recently in Florence, Italy, he warned against seeking solutions in "obsolete conduct and forms that no longer have the capacity of being significant culturally."

He and other church leaders must be convinced of two things:

First, we need bold, fearless discussion on the question of women's ordination. Simple declarations that "the door is closed" cannot be the answer.

Second, Francis and other church leaders must see that a ban on full participation by women in the church is obsolete and is no longer culturally significant.

Many people — too many people — in the church are prevented from speaking on this issue, some through outright bans and directives, most through intimidation and fear of losing livelihoods and careers. Those of us with the freedom to speak up against this injustice must do so loudly.

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