African theologian questions churchís exclusion of women

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator and Fr. Bruce Morrill (NCR photos/Joshua J. McElwee)

ST. LOUIS -- Problems of discrimination and exclusion are so manifest within the Catholic community today that the church “totters on the brink of compromising its self-identity as the basic sacrament of salvation,” a theologian told his peers here Friday.

Speaking frankly to some 300 colleagues assembled for an annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA), Jesuit Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator said that of particular concern is the disregarded role of women in the church.

Saying that women are often the “face of redemption turned visibly” toward those the church serves, but are often “banished beyond the borders of relevance,” Orobator said the state of their participation in the church community leads to an uncomfortable question.

“As a church, so long as we surreptitiously but tenaciously rehearse the politics of discrimination and exclusion, we stand before God, as Cain was, befuddled by a question that we simply cannot wish away at the wave of a magisterial wand,” said Orobator.

“And the question is: ‘Church, where is your sister? Church where is your mother?’”

Orobator’s comments came in a plenary session Friday morning during the four-day CTSA convention. The 67th annual gathering of the group, the theme for this year’s event is “Sacrament/s and the Global Church.”

Titling his talk “A Global Sign of Outward Growth: the Sacramentality of the World Church in the Era of Globalization,” Orobator covered a wide-range of topics, focusing on the meaning of the sacraments and the church’s sacramentality in a global context.

Orobator’s addressing of the role of women in the church came after the priest said that while the liturgical reforms passed during the Second Vatican Council prioritized “active participation and wide inclusivity” of lay people in the church, they are “in reality, however … used by some to warrant exclusion of women from sacramental ministry and leadership.”

Following his remarks on the role of women, Orobator also questioned a number of other areas where, he said, the church doesn’t reflect its notion of sacramentality.

“On the evidence of current events, this ‘socially constituted,’ hierarchically regimented, dogmatically policed, and clerically asphyxiated community called church increasingly signifies hurt and pain for some people of God on account of their vulnerability, silence and intimidation for others on account of their honest engagement in the venerable task of fides quarens intellectum, and exclusion and marginalization for many, very many, on account of their gender, race, or social location.

“I contend that these multiple degrees of exclusion and polarization stultify the pivotal claim of Vatican II regarding ecclecisial sacramentality as a sign of communion with God among women and men.”

Concluding his talk by referencing the changes in the church’s make-up as the church in Global South is experiencing growth, Orobator said the church community is undergoing a “paradigm shift resembling an eccesial Copernican revolution.”

“The multi-dimensional, multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic constitution of the community called church invites us to a feast of diversity and celebration of plurality, spread out on the table of mutuality, appreciation, and gratitude for each human being as Imago Dei, Orobator ended.

“I believe that it lies within the realm of possibility to transform our church into a truly catholic and richly texture patchwork of different genders, races, generations, orientations, ministries, and faith traditions that signify the saving presence of God in our midst.”

Following Orobator’s remarks was a response by Jesuit Fr. William O’Neill, an associate professor of social ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley.

Commenting on the nature of the sacraments as things which “effect reconciliation” between God and God’s people, O’Neill said in order for that reconciliation to come about, the church “must first be reconciled” to its own failings, particularly to those that he called “sins of ecclesial hubris.”

The first among those sins needing reconciling, said O’Neill, is the clergy sex abuse crisis.

Also among those sins, said O’Neill, are the Vatican’s recent moves against the umbrella organization representing the majority of U.S. women religious and Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley, a prominent moral theology whose book Just Love was sharply criticized by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Monday.

Quoting a passage from Farley’s work -- “How long have I been with you and still you do not know me? -- O’Neill said the church needs a “good dose of women-inspired learning.

Orobator and O’Neill’s addresses Friday came in the second of four plenary sessions expected at the weekend CTSA gathering. On Thursday night, the event opened with an address from Jesuit Fr. Bruce Morrill, the Edward A. Malloy Chair of Catholic Studies at Vanderbilt University.

Morrill’s remarks Thursday followed an opening liturgy that saw the theologians mark the passing of a number of colleagues who have died in the past year.

As Mary Jane Ponyik, the society’s executive director, played a simple piano refrain, theologians associated with individuals who had passed away came up to the front of the group to remember their colleagues.

The first called to mind was Jesuit Fr. Dean Brackley, a priest who moved from New York to El Salvador in 1990 to work at the University of Central America following the killing of six Jesuits and two women there by government military forces in 1989.

Remembering Brackley, who died of cancer last October, a colleague said the priest “worked from a desk, but never from the perspective of a desk.”

Another remembered was Joseph Colombo, a theology professor at the University of San Diego who passed away in January and had been the first openly gay professor to chair a theology department at a U.S. Roman Catholic university.

Also called to mind was Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, a woman who is widely considered to be the founder of “mujerista” theology, which looks specifically to include in theological discussions the experience of Latina women in the United States.

Remembering Isasi-Diaz, who passed away in May, was St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson. Isasi-Diaz, said Johnson, listened to Latinas and “brought their experiences to the table of theological discussion.”

Following each remembrance, the theologians gathered prayed: “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.”

[Joshua J. McElwee is an NCR staff writer.]

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