Women in the church and the art of the possible

By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Rochester, Minnesota

Whenever I speak on Catholic affairs – no matter what the ostensible topic of my address – there’s an informal canon of questions almost certain to arise during Q&A, and few occur with more regularity than that of women in the church.

Yesterday, for example, I spoke to a gathering sponsored by the Diocese of Winona, Minnesota, titled “Called to be Faithful and Prophetic: Reading the Signs of the Times in a Complex World.” Bishop Bernard Harrington opened the event by explaining that it’s a reflection on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops document “Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility.”

The gathering seemed to attract people from a wide variety of points of view, ranging from fairly conservative to fairly liberal, with most folks clumped somewhere in the middle.

The diversity became apparent as questions about gender issues in the church surfaced. One woman, who called herself a “very traditional” Catholic, asked if declining vocations to the priesthood are related to the widespread use of altar girls after the Second Vatican Council. A man asked if the church shouldn’t focus on renewing the all-male priesthood, and especially the fatherly and brotherly bonds between a bishop and his priests – implicitly, he seemed to suggest, as opposed to “empowering” women. Meanwhile, several women, both lay and religious, asked rather pointedly what’s being done to “hear the voice of women” in the church. One expressed concern that “macho” attitudes sometimes associated with parts of the global south could become even more prominent as the north/south transition in Catholicism plays out. A veteran pastoral minister spoke movingly – though, notably, without anger – about the pain she’s sometimes experienced as a woman in a man’s system.

Here’s more or less what I said in response.

First, while no one directly put the question of women’s ordination on the table, we might as well deal with it head-on. Given Pope John Paul II’s 1994 document Ordinatio sacerdotalis, which stated that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women, and … this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful,” there will be no official movement on this question in any short-term future scenario I can imagine. I’m aware that some Catholics dream of revisiting the issue somewhere down the line, and I have no crystal ball that tells me where the church will be in 200 years. What I can say is that the Catholic Church does not lurch from position to position, especially on something this sensitive, and at a minimum anyone living in hope of rapid evolution will likely be disappointed.

Further, it’s correct that Pope Benedict and other church leaders see the revitalization of the priesthood as a top priority, including the fraternal nature of relations between bishops and priests – especially in light of the strain under which those bonds have been placed in some parts of the world as a result of the sexual abuse crisis.

However, the right Catholic answer when faced with a seeming disjunction is rarely “either/or,” but “both/and.” Hence one hopes that strengthening the all-male character of the priesthood does not have to come at the expense of greater efforts to hear the voice of women. We ought to be able to do both at once.

In reality, there are vast areas in the life of the church where authority and responsibility can be exercised without sacramental ordination. On the parish level, the Catholic church in the United States and elsewhere could not operate without the contributions made by women as directors of religious education, liturgists, pastoral associates, and in myriad other capacities. Roughly 25 percent of the diocesan chancellors in America are now women, and one hopes that trend will accelerate until it hovers around 50 percent, better reflecting the percentage of women in the church. Women today serve as diocesan spokespersons, as general councils for dioceses, as chief financial officers, and in a wide variety of other capacities. These efforts can become much more systematic, especially in positions of high public visibility. (The American bishops’ conference is presently hiring a new communications director, for example, and all things being equal, it would be exceedingly positive symbolism if that post went to a lay woman).

Even in the Vatican, one can detect “baby steps” in this regard. In 2004, Pope John Paul II for the first time appointed a woman to a superior’s-level position in an office of the Roman Curia, naming Italian Salesian Sr. Enrica Rosanna as under-secretary of the Congregation for Religious. It’s true that a cleric co-signs letters from the congregation that exercise the pope’s delegated “power of jurisdiction,” but nevertheless the appointment put Rosanna in a position of leadership in the universal church. In the same year, John Paul named Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon as President of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, and appointed two female theologians to the International Theological Commission, both firsts. (One was an American, Sr. Sara Butler). While these are admittedly small moves, and perhaps open to the charge of “tokenism,” they nevertheless set precedents upon which one can build.

Moving more comprehensively in this direction is important, it seems to me, for two reasons.

First, church teaching unambiguously supports the full equality of women, and offering the world models of female leadership is thus an important way of demonstrating that we mean what we say.

Second, doing so could also perhaps allow us to approach the conversation about the priesthood more rationally. Church spokespersons routinely say that the all-male character of the priesthood is not a matter of excluding women from power, because the priesthood is not about power but service. The practical reality, however, is that ordination has always been the gateway to power in the church, if not theologically then sociologically. If the church were more systematic about the full representation of women in every area of life that doesn’t require ordination, it would perhaps reduce some of the suspicion that the teaching on the priesthood is really a smokescreen designed to preserve a system of male privilege.

I recognize that for some Catholics, including many deeply faithful Catholic women, none of this amounts to a fully satisfying answer. Yet under the rubric of “the art of the possible,” it seems to me to be the best answer one can give about what can be done under the present circumstances to help the church “breathe with both lungs” – in this case, not East and West, but male and female.

One further observation about the Rochester event.

To state the obvious, discussions about women in the church often stir deep passions. They involve fundamental Catholic values which are sometimes not easy to reconcile – fidelity to tradition, the role of authority, and commitment to emancipation and equality – not to mention historical resentments about the way power in the church has sometimes been exercised.

Given the diversity in the Rochester audience, I’m sure that the question about altar girls made some cringe, just as I’m sure that others were turned off by repeated references to “injustices” in the church. Yet there were no gasps or groans, and no interrupting of people as they spoke. Questions and answers were heard with respect, and while people occasionally spoke with conviction, they did so without histrionics. (By the way, I don’t mean to give the impression that our conversation was largely devoted to women in the church. It wasn’t, but the point is rather that when it and other contentious matters surfaced, people managed to listen to differing perspectives with graciousness).

While I doubt we solved any problems in the church yesterday, I couldn’t help but think the event offered a sign that Catholics of differing outlooks can at least talk things out with patience. In a church that often struggles to foster such a climate, that alone was enough to make it an encouraging experience.


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