Women praying during Mass at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Abuja, Nigeria (OSV News photo/Afolabi Sotunde, Reuters).

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When I began studying theology and religion as an undergraduate student, I had no idea there were Catholics who supported the ordination of women. I had attended Catholic school through twelfth grade and, as far as I knew, the prospect of women in the priesthood was the stuff of fantasy. A new world of possibility was opened to me upon reading the works of thinkers like Ann Patrick, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and Rosemary Radford Ruether, whose advocacy on behalf of women forced me to reconsider an experience I have come to understand as a “call” when I was a little girl. A precocious child, I began reciting parts of the missalette and forcing my sisters to “play church” with me as the priest. Ritz crackers and apple juice stood in for the bread and wine. We did this often until my father told me I shouldn’t pretend to be a priest because I would never have that chance in real life. Devastated, I ran away (for a few hours) until my mother retrieved me from the steps of the corner bodega.

Years later, in a doctoral program in theology, I studied alongside colleagues who would go on to be ordained in their respective denominations. To actualize my priestly vocational call, they encouraged me to consider the Episcopal and Lutheran churches. But I couldn’t do that because, for me, the question had grown much larger than my fulfillment of a personal vocational call. If I left, I would be forfeiting my ability to challenge the Catholic Church, not just on its stance regarding ordination but also on the many ways it perpetuates white supremacy. Was I willing to do that? I decided to stay, always on the margins, to push the Church to see the connection between its stance on women’s ordination and its dependence on a colonial mentality.

Last year, the Vatican issued a statement repudiating the doctrine of discovery, which has been used for the past five hundred years as a religious and legal rationale to seize lands, objectify entire peoples, and impose white-supremacist authority. I have come to see that the structure of the Catholic Church—with its exclusively male leadership—is connected to its relationship with peoples and lands as a colonizing entity that must be decolonized. For this reason, I’m less interested now than I was in graduate school in the question of women’s ordination on its own. Now, I want to explore the connection between sexual and institutional violence against women and colonial violence against lands and peoples. I believe both derive from an unequal power structure of subject over object, upheld by a hierarchy that maintains the status quo. 

Both [gender-based and colonial violence] derive from an unequal power structure of subject over object, upheld by a hierarchy that maintains the status quo.


What are the alternatives to maintaining the status quo of colonization in our Church? The crumbling of the institutional Church—due in part to the sex-abuse crisis and diminishing clerical credibility—is a sign that the powerful hold of a colonizing mindset is wearing thin and being recognized for the distortion of the Gospel that it is. While promoting women in ordination is important—I would never dismiss its importance—the process of decolonizing our Church requires more than allowing women to lead from the altar. The corrective to colonization of women’s bodies in the Church requires us to learn from women’s ways of “being Church,” particularly those found in Latinx culture and theology. This decolonization has at least five components.

First, it must be centered on accompaniment and solidarity rather than preserving hierarchy or the status quo. Latinas know what it means to walk with one another through misery, hardship, and strife, and of the power of acompañamiento y solidaridad in every facet of our lives. Latinas encircle those who are in need regardless of social status or religious affiliation; I have witnessed this in my own family and in my broader community, as an embodied commitment to never allowing another to walk alone.

Second, our focus must be less on doctrine and more on popular religiosity. Women have told us that the Church’s doctrine is less authoritative than the practices of faith that are life giving and life affirming. From Ada María Isasi-Díaz and Yolanda Tarango’s seminal text, Hispanic Women: Prophetic Voice in the Church, to María Del Socorro Castañeda-Liles’s Our Lady of Everyday Life,women’s spirituality resides in prayer, acts of charity, and movements for justice, often in spite of the hierarchical systems within the Church.

Third, we must invest in our communities and not in the institution. If we center our understanding of community as the “body of Christ,” the communal body that nourishes us and calls us to new life in Christ, then this is not bound by an institution or an official Church, but by the people who love us, surround us with care and support, and protect us from harm. 

Fourth, we must continue to challenge the institution to be better. While we should be embracing new forms of “being Church,” we can’t let the current institution off the hook. On the contrary: as women, we must lift a mirror up to the Church to show how it has fallen short of its own Gospel message of love and justice.

Fifth, we must remember the injunction to “be not afraid.” Some scholars suggest that a form of “fear not” or “be not afraid” appears over three hundred times in Scripture. Colonization instills fear, which keeps us from changing. The oppression and violence experienced by women also instills fear—and fear of excommunication, isolation, and alienation leads to paralysis. What if women had spaces and places of protection and community, of comfort and autonomy, where they could find refuge and be free from fear? Isn’t this what “Church”—the body of Christ—is supposed to be? “Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30).

This kind of sweeping decolonization involves the discomfort of living in an uncertain space, an unfinished space. We have to reconsider what it means to be a woman—in relationship to each other, to men, and to the Church. We have been given a framework that upholds the status quo, and it can be disorienting to question it. But this discomfort can be a catalyst for creativity, rather than something that dooms us to complacency. In fact, what emerges out of a place of dis-ease is the prophetic voice, which can motivate a people to change that which is seemingly unchangeable. This is our decolonizing challenge as Catholic women. 

This article is adapted from a presentation at the Georgetown University conference in April 2023. It is part of a symposium on women and the priesthood. Read the other articles here:
Women at the Altar” – Jane Varner Malhotra
Moving the Center” – Mary E. Hunt
Why Not Women?” – Alice McDermott

Teresa Delgado is dean of St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. She received her doctorate from Union Theological Seminary and has published on diversity in higher education, transformational pedagogies, constructive theology and ethics, and justice for racially, ethnically, and sexually minoritized persons.

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