While I took Lent and Easter more seriously than ever this year—in terms of prayer, Scriptural reading, reflection, and discipline—I didn’t go to Mass. In fact, I haven’t been since Christmas.

Most of us have our ups and downs with the church, and this is not the first time I have felt baffled and resentful. But this seems more measured, more serious. One of the precipitating incidents was Fr. Nonomen’s February 26 Commonweal column, “A Holy Order.” While he indicated his appreciation for the special gifts women bring to the church, he ended up sounding patronizing. Instead of confronting the injustices in the church, he avoided thinking about them by focusing on the good.

I believe in the church and want to remain a Catholic. I can’t imagine leaving, or finding a home in another faith, much as I respect other faiths. No religion is without its problems, and no human institution is perfect. But the exclusion of women from full adult participation in the Catholic Church has increasingly become an obstacle for me. I cannot understand, much less accept, the claim that gender should determine who can represent Jesus at the altar.

I can deal with the grasping after money, the popes with children, the Crusades, the persecution of witches, even the sexual abuse of children—we are human beings, and we fail spectacularly and repeatedly (as I have proved to myself on many occasions). But such sins, while institutionalized and elaborately committed and concealed, are not matters of doctrine. They don’t touch the church in its essence. To my mind, the church’s policy on the ordination of women may.

The hierarchy has at times realized its faults and errors, and has even repented—sometimes publicly, though seldom satisfactorily. But in the matter of women, it maintains its insistence on discrimination, justifying it by tradition. Pope John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter to the bishops did more than simply reaffirm the matter. It decreed there was no room even for discussing the question. He effectively backed future popes into a corner by staking his authority on the issue.

My daughter is a brilliant young scholar (sayeth the mother). She graduated last month from Boston College, will spend next year on a Fulbright in Israel, and then will attend Yale Divinity School on full scholarship. In another world, a person with her accomplishments and interests might consider becoming a priest. She’s got depth, faith, wisdom, and compassion, plus a sense of humor, experience with poverty, and an understanding of people with disabilities. The one thing she doesn’t have...well, we all know what she doesn’t have.

And speaking of that missing item, the source of men’s special identification with Jesus, is it not instructive to recall the raging controversy between Sts. Peter and Paul over whether gentile converts to Christianity needed to be circumcised? Their argument is known even today, two thousand years later, as the “Incident at Antioch,” yet the issue itself is irrelevant now.

When does a practice become tradition and therefore unchangeable? Jesus, who had been circumcised, was gone by the time the debate took place, but both Peter and Paul felt confident enough to argue the question on its merits, because it affected the people of that time. Their final decision was not to do slavishly whatever had been done, but to adapt to the very different sensibilities of the newest converts to Christianity.

The ordination of women was not an issue during Jesus’ brief ministry. Yet he left us with principles and rules of conscience that he expected us to apply with intelligence and creativity in whatever place or era we found ourselves.

People like me are often asked why we stay. My friend Gloria says, with a sly expression, “I get what I need,” implying by her tone of voice that she does so by a subtle reworking of what is on offer.

Google “why women can’t be priests” and you’ll find that what’s on offer is a virtual quicksand of pompous verbiage and ethereal images of the Eucharist as a nuptial banquet with a male priest the only possible stand-in for the groom. This vision of Jesus has nothing to do with the demanding love, integrity, and pursuit of justice that following him requires. And it’s important to keep the discourse at this convoluted level. Perhaps people won’t notice that along with all that spiritual authority men have decided only they should have come the temporal, tangible, and delightful powers of one of the world’s oldest and wealthiest institutions. Is there any logical reason that the church’s grooms must also control the purse strings? Is there any theological basis for men making all the decisions, for the church’s near-total lack of accountability?

Ordaining women would not solve the problems inherent in any closed system. And even if it would, that would still not be the reason to do it. Peter conceded to Paul in the circumcision controversy that “if God gave [the gentiles] the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” Ordaining women is a matter of justice—of getting out of God’s way.

In the Book of Habakkuk, we find this promise: “For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.” When or if women will ever be ordained in the Catholic Church is anyone’s guess. But while we wait, we can at least dispense with the patronizing. Just as the “three-fifths of a person” concept is no longer tenable, denying ordination to women can’t be made up for by insisting on how essential women are. The problem must be confronted. 

 


Read more: Letters, July 16, 2010

Related: Why Not? Scripture, History & Women's Ordination by Robert J. Egan

Published in the 2010-06-04 issue: 

Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.

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