A Pastoral Perspective

As a woman who has no more desire to be a priest than I do to be a brain surgeon, let me raise the pastoral perspective (“Women and the Priesthood,” May). How many teenage boys would be comfortable confessing to a woman, even if it were Mother Teresa? Yet confessing to a man is what teenage girls are faced with. Perhaps I am dating myself, but as a teenager I would much rather have put sixth commandment concerns to a woman (who might well have asked more relevant and sensitive questions).

We have an obvious problem of a shrinking and aging population of priests. Women fill the gap sensitively as hospital chaplains, but they cannot grant absolution or anoint the dying. If it is true that absolution is necessary for salvation, ordaining women is a deep pastoral need.

Finally, think about Sr. Helen Prejean. She can accompany a person into the death chamber and be with them in their last awful moments, but cannot absolve or anoint them. We desperately need women priests. Souls require it.

Joan Hill
Cambridge, Mass.


Their Own Funds?

While reading Alice McDermott’s article, “Why Not Women?” (May), I recalled the passage from the beginning of chapter eight of Luke’s Gospel: “And the women supported him from their own funds.” Considering that the Church is still dependent on women to keep it running, I think the real reason men don’t want women priests is that they’re afraid that there might not be enough women left to keep the Church going if women took over the priestly role. That, and the fear that we might not leave a place for men if we did it all—which, judging from other denominations, we are very capable of doing.

Suzanne Harris
Spokane, Wash.


Scandalously Late

The men-only priest tradition follows the Jewish rabbinical one, but even that more ancient tradition has given way to women rabbis. Jesus chose men as apostles based on Jewish cultural practice; he also went out of his way to engage with women in a variety of roles. And women were among his staunchest and most loyal disciples. It’s even possible that there were some women priests in the early days of the Church, just as there were married priests. The Church needs both women and married people as priests.

When I once expressed approval for the ordination of women with a woman who was a daily communicant but opposed their ordination, she said that Jesus had no women apostles—the first Christian priests. But, I answered, neither did he give communion to any women. Would anyone want to deny Holy Communion to women on that basis?

We live in a different culture and need not continue an outdated, unjust, and uncharitable practice. It’s not only past time but scandalous that women remain in an implicitly subservient position in the Church.

Jerome Donnelly
Winter Park, Fla.

Still Salient

My deep thanks for reprinting this article by Thomas Merton (“Is the World a Problem?,” April). It was fascinating to read it, first of all, because Merton’s voice still seems fresh, original, and timely. How is that possible? It appeared just one year after the Council, when there was so much optimism in the Church and the Vietnam War had yet to polarize the country into a rhetorical civil war. It was the end of my first year in college, when I was still undecided about a major. I read The Seven Storey Mountain a year or two later. But that book didn’t reach me the way it reached the alienated generation that came home from WWII, which found its portrayal of monastic life so compelling. I wonder how many of the Benedictine monks who taught me—I only had one lay teacher—were part of that wave of vocations. (Many subsequently left.) The book that I did find compelling was Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which appeared not long after the 1966 article, and which spoke powerfully to the disillusionment of the end of the sixties and the assassinations, riots, and political upheaval.

The 1966 article is beautiful in its calibrated assessment of what was unfortunate about traditional Christian views of the world as a place of temptation and evil, someplace one could escape from—or that one could control by means of power and political and ecclesiastical authority. But the article also described what was admirable and right in the traditional Christian embrace of the world as God’s good creation, even if its hierarchical, static, and fixed assumptions about the world and its order were inadequate to what we, as moderns, feel by way of the call to freedom, responsibility, and agency. Merton was also skeptical about the temptation that he sensed on the part of those too ready to embrace what was in reality just another compulsory set of answers and controls. It all felt acutely contemporary, as we watch Catholics in the United States slip into the old illusion that the secular and “the world” are things one could escape from, external to us rather than the condition of our being. Boutique Catholicism, as it has been called, is an even poorer bet to achieve seclusion, safety, and control than the ghetto Catholicism of the pre-conciliar world in which I was raised.

I haven’t seen the new documentary film on Teilhard, aired on PBS, but it is interesting to consider how two such different ways of life—and different postures in relation to the “world”—look from this distance in time to be not just complementary, but even in agreement in their ultimate vision of unity and coherence.

Michael J. Hollerich
Professor Emeritus of History of Christianity
University of St. Thomas
Roseville, Minn.

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Published in the July/August 2024 issue: View Contents
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