Women organize in 1975 to ordain women as priests (Women's Ordination Conference)

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In 1975, when the Women’s Ordination Conference began, we knew what a woman was, why men got ordained, and who was involved in the conversation by who was registered for the conference. Fifty years later, these matters are infinitely more complicated. Gender fluidity expands the definition of women; clericalism shows the limits of ordination; and what was once a weekend meeting has become an important part of a global movement. However, there are still no validly and licitly ordained Roman Catholic women deacons or priests, even though many Catholic women are engaged in myriad ministries.

Since then, the Roman Catholic Church has rendered itself all but irrelevant. By permitting women to be ordained, it could have expanded its workforce, improved the quality of its ministry, and claimed some moral status in a hurting world. But the world has moved on. The loss is not so much for women as for the Church and, more importantly, for the people who need the resources a two-thousand-year-old institution can provide. 

The Church has failed spectacularly for half a century to right the wrongs of patriarchy. Despite happy talk about a synodal Church, there is little evidence that expanding the gender of those in the diaconate or presbyterate is in the offing. There is even less reason to think that such moves would do anything more than co-opt what is already unfolding: women and nonbinary people do so much of the Church’s ministry today. Their ministry often happens extra-institutionally, and it results in many and varied creative kinds of work. In these roles, they redefine what counts as the margins or the center of Catholicism.

The institution has sown confusion and scandal about what most people believe is really important in ordained ministry: intent and effectiveness, not gender.


If Vatican officials had been smart in 1975, they would have jumped at the chance to control women in ministry by ordaining them. Instead, patriarchal power-holding overwhelmed strategic sense, and the institution doubled down on its rejection of women for ordained ministry. The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’sdeclaration Inter insigniores, insultingly and brazenly dated “15 October 1976, the feast of Saint Theresa of Avila,” was their response to the 1975 conference and women’s requests for ordination. It was a resounding no.

Pope Francis still clings to that no with his insistence that revelation and the historical practice of excluding women somehow prevent the institution from ordaining women today. He tries to soften the blow by saying that women have a much more important role than mere priesthood. He is at a loss to explain what that is. With sacramental ministry, including the Eucharist and Reconciliation, officially out of the toolkits of women in ministry, one wonders what he values. More to the point, since priesthood comes with jurisdiction—that is, decision-making power—women are not able to make most decisions in a parish or diocese. 

Fortunately, none of this has stopped women from ministering. Many have simply decoupled their efforts from institutional constraints and gotten on with it. But it is unfair and wasteful that a Church that belongs to the whole Catholic community is held hostage by the few cardinals and bishops who make the decisions. The synodal process does not appear to have put a dent in that, as the papal fiat on same-sex blessings made abundantly clear.

The institution has sown confusion and scandal about what most people believe is really important in ordained ministry: intent and effectiveness, not gender. When people are excluded from the clerical caste, the many contributions of women and nonbinary people are lost to those who could benefit from them. Eliminating the clergy–lay split would be one solution, and my preferred option. But as long as the split endures, those who respect it deserve the right to have all qualified people as presiders, deciders, or confessors at their disposal.

The loss is not so much for women as for the Church and, more importantly, for the people who need the resources a two-thousand-year-old institution can provide.


Many people are perplexed about who is “really” Catholic. When they want to collaborate with Catholics on a common project, like an interfaith service, or a social issue like health care, who counts? They do not want to offend the institutional clerics, and yet they accept women and nonbinary people in ministry as their colleagues. They are unsure of how to proceed with, for example, joint ecumenical efforts involving Catholics other than clergy. Recall the hierarchy’s furor when President Obama invited Catholic nuns rather than Catholic bishops for the signing of a more expansive health-care plan than the bishops could stomach. The meaning and dimensions of “Catholic” are changing in many arenas.

One reason is because groups like Roman Catholic Womenpriests, the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, people in the Women-Church movement, and many others in small base communities and organizations are doing effective ministerial work, most of it beyond the institutional Church. These people join hundreds of Catholic women ordained as ministers in the Lutheran, Episcopal, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, and other denominations. Despite the fact that the Roman Catholic Church excommunicates all women who are ordained as Catholic priests, these women are no less Catholic. For example, one could say that a Catholic woman ordained as a Lutheran is a Catholic Lutheran priest—expanding the boundaries that, when held, serve no one but those in power.

Many Catholic women work in schools, campus ministries, hospices and hospitals, prisons, and traditional parish settings. What distinguishes their ministries from ordained men’s is that many work as volunteers, and others are paid low wages for the same work for which men get salaries with cradle-to-grave benefits. One woman told me recently that when she was asked to serve several Catholic parishes in a rural part of Canada, she functioned as the pastor, including for most sacramental ministry. But when she finished her much appreciated service and returned to an urban center, she was right back to being someone’s assistant with a greatly reduced scope of responsibility and sacramental options. That benefits exactly no one.

Things are changing—not just for women, but largely thanks to them. Alyssa Duffner, a current master of divinity student at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, recalled meeting new students in her program: 

One accepted student mentioned being LGBTQ+. Then, one by one, I and every other accepted student in the room said, “Me, too.” After a momentary pause, we all erupted in laughter, surprised and delighted to share this space together in the classroom of a Jesuit theology school. The laughter was followed by our sharing of how meaningful it was to be in a room full of other LGBTQ+ people pursuing theology and ministry despite the inevitable obstacles ahead of us working in the Catholic Church. Already, each of us paved our own separate ways through exclusionary sentiments and doctrine in the Church to get to that room.

They are hardly the first majority-queer class in a Catholic seminary. But they are pioneers in bringing their full, out, honest selves. I predict that their wholesome honesty will improve the quality of their ministry. How wonderful! They, like people before them, have no idea what their job possibilities are or how they will be received in Catholic ministry settings. But minister they will in a needy world, even if not under the auspices of a shrinking Church.

Their very existence is a sign that the “center” of Catholicism is not the institutional Church but the world’s people. People in need of medical care, food, housing, jobs, and support are at the center of Gospel-based faith. Luckily, thanks to the women who got the process started, the paradigm is shifting. Those on the margins now are Church officials who hoard the resources, both material and spiritual, that belong to and are needed by everyone. With a change of heart and practice, they, too, can be part of the whole; it helps no one for anyone to be marginalized. The challenge is to blur the lines of center and periphery, leaving no willing hands idle when it comes to creating justice.

This article is part of a symposium on Women and the Priesthood. Read the other articles here:
“Women at the Altar” – Jane Varner Malhotra
“Distorting the Gospel” – Teresa Delgado
“Why Not Women?” – Alice McDermott

Mary E. Hunt is a feminist theologian who is cofounder and codirector of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER) in Silver Spring, Maryland. A Catholic active in the Women-Church movement and on LGBTQI matters, she lectures and writes on theology and ethics with particular attention to liberation issues. Ms. Hunt is an editor of A Guide for Women in Religion: Making Your Way from A to Z and coeditor with Diann L. Neu of New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views. She writes for ReligionDispatches.org, among other outlets.

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Published in the May 2024 issue: View Contents
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