A Woman's Ordination Conference demonstrator and Cardinal Bernard Law (Dept. of Archival Collections, Marquette University)

Interested in discussing this article in your classroom, parish, reading group, or Commonweal Local Community? Click here for a free discussion guide.

Otto Preminger’s film The Cardinal was released in 1963, when I was ten years old, so I guess it was some years later that it appeared on TV. I recall watching it with my mother. I watched many movies with my mother.

Early on, there’s a scene where a young priest tells his pregnant sister’s doctors that they must let her die in order to save her unborn child. I turned to my mother in disbelief. Would that really happen?

“Oh yes,” my mother assured me, placidly enough. “That’s the rule in the Catholic Church. The baby’s life comes before the life of the mother.”

Until then, I’d always pestered my mother about having another baby. I was the youngest of three and the only girl. I wanted a sister. But after seeing The Cardinal, I prayed she would never again take that risk. I knew I needed her far more than I needed some imagined baby sister. Her life was the life I cherished above all others, the life most essential to my own. I suppose I was too young at the time to realize that the pregnant sister who must die could, someday, be me.

This, then, was my first encounter with the diminished value my Church assigns to the lives of women. Not the last, of course.

In those days, I could not be an altar server, as my brothers were, simply because I was female. Throughout my grammar-school years, I watched the middle-aged nuns who taught us—formidable, dignified women—bow and scrape and even giggle whenever the parish priests, some of them mere twenty-somethings, deigned to visit our classrooms.

In my all-girls Catholic high school, we were challenged by our female teachers to read widely, to know world history and Church history, to understand economics—and not just home economics. We were encouraged to debate cogently, whether our subject was politics or poetry or Plato’s cave. We were assured that the big news of the era was true: women could do, could become, anything they set their minds to. And yet we were able to celebrate Mass or line up for Reconciliation only when a local priest agreed to fit us girls into his busy schedule.

Years later, my own daughter asked Sr. Nina, her fifth-grade teacher, why there were seven sacraments for Catholic men, but only six for Catholic women. Sister’s reply? “Good question.”

Our all-male clergy is no big deal, I’ve been told over the years by Catholic men and many Catholic women. Just a small matter of custom or ritual, a harmless tradition. Jesus was a man, the old argument goes; how confusing it would be to the faithful if Christ were represented on the altar by a non-man, a woman. Of course, we don’t worry about that confusion when we make references to Mother Church with all her feminine pronouns.

“Oh, come on,” a smiling cardinal replied with a wink when I pressed him on the issue of women’s ordination. “It’s you women who really run the Church.” In a similar discussion, a laughing monsignor assured me that his priests were “terrified” of the Mothers’ Club at his school. “Talk about power,” he’d said. All in good humor.

My own daughter asked Sr. Nina, her fifth-grade teacher, why there were seven sacraments for Catholic men, but only six for Catholic women. Sister’s reply? “Good question.”

But how to separate this “small matter” of an all-male clergy from the insidious effects of ritual misogyny? In his book Turning Point, Robert McClory tells the “inside story” of the Papal Birth Control Commission of the early sixties. The commission, which included married Catholics, found an overwhelming desire among faithful Catholic couples to be able to use birth control—for the good of their marriages but also for the health of the women in the marriage, too many of whom knew the toll of multiple pregnancies, miscarriages, or husbands who must be denied. These were faithful Catholic couples who requested access to birth control in order to protect the very life and physical well-being of Catholic women. We all know how that turned out.


In the early part of this century, I had dinner in Boston with a group of Catholic-school teachers, all women, some of them nuns or former nuns. The abuse scandal had just broken and their collective cry was one of opportunity missed. They could have protected these children from priestly predators, they said, if only the male hierarchy had told them which priests to look out for. If the male hierarchy had shared what they knew about those “troubled men,” the women were certain they could have run interference whenever a suspected priest called a child out of their classrooms.

These women didn’t want to change the power structure in the Church. They weren’t particularly interested in ordaining women. They didn’t even want to see the scandal exposed. They simply wished the cardinal and the other male pastors had trusted them, confided in them, enlisted their help for the good of the children. They wished they had been treated as equals, worthy of full participation in the life of the Church, even in its cover-ups and its failings.

Over the course of my adulthood, I have watched our Church abandon any sincere attempt to confront the complex moral issues that pertain to reproduction in exchange for a simplistic legal solution: overturn Roe. I’ve seen the leadership of the Catholic Church reject the challenge to convince, to counsel, to comfort, or to discern, in favor of promoting secular laws that will only coerce.

Over the course of my adulthood, I have watched our Church abandon any sincere attempt to confront the complex moral issues that pertain to reproduction.

All the while, as one war followed another, Catholic men were told by their priests that joining the military and taking up arms is a matter of conscience. Each should follow his own understanding of just war, what counts as morally acceptable self-defense or justifiable homicide for some greater good. They were told military service is a personal, prayerful choice.

I recall another conversation with a charming bishop, who listened sympathetically when I described a young friend’s tragic experience of the in-utero death of her infant. “We who are pro-life need to keep such circumstances in mind,” he said kindly. But then he added, “What I object to are these women who have abortions simply because they want to go on holiday.” I told him I called this the Jezebel defense of abortion bans. He said he didn’t consider these women Jezebels; he thought them hardly human.


I attended Mass the Sunday after the Dobbs decision. I love the Mass. I love the Eucharist. For all the anguish my Church has caused, in the world and in my own heart, I have never been denied the peace, understanding, and renewal of hope and love that the celebration of the Mass has always afforded me. But on that day, I saw my presence in my own church as a kind of collusion—collusion with misogyny, with hypocrisy, with the conviction that to be female is to be the other, to be lesser. Less complex, less moral, less valuable, less intelligent, less worthy, less human.

As Catholics, we are aware of—we celebrate—the outward signs of inner grace. Our rituals are built on the importance of those signs and symbols, and our Church, our spirit, thrives on them as a source of good. But if there are outward signs of inner grace, then surely there are outward signs of inner corruption, signs that betray our faults, our sinfulness, our blindness, our failings. The all-male priesthood of the Catholic Church, my Church, has become for me just such a sign. And so I persist, with varying degrees of hope. I ask and ask again: Why not women? I pray for change. 

This article is adapted from a presentation at the Georgetown University conference in April 2023. It was published as 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
“Distorting the Gospel” - Teresa Delgado

Alice McDermott is the author of nine novels. Her latest is Absolution, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2023.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the May 2024 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.