Women priests? (Revised slightly)
“For change to occur, sometimes you need a few brave souls who are willing to rock the boat. Such was the case yesterday as a small group of women literally rocked a boat in Ontario when they were ordained as priests and deacons in the Catholic Church as they sailed the St. Lawrence River. … Here’s hoping a big step”
My comment there began, “I doubt it. Stepping on Ecclesial toes usually gets you nowhere. St. Francis of Assisi and Dorothy Day knew how to stretch the envelope, without stomping.”
Talmida, of another site I like (Lesser of Two Weevils), responded:
“Lee, I'm curious, how could these women have moved the church closer to accepting women's ordination without stepping on Ecclesial toes? We're barred from the diaconate, the priesthood, and even from studying & discussing the matter. We're not allowed membership to the governing body that makes all the decisions regarding our spiritual lives.
What options are left?”
Before I start, let me be clear about one thing: I believe in the ordination of women. I pray that I might see it in my lifetime (I doubt that I will, but then again, I do believe in miracles!)
I also don’t object in principal to stepping on toes in the form of breaking unjust laws. The Civil Rights movement in the U.S. would not have gotten as far as it did if not for a willingness to do so when it became necessary.
And the church does sometimes respond when confronted – though it is slow. The Protestants challenged the Church 500 years ago, and it did eventually change some things. It took until Vatican II though to make some of those changes, however!
So in that sense, Talmida might be right in another one of her comments that in 100 years things might be different.
But just as we do not look back at Calvin or Luther as “saints,” I suspect these women will not be embraced by the church down the road as she suggests.
The changes in the church come not from the folks who break away. It comes from the people who stay within and gently but firmly nudge it forward.
For while the dramatic gesture gets the press - and may provide a certain level of satisfaction - it is the quiet moves that are making changes.
Here's how I see change coming.
We are running out of priests (Perhaps God’s way of letting us know it’s time to do something different?). In order to meet the ministerial needs of people, the church has been forced to turn to other people.
The permanent deacons are one partial solution. (I hope to do my part here!)
But increasingly, parish staffs are being filled by women with theological degrees. In this diocese, we even have women who are officially administering parishes. These women have advanced theological degrees. Our local theological institute – where deacons and lay ministers are educated and trained - is run by a woman. We have many women serving as lectors and Eucharistic ministers. We have female altar servers.
The net effect is that the people in the pews – some of whom would have jumped up and down 20 year ago at the sight of a woman even just approaching the altar – are getting used to women in positions of leadership and service in the church. They see women running parishes, preaching, making decisions, ministering.
As the numbers of priests continue to decrease, the numbers of women in such position will continue to increase.
Now, many of these women have the same education and training as deacons, and are essentially functioning as deacons. We have a current prohibition against women in the diaconate, but part of the rationale behind that is that the diaconate was traditionally one of the steps en route to ordination as a priest. But with the permanent diaconate now being an end in itself, I think we will see that it will be regarded in a separate light.
I believe we will see women permanent deacons in the future.
It will take time. My diocese is pretty advanced in terms of the diaconate and women in ministry – heck, Bishop Sheen (yes, that icon of the conservatives) when he was Bishop of Rochester back in the 1960s hired a woman to teach at the diocesan seminary! – so we are closer than some places. There are dioceses where they haven’t even begun the diaconate, and where positions like lector and Eucharistic minister are still not open to women. But that is changing. Fewer and fewer dioceses are like that.
I don’t know the timing, but it wouldn’t shock me if we see women deacons in the next 20 years.
Once we get that, once even conservative dioceses start to enjoy the ministerial service of women, we will move closer to women priests.
I look to Dorothy Day as an example,
I regard her as a saint and a hero.
She certainly could be contentious and cantankerous, especially when it came to fighting for the rights of the people she served. She was not afraid to break unjust laws.
But she declared that if church officials told her to stop, she would.
She could have jumped ship, gone public, gone her own way, stomped on a few toes. The media would have glorified her. But she was a “loyal daughter of the church.”
And church officials knew that (after all, she declared it in print!). She made them feel uncomfortable, even embarrassed. She challenged them. But she never openly defied them, and they never asked her to stop.
I believe that some of the peace and social justice declarations by U.S. bishops in the 1980s and 90s grew in part out of her influence and that of her movement.
I believe that her houses of hospitality helped to inspire parishes to respond to the homeless crisis in the 1980s by opening shelters, soup kitchen and food pantries.
I believe that her willingness to face arrest to challenge unjust laws helped to inspire generations of Catholics who were willing to confront civil authorities.
If she had stepped on toes in the 1930s, this might not have happened.
Much as they’d like to step on a few toes, to rock the boat now, I think it is the women who are working for change in the church while still being ”loyal daughters of the church” who will move the church to change its rules.
Of course, even if I am right, I know that this is not an easy thing for many women – especially those who feel called to serve as priests. The frustration, the pain, the sense of incompleteness must be incredible. It could so easily turn to anger and bitterness.
Sadly, in some cases, it has. It has led some good women and men to leave.
And that hurts us all.