Women’s ordination: a third way


An Open House reader reflects on Pope Francis’ response to calls from the Amazonian bishops for the ordination of women.

The question of the role of women in the church, including ordination, has a long history. The theological arguments on both sides are well known to all of us. There is I feel a third way: not so much a middle ground as a new wineskin.

This is a deeply personal and sensitive issue and wherever you find yourself, beliefs are genuinely and staunchly held. So, it is with the utmost respect that I ask you consider an alternative point of view, an Easter perspective.

If we consider the early church, just as we are at this time of the liturgical year, we see that the movement of Jesus the Nazarene challenges all the given social norms. Our earliest written source, St. Paul, reflects the dynamic tension between the traditionalists and the radicals, as they wrestle with this new law of the Spirit (Acts 15). St. Paul himself had experienced the challenging nature of the Spirit. He writes to the faithful in Galatia, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3:28).

This was a highly divisive and contentious issue within the Jesus movement. St. Paul himself had to negotiate with the Jerusalem Church. At the same time, within wider Judaism it was seen as a rejection of the traditions and the Law. This only served to alienate the movement further.

We know from scripture how fraught the relationship between the early church and the Sadducees and Pharisees had become with the suffering of Paul, the stoning to death of Stephen and persecution of believers ordered from Jerusalem. However, a Kairos moment was approaching and with the Jewish uprising and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, Judaism had to completely redefine itself. Gone were the priestly caste, the animal sacrificial offerings, the taxes, the festal pilgrimages; the whole social, cultic and political structure now needed to be redefined.

This Kairos moment allowed Judaism the grace to begin the process of redefining itself, replacing animal sacrifice with prayer. It replaced Temple and priestly centred festal celebration with family-centric worship. It encouraged education and a deeper level of study of the scriptures.

Pope Francis, a visionary, perceives a Kairos moment approaching today. He begins chapter one of Querida Amazonia, his post synodal exhortation on the synod on the Amazon, with his inspired four great dreams:

A Social Dream

‘I dream of an Amazon region that fights for the rights of the poor, the original peoples and the least of our brothers and sisters, where their voices can be heard and their dignity advanced.

A Cultural Dream

‘I dream of an Amazon region that can preserve its distinctive cultural riches, where the beauty of our humanity shines forth in so many varied ways.

An Ecological Dream

‘I dream of an Amazon region that can jealously preserve its overwhelming natural beauty and the superabundant life teeming in its rivers and forests.

An Ecclesial Dream

‘I dream of Christian communities capable of generous commitment, incarnate in the Amazon region, and giving the Church new faces with Amazonian features’.

The work of the synodal assembly is one he prays will enrich and challenge the entire Church QA (4). Therefore we reflect that our own crisis is also a struggle to answer questions of inequality, interculturality and ecology. How are we to fulfil these four dreams in our region, the world over? How are we to be church in our local and world community, new skins for the new wine?

Prophetically, in Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis recognises the need for an apostleship of all believers. It is in fact our purpose on earth EG(273) and the depth our own spiritual life is dependent on it EG(272). This is what we need to discern, a new model a new way of fulfilled apostleship for all believers. Pope Francis does not shy away from the challenges this means for the church in terms of the rights which the equal dignity of men and women presents EG(104).

Franciscan Richard Rohr OFM, writing recently about Julian of Norwich, pondered over her insightfulness which was unlike that of her time. He writes, ‘It is not based in sin, shame, guilt, fear of God or hell. Instead, it is full of delight, freedom, intimacy and cosmic hope. How did she retain such freedom, we ask? Maybe and precisely because she was not a priest, ordained to speak the party line’ (A Mystic For Our Time 10.05.20 Podcast).

This assertion leads us to wonder if perhaps for some priests, like Fr Rohr, clericalism can be a place of burden, enforced silence, with a sense of underlying threat and fear.

Pope Francis has announced a new commission considering women in the diaconate. But let us take a moment to look at the wider picture. When considering the bishops in the Amazonian region who favoured women to be ordained to the diaconate, Gemma Lamarra asked the question, ‘Could it be the case that these bishops are less clericalised than those who object to women in the diaconate?’ (Open House April/May).

If however, we look at this from a different angle, it could be argued that it is precisely these bishops who are so invested in the current clericalism of the church that they seek to maintain it at any cost – even ordaining women. Do we want the ordination of women to prop up the current power structure? For women who receive the acceptance to ordination might find themselves invested in the authority structure which validates them. A power and authority structure within which they then live and move.

Clericalism and the ordination of women are not issues restricted to Roman Catholicism. Many of us will have met ordained women of different traditions who have been both inspirational and inclusive. However, gender alone is no guarantee of de-clericalisation and many of us will also have experience of ordained women, who were as clerical and authoritarian as can be imagined. We will also have experienced many ordained men who are sensitively aware of the burden and temptations of clericalism and who humbly seek to empower the laity – men and women – they work with.

Simply ordaining women, or married men, might not de-clericalise the church. It will not bring new exploration of the charisms of the laity. Instead it may only continue to bolster the status quo and either burden or tempt them with the authority of clericalism.

Instead, I share Pope Francis’ ecclesial dream, which celebrates the call of the laity as apostles, sent out to ‘proclaim God’s word, teach, organise communities, celebrate certain sacraments, seek different ways to express popular devotion and develop the multitude of gifts that the spirit pours out in their midst’ QA(89).

In fact, Pope Francis, clearly in solidarity with women, particularly acknowledges not just the ‘remarkable devotion and deep faith’ of women but specifically states that these were women who were, ‘undoubtedly called and prompted by the Holy Spirit, baptised, catechised, prayed and acted as missionaries’ QA(99).

And it is from this wider understanding of apostleship, celebrating and fully utilizing all gifts and talents that we are asked to step forward. To ‘broaden our vision’ QA (100) and ‘encourage the emergence of other forms of service and charisms’ QA(102). Here Holy Orders is not valued over and above baptism, nor is it a status of power, it is merely in the particular service of the eucharist and reconciliation QA(129).

To de-clericalise, or as Pope Francis writes, when our ecclesial structure has ‘become incarnate’ QA(6) and we are truly on a ‘communal journey’ QA(20); when we are alongside the hitherto voiceless, including women; then can we truly work for the inclusion of all to Holy Orders. So the visionary response is not to close the door on women being accepted into Holy Orders but it is to truly see them as part of the solution.

Pope Francis notes the tension between two main opposing forms of ecclesial organisation and asks us to embrace the transformative power of the resurrection: ‘the real response to the challenges of evangelisation lie in transcending the two approaches and finding other, better ways, perhaps not yet even imagined’ QA(104). New skins for new wine.

Returning to St. Paul: he believed not in the resuscitation of Christ but in the wholly transformative power of the resurrection, through death into new life. Perhaps in our Kairos moment he would write to us…

‘There is no longer lay or ordained, there is no longer male or female, there is no longer gay or straight, there is no longer powerless and powerful, there is no longer North, South, East or Western elitism, no longer hierarchy of wealth, culture or power; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus’.

Diane Foy is a Catholic primary school teacher.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.