Guest Post! Guest Post!

Christina Gebel is a freelance writer and photographer. She has an undergraduate degree in theology from Saint Louis University and a Master of Public Health degree from Boston University. She currently lives in Boston, MA working in public health research. You can follower her on Twitter @ChristinaGebel.

Nearly a year ago, in a New York Times op-ed, Cadence Woodland decried the excommunication of Kate Kelly, a feminist Mormon, who spoke openly about her support for women in the Mormon priesthood. Kelly, a lawyer, was excommunicated on the charge of apostasy. Just recently, the New York Times furthered its fascination with women’s ordination again, publishing an Opinion by Frank Bruni about the questionable equality of women in the Church, including women’s ordination to the priesthood.

These two pieces in a prominent U.S. news source are kindling for the flickering flame of support for women’s ordination and show that the issue is not unique to Catholicism, where the issue is weak but not dead. Two years ago, a priest in Melbourne, Australia was excommunicated for supporting women’s ordination, among other issues. Around that same time, Pope Francis, amid gaining global popularity, announced that women’s ordination was a “closed” issue. Even Francis, who many thought would breathe fresh air on Church doctrine, sent a strong message just months after his election to the papacy.

For supporters of women’s ordination, the Church seems not only failing to progress but may also be sliding back in time. Just recently, the issue of whether or not parishes should allow female altar servers time-traveled to modern day discourse, the cause greatly helped by traditionalist Cardinal Raymond Burke’s interview on the “Catholic ‘man-crisis’ and what to do about it” where he comments on such things as “the radical feminism, which has assaulted the Church and society since the 1960s,” leaving men “marginalized.” This same feminism which, he adds, has led the Church to “constantly address women’s issues at the expense of addressing critical issues important to men.” He suggests that the presence of female altar servers has decreased priestly vocations and goes on to say that having exclusively boys as altar servers “has nothing to do with the inequality of women in the Church” whose sanctuary has become “full of women.”

In one sense, the Church is prudent in not engaging every issue of the modern day. The Church has been around for thousands of years: it has seen many forms of government, social movements, cultural beliefs, peace and unrest. Through it all, some believers, desiring clarity and steadfast beliefs, have grounded their unwavering positions in what they call timeless Truth, a Truth that is immutable and does not sway with modern day movements. However, for believers whose positions question or waver, when it comes to issues such as women’s ordination, it feels as though the Church has taken its prudence and fallen victim to fear. And it wasn’t always this way.

Dissent used to have a prominent place in Catholicism. In fact, we owe the Nicene Creed to ecumenical councils whose proceedings were occasioned by dissent within and among various Church communities. I sometimes imagine what these councils must have been like. There was probably yelling, sneering, jeering, inspiring monologues, and divine guidance, all in the same room, among people sitting right next to each other. In wrestling with the issues of the day, or at least those days, Catholicism grew and matured into what it is today.

However, dissent seems less welcome today. A quick Wikipedia search of Catholic excommunication shows an increasingly long list over the centuries. While many of those excommunicated recently held ordained or religious positions within the Church, and were thus considered more capable of unduly influencing other believers with their “erring” ways, they are still members of the Church whose opinions should be heard openly and valued.

The hierarchy of the Church seems to not see it this way and is quick to sound the alarm and take off running with fire hoses. However, instead of throwing water on the fire of a movement, like Arianism, a topic settled at Nicea, the Church seems to snuff out moments and people, before a movement could ever take hold.

Such actions leave Catholics, like me, feeling dismissed. Attending an all-girls Catholic high school, I was encouraged to do anything I wanted and to pursue any path, the irony of which was that one path under the roof of a parish would always be closed to me. My classmates and I were encouraged to debate and to explore new ideas, and I left my high school years confident and empowered to enter a world where all the doors have been open to me, as Cummings comments in Bruni’s piece. This momentum was furthered when I attended Jesuit university for four years. All in all, the messaging I got from 16 years of Catholic schools was to always speak up, debate, explore, and learn from my classmates’ diverse opinions. People disagreed openly, and that was okay.

Therefore, it’s not the agreement or disagreement within the Church that I get upset about. What upsets me is the death of dissent and open, engaging dialogue with dissenters. What upsets me more is this death alongside the proclamation of openness to women in the Church, as showcased in a bold conversation recently at the Vatican, though it remains as to whether this conversation will be followed up with any meaningful action. The Pope has called for further inclusion of women in the Church, while offering no specifics and at a time when data show women are underrepresented in influential diocesan positions. This is the same Pope who says that disagreement is a necessary part of dialogue for the Synod of Bishops on the Family, yet passes the first draft of the culminating document on the most pertinent issues of today’s family with zero votes from a woman. The same Pope who calls unequal pay among men and women “a scandal,” but who also heads a Church that cries scandal over dissenting opinions on women’s ordination. The Pope has failed to issue a statement on the sexist comments made by Burke, a Cardinal who sees women’s further involvement in the Church and liturgy as a threat, whereas others within the Church see it as a manifestation of the deep desire of women to serve the Church in new ways. Why is it that Burke can speak so provocatively but believers supporting women’s ordination cannot? This leaves the provocation one-sided, and the dialogue, too.

Not agreeing is a consequence of human nature. Not listening to someone or shutting down dialogue sends an entirely different message. Talking out of both sides of its mouth, the Church, proclaiming to value women while cracking down on dissenting opinions on women’s ordination, comes across as artificial. It leaves me feeling similar to how I felt when churches started to switch from wax and wick petitionary candles to electric ones. The intent was there, the action of “lighting” one was supposedly the same, but pushing that button just never quite did it for me. Perhaps it was the sight, the smell, the inherent risk of the fire that was discarded in favor of a “safer” option. Eventually, the practice of petitionary candles lost their appeal for me. A Church that labels dissent as a hazard will lose its appeal, too. And for some, it already has.

11 thoughts

  1. Totally agree. I too went to an all-girls school and became Catholic soon after. My friends thought I was joining a sexist Church. It’s not all bad of course, but there is definitely a struggle in being a female Catholic, and I can’t say that I’d ever really faced sexism before that. Even other women are quick to label women with a career as “radical feminists”. There are people who “shush” you if you want to contribute to a discussion. The men are “princes of the Church” but it’s not always clear what women are supposed to do. I say this as someone who would hardly consider herself “radical”. Dissenters/those who didn’t play it safe have had a bigger influence in Catholicism than the hierarchy would like to admit. Many of the great saints toed the line of orthodoxy – pushed the bounds of what was acceptable (ex. Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, John of Avila, etc.). All the major issues were born of strife. Why aren’t there many (any?) women working in the Vatican in any of the congregations? Does everyone have to be a bishop? Do all Cardinals have to be bishops? Only since Benedict XV in the early 20th has it been a requirement for Cardinals to be priests. Merely saying that women play an important role in the Church doesn’t cut it. Yes, there was Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila etc. but they were the exception to the rule. As for ordination, I wonder why there are no female deacons. Even the popes have suggested that there were once female deacons.

  2. The question, having women pastors has confused me. I understand the reason for a man to be head pastor, but is it wrong for a woman? A woman can be a youth group leader, but not a pastor. My faith in God grow from my youth group leader whom happens to be a woman.

  3. Ms. Gebel, thank you.

    Your analysis of the development of dogma is spot on. There’s pluralism built right into the New Testament. “Expiatory sacrifice,” it was Jesus’ blood that washed away our sins is in all three synoptics (Mark, Matt, Luke). John’s gospel explicitly rejects expiatory sacrifice. It was Jesus’ birth (the word-made-flesh) that saved us.

    The synoptics all have one-passover. John’s gospel includes three. It’s from there that scholars have gotten the idea of a three-year public ministry. The crowds that Jesus was able to attract would seem to warrant a longer ministry.

    John’s gospel is also an outlier on miracles. It’s clear that the Johannine community/church was struggling with the absence of healings that characterized Jesus’ ministry. Most of Jesus miracles are in the synoptics. Even within the synoptics, there are significant differences. Mark’s gospel doesn’t have a resurrection. The last eight-verses were appended later. Matthew and Luke both share the Q source, sayings from a primitive Christian community. Mark apparently did not have access to it. There’s no sermon on the Mount in Mark.

    IMHO, the hierarchy is most vulnerable on ordination w/r/t the priest shortage, which is a direct cause of the sex abuse scandals. Unfortunately, and imho the Roman hierarchy’s first step will be to open up the option of married male priests in addition to celibate male priests. While that in itself will be a great milestone, it’s still an ecclesial slap-in-the-face. There are no theological arguments that explain how a gender can receive the sacraments, but not administer them (except in emergencies (baptism)).

    I would be remiss in not pointing out out that even when a Roman Catholic priest is not engaging in abusing minors, the overall quality is just not very good. Exacerbating the lack of quality is that the priest shortage means that the vast majority of priests are older and over-worked. Expanding the pool of candidates to include both genders, with the option to marry, or remain celibate, would greatly improve the quality of Roman Catholic priests.

  4. Dissent, robust discussion, disagreement, and development of doctrinal understanding have always been an important part of the Church (see, for example, the book of Acts). It is unhealthy to supress this.

    While Pope Francis has his limitations, he is opening up a valuable space for discussion, and recognises, as Pope Benedict also did, the urgent need for a more complete role for women in the Catholic Church.

    The question is how to work with the Holy Spirit to assist the growth of the tiny mustard seed into the fulness of the Kingdom of God. Bearing in mind that mustard was consisdered a noxious weed ie something new and radical which tends to be resisted.

    The best possibility seems to be to encourage the movment towards ordaining women deacons, as Pope Benedict has said there is no doctrine against this and there is very strong historical precdent.

    Do not be afraid, and do not give up hope !


    God Bless

  5. Interesting post. I think the Church has always struggled with being afraid of being wrong. If we admit we are actually wrong about something, then we feel people will accuse us of being wrong about everything (e.g. the Gospel, the Word of God, etc.). When it comes to women in the Church, we’ve messed it up, but we’re afraid to admit it. If our Lord could accept women in ministry and the Apostles, why is it so hard for us to do in 2015? And, like you said, why can’t we at least talk about it without fear of excommunication or disassociation (for me, a Protestant)?

  6. Reblogged this on CATHOLIC, Non-Roman Western Style and commented:

    Authenticity is key. I really like your analogy of the wax and electric sanctuary candles. As you say so well, “Eventually, the practice of petitionary candles lost their appeal for me. A Church that labels dissent as a hazard will lose its appeal, too. And for some, it already has.” Thank you, Christian Gebel!

  7. Thank you for posting this. The Church today needs to realize that women in ministry is vital and much needed. I know of some women pastors who still feel like outcasts. This needs to stop!

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