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.