Letter on women’s ordination in the Catholic Church

Below is a letter that I wrote on one of the topics that is nearest to my heart, the call of women to ordination in the Catholic Church:

Dear Father,

Yesterday, my 23-year-old daughter and I were in attendance at 7:30 Mass. We are local, but not parishioners. When you began the homily saying that you were continuing a series on the sacraments with Holy Orders, my daughter put her hand out for me to clasp, because it is a very sensitive topic for us, especially in regards to women’s ordination, and we knew that we might wind up leaving together in tears. That we did not is a testament to your pastoral sensitivity on a very fraught topic.

I appreciated your statements about the theology coming along much later than the practice of Holy Orders for men only. The two theological defenses that you chose to share in your homily, that the Twelve were all male and that women priests would disrupt the imagery of the church as the bride of Christ, were presented in the most even-handed way possible. Thank you for not going into the whole “male as normative” line of argument, which flies in the face of the constant teaching that both male and female image God and that in Christ all are one. It also elevates maleness above other attributes. For instance, the Twelve were Jews, religiously and ethnically, but we don’t say that that is normative. I admit that the “Bride of Christ” imagery is problematic for me, as I don’t find it especially meaningful. I find much more power and dignity in the image of the Church as the Body of Christ, actively carrying divine love and service out into the world.

I also appreciated the historical context you included on the development of bishops, deacons, and priests in the early church, especially in being clear that both women and men served as deacons. There is also evidence of women serving as priests, presiding in early house churches. There are inscriptions and art depicting women presiders that has been recovered from early Christian burial sites. There is evidence of women, sometimes abbesses, who acted as bishops, into the Middle Ages. This history is not well-known, but it is very meaningful to those who do know it.

I appreciated you quoting Pope Francis saying that the church does not YET have the authority to ordain women, because that is much more hopeful than the statements of John Paul and Benedict. Given that the Pontifical Biblical Commission found no biblical reason that women could not be ordained, there is hope that the Holy Spirit will enable the Church of the future to recognize and accept through Holy Orders all who are called to serve, regardless of their gender.

I know a number of women who have discerned this call. As you said, you can’t know what it is like to have such a call but to be excluded from fulfilling it. The women that I know who felt called but who are vowed religious have all stayed with the Church, serving God and all people through the ministries that they are allowed to perform. Most of the other women that I know that felt this call to the priesthood or diaconate have withdrawn from active participation in the church because it is too painful to be constantly reminded of not being able to be what God has called them to be. Most of these women still identify as Catholic, but do not participate in parish life and worship. A few joined other denominations, including one who is now an ordained minister.

I myself have walked a fine, and perhaps cowardly, line of not knowing. From my early teens, I was involved in music and liturgy planning ministries. When I was a young mother, I had two dreams that I was a priest. I actually went to a discernment meeting in the diocese, back before they specified that you had to be either unmarried or a married man to attend. When we broke into smaller groups, I wound up going with the deacons, who shared that often the deacons’ wives would go to all the courses and training with their husbands, but that there was nothing that they could offer them in the end as their husbands were ordained.

Knowing how difficult it was for my friends who felt called to stay in the church, I decided not to try to discern if I was actually called myself. So, I have spent a couple of decades in this uncertain space. Of late, the deacon at the parish I most often attend has been ill and I find myself looking at the priest alone in the presidential chair and thinking that I could be there assisting as deacon. After a homily about the obstacles we face to saying “Here I am” to God, I went and spoke to the priest about these persistent thoughts of myself as deacon, knowing that, in some diocese, women are pursuing the possibility and that there is an international movement to restore women to the diaconate. I told the priest with whom I spoke that I knew there was nothing he could do in our diocese, but that I needed someone to listen, which he very graciously did. I appreciate his willingness to give me a time and space to share my situation with him and his support in the limbo in which so many women reside, not just on the question of ordination, but in the larger sphere of existing as a Catholic woman, especially a married one, when you are treated as somehow “other” in the one place in which you should be accepted in your fullness as a child of God.

He could neither do nor did I expect him to do anything about my dilemma. This applies to you as well, but I wanted to try to convey to you my thanks for your sensitivity in not causing me or my daughter any more pain than we already feel as women in the church. While my hopes of the “Yet” being in my lifetime diminish, perhaps it will be within my daughters’ lifetimes. We can only hope and pray.

In the love of God, the peace of Christ, and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit,

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