Back With a Vengeance: The Return of the Women’s Ordination Question


March 1, 2002

On the third Sunday of Advent in 1998, a handful of middle-aged women wearing purple ribbons clutched purple flowers as they entered St. Barnabas Cathedral in Nottingham, England. The members of Catholic Women’s Ordination (CWO) had come from surrounding parishes to stand as witnesses to their hope for women priests. “At the end of Mass, we placed our fading purple flowers on the chancel steps, as a sign of our mourning for the lost and wasted gifts of women’s ministry in the Catholic Church,” reported a spokesman for the group.

Unconcerned by its modest numbers, CWO participated in the first W.I.S.E. (Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and England) Women’s Synod in July 1999, an event inspired by the ecumenical First European Women’s Synod in 1996. That same year, Austria kicked off the International Movement We Are Church (IMWAC). A band of dissident Catholics demanding women’s ordination, married priests, abortion, and Church approval of homosexual liaisons, IMWAC is famous for its “storming of the Vatican” on the 25th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council (see “Referendum a la Roma,” Crisis, January 1998). During the October 2001 Tenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, IMWAC sponsored a “shadow synod of the People of God” in Rome under the noses of the world’s bishops. Their published demands included:

No form of discrimination should be tolerated in Church leadership. All offices, including the diaconate, the ministerial priesthood, the episcopate, and the papacy, should be open to all baptized Catholics, male or female, married or single, gay or straight, young or old, those of all races, ethnic or linguistic groups.

In Europe, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Mexico, and the United States, grassroots women’s ordination groups have formed to oppose the teaching of Pope John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (On Reserving the Priesthood to Men Alone). The synods and international conferences are the result of a growing coordination among the associations who insist that equality and justice for women in the Church can be met only when women are ordained. According to IMWAC sources, 40 women in Austria have completed a two-year training course for the priesthood, and Bishop Paul Iby “apologized for not being able to ordain them” but said, “Please wait and see if things change.”

Although the total membership of these organizations is a minute fraction of the global Catholic population, media and political pressure have frequently pushed the debate about the role of women in the Church to the front page. The perception is that the precarious health of the pope and the current popularity of rights groups offer a wide window of opportunity for leaders of the women’s ordination movement. Thus in July 2001, the first-ever Women’s Ordination Worldwide (WOW) conference was held in Dublin. The location was chosen in part to embarrass Dublin’s cardinal, Desmond Connell, a supporter of Church teaching on the priesthood. According to sponsors, the conference “exceeded our wildest dreams.”

A Former Priest’s Personal Mission

WOW organizers admit that they are refining their strategy and tactics in preparation for the next pontificate. John Wijngaards, a laicized priest of the United Kingdom, addressed the WOW conference. Wijngaards explained to Crisis that while meeting the challenge of the women’s ordination controversy may not be the first priority of the next pontificate, “it will be a catalyst to show the problems in the structure of the Church. It will be a test case. Something needs to be shaken up in the way authority approaches this question.”

His presentation to WOW, “Discerning the Spirit’s New Creation,” argued that the ban on women priests is driven by a centuries-old prejudice that women are inferior to men. That prejudice can be best dismantled by a carefully crafted reeducation effort aimed at bishops, priests, and orthodox laity, Wijngaards said. He outlined specific strategies.

First, he said the movement for the ordination of women needs to position itself squarely in the heart of the Church. “The movement aims at transforming the whole Church from within. Full participation of women in all ministries will require an overhaul of church law, of seminary training, ecclesiastical structures, pastoral practices…. We should not allow the movement for the ordination of women to be pushed to the fringes…. This is what our opponents would love to do: to get rid of us as an invasion of aliens, a secular infection, a lump that needs to be amputated.”

Second, he encouraged attendees to keep discussion alive among opinion leaders in the Church. “In the Catholic Church the main opinion leaders are: bishops, priests, theologians, editors, authors, lecturers, and teachers…. We must promote seminars, workshops, and conferences on the ordination of women wherever possible. Organizations should be asked to devote a regular event (for instance, their annual meeting) to this topic.”

Third, he said, women should be at the altar in liturgical settings. “Though the priestly ministry extends much wider than presiding over the Eucharist, it is women’s closeness to the Eucharist that will serve as a powerful symbol for traditional Catholics…. Inclusive language should be used at all times during liturgical services. Even if the officiating priest forgets to do this, other ministers such as readers and preachers should observe the rule. People will get the point. During the prayers of intercession, a regular petition could be inserted asking the Holy Spirit to guide the Church in the matter of the ordination of women, or some such prayer.”

A soft-spoken man of avuncular appearance, Wijngaards cannot be dismissed as a reactionary dissenter. He earned his licenciate of sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute and a doctorate of divinity at the Gregorian University. He then served his order, Mission Hill Missionaries, in India from 1963 until 1976 when he was elected vicar-general. Today, he’s the director of the Housetop International Center for Faith Formation in London.

Wijngaards, whose commentaries such as “The Priesthood of Mary” appear in the UK Catholic magazine, The Tablet, has also written for the National Catholic Reporter. Wijngaards has been a supporter of women’s ordination for more than 20 years; his book, Did Christ Rule Out Women Priests?, was published in 1977. Today, his major projects are adult formation and, an Internet site with dozens of documents defending women’s ordination.

“Rome’s utter rejection of women’s ordination shocks me,” he writes. “… [E]xcluding a whole class of human beings from ordination is a clear form of discrimination.”

The former missionary’s conflicts with Rome escalated over issues of ordination and obligatory celibacy, as well as other teachings on sexual morality. He explains, “I cannot agree with the way Rome treats married couples by imposing obligations which few can observe without carrying an intolerable burden. Homosexuals, who are, after all, born that way, are not allowed to be true to the way they were created by God, to use theological parlance. People are made to feel guilty, confused about themselves, lacking in self-respect and in the joy of inner Christian freedoms’ Wijngaards resigned from priestly ministry in 1998 and was married in 2000.

The Dissident Celebrity

As startling as Wijngaards’s open opposition to Church teachings may be for orthodox Catholics, the appearance of U.S. Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister at the WOW conference was an even greater drama. Three months before the conference, Sister Chittister’s prioress, Sister Christine Vladmiroff, had been negotiating with Vatican officials over Sister Chittister’s participation in an event that was clearly organized as an act of defiance against Church authorities. Chittister planned to represent the U.S.-based Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC). The Vatican “ordered me to prohibit Sister Joan from attending the conference where she is a main speaker,” Vladmiroff said. The prioress declined Rome’s request. “I cannot be used by the Vatican to deliver an order of silencing…. Benedictine communities of men and women were never intended to be part of the hierarchical or clerical status of the Church,” she said.

Catholic News Service reported, “The Vatican said it would not punish two nuns it had asked not to attend a conference on women’s ordination.” Chittister insists that her participation was neither “divisive nor defiant.”

Sister Chittister is a familiar pillar of the American Catholic dissident movement. Soon after Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was issued, Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes brought Sister Chittister into 30 million American homes. Referring to the priest shortage that WOC believes should be alleviated by ordaining women, Sister Chittister told the nation, “Faced with a choice between maleness and sacraments, the Church has chosen for maleness.”

A past president of both the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the dissident nun was hailed by the WOW conference as “unafraid to challenge established models of God.” A tireless advocate of feminist spirituality and women’s ordination, Sister Chittister arrived in Dublin fresh from her controversial speech at the National Catholic Education Association’s April 2001 conference, where she excoriated Church leadership for failure to accord women equality and homosexuals humanity. Teachers from parish schools across the country stood and applauded Sister Chittister’s “prophetic” remarks.

Her address to those gathered at WOW was unequivocal: “They [Catholics] need what they have always needed: they need community, not patriarchal clericalism; they need the sacred, not the sexist; they need the human, not the homophobic. The people need more prophets of equality, not more pretenders to a priesthood of male privilege.”

Born in the USA

Most proponents of women’s ordination agree that the earliest organized efforts of the movement began in the mid- 1970s in Detroit. Sister Chittister was then president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The post-Vatican II upheaval in the Church emptied convents across the land. Conflict and confrontation spread within religious communities, many losing all sense of their communal identities. Legions of nuns were drawn into the “politics of confrontation”; in some cases, evangelizing for feminism seemed to supplant evangelizing for Christ.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the declaration Inter Insigniores in October 1976 (On Admission of Women to the Priesthood): “The Catholic Church has never felt that priestly or episcopal ordination can be validly conferred on women.” The declaration refuted the secular interpretation of women’s ordination as a matter of democratic equality: “Thus one must note the extent to which the Church is a society different from other societies, original in her nature and in her structures. The pastoral charge in the Church is normally linked to the sacrament of Order; it is not a simple government, comparable to the modes of authority found in the States. It is not granted by people’s spontaneous choice.”

The rage of women who viewed themselves as persecuted by a patriarchal lock on the keys of spiritual power would not be quieted. Feminist theologians and scholars joined the fray. Much of their work is a virulent strain of rebellious self-justification, with forays into New Age, liberation theology and even occult goddess worship.

Two examples from the University of Notre Dame illustrate an attitude that has become increasingly common in the academy. Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her borrows from liberation theology and argues that biblical interpretation is a “political act.” Fiorenza, who is now the Krister Stendahl Professor at Harvard Divinity School, taught at Notre Dame in the 1970s. She views patriarchy and androcentrism as a systemic flaw in the biblical texts.

Noted priests, too, got behind the “struggle for justice” with academic articles and books defending women’s ordination. Rev. Richard McBrien of the University of Notre Dame produced The Remaking of the Church in 1973. McBrien offered an ingenuous rejection of the ontological defense of the male priesthood: “There is absolutely no biblical, doctrinal or theological basis for suggesting that his [Jesus’] maleness was a necessary precondition for the Incarnation.”

One of the earliest radical groups to champion the “spirit of Vatican II,” Women’s Ordination Conference had acquired an office and initiated liturgical protests nationwide by 1977. WOC enjoyed the guidance of the radical edge of feminist theology, which pressed the issue at every opportunity. The no-turning-back moment for many in the movement came in 1979 when Sister Teresa Kane, then-president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, donned a man’s suit to greet Pope John Paul II during his first American tour as pope. She demanded that he permit women to be ordained. A decade later, a defiant Rev. Bill Callahan invited Sister Kane to “colead” the eucharistic prayer during a Call to Action conference liturgy.

Rosemary Radford Ruether, a champion of artificial contraception before Humanae Vitae (1968) was promulgated, advanced WOC debates with the claim that the ordained are called from within the community, not ordained from above. Ruether is author of Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. She now counsels women to search inward for a God who will “level the heavens and exalt the earth.”

Rising Tide

Bishop Matthew Clark of the Diocese of Rochester, New York, was once a favored ally of the American Catholic progressive movement. But several years of battle with the renegade parish of Corpus Christi have taken their toll on the bishop. The pastor and parishioners of Corpus Christi insisted that women be accorded all ministerial duties and that homosexual unions be recognized liturgically. The parish recorded this history:

[During] Mass in 1987, Fr. Enrique Cadena spontaneously handed the chalice to pastoral associate Mary Ramerman and asked her to raise it while he elevated the host. Over time, the role of women leaders in the Mass grew, as having the chalice elevated by Mary or Sr. Margie became a regular part of our services, and more liturgical prayers were said by Mary Ramerman. In 1994 Mary was vested with an alb and a banner which hung from her right shoulder, as a sign of her ministry at Corpus Christi.

Gay parishioners approached the church’s pastor, Rev. Jim Callan, to request that their unions be blessed. Over time, five gay or lesbian couples received a blessing from Father Callan or from family minister Denise Donato.

When protracted dialogue failed to resolve the dispute that alienated the parish and Father Callan from the bishop, Father Callan was suspended from his duties. The parish reconstituted itself as Spiritus Christi Parish. In response, the Diocese of Rochester warned that those who joined the new parish would incur an automatic excommunication.

Mary Ramerman’s ordination was announced for November 17, 2001. Bishop Clark forbade any diocesan priest to attend. According to press reports, 2,500 people gathered in Eastman Theater to witness “an historic event in the battle for women’s ordination.”

Dozens of current and past officials of WOC and WOW were on hand to congratulate Ramerman, but for them, her ordination was no triumph. The ordaining bishop, Peter Hickman, was not a Roman Catholic but a bishop of the schismatic Old Catholic Church.

Ramerman says her decision to leave the Catholic Church led her to understand her identity as a Catholic without defining the community she serves as Roman or Old Catholic. “We are very Catholic in tradition but more inclusive of women, gays, and lesbians—anyone who wants to receive Jesus is welcome.”

“I support her decision,” says Sister Maureen Fiedler, founder of Catholics Speak Out (CSO), “but our [WOC] work is not finished.” The women’s ordination camp is careful to present a public image of solidarity, although it has split into several camps. Some dismiss the Ramerman ordination as a sellout of the movement. They fear that the Church will simply outwait those who claim a priestly vocation, until frustration sends them to schismatic churches or to a Protestant congregation.

Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, on the other hand, no longer values ordination—male or female. In her view, all ordination is subordination that simply continues the oppression and division brought about by clericalism.

Sister Fiedler “understands and agrees” with Fiorenza’s point but feels that the first step toward a “discipleship of equals” is the ordination of women. John Wijngaards “totally disagree[s]” with Fiorenza: “The sacramental dimension is critical. Jesus remains with us through the sacraments. Ordination means a person is specially deputed to serve…. It is a calling of the Holy Spirit and should be maintained.”

Donna Steichen, author of Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism, is skeptical of the motivations of the women’s ordination movement. “Note that neither the Schussler Fiorenza camp nor the Fiedler camp gives the slightest indication of a desire to serve Christ’s Church in the priesthood. Both clearly indicate that they see ordination only as a symbol of equality or as a key to power. Of the two, Schussler Fiorenza is being more honest. In truth, neither camp intends for a moment to promise obedience to anyone, certainly not to a bishop,” Steichen says.

Helen Hull Hitchcock, founder and director of Women for Faith and Family, an orthodox educational organization faithful to the magisterium, says, “The feminists want an androgynous, gender-blind society…. You notice that they are opposite the Church on all other issues of sexual morality: celibacy, contraception, divorce, abortion, homosexuality. They say they stay in the Church because they love her, but it is the kiss of Judas.”

The Word From Rome

After 18 months of debate by theologians as to the dogmatic nature of the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote, “This teaching requires definitive assent…. It has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.”

Fiedler told a National Public Radio audience that the apostolic letter and the Ratzinger clarification “is the last gasp of desperate and insecure men trying to shore up a crumbling status quo. Roman Catholic women will be ordained priests—perhaps sooner than we think.” Fiedler may well believe so in part because organizations such as the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) also rejected the teaching, with the claim (at its 1997 meeting) that there were among theologians “serious doubts regarding the nature of the authority of this teaching.” Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston soundly thumped CTSA as “a wasteland” for its rejection of the definitive teaching.

WOW lists several points as a warrant to ordain women despite the verdict of Rome. WOW defenders cast aside the argument that “the Tradition [is] that the Church has never ordained women.” They argue that the social and customary practices of the Jews militated against Jesus choosing women as apostles. Orthodox rebuttals answer that argument by enumerating the countercultural actions that Christ took on behalf of women.

Fiedler doesn’t buy the theology that explains the mystery of Christ as Bridegroom to His bride, the Church, as a marital image that requires a male priest to image the donation of divine life. “Oh, that is [Father] Joe Fessio’s argument. I debated him at Georgetown on that point. He is taking a lovely image and trying to make it literal. No, Christ’s maleness is accidental, he is an example of a human…. A woman’s physical organs are not the criteria for candidacy to the ordained ministry.”

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese is the author of Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life and Eleonore Raoul Professor of the Humanities at Emory University. Asked about the notion that Christ’s maleness was “accidental,” Fox-Genovese found the idea to be “errant nonsense.”

“The essence of Catholicism lies in the Eucharist, specifically the real presence in the Eucharist,” she noted. “To argue that Jesus was only ‘accidentally’ male is precisely to attack that real presence and hence strike a dagger at the heart of the faith. But then, I strongly suspect (not to be uncharitable) that that is the whole point. One of the great beauties and strengths of the Catholic faith—in addition to its being Truth—lies in its insistence upon embodiment (an insistence that it shares with Judaism, but not Protestantism). We are both body and soul, and everything turns upon the interrelation and interdependence of the two. Thus, ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’; we believe in the resurrection of the body; we believe in the real presence in the Eucharist. Arguments for women’s ordination implicitly—and often explicitly—necessarily attack the foundations of Catholicism because they take the Protestant turn of arguing for the significance of symbolism over substance (or reality). This path rapidly leads away from the understanding of Christ as both God and man; it completely does away with the Blessed Mother as the Theotokos (the mother of God); and, of course, it points toward the denial of the authority of the Magisterium.”

Critics of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis question whether proper use of authority was used by the Vatican in formulating the Church’s official position on women’s ordination. But this line of assault is ultimately impotent, as many dissenters themselves concede. Orthodoxy recognizes that in this matter, as in others, the Church exercises a wisdom that goes well beyond the impoverished political categories of the present age. Those who would homogenize both human sexuality and ministerial roles in search of a putative “equality” and “empowerment” for women are missing the point. By sanitizing the sacrament of holy orders to make it fit the agenda of secular feminism, advocates of women’s ordination would wreck the very prize they pretend to covet. The priesthood they seem to want may not be a priesthood worth having.


  • Mary Jo Anderson

    Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and public speaker. She is a board member of Women for Faith and Family and has served on the Legatus Board of Directors. With co-author Robin Bernhoft, she wrote Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions (Catholic Answers Press, 2005).

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