From the Publisher

Letter Written to a Provincial Gentleman by one of His Friends on the Subject of the Present Debates

How wrong we were! I only had my eyes opened yesterday. Those who have looked to Archbishop Rembert Weakland for leadership were wonderfully vindicated by his op-ed piece in the New York Times of December 6 (the feast of old Nick!). He begins, almost liturgically, with a confession of faults.

“For much of its history, the Roman Catholic Church has assumed that women are inferior to men. This attitude will not disappear by itself, nor can church leaders make it go away just by saying that it no longer exists. Rather, it is reinforced by the exclusion of women from the priesthood.”

Friend, you can imagine the reaction. Reactions, rather, and basically of two kinds, both of them lacking in discernment.

On the one hand are the traditionalists who rushed to the defense of the old order. Someone actually cited the Holy Office’s Declaratio circa qucestionem admissionis mulierum ad sacerdotium ministrale of 1976! Unfortunate references to the “Ordinary of Milwhacko” were heard, and a tasteless headline appeared, “Holy Zeitgeist, Bat-bishop!” On the other hand, the so-called party of change obtusely took Rembert (titles suggestive of hierarchy introduce such a barrier, do they not?) literally. And thus missed the whole point.

Perhaps the piece invited this dual response by suggesting that the Church has only two options. First, to close the doors of discussion and prepare for a Church of reduced size from which women and their champions will have gone. This, Rembert warns, would be to lose all right to speak to the modern world on behalf of women. (Critics of course complained that this would be to echo the world, not speak to it. How charmingly irrepressible they are.)

And what is the other path? To “continue the important, even if painful, dialogue between the church’s tradition and modern insights. Thus dialogue involves listening to all voices, especially the wisdom of the laity. . . .” The key here is of course listening. The party of change is beside itself with joy. Clearly, they conclude, Rembert does not doubt that women will eventually be ordained; it is only a question of when. When will the Church learn from the world? This is how they shortsightedly see it.

The second path as Rembert sketched it does not wait upon the Church’s painful learning experience. Right now, he urged, women can be appointed to posts of authority. Nor was he vague about this immediate future. He prophetically sketched a prospect of women in the curia, women diplomats, female cardinals. Imagine a Rosemary Cardinal Reuther! Hearts beat faster, I assure you.

Conservatives went up in smoke and there were strained efforts at humorous rejection of this visionary future, chatter about lesbian levites, loose canons, and pederastic prelates—but this is beneath discussion. Friend and foe alike missed the key premise of Rembert’s argument: “the concept and practice that jurisdiction and power in church law must be tied into priestly ordination has to be altered so that women can take an active role on all levels.”

Oh, the cunning of the man. This undercuts both sides of the pointless debate. Ordination has nothing to do with it. Power is the thing, and if it can be wrested by women from its present celibate possessors without ordination, so much the better. Let conservatives and the aging penmen of the party of change continue to babble about priestesses. Oceans of ink have been spilled on behalf of reforms which do not begin to touch the heart of the matter. It is the very notion of church and a sacramental system Rembert is calling into question.

And notice, pray, how he acted. Did he write for his diocesan paper, where he could address only Catholics under his pastoral care? (“A bishop is one who overlooks his diocese,” in the mot of an ultramontane.) Did he write for the Milwaukee Journal? Disregarding all questions of turf, he went to the Big Apple of Discord, the mighty Times, with his truly ecumenical encyclical.

At the heart of his argument is an articulation of the fundamental premise of theology. Rembert put it with lapidary precision when he said that many would “say goodbye to a church they feel is out of touch with the world.” Positively put, the premise is: Get in touch with the world! There it is in a nutshell. Here is the radical root of Rembert’s article which was missed by all.

Of course, as to little ones in Christ he must give them first milk, then meat, and I confidently predict that he will continue to support the scorned Cassandras who aspire to liturgical stardom. At the same time, he will subtly underline the real point. Perhaps he will consecrate stones instead of bread, use a spray deodorant at baptism, and confirm with Oil of Olay, the better to shake the sacraments loose from superstitious literalism. What can the matter of the sacraments have to do with their spiritual effect?

What else might be descried on the horizon? A campaign to counter the homophobia behind the legal persecution of caring priests whose affection for altar boys knew no bounds could get under way. If successful, that would save millions. Whether the proposal of Jack Kevorkian for Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal could succeed is doubtful, but a novena to Harvey Milk in the Milwaukee cathedral would have a shaking effect.

Ah, dear friend, permit me to give my imagination free rein, exhilarated as I must be by the prospect put before us. Surely the apotheosis will be reached when some prelate dares to join the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade and saunters down Fifth Avenue shoulder to shoulder with our alternatively gendered brethren, both effeminate and males manqués. On the steps of the cathedral, in the presence of Iron John O’Connor (doubtless all done up in his medieval regalia) our anointed hero will strip to ballet costume (Et tutu, milord?) and at the head of the mob dance liturgically into the cathedral for the enthronement of Mary Daly on the high altar as the Goddess of Unreason.

In my mind’s eye, I see myself wending my way back through the nave, sidestepping empowered females, avoiding enthusiasts who will be turning the pews into kindling. Outside, a disheveled homeless type will lift a sign, Read My Apocalypse!

You will forgive me for imitating Rembert’s prophetic phase, but at last the real spirit of Vatican II is being unleashed. The injustice of distinguishing between men and women, Catholics and Protestants, believers and unbelievers, men and beasts, once seen, must turn the Church’s walls into doors. Before the edifice collapses, through the open windows, the spirit shall come, bringing 70 others worse than himself, but what the hell is Heaven for if it excludes angels just because they’re fallen?

I will continue to keep you posted of any developments. Meanwhile I remain etc.,



  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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