USCC Watch: Priestesslessness

When columnist Father John Catoir, of the Christophers, addressed a convention of the Newark Archdiocesan Council of the National Council of Catholic Women, April 30, he urged women not to leave the Church because they are enraged about the Catholic hierarchy’s treatment of women: “You must own up that you are not angry at the body of the Church. You are mad at the hierarchy.” He assured them that one day women will serve as deacons and priests.

A month later, on the Feast of Pentecost, the same day the long-awaited English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was officially released, Pope John Paul II signed a document of the highest authority declaring that the Church does not have the authority to confer priestly ordination on women. Succinctly written in four paragraphs, the Apostolic Letter, Ordinatio sacerdotalis, could hardly have been more clear. The Holy Father emphasized that this teaching, because it is “one of the essential elements of the Church’s structure” and “pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself,” is “to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” An accompanying statement explicitly reaffirmed the equal dignity of women, and noted that “as regards ecumenical dialogue, which is a dialogue in the truth … far from constituting an obstacle [the letter] can provide an opportunity for all Christians to deepen their understanding of the origin and theological nature of the episcopal and priestly ministry conferred by the Sacrament of Orders.”

No room for doubt here — no question about what is being said, nor by what authority. Under ordinary circumstances, one might think this reaffirmation of a core Church teaching would cause about as much controversy as an announcement by the conductor of a symphony that all members of the orchestra are to play the same piece of music at the same time. But these are not ordinary times, as the statement accompanying the Pope’s letter suggests. This re-statement of the “constant and universal Tradition of the Church and the teaching of the Magisterium” was made necessary because “at the present time in some places it is … considered still open to debate.” And sure enough, the document had barely time enough to roll out of the fax machines in U.S. Chancery offices before the “reactions” began.

Among the first to comment was Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland, OSB, who said he would have to “ponder what the phrase ‘this judgment is to be held definitively’ means in terms of its demands on the faithful. This terminology is not traditional in the Catholic Church.” (Of course, concern that “terminology” be “traditional” is not traditional for Archbishop Weakland.) Weakland also noted that the Pope “disagreed with my position that the issue should be left open because of the unresolved theological questions involved and because of the pastoral problems which would result from an untimely closing of the doors of the issue.” He complained of “inner turmoil” in obeying this teaching, and worried about the effect it would have on those “who still see this question as one of justice and equality, all protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.”

Archbishop Weakland, until last November the chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, remarks that “Since full communion among the churches ultimately must include the mutual recognition of ministries, will this declaration mean that full communion is ruled out with all except the Orthodox Churches?” Then he adds a fascinating twist: “The Orthodox Churches may agree with the pope on the question at hand, but are usually shocked when the pope teaches the bishops and does not speak in unison with them.” (Are we intended to believe that “the Orthodox Churches” view it as a grave matter when the Pope does not agree with Archbishop Weakland’s view of ordination, but regard it as a healthy sign of unity that the Archbishop of Milwaukee openly confronts the Bishop of Rome?)

The ecumenical question had another equally fascinating twist. The Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that the Catholic Church will now have to reexamine its commitment to ecumenism, since this reaffirmation of the doctrine of ordination is inconsistent with the Anglican Church’s recent departure from its own five centuries of tradition on the same question. Archbishop Carey, recall, said last year that the Catholic Church’s “refusal” to ordain women was a heretical position. (He later modified his charge of heresy to “grave error.”)

Bishop Charles Buswell, retired bishop of Pueblo and a longtime advocate of feminist reform, told the Denver Post that he’s always favored the ordination of women: “I really think we’re guilty of some sort of sexism if we refuse to allow women to be ordained.” Bishop Buswell insisted, “There’s nothing in the Scriptures that says women cannot be ordained. One of our basic tenets is that women are equal to men. Therefore, they have the same rights to leadership.” (Had the bishop read Ordinatio sacerdotalis, he would have seen that the document makes it clear that no one has a “right” to the priesthood.)

Sister Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ, dean of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, longtime member of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), and consultant to the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, told the U.S. Catholic in March 1986 that ordination requires three things: the gifts of an individual, the recognition of these gifts by the community, and the “blessing of the individual by the community to its service.” “At the moment, that’s done through the laying on of hands of a bishop.” She added, however, that ordination is only the recognition of a gift already present, “just as people, if they aren’t married to one another as they walk up the aisle, aren’t married as they walk back.”

Addressing the Seattle Archdiocesan Women’s Commission early this year, Sister Kathleen said that “Our growing equality outside the liturgy leads to the expectation that there will be equality when we gather at the table of the Lord.” She warned against leaving the institutional Church: “I believe the only way change happens is from within. Once you step outside a structure, you no longer have any authority at all to effect change.” (Sister Kathleen was invited to impart her views on the liturgy to the bishops at their June 1994 spring meeting.)

At the same talk, Sister Kathleen excoriated Mother Angelica’s viewers who, she said, sent 15,000 letters objecting to feminist language translations. She called the bishops’ rejection last November of the Revised Grail Psalter “disgraceful,” and she also claimed — falsely — that “A bishop stood up waving the Psalter—and he called it the ‘Nazi Bible.'”

Sister Kathleen also said that she and some of her associates had formed the pro-liturgical reform group “We Believe” in hopes of having 50,000 signers of their manifesto by the bishops’ June meeting; she added that Chicago’s Cardinal Bernardin had already signed it.

It is astonishing enough that a prominent nun would make false accusations against a bishop at a Church-sponsored event, but even more so that some bishops seem willing not only to tolerate this behavior, but continue to place great confidence and trust in her and invest her with significant responsibility for the Church’s liturgy.

Logic, however, is not the strong suit of some very influential folks; for example, “The women’s movement has made me … understand that without women, the church would be a very strange institution, indeed,” avows Gregory F. Augustine Pierce, co-publisher of ACTA Publications, Chicago, in the June issue of U.S. Catholic. “This has led me to conclude that the Catholic Church must ordain women if it is going to continue to be a fun, interesting and effective organization…. the leadership of women in my church has made me a happier and better Catholic.”

In the same article, Sister Carolyn Osiek, RSCJ, associate professor of New Testament studies at Catholic Theological Union, and co-author with Sister Kathleen Hughes of a “women’s lectionary,” Silent Voices, Sacred Lives, solemnly invokes “exegesis informed by better knowledge” leading to “new understanding” of Scripture texts to support feminist claims that “the early church” ordained women.

In a half-page ad in the National Catholic Reporter a few weeks ago, the Chicago Catholic Women (CCW) called for Catholics to boycott the Eucharist until women are ordained, or if they feel they must attend, to wear the blue lapel ribbons the CCW offers for sale.

It is hardly surprising, of course, that radical fringe groups like the Chicago Catholic Women or the Women’s Ordination Conference, or WomanChurch, or WATER, or Call to Action, or New Ways Ministries, or Catholics Speak Out, etc., etc., regard with scorn Ordinatio sacerdotalis, or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or Veritatis splendor, or any other such gifts of the Holy Father. What has the power to make us wince are the wounds inflicted by bishops and priests and nuns — those who should be closest to the heart of the Church.

Our gratitude for these great gifts which nourish and deepen our faith is profound, indeed. But our joy cannot be complete when the Body of Christ continues to suffer such wounds.


  • Helen Hull Hitchcock

    Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and six grandchildren, and live in St. Louis.

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