by Moya St.Leger
from Priests & People 6 (1992) August-September pp. 327-329; republished with permission of the author.
Moya Frenz St Leger challenges the bishops to engage in serious dialogue with feminist theologians as a step towards healing the angst felt by many loyal women within the patriarchal institution.
THE DECISION this November on whether to admit women to the priesthood of the Church of England has wider implications than can be contained within the limits of a national Church. Theological insights are notorious for infiltrating across boundaries. But let us be quite clear about the ramifications of a ‘yes’ vote. While good news for C-of-E women and their Church, it would sound the death-knell for any further negotiations on Anglican-Roman unity. What then is at the heart of the whole question of women in ordained ministry which sends tremors through the Roman Catholic Church like the reverberations of a major earthquake felt hundreds of miles from its epicentre?
The theological arguments for and against have been well aired over the past decade. Women in theology feel they have effectively presented a soundly based justification for calling into question the Catholic Church’s teaching that God does not call women to ordained ministry. Both camps display the fruits of their research in scholarly journals. Catholic lay people argue their corners in the Catholic press. Yet only the American bishops have so far entered into serious dialogue with women theologians to discuss the new insights being brought into the theological field by women. While the issue of women in ordained ministry was not the focus of their discussion, it does lie at the heart of the present controversy.
The purpose of this article, therefore, is to suggest that the time is right for dialogue between the bishops of the United Kingdom and women theologians to bring the discussion of women in the Church in general and women in ordained ministry in particular into a formal theological arena. Since women have no authority to initiate dialogue it would fall to the bishops who are exhorted ‘to make it their special care to approach men and to initiate and promote dialogue with them’ (1) to do so.
Background for dialogue
The climate for dialogue is more favourable in this country than in any other European land. No other national Bishops’ Conference has been so encouraging to women and so ready to listen to their concerns. The willingness shown by our bishops to support national discussion about those concerns and perceptions has been exemplary. The frank response of about four thousand Catholic women to the National Board of Catholic Women’s discussion paper, Women—Status and Role, Life and Mission was published in the NBCW report, Do Not Be Afraid, and was discussed at the Low Week Bishops’ Meeting of l99l at which a resolution was passed to enter into dialogue (now taking place) with people nominated by the bishops and the NBCW on how to progress. Parallel theological dialogue would seem appropriate. I should therefore like to examine the background against which dialogue would take place, and tentatively put forward a programme.
It is evident that at present there is no consensus of opinion on the legitimacy of admitting women to ordained ministry. Many Catholic women have come to believe that ‘there is no evidence to support the idea that Christ intended only men to be priests’.(2) One of the requests in a joint declaration published in January 1990 of all Catholic women’s organizations in Germany, Austria, South Tyrol and Switzerland is that ‘the question of the ordination of women to the diaconate and the priesthood should cease to be a taboo subject’. The historical precedent for women deacons is irrefutable.
Many women call for change in church structures which are perceived as positively harmful. Some bishops and priests agree with them without being able to say so publicly. Others are undecided and the picture is confused.
However, there is no ambiguity or indecisiveness in the way the Church responds to a woman who feels called to ordained ministry. A German woman theologian of my acquaintance last summer asked a German cardinal to pray for women who wish to serve as ordained ministers and was told he would ‘never commit that sin’. Any Catholic woman courageous enough to declare publicly that she feels ‘the call’ is given to understand that it cannot possibly be God calling her and she is misreading her own feelings.
Catholics of an ultramontane cast of mind look to the Vatican for certainty. Others see the “womenphenomenon” as a ‘sign of the times’ to which the Church was called to pay attention by the Council Fathers.
Alongside the theological arguments are also the structural obstacles which render Catholic women who have no authority in the Church, powerless.
I belong to a diminishing number of women with absolute faith that within the one ancient holy catholic apostolic Church, the Spirit moves where it will, however massive the obstacles may appear in these dark days of the counter-Vatican II era. But the obstacles are real. I offer this tale to illustrate how some women are experiencing Church.
Denied the post
At the Fourth Biennial Conference of that august body, the European Society of Women in Theological Research, held in Bristol in September 1991, one unexpected announcement caused quite a stir. The scholars present were told that one of their number, Dr Silvia Schroer, who had applied for the Chair of Biblical Studies at the Catholic Faculty of Theology in Tübingen, Germany, and had been placed clear front runner by that faculty, had been informed that the Bishop of Rottenburg Stuttgart, Bishop Walter Kasper, had refused to grant the nihil obstat for her appointment. No reasons were given.
Dr Schroer’s reply to the bishop stated that she was willing to reconsider any of her positions, but was unable to do so if she was kept in ignorance of his objections. Since she felt she had always tried to work as a committed and loyal member of the Church, she was unable to identify without assistance what might have courted the bishop’s disapproval.
The bishop undoubtedly had solid grounds for his decision but Dr Schroer felt it would have been helpful to know them, especially when an extremely influential theological post was being denied her.
The difficulties some women are having to survive in the Church should not be seen in isolation. As an institution whose government and administration resembles that of the Roman imperial system, there are tensions for all Catholics reared in open democracies where their rights and responsibilities are anchored in and upheld by the law. Simultaneous membership of an undemocratic institution always calls for an expert balancing act throughout life.
Western women in the Church are at a particular disadvantage since their societies have jettisoned the notion that the biological sex-determining factors, which come into play after conception, have any relevance in the field of vocations or professions. Perhaps the biggest tension of all for Catholics old enough to have experienced Vatican II is to remember what spiritual growth felt like, perhaps in a parish community which the spirit of the Council touched and transformed.
The practice of religion for the average Catholic became less an exercise in spiritual damage control and more of a learning process which enabled her/him to conform more closely to the Christ pattern in the world and not apart from it. Religion began to make sense. If the marvellous developments set in motion by Vatican II had been allowed to continue, ‘womenchurch’, the feminist upsurge and all the protest, might never have happened. The Spirit of wisdom and understanding abroad at that time might have brought about organically everything to which Catholic women now aspire.
A patriarchal, centralized institution which silences its own theologians and appears to be paranoid about women, is widely perceived as invalidating the Gospel message; ‘the informal but real “schism” in the Church continues’.(3) The result is that the more the Church loses credibility, the more women gain sympathy for their cause.
An ever-increasing number of churchmen are aligning themselves with women in their belief that the Church as it is has ceased to provide a framework for Catholics to witness to Christ in the world today. Archbishop Sterzinsky of Berlin has called for re-structuring and in a speech made on 3 December 1991 in Rome during the Synod, Bishop Norbert Werbs of Schwerin demanded a self-examination of the Church. As one of his six points he said: ‘We are experiencing today a massive upsurge in women’s emancipation. It includes women in the Church. They see with increasing incomprehension how the leadership remains in the hands of men. Are we really serious enough in asking if this scandal has to be preserved in fidelity to Christ?’(4)
In March 1992, the renowned German Catholic liturgist, Professor Albert Gerhards, demanded in Münster that the Church urgently find ways of overcoming all the obstacles which oppress and exclude women. ‘The behaviour patterns, the language, the structures and the liturgical forms . . . one is talking here about the poverty of a Church which excludes the realities of the experience of the majority of its churchgoers.’(5)
There is no set form for dialogue. The British experience need not mirror the American one of 1979-81 involving American bishops who wanted to know more about sexism. Their dialogue was structured like an ecumenical dialogue. Two series of three meetings were held over a two-year-period.
The topics were:
- Personhood as it is reflected in Church documents regarding men and women
- The nature of patriarchy as a social system and its implications for the Church
- Scriptural and theological bases for change in church teaching and practices
- Theological Anthropology and Complementarity
- Church and Ministry
Following the dialogue, the bishops decided independently to incorporate their new insights into a pastoral letter. This initiative appears to date from a Bishops’ meeting of November 1982. The difficulties with Rome are history.
In the United Kingdom dialogue could have a wider perspective altogether, embracing a variety of activities at several levels.
All need profound faith and hope ‘to walk the dark ways of faith to attain the vision of God’ (St Augustine). We are all reminded that ‘it is the task of the whole People of God, particularly of its pastors and theologians, to listen to and distinguish between the many voices of our times and to interpret them in the light of the Divine Word in order that the revealed truth may be more deeply penetrted, better understood, and more suitably presented’.(6)
See also these articles by the same author:
*** Women Deacons: Goodwill Gestures, , The Catholic Herald, August 19, 1990, page 5.
*** ‘A Call I Cannot Answer’, The Tablet (29 June 1991).
1 . Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church, para 13 (Vatican II).
2. Do not be Afraid ,p.26.
3. Towards a Decisional Model of the Church, Sean O’Riordan, (former Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the Alphonsian Academy, Lateran University, Rome) in The Furrow, November 1991, p.614.
4. KNA (Katholische Nachrichten Agentur).
5. Kfd Direkt — Informationsdienst der katholischen Frauengemeinschaft Deutschland, March 1992.
6. Gaudium et Spes; Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, para 44 (Vatican II).