from The Catholic Herald, Friday August 19, 1990, page 5; published here with permission of the author.
Moya Frenz St.Leger recounts the experience of well qualified females refused admission to the deaconate.
Anglican Women have every reason to rejoice at the choice of George Carey as the new archbishop of Canterbury. As an advocate of womens’ ordination he can give them hope that an end to their struggle is in sight.
But where does this leave Catholic women? The progress made by Anglican women only serves to intensify for many Catholic women their dilemma which is not restricted to the Catholic Church in the English-speaking world.
Take my German friend Maria, for example. She is mid-life, a judge at the High Court in Essen, responsible for judgments affecting the future of those who stand before her day after day. Her expertise, intelligence and understanding of how to apply the law are undisputed, yet, being a Catholic, she would still be considered unfit to be a deacon, the lowest form of minister in the Catholic Church.
Closer to home, what about another friend of mine. As a scholar who read theology and philosophy in Oxford, spirituality at the Gregorian university in Rome and now, as a wife and mother, she gives retreats offering guidance to those seeking it for prayer. She too would be considered unsuitable by the Church for the permanent deaconate.
It is common knowledge that the Anglican church has male and female deacons and that Catholic men training for the priesthood are deacons before they are ordained priests.What is not so widely known is that the Catholic Church has re-introduced the ancient ordained ministry of permanent deacon for those not aspiring to be priests. Only men qualify as candidates.
The task of today’s permanent deacons are similar to those of the deacons in the daily church when they ministered to the spiritual and physical needs of the Christian community. They also played a significant part in public worship.
Catholic women theologians admittedly have published a set of information about women deacons in the early church, including ancient rites for their ordination. Yet the Catholic Church today steadfastly refuses to admit women as candidates to the ordained ministry on the grounds that God does not call women to be ordained for any ministry. Canon Law is quite explicit::”Only a baptised man can validly receive sacred ordination” (canon 1024).
What is the reason for such obduracy ? No Catholic priest would ever openly admit to believing that women are inferior or ritually unclean.
The reasons are complex but could be inextricably linked with the power structures of the Church which exclude women at every level and from every field when it comes to decision-taking.Women today are saying that maintaining the status quo of this obscures the message of Jesus Christ, but actually prevents fruitful co-operation and creative relationships between men and women within the Church.
One of the biggest contributory factors to the malaise at the heart of Catholic Christianity is the ignorance about women among priests. The significant women in the life of the average priest are his mother, his sisters, his house keeper and the helper who starches the altar clothes and cleans the church.
Are women than to be kept in subjection? The recent draft statement published by the bishops on sexism condemn it as a sin.
However, no more understanding words are forthcoming from the Vatican: Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic letter The Dignity of Women (Mulieris Dignitatem – October 1988) draws attention to the “Two particular examples of the fulfilment of the female personality – – virginity and motherhood”.
Women are told that in bringing about “the gift of new life . . .” although “the spouses share in the creative power of God…, parenthood is realised usually more truly in a woman”.
But sandwiched unmistakably between the high sounding phrases raising woman to a high-level ….we see vivid clues to the brand of Vatican thinking which condemns Catholic women to having to fulfil the one duty put on her by an ill-judging clergy.
The pope speaks of “dignity and vocation that result from the specific diversity and personal originality of men and women” and goes on to state that “the personal resources of femininity are critical; no less than the resources of masculinity, but they are simply different”. Beyond these statements women perceive the unspoken justification used by the Church to perpetuate injustice. They are the verbal clothing of the ancient ossification of attitudes towards them.
Worldwide women from all walks of life are reading the gospel anew and interpreting it in a way which is meaningful for their own lives and their communities.From the base communities in the favelas of South America to the great halls of theological learning in the US and in Europe, women are invisibly united in building a new kind of Church with plenty of room for them and their gifts.
Many dedicated religious women are on their way out of the Church. Those who hang on grimly to the belief that one day there will be a breakthrough with the hierarchy listening humbly to what women have to say about themselves, ask for a gesture of goodwill. They are saying it is red alert for the Church and simply ask to be admitted to the deaconate before it is too late.
See also these articles by the same author:
*** Women and Ordination — Time for Dialogue?, Priests & People 6 (1992) pp. 327-329;
*** ‘A Call I Cannot Answer’, The Tablet (29 June 1991)