Today, May 22, we mark the 20th anniversary of John Paul II’s papal no, his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that was designed to categorically ban women from priesthood and prohibit discussion about it.
Pope Francis knows people don’t feel right about it. On a flight home from Rio World Youth Days in 2013, he spoke about the document when he said, ‘On the ordination of women, the church has spoken and said no. John Paul, in a definitive formulation said the door is closed.’
For 20 years now Catholics have been forbidden from discussing women’s leadership. For 20 years, employees at Catholic institutions have risked job security if they talk about women’s ordination. For an even longer time, Catholic women called to priesthood have had door after door slammed in their faces. People around the world are deprived of sacraments only because male Church leaders reject the women God is calling. This is wrong.
We are here in Rome to deliver to Francis hundreds of letters from ordinary Catholics from around the world who want an end to the ban. They write about the pain it causes and the vast potential lost since it was imposed. Many letters come from women who are called to serve as priests. Others come from people fed up with a Church they see as bullheadedly complicit in the oppression of women. People are ready for women priests. If some are not, it is the duty of leaders of the Church to lead and show them what is right.
Recently we heard Pope Francis say about gay men in the priesthood, ‘’Who am I to judge?’ Yet of women in the priesthood, he turns his head away and says, ‘My predecessors say the door is closed.’ Although Pope Francis says that women should gain greater power in the Church, although he praises women, the reality is that he does not walk the talk. His current failure to speak against the bullying of U.S. nuns is just one sad example. As internationally loved as Pope Francis is, the status of women in our Church is his blind spot.
Some important things about Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: When the ban was announced 20 years ago, it came just 2 months after Anglicans voted overwhelmingly to open the door to women priests. Pope Francis describes Ordinatio Sacerdotalis as ‘definitive’ but not infallible. The reality is that it never was declared infallibly nor did it use the word infallible. Canon lawyers know that it does not stand up to scrutiny. It can more than easily be undone. Pope Francis could open discussion if he wanted to. It’s in his power to do it today. Male Church leaders defend exclusion by saying that ‘it’s what Jesus wanted’. We wholeheartedly reject this. We know it is not because of Jesus but instead because of men who cling to a clerical culture of male privilege. We are daughters of God calling you to open the doors to discussion and change. Hear our voices. Talk to us.
Why the ban on discussion? Pope Francis, we need to know:
- If you have confidence in exclusion, why are we prohibited from talking about it? If the exclusion of women is justified because ‘it’s what Jesus wanted’, why do we read a very different message from Jesus?
- In 2010, the Vatican changed Church law so that the so-called crime of attempting to ordain a woman must now be considered as serious as priest paedophilia. This stretches beyond belief. Why are supporters of women priests pursued with more zeal than we have seen applied to those who tortured children with sex abuse?
- What is this teaching saying to young boys and girls?
- What pastoral help are you providing to women whose calls to priesthood are ignored?
- We want to know: ‘Why is so much time and money being dedicated to the control and punishment of those who dare challenge the exclusion of women?’
- Who are you really serving by excluding women priests?
- Why are some men of the Church so afraid of restoring women to equality?
Pope Francis and all male Catholic Church leaders are part of an ancient system of male privilege created by misguided, theologically indefensible doctrines that were once propped up by bad science. This system is harming women around the world wherever they are and whether they are Catholic or not. Perpetuating a system that excludes women from sacramental ministry contributes to political, social and economic structures where leaders passively accept a spectrum that includes shocking levels of violence against women and girls, a worldwide sex slave trade, and inequality in the workplace and the classroom. It is the same spectrum that recently motivated the tragic abduction of almost 300 Nigerian girls. All of these are indefensible human rights tragedies. Because of exclusion, the world’s largest organised faith community, the Roman Catholic Church, is endorsing a tragic message about women’s place in the world.
We can’t let this define our faith! Desmond Tutu recently congratulated the Church of England for its 20 years of ordaining women. When he pointed out how men and women are equally icons of Christ, he lamented the exclusion of women priests. He candidly admitted, ‘We realised how much we had denied ourselves. Now we are asking ourselves why we were so stupid [his word] for so long.’
We ask Pope Francis and all male Catholic Church leaders, ‘Why are you being so thick headed about women? If you have confidence in what you say, then open the doors to talk to us.’
We applaud President Jimmy Carter for his call to action to change the harmful teachings and practices that hurt women in religious and secular life. He rightly observes, ‘The abuse of women and girls is the most pervasive unaddressed human rights violation on earth largely caused by a false interpretation of carefully selected religious texts.’ By distorting the true teaching of Jesus to reinforce a message of inferiority, our male Church leaders participate in this spectrum of oppression of women.
The reality is that there is fierce aversion among many male Church leaders to admit that this spectrum exists, that they are part of it, that it’s deeply troubling, that it’s serious, and that it needs to be courageously addressed. In encouraging the priesthood and our Pope to speak out -- we know there is support for women priests among you -- we remind them of what Jesus said, ‘Be not afraid.’ Be courageous. Do not try to shield yourself from the truth by hiding behind the mistakes of your predecessors.
Thanks to the work of historians, scripture scholars and theologians, we know there is nothing in our Church or its history that can defend an all-male priesthood. Though the Pope and his curia know this, they perpetuate wrong teachings. The early Church included women leaders and recognised the worth of women. Mary the mother of Jesus, the woman at the well, Mary Magdalene, Lydia, Phoebe -- many of these women have been disappeared throughout the centuries. Only now are we recovering their stories and voices. As Christianity moved forward in time, it took shape in the culture of the Roman Empire where elite men held power over lesser men, women, children and slaves. This pyramidal social structure is called patriarchy where power is always in the hands of a dominant man or group of men. As the church grew, its leaders adopted this pattern for its internal life. Within the system, some men may be very respectful of women and even love them. But it puts women in unequal, predetermined roles. Men teach and decide; women listen and obey. This is not of Christ. The problem is not with God or women but with a clerical elitist all male culture where a small but influential minority still view women to be lesser than men, as lower class citizens and unwelcome participants in Church life.
The Church should not be afraid to re-examine customs -- even those with deep historical roots -- when they do not serve as a means of communicating the Gospel. A male only priesthood goes against so much evidence of women's leadership in the early Church. It goes against the teaching of Jesus and his inclusion of women in his mission and his inclusion of women in his mission and legacy.
WOW encourages Pope Francis to stop making Jesus the Vatican’s partner in gender discrimination. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is an outdated, fallible and painful document created by his predecessors to diminish the leadership of women. We are asking Pope Francis to open the doors of dialogue to talk with us about women’s ordination.
Photo of delegation courtesy of Women's Ordination Worldwide