Church without women leaders
Will women ever govern the Roman Catholic Church?
by John Wijngaards
from the Geneva Post Quarterly, November 2006. Online links added.
The Catholic Church has moved on since the day, on 29 July 1904, when Pope Pius X instructed the bishops of Italy not to trust the intelligence or reliability of women.
“In public meetings, never allow women to take the word, however respectable or pious they may seem. If on a specific occasion bishops consider it opportune to permit a meeting for women by themselves, these may speak but only under the presidency and supervision of high ecclesiastical personalities.” (P. Gaiotti de Biase, Le origini del movimento cattolico femminile, Brescia 1963, p. 74.)
Church authorities have now come to terms with the fact that women are capable of heading academic faculties, running major corporations, ruling their countries as prime ministers or presidents. But such secular competence does not empower women to assume spiritual leadership in the Church.
Pressed on this issue during a meeting with the clergy of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI recently asserted that women contribute to the government of the Church through their manifold services. He mentioned a number of women saints of the past who have made their mark. But these services, though crucial to the Church, are purely of an auxiliary, charismatic nature, he said. The true government of the Church is reserved to men.
“The priestly ministry of the Lord, as we know, is reserved to men, since the priestly ministry is government in the deep sense, which, in short, means it is the Sacrament [of Orders] that governs the Church. This is the crucial point. It is not a particular man who does something, but the priest in him governs, faithful to his mission, in the sense that it is the Sacrament, that is, through the Sacrament it is Christ himself who governs, both through the Eucharist and in the other Sacraments, and thus Christ always presides.” (Osservatore Romano 3 March 2006)
The implication of this piece of typical ecclesiastical jargon is that women have no authority whatsoever in the government of the Church. Catholic belief holds that Christ entrusted authority over his Church to the apostles and their successors. This authority is threefold: the authority of teaching (imposing doctrine), the authority of consecrating (presiding at the eucharist, performing ordinations, etc.) and the authority of ruling (imposing moral obligations, forgiving sins, taking all major decisions regarding Church discipline).
Pope Benedict reiterates that all these forms of authority are imparted only by the sacrament of holy orders, which is reserved to men. As he stated in an interview on Vatican Radio of 13 August 2006: “The power to take legally binding decisions is limited to those in sacred orders, that is: to men.” Indeed, Church Law puts it succinctly:
“Only a baptized male validly receives sacred ordination“ (Can. 1024). <BR>And:<BR> “Only those who have received sacred orders are capable of the power of governance, which exists in the Church by divine institution (Can. 129, § 1).
In short: no Church leadership for women! You may rule a country, you’ll never rule a diocese!
Where does this discrimination come from?
Although present-day Church authorities attribute the ban of women from church leadership to Jesus Christ himself as I will report in a later section, historical research makes clear that its origin lies in Roman Law.
The influence of the Roman Empire on the organization of the Catholic Church is undeniable. In fact, the influence has been beneficial in many respects. For the Romans were great administrators. They understood the need of good infra-structures, such as roads, office buildings and a universally accepted currency. Their military and governmental officials were given clearly circumscribed duties and responsibilities. The Romans hated confusion and enforced discipline.
It was a great Roman, Pope Gregory the Great (540-604), who put his stamp on church administration. Gregory belonged to a patrician family and had served as prefect of the city of Rome for a couple of years before entering church service. When he was elected Pope, he immediately began to centralise the entire papal administration. He laid down rules on the liturgy and pastoral ministry. He co-ordinated new missionary efforts, such as the conversion of England. He asserted papal authority in face of Byzantine claims. He left a lasting stamp on the way the official church was run by applying Roman principles and Roman systems of management. He is considered by many historians as the architect of the later medieval papacy. ( F. H. Dudden,Gregory the Great, his Place in History and in Thought, London 1905; B. Colgrave, The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great by an Anonymous Monk of Whitby, Cambridge 1985; R.A. Markus, Gregory the Great and his World, Cambridge 1998.)
The Romans were also good lawgivers. The great contribution of Roman legislation was its laying down of simple and clear principles. Roman law was detailed, specific, practical. It lent itself to resolving disputes. It was a form of law developed by people who were able administrators and efficient organizers. In fact, no system of law has been so influential in the world as that which arose in the city of ancient Rome. Its thinking dominated the Roman empire for more than a thousand years, and in the Byzantine empire it remained in use till 1453. It formed the basis for the law codes of most western countries. More important for us: it shaped much of church law in the Catholic church. But laws often hide structural prejudice, and this is what happened in the case of women. For Roman law was hostile to women. Roman family law was based on the principle that the father of the family (pater familias) had complete authority both over the children and his wife. This was defined as paternal power (patria potestas). The wife depended totally on her husband, being in fact his property. He could do with her as he liked. He could punish her in any way, even kill her, or sell her as a slave — though this last punishment was forbidden after 100 BC. And as far as family property was concerned, the wife herself did not own anything. Everything she or her children inherited belonged to her husband, including also the dowry which she brought with her to her marriage.
In later time this absolute power of the husband was somewhat diminished leading to what was known as a form of ‘free marriage’ which husband and wife could agree upon. However, even in this new situation, the husband had the right to make the final decisions in all questions concerning the family: for instance the place of residence which the wife had to share with him, the education of the children, the exclusive rights on her wifely duties, while the husband himself could make love to other women with impunity.
The rights of women in general civil Roman law were not much better. Although the woman was considered a Roman citizen, she obtained her position only through her husband. Women could not carry their own name, as little as slaves could. Only men enjoyed this distinct sign of their being a Roman citizen. Moreover, a woman was excluded from all public functions and rights:
“Women are excluded from all civil and public responsibility and therefore can neither be judges nor carry any civil authority, they cannot bring a court case, nor intercede for someone else nor act as mediators“.
Women could not function as witnesses, whether at the drawing up of a last will, or in any other form of law. Like minors, slaves, the dumb and criminals, women could not be trusted. Women were also reckoned to be incapable of representing themselves in law “because of the infirmity of their sex and because of their ignorance about matters pertaining to public life“. (H.Heumann and E.Seckel, Handlexikon zu den Quellen des römischen Rechts, Graz 1958, pp. 246 and 265. L.Wenger, Institutes of the Roman Law of Civil Procedure, Littleton 1940; F.Schulz, Classical Roman Law, London 1951; M.Kaser, Roman Private Law, Oxford 1965. For Roman Law, see here.
Assimilation into Church discipline
If we understand that this was the condition of women by civil law, a law which everyone greatly respected, we can appreciate how this devaluation of women slipped into church thinking. The inferior status of women was so much taken for granted that it determined the way Latin speaking theologians and church leaders would look on matters relating to women. Just listen to this reasoning by Ambrosiaster (4th cent) which is typical of the time:
“Women must cover their heads because they are not the image of God . . . How can anyone maintain that woman is the likeness of God when she is demonstrably subject to the dominion of man and has no kind of authority? For she can neither teach nor be a witness in a court nor exercise citizenship nor be a judge — then certainly not exercise leadership!” (On 1 Corinthians 14, 34)
Ambrosiaster states that woman “has no kind of authority”. Why not? Because by civil law a woman could not hold any public function or exercise any authority. He goes on to say that she cannot be “a witness in court, or exercise citizenship [ = take part in public meetings] or be a judge”. Why not? Because civil law forbade it.
Now notice the argument. Woman does not bear the image of God because she is manifestly subject to man as we can see from civil law! The real argument rests on Roman law which is taken as right and just. And here the true culprit is revealed. The cuckoo raises its ugly head. The position of woman is not really decided by any Christian tradition or inspired text, but by the pagan Roman law which was believed to be normative.
Unfortunately, the thinking of the Latin Fathers of the Church became part of Church Law, the Corpus Iuris Canonici, because the first compiler of that law, the monk Gratian, adopted all their prejudices against women (Bologna ca. 1140):
- “Because of her state of servitude a woman is subject to her husband in everything.”
- “Even if a woman is educated and saintly, she still should not presume to instruct men in a [church] assembly.”
- “Women may not teach or baptise or distribute communion . . . Women may not touch sacred objects . . . Women may not wear or touch sacred vestments . . . Women may not be part of a church choir.”
- “Women cannot be promoted to the priesthood or even the diaconate.” “Woman is not called ’woman’ (Latin mulier) because of the sex of her body but because of the weakness (Latin mollicies) of her mind.” Read here.
J. Wijngaards, The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church. Unmasking a Cuckoo’s Egg Tradition, London 2000; New York 2001.
The Corpus Iuris Canonici remained the Catholic Church’s official lawbook till 1910. But long before then the inferior position of women had also enjoyed the attention of theological speculators.
The era of rationalization
The early Middle Ages saw the start of systematic theology. Thinkers began to demand reasons for everything, including for the exclusion of women from the ministries. Women were obviously substandard, they knew, but were there no exceptions? What about Mary, the mother of Jesus? Or Mary of Magdala, who had preached to the apostles?
There is evidence that in the 13th century there was still room for explaining the omission of women from sacred orders as purely a church practice, a custom that could be changed. Bonaventure (1217-1274), for instance, states: “all agree that women ought not to be promoted to Orders; but as to whether they are capable [of Orders], there is doubt.” (Bonaventure, Commentarium in IV Libros Sententiarum Magistri Petri Lombardi, div. xxv, art. ii, qu. 1; published in Opera Omnia, Quaracchi 1882-1902.) Full online text here.
Theological ranks, however, soon closed solidly behind the Church’s stand against women. A multiplicity of reasons were generated, including ridiculous ones such as that women talk too much, or that it is not becoming for them to wear the clerical tonsure. The justifications that gained most ground were these:
- Women are not created in the image of God; their purpose is to serve their husbands.
- Women still carry the curse of Eve’s sin.
- Jesus Christ did not include a woman among the apostolic twelve.
- Paul forbade women to teach in church.
- Women are not perfect human beings and thus cannot represent Christ.
In recent Church documents only the last three justifications have been retained in a slightly modified form. It was Jesus Christ himself, we are told, who excluded women from the ministries for all time to come. That is why the Church has, in fact, never ordained women. Neither does the Church possess the power to change this practice. For Christ was a man, and God wants him to be represented only by men in the leadership of the Church. (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Apostolic Letter by Pope John-Paul II on Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone, 22 May 1994; Ad Tuendam Fidem, Motu Proprio by Pope John-Paul II, May 28 1998; Commentary on Ad Tuendam Fidem, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 29 June 1998.)
This reasoning is so faulty and unsubstantiated that it would be dismissed out of hand by most present-day scholars if it were not presented in serious documents by the highest teaching authority in the Church. The Vatican’s arguments, it seems to me, are as pathetic to any professional theologian as a creationist’s boast that the finding of dinosaur fossils confirms the world was created 6000 years ago.
At the risk of boring my readers to tears, let me sketch the theological jousting with some cartoon-like strokes. The debate can be read in full on the internet. Nowhere does Jesus Christ explicitly exclude women from leadership in his community.
- The fact that the first twelve apostles were only men proves nothing. The first twelve were all Jews. Does that mean only Jews can be priests?
- Yes but, the Vatican retorts, Jesus ordained the apostles at the last supper when he said: “Do this in commemoration of me“, and only men were present. Were they? We know now that women too must have been there for the last supper was a paschal meal. Exodus 12 prescribes that women and children too had to share in a paschal meal.
- Moreover, whereas previously only men joined the covenant directly through circumcision, entrance into Jesus’ community comes about by baptism which is the same for men and women.
- Paul states the consequence clearly: “through your common baptism in Christ there is no longer any distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female“ (Galatians 3,28).
And what about the claim that the Church never admitted women to holy orders? It simply is not true. For at least nine centuries the Catholic Church, especially in its eastern provinces, routinely ordained women as deacons. This diaconate was imparted through an ordination rite that, in today’s terminology, has to be judged to be fully ‘sacramental’. The bishop imposed hands on each candidate, invoking the Holy Spirit for the specific purpose of assigning the woman to the ministry of the diaconate. The ordination rites for male and female deacons were identical in all essential elements. Both men and women deacons received the diaconate stole. Church legislation regulated the rights and duties of women deacons as much as that of the men. Women therefore did take part in holy orders and, according to the old principle ex facto sequitur posse (’from it having been done it follows it can be done’), the Church can ordain women because she has done so in the past. (John Wijngaards, No Women in Holy Orders? The Women Deacons in the Early Church, London 2002; Women Deacons in the Early Church. Historical Texts and Contemporary Debates, New York 2006.) Online documentation here.
Is there any validity in the rationale of Jesus Christ as a man requiring a male representative? Thomas Aquinas (1224 – 1274), who is quoted by the Vatican as a source for this opinion, believed women were less perfect biologically because only the male seed carried future offspring. Every woman is born incomplete, a ‘monster’, an ‘accident of nature’. Small wonder Thomas taught that only a perfect human being, that is: a male, can represent Christ. The Vatican, while not sanctioning Aquinas’s biological ignorance, yet holds on to the biological pre-eminence of men by seeing a significant divine symbolism in Christ’s incarnation as a man. (Aquinas’ texts online here)
“The fact that Christ is a man and not a woman is neither incidental nor unimportant in relation to the economy of salvation . . . God’s covenant with men (!) is presented in the Old Testament as a nuptial mystery, the definitive reality of which is Christ’s sacrifice on the cross . . . Christ is the bridegroom of the Church, whom he won for himself with his blood, and the salvation brought by him is the new covenant. By using this language, revelation shows why the incarnation took place according to the male gender, and makes it impossible to ignore this historical reality. For this reason, only a man can take the part of Christ, be a sign of his presence, in a word ’represent’ him (that is, be an effective sign of his presence) in the essential acts of the covenant.” ( Commentary on Inter Insigniores § 100 – 102. See also Mulieris Dignitatem § 25-26; Christifideles Laici § 51. com. § 100-102)
The reasoning is seriously flawed. Its derivation from prophetic imagery and Ephesians 5,21-33 is arbitrary. It contradicts the traditional doctrine that Christ was incarnated as a human being (not just as a man). In the words of Elizabeth A. Johnson:
“The old principle states: What is not assumed [into Christ’s humanity] is not saved. If maleness is constitutive for the incarnation and redemption, female humanity is not assumed and therefore not saved.” (She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York 1992, p. 153.)
Also, the symbolism limps. If the Church is the bride and Christ her groom, how can the Vatican exclude women from representing the groom while including both women and men in the bride? And if Christ’s maleness and the maleness of his priests is so crucial in God’s plan of salvation, has the phallus not become the defining symbol of Christ in the eucharist? Hans Urs von Balthasar, who inspired much of the Vatican’s thought in this matter, states so explicitly.
“The priestly ministry and the sacrament are means of passing on seed. They are a male preserve. They aim at inducing in the Bride her function as a woman.“ (Wer ist Kirche?, p. 24)
“What else is Christ’s eucharist but, at a higher level, an endless act of fruitful outpouring of his whole flesh, such as a man can only achieve for a moment with a limited organ of his body?” ( Elucidations, trans. John Riches, London 1975, p. 150. See also Tina Beattie, God’s Mother, Eve’s Advocate. A Gynocentric Refiguration of Marian Symbolism in Engagement with Luce Irigaray, Bristol 1999, p. 64-65.)
The truth of the matter is that few Catholic theologians subscribe to these official rationalizations.
Stand off between the Vatican and Catholic scholarship
As I have stated elsewhere (John Wijngaards, ‘Women Bishops? Views in the Roman Catholic Church, official and otherwise’, inWomen and the Episcopate, London 2006, pp. 37-48), by all evidence available to me, I estimate that at least three-quarters of Catholic theologians disagree with the official position held out by the Vatican. They do not accept as proven that Jesus Christ himself excluded women from future ministries. They ascribe the woman-hostile church practice of previous centuries to cultural bias. They see no valid reason why the Church could not admit women to all ministries and leadership positions.
I say: ’by all evidence available to me’, for a blanket of silence has descended on the theological community after Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994) which effectively forbade discussion on the question. Theologians serving seminaries and universities under Church control are, after all, required to swear an oath of loyalty that implies agreement with the Vatican. As one theologian put to me: “I have three good reasons to keep my mouth shut. They are called Sharon, Alice and Bob – my children whom I need to feed.”
With Polish rigour and German thoroughness, the whole Church apparatus has been rigged to conform. The Vatican Curia has consistently tried to fill all leadership positions with candidates favourable to its own views. Bishops are only chosen if they have first indicated that they agree with the Vatican. “Bishops are like the flagstones in St. Peter’s”, one Vatican source observed. “If you lay them down properly from the start, you can walk over them for the rest of their lives.” It is not unlike the old Soviet Russia where all top officials had to be screened and appointed by the central Polit Buro.
The CDF (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) follows up on this structural control by censuring anyone who steps out of line. The Vatican criticises bishops in person if they have organizations in their jurisdiction that favour women priests. The Vatican sends letters to bishops ordering them to reprimand and punish church personnel who support women’s ordination, often mentioning dissident persons by name. The party line has been clearly spelled out.
“The bishop should prove his pastoral ability and leadership qualities by resolutely refusing any support to those people – whether individuals or groups – who defend the priestly ordination of women, whether they do so in the name of progress, of human rights, compassion or for whatever reason it may be.” (Letter to Bishops from the CDF,Osservatore Romano 13 September 1983. The injunction is frequently repeated on the occasion of Ad Limina visits of bishops.)
All such repression of open discussion happens in flagrant contradiction to the solemn stipulation of the Second Vatican Council that “all the faithful, both clerical and lay, should be accorded a lawful freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought and freedom of expression“ (Gaudium et Spes, § 62).
As a result of Vatican pressure, most Roman Catholic theologians do not publicly discuss the issue. But I know what they think from private correspondence and from personal contacts. I am a member of the Catholic Theological Association of Great Britain, the Catholic Theological Association of Europe and the Catholic Theological Society of America. The credibility of the magisterium’s banning women from ordination borders on zero. Scholars agree with Elisabeth Johnson, not with Joseph Ratzinger.
It could have been so different . . .
Forty years ago the Catholic Church seemed to steer free from its inborn reactionary and dictatorial tendencies. Between 1959 and 1965 I witnessed a new spring. The Second Vatican Council opened windows in all directions and provided the first chance of real Church reform. I was lucky enough to be in the eternal city during those exciting days. Everything suddenly seemed possible. Even for women! The current joke was: “at the next Council, bishops will be invited to bring their wives, at the one after that to bring their husbands.”
Do not forget that for the first time in the Church’s history women were actually allowed to be present in St. Peter’s Basilica, the Council hall, even though the lucky ones were only a handful with no more than observer status. But Gertrude Heinzelmann and other intrepid women managed to hand in a formal request that women’s ministries should be considered. The issue was on the table, though it did not make it onto the agenda.
Cardinal Ottaviani embodied resistance to change. He was Prefect of the Holy Office and so Cardinal Ratzinger’s worthy forerunner. His official motto read: Semper Idem – ‘Always the Same’. He suffered significant defeats. One liberating document after the other was accepted by the Council fathers. I remember the day when Ottaviani overran the ten-minute time limit put on speakers and Cardinal Alfrink of Utrecht, Council moderator for the day, forced him to stop. The Council fathers applauded. Ottaviani stepped down with a red face. It was the end of Ottaviani’s dominance. Or so it seemed to optimists like me.
In India I witnessed the Church’s genuine efforts at reform. It affected worship, religious life, seminary training, dialogue with other religions and many other key apostolates. The energy created was astounding. Apart from some grumpy old stick-in-the-muds who dug in their heels, bishops, priests, religious sisters and lay leaders eagerly joined in. We felt happy, enthusiastic, exhilarated by the new prospects. It made us overlook the storm clouds that were building up in the Vatican centres of power. In 1975 I suggested to an all-India seminar that the bishops should look into the possibility of admitting women to holy orders.
What had meanwhile taken place in Rome is only now becoming clear. We should have known. We should have noticed the first symptoms.
Cardinal Ottaviani had been restored to considerable influence under Pope Paul VI. When the international committee of experts recommended that contraceptives could legitimately be used by married couples in certain circumstances, Ottaviani and three allies blocked the report. They persuaded a worried Paul VI to reject the committee’s findings and sign the now infamous encyclical Humanae Vitae that bans contraceptives always and everywhere. It goes against nature, we are told. The Church’s stand has had serious consequences for a country like India where poor women often have no way of protecting themselves from violent husbands who stumble into the hut after a binge on local gin, and demand sex. It is deadly in countries where AIDS prevails.
Adaptation to Indian forms of worship was proceeding well. Ten special indults were granted by the liturgical office in the Vatican during the first years of sincere reform. Then the frost set in. The archconservative Cardinal Knox took over liturgy. He had been appointed away from Sydney because people there could not understand his kind of humour, it was said. Ottaviani did. He and Knox refused approval to a new eucharistic prayer for India that had been prepared by Indian liturgists during years of consultation. Reason: it included Indian theological terms!
I have painted the scene because this was the context in which the question of women’s ministries was raised, and aborted in the womb!
What? Surely no women at the altar!
1971 was a year of promise. Representatives from all over the world gathered at the Bishops’ Synod in Rome. The Canadian Bishops’ Conference – God bless them! – through their spokesman Cardinal Flahiff, formally requested the Church to open the discussion on admitting women to all the ministries. Others concurred. How would the Vatican respond?
The Canadian request was timely from point of view of the Church’s rank-and-file members. That is: the ordinary faithful, carriers of inerrancy according to Vatican II. However, from a Church political point of view, the timing could not have been worse. Conservative forces were reorganising themselves under the leadership – you have guessed it! – of Cardinal Ottaviani. These could not possibly conceive of a change so fundamental as women entering holy orders. Absurd!
But the Vatican authorities went through the motions. A special commission was set up to study the Function of Women in Society and the Church (1973). The Biblical Commission was asked to look at the question from a scriptural angle. It would all work out, they were sure.
Imagine their surprise and panic when support for women as priests welled up spontaneously in many official bodies. The Vatican acted immediately to stamp out such signs of rebellion. The commission on the Function of Women was directed not to discuss women’s ministries, even though this had been the reason why it was set up. Dissenting voices (1974 – 1975) were suppressed as we know from the records of Rie Vendrik, a Dutch representative. (Dirkje Donders, The Tenacious Voice of Women. Rie Vendrik and the Pontifical Commission On Women in Society and in the Church, Utrecht 2002. Online report here.)
The final report of the commission was never published. The Pontifical Biblical Commission (1975) came out in favour of the ordination of women. In response, its report was withheld from publication. And, to muzzle the commission for good, it was henceforth made totally subject to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as the Holy Office was now called. The truth only emerged when the commission’s chairman, Fr. Stanley, resigned, and when the report was leaked to the press.
Meanwhile the worldwide Anglican Church had been involved in discussions on ordaining women. In November 1975, a theological working group of the Anglican/Roman Catholic International Consultation met in Assisi to consider women priests. Rome appointed two Catholic specialists: Frs. Eric Doyle OFM and Hervé Legrand OP, to represent the Catholic Church, expecting them to defend the traditional position. They did not. Both expressed support for the ordination of women from a scriptural/theological point of view. Rome promptly refused to acknowledge the Assisi report. Fortunately the Anglicans published it. Rome then put pressure on the Catholic theologians to revise their opinion – which they refused to do. (Brenda Abbott, What is the Lasting Significance of Eric Doyle’s Contribution to the Debate on the Ordination of Women in the 1970s?, Canterbury 2003.) Online documentation here.
By this time Ottaviani’s group had thoroughly woken up. They felt they had to nip this in the bud: this dangerous rebellion from grassroots theologians. In 1975 and 1976 Pope Paul VI repeatedly wrote to Archbishop Donald Coggan, the primate of the Church of England. These letters tried to demolish any illusion that the Catholic Church might one day be willing to ordain women. Also, in 1976, Paul VI firmly ruled out women’s ordination in Inter Insigniores, the first document by a modern pope to raise the question. The echo we hear right through is Ottaviani’s Semper Idem. Unwittingly he may have played his trump card by appointing Joseph Ratzinger as a permanent member to the CDF.
Then John Paul II became Pope, a man of philosophy and ferocious faith who was disgusted at ‘the degenerate West’ with its ‘culture of death’. The restoration of ancient values, including woman’s place as mother of the family, was now going to be promoted with ruthless zeal. Hands off the chalice, back to pushing the pram!
Leaders in a dysfunctional Church?
It is blind religious zeal that undoubtedly drives the small group that has seized almost unlimited control of the structures of the Church. Pope Benedict XVI has clearly indicated that fighting ‘relativism’ is his main objective. “Relativism is the central problem for faith today” (Cardinal Ratzinger’s address to doctrinal commissions in Latin America, May 1996; read also his inaugural speech as Pope.)
Eradicating relativism validates the abuse of papal authority, the silencing of prophecy in the Church, the reduction of bishops to rubber-stamp officials, the repression of academic research and dismantling of free discussion. All to defeat the relativism of a multi-faith society, accountable sexual ethics, critical journalism, open TV and radio, scientific bible studies, rights campaigns by celibates, gays and women!
The return to 19th-century piety undoubtedly comforts a small traditional minority and, perhaps, uneducated Catholics in Asia, Africa and Latin America. For the others, the official Church is a source of conflict and unrest. Condemnation of contraceptives that everyone uses. Insistence on unmarried priests in the face of clerical child abuse and dwindling vocations. No human rights in the Church. Censure of freedom of expression and other modern values to which we owe so much. Brutal treatment of individuals while preaching love, blaming Jesus for discrimination against women. Small wonder that the clerical Church we have become has been compared to a dysfunctional family.
“In these families an addictive father sets up a pattern of control and abuse. In order to survive, everyone colludes and tries to placate and appease him by turning inward to protect the family’s reputation. The dominant abuser determines everything that the family will do and think: loyalty to him becomes the test of membership. In this process everyone becomes co-dependent in the addiction, and thus the system continues.” (P. Collins, Papal Power. A Proposal for Change in Catholicism’s Third Millennium, London 1997, p. 103; see N. and T. Ormerod, When Ministers Sin: Sexual Abuse in the Churches, Sydney 1995, p. 80.)
The papacy has consolidated its power under Pope John Paul II, but its inner credibility has been hollowed out. When Rome’s stranglehold eventually collapses, as I am sure it will one day, reform will focus on restoring proper authority to bishops, theologians and lay people, and reducing the power that the papacy has unlawfully appropriated to itself.
Read P. Chirico, Infallibility: the Crossroads of Doctrine, Wilmington 1983; J. M. R. Tillard, The Bishop of Rome, Wilmington 1983; P. Granfield, The Limits of the Papacy. Authority and Autonomy in the Church, New York 1990; L. M. Bermejo, Infallibility on Trial: Church, Conciliarity and Communion, Westminster 1992; A. W. R. Sipe, Sex, Priests and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis, London 1995; J. Berry and G. Renner, Vows of Silence. The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, New York 2004.
On that day the Catholic Church can also shed its fear of our ‘relativistic’ and secular world. The lasting solution to the present religious crisis lies neither in the outright rejection of the newly discovered values, nor in a compromise that would water down our Christian faith. The answer lies in true integration: in allowing the salvific words and deeds of Jesus Christ to take root once more in the new secular realities and so transform them from within.
It should be recognised that the scientifically-minded, autonomy and fulfilment-seeking culture of our western countries is a distinct new culture, like cultures the Church meets in any other missionary situation. Here, like elsewhere in the world, the Word of God needs to be incarnated, with the preservation of all that is good in our culture. The Second Vatican Council spelled it out.
“The seed which is the Word of God grows out of good soil, watered by the divine dew. From this soil the seed draws nourishing elements which it transforms and assimilates into itself. Finally it bears much fruit . . . From the customs and traditions of their people, from their wisdom and their learning, from their arts and sciences, local churches borrow all those things which can add to the glory of their Creator, manifest the grace of the Saviour or contribute to the right ordering of Christian life.“ (Ad Gentes § 22)
The Catholic Church needs to shed unnecessary past accretions, such as the bias against women, and adapt itself to the new world in which we find ourselves, as the Church has done during other crucial periods in its history. Evangelisation means continuous incarnation, in which the Word can only become new flesh by taking that flesh seriously.
Will women be ordained leaders in the Catholic Church?
I look at history. The ruthless migrating nations that ravished the Roman Empire destroyed Christian communities. They also laid the foundation of flourishing Christian medieval societies. I see that atrocious horror, the second world war, paradoxically giving birth to computers, travel by jet, nuclear energy and satelite communication. It also liberated women in many countries and brought the United Nations closer together. I see communism, contrary to everyone’s calculations, crumbling in Eastern Europe even though it seemed secure under a canopy of terror.
Yes, women will become leaders in the Catholic Church: deacons, priests, bishops and popes. Perhaps sooner than we dare expect. Christ’s Spirit has not died. She is very active in the body of the Church. Though she works through human instruments, she will not fail.