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Those Who Feel Called to Priesthood . The Political Implications of the Call by Elizabeth Carroll, New Woman, New Church, New Priestly Ministry Proceedings of the Second Conference on the Ordination of Roman Catholic Women November 1978, Baltimore, U.S.A.

Those Who Feel Called to Priesthood

The Political Implications of the Call

by Elizabeth Carroll, R.S.M.

New Woman, New Church, New Priestly Ministry

Proceedings of the Second Conference on the Ordination of Roman Catholic Women
November 1978, Baltimore, U.S.A. pp 109-116.
Published on our website with permission of the Women's Ordination Conference

Elizabeth Carroll, RSM, is former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and associate of the Center of Concern, Washington. She holds a Ph.D. from Catholic University of America and has served as professor, dean and president of Carlow College, Pittsburgh. She is currently vice-president of the Sisters of Mercy, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Faith is the great gift of God to us. In faith we believe that a gracious God speaks in creation, through events and signs of the times, to all people and especially to those who listen in faith. You come here today identifying yourselves as listeners, listeners secure enough to proclaim publicly that you believe God’s Spirit — the Spirit who drove Jesus — is calling you to priestly ministry in the Catholic Church.

In a recent talk on Vocation, Bishop Frank Murphy of this city remarked,

One cannot insist too much that both the Christian vocation to faith and the Church vocation to ministry are engendered and nourished by a deep religious experience of God and Christ.

It is this association of your belief in a particular call, and the deep religious experience within which you believe you have heard that call, that arouses in me a feeling of awe. Is the finger of God here?

Because such a call, expressed by women, must be uttered in an environment of the institutional Church generally hostile to that word, your expression of it locates you at the center of tension. You have come to a position of trusting your own truth, of being humble enough to enunciate it, and, with hands empty, in powerlessness, you plead for a just discernment.

Are you victims of hysteria? Are you somehow other-than-humans who do not recognize the deficiencies of your nature which grace is not able to penetrate? Or are you the “vessels of election,” born, like Paul, out of due season, but destined to be a light to the nations according to the designs and promptings of God?

Is God speaking, not only to you, but through you, to the church, to the world as a sign of these times that the human equality of male and female must be the very foundation stone of a renewed church and a just world? Will human decision makers allow the unconscious male sense of superiority which John XXIII called attention to in Pacem in Terris to obscure this sign of the times?

Despite the ominous official silences and the harmful analogical teaching of the Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood there is growing ground for hope for such a discernment. More and more priests and even some bishops are recognizing the injustice of depriving women like you of a personal test of vocation. The services of women as ministers of the Eucharist, as leaders of prayer, as lectors and homilists is not meeting the massive resistance of the people which was predicted. The capacity of some women to lead and to organize is being recognized. Biblical scholars, theologians and canon lawyers have found the theological underpinnings of the decision of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to be inadequate and unpersuasive. The ordination of women to priestly ministry will come.

The more important question is whether ordination of women to priestly ministry will come in such a way as to renew that ministry, to make the Church a clearer revelation of Christ, to promote love. We need a priestly ministry which will render real, personal, and communal for the people of this sophisticated and often cruel world the sacramental power of Jesus to make viable the love command.

The power of the priesthood must not be limited to the moment of consecration of the bread and wine at the liturgy, as the Declaration seems to imply. The power of the priesthood must be that deep touching into the roots of the Body of Christ which enables a liturgical congregation to become a community of faith and love. No mere external control of an even perfect obedience to hierarchical directives will make a flourishing church.

The power of priesthood will emerge when the structures which so frequently stunt human development are allowed to decay and emphasis is placed on the spiritual and psychological strength of those ordained — and on trust in the working of God within them. It is in freedom that responsibility best grows. It is when one is trusted that one begins to trust others. When the system for selecting, education, and organizing priests maximizes personal responsibility, then the thrust of Vatican II toward subsidiarity and collegiality will be able to be implemented. Then the struggle against selfishness and the release of graces of creativity will become every priest’s basis for accountability for service.

The life and teachings of Jesus make clear that whoever ministers in His name places the fact of being human above all other values. It is this respect for humanness that causes Jesus to be totally inclusive in those to whom He ministers, those whom He attracts to His service: men and women, workers and tax collectors and the rich who despoil themselves, sinners, the despised and alienated. He ministers to some by preaching and enabling conversion, through authority over unclean spirits; others he heals; still others — the powerful of his day in church and state — He castigates, confronts. The basis of this confrontation is that these men have constructed a God who values the Sabbath more than human well being, men who impose burdens upon others which they do not bear themselves, men who are concerned about places of dignity and salutation more than what is in their hearts, men who have neglected “the weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy and faith.”

Such confrontation led Jesus directly to the cross. Priestly ministry today in a world skewed toward injustice, toward the valuing of technology over human welfare and toward domination/dependency relationships, requires serious reflection on and identification with the cross of Jesus. Do you who aspire to this priestly ministry have the courage to try to understand the contemporary dimensions of what “the length and the breadth, and the height and the depth of the love of Christ” calls you to?

In many ways you are a privileged group, privileged in your faith, in your psychological maturity, in your education, in your affluence as U.S. citizens. I would like to point out to you another way, which you may not have reflected on much, in which you are privileged. You are privileged — blessed — because you are oppressed. You are oppressed because you are women, because you are women who aspire, under what you believe to be the grace of the Holy Spirit, to the “forbidden land” of priesthood.

Around you gather the storm clouds of a prejudice, hoary with tradition, which has regulated human society since prehistoric times. We have to go back to the Neolithic Age to find a culture which fully valued women.

When human beings saw woman as the source and nurturer of human life through child-birth and agriculture, they showed their esteem for woman by conceiving of God as the Great Mother. It was only with the Age of Metals with its Warrior Gods and its elevation of battle and armaments, when men arrogated to themselves alone the power of conceiving a child, and rendered much of agriculture available only to persons strong enough to draw an iron plow, that men initiated a society where the differences between men and women became the bedrock of human relationships.

At the point where a man looked upon a woman and concluded that “different” equalled “inferior,” the pattern of domination/dependency broke upon the world. Once the universal sexual differences could be thus treated, differences of skin color, of race, of wealth, of success or failure in war legitimized the relationship of dominant/dependent. The dominant group named the gods, defined roles and legitimated them by sacralization, made laws, established customs, wrote books, provided for its own education, produced its art, and developed an economic, social, religious and political system which existed to promote the well being of the dominant.

When men concentrated not on the humanness of women but on the differences between the sexes, they tended also to make those differences the whole of the other. Thus woman became identified as the passive receptacle of the powerful male seed, the earthy, emotional, non-intellectual, to be honored only as she privatized the ambit of her activities and socialized boys and girls respectively into the mores of the dominant society. Seeing differences as the whole of the other causes us to seek truth in categories, not in the richness of human person-hood. It is this tendency that gives rise to such stupid generalities as Freud’s exasperated “What do these women want?” or “Why don’t the Blacks get together on what they want?” or “The people on welfare are all cheats.”

The mindset which thus differentiated women from men and became a paradigm for other human relationships is what we call patriarchal. There is no doubt that it was within a patriarchal culture that Jesus lived and taught. There is no doubt that Jesus’ inclusion of women in His peripatetic troupe, the recorded willingness He showed to dialogue with women in a mutually self-discovering way, His acceptance of their solace in His agony, and His reliance on them to convey the primary message of His resurrected life were matters of scandal to many of His male followers. Divine power is evident in the fact that these events were remembered by the first Christian communities and recorded in the writings of the Evangelists.

Unraveling the relationships of divine purpose and of human culture with respect to women in New Testament times lies at the heart of the present controversy over the ordination of women. Unless we can keep in mind the long history of civilizations in which women were treated in law as the property of men, without choice or voice in a privatized lifestyle, we cannot comprehend the novelty of Jesus’ words and actions.

As Karl Rahner writes in his commentary on the Declaration,

The Jewish society of the time of Jesus was so founded upon an evident male dominion (as is clearly visible also in Paul) that it was not possible for Jesus and his apostles — and also their Hellenistic communities so deeply influenced by Judaic customs — to eliminate this male dominion within their communities.

The immediate disciples of Jesus frequently failed to understand Him. Again and again Jesus had to reprimand their concern for priority place, for domination, and call them to service. The New Testament writings give evidence of the great struggles involved in opening men’s hearts to the inclusiveness of Christ as regards Jew-Gentile. The effects of baptismal identity of slave — free, of female-male had to await another age.

Rahner’s commentary introduces a helpful consideration in understanding this phenomenon:

Side by side with a more universal moral principle can exist a concrete practical maxim opposed to this principle, without their fundamental opposition being perceived within the earlier social situations.

What has changed to make the message of the equality in humanness of male and female able to be heard today? I would call attention to two very basic changes in human society. First biological science and experiential studies render it universal knowledge that human life is conceived by the mutually cooperative act of man and woman. Hence equality and mutuality will more and more undergird all relations between the sexes. Secondly, changes in technology have produced an economy which is no longer dependent on physical prowess. Hence the bases for the age-old inferiority of the female are being removed. What remains is the problem that this inferiority (and other dominant/dependency inferiorities as John XXIII indicated in the passage referred to from Pacem in Terris) have been interiorized for so long that they hamper consciousness today.

I bring this long explanation before you not as a distraction from your presence here today as seekers of priestly ordination, but to point out to you the parameters of what worthy priesthood will mean for you. I was disturbed when I read in Fran Ferder’s book, Called to Break Bread? that many of you who are represented in her profile “feel that the introduction of ordained women into the structure would automatically change and renew it.” Such a conclusion, I believe, is not warranted. Unless the women who are to be ordained are deeply conscious of the oppression of women, the relation of this oppression to other prevalent oppressions of the poor and the racially different, unless they are deeply converted to the necessity of uprooting the mindset of dominance/dependence upon which these oppressions rest, they will all too easily fall into the institutional framework of clericalism which now hampers the church.

In the first place, because women are human they will be subject to the same temptations as men are — pride of place, prestige of title, security, upward mobility.

Secondly, because women have been socialized to peace at any price, to docility, they may fit themselves into the system and make their own survival the prize.

Thirdly, because women have been excluded from the sacramental elite and decision making processes of the church, they may seek their identity solely in church rather than in the Lord through the church.

Fourthly, because women have been oppressed, they may overreact and become the oppressor. We women already know how easy it is to fall into the same trap of categorization when we examine our mindsets toward those who are different from us.

What we church people, all of us, priests and other ministers, women and men, are called to is an ongoing conversion wherein we journey with other oppressed — persons and peoples—toward the valuing and procurement of all that is human. We are called in these dehumanizing days to a new ethic embodied in the slogan, “People First.” It is this that Jesus was trying to teach us when He obstinately insisted on performing His healings on the Sabbath. The God He came to reveal was worshipped in promoting the well-being of people as much as in prayer. His role, the role He passed to His disciples, was to serve that well-being against the hardened exclusive and elitist traditions of a patriarchal society. He came to build a community of love.

If women will be worthy of priesthood, it will be because they penetrate the liberating force of God’s word, they understand power as enabling others rather than controlling others, they recognize that sacraments exist for people, and do not use sacraments to bind persons in fear and inferiority. Women will honor priesthood only if their sense of having been oppressed enables them to take an option with the poor of the world and the alienated of their society.

The ordination of women to priestly ministry will be an empty, perhaps even a selfish, triumph unless it helps to transform church as institution into church as community, subordinating the rightful obedience to law and office to obedience to God’s love as conferred by Jesus.

May we trust God’s love to give what you came here to plead for: a just discernment of your value!

Track I Responses

In Track I, the women called to ordination focussed on three areas:

The purpose of bonding

recognizing and living our mutuality
melting isolation
providing information and education
raising consciousness
sharing talents and skills
acknowledging the sacred
encouraging and enabling ministries
providing support and actualization
organizing for structural change

Strategies for bonding

Organize regional “Solidarity for Women” Days
Communicating to someone who “might hear”
Religious congregations share resources with laywomen
Organize an Association of Women in Ministry rather than NAWR
Join with the larger “feminist” movement; e.g., Corpus, Priests for Equality, Men and Women Religious Leadership, NOW, etc.
Encourage and create unity with our diversity
Clarify issues
Create community where we are to share our call with others
Recognize and affirm various lifestyles among us
Seek understanding with “the people in the pews” in courageand humility

II. Purpose of Ordained Ministry

Acceptance of the gifts of a person, reshaping the theology of person
Validation of person’s charisms by the community
Further expansion of the presence of Christ in the whole communit
Theologizing and spiritualizing with other women shaping a more just church
Appropriate response to one’s relationship with God
Reshaping theology of ministry, sacrament

III. Concerns

WOC should act as a personnel clearinghouse
WOC should assist in the discernment process
Why be ordained if we are already exercising a sacramental ministry?
Dichotomies between ministers and people would still remain
How do we avoid taking on old models of ministry?
What would ministries of the future look like with or without the ministries of women?

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