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To Comfort or To Challenge: Feminist Theological Reflections by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. 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.

To Comfort or To Challenge: Feminist Theological Reflections

by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza

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 43 - 60.
Published on our website with permission of the Women's Ordination Conference

Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza is presently Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. She studied at the Universities of Wuerzburg and Muenster, earning a Licentiate in Pastoral Theology and a Doctorate in Theology. She spoke at the first ordination conference in 1975 and has authored articles and books on feminist theology and sexism in the Bible.

When I prepared this lecture several people cautioned “Elisabeth, don’t forget that you speak not only to the women present at the conference but also to the male hierarchy who will not be present. They do not understand the language of feminist critique nor the attitude of setting one’s own agenda. ‘Don’t challenge them too much!’” This counsel to caution reminded me of the experience I had when I decided to study theology. Because I was the first woman in Wurzburg to do so, I needed the permission of the local bishop. Since the bishop knew me personally and had followed my work in the youth ministry of the church, I was confident that I would receive his permission without any difficulties. To my surprise he did not enthusiastically support my intention but rather argued against it. Finally, when all the technical arguments were exhausted he confessed his real misgivings: “Your problem,” the bishop argued, “is that you clearly recognize the wounds of the church. But instead of spreading the cover of love over them, you point your finger at them.” I was very hurt by this criticism but managed a reply: “Excellency, if I believed that the patient was dying I would spread the blanket of love over the corpse. However, because I believe in the vitality of the church, I persist in challenging ecclesiastical failures for the sake of the people who still identify with the church.”

The Pre-conference Process

This was twenty years ago, but the same hurt and outrage over the failures of the hierarchical church echo through the accounts of the pre-conference process. If today we challenge the establishment church by the mere fact that we are having this conference, then we are doing this in the conviction that healing and comfort are only possible after the wounds have been cleansed and the festering evil of patriarchal sexism(1) has been excised. Because we love the church and are committed to the Gospel, we will have to challenge the male leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.

Such a critique and challenge reverberates in the accounts of the pre-conference process. However, since the answers we receive are dictated by the questions we ask, a discussion of the process must not only analyze the responses but also the questions which were asked. It is therefore important to reflect on the theological presuppositions and questions of the pre-conference process before interpreting theologically the responses to it. This needs to be done not in order to evaluate those who formulated the pre-conference questions, but in order to delineate the strength and the limitations of the process.

The pre-conference process(2) was not only directed to women or to women in ministry, but was addressed to all “justice people.” Almost 500 people in 53 groups responded to the invitation: 18 percent of them were men, 29 percent were women in ecclesiastical communities, and the majority, 53 percent, were women from other communal settings. The demographic data do not provide information on how many groups were called together by nuns nor do we know how many of the participating women were actively involved in ministry. The majority of the respondents were highly educated, middle class, white urban, and regular participants in church life and liturgy. The respondents appear, therefore, to be church-identified persons, although their answers show that their identification with the church is a partial and critical identification. There is however, not enough information on the reaction of those women who are nominal Catholics and of those women who have relinquished their church identification because of the sexist character of the church. However, since the pre-conference process did not call together groups of women to reflect on their experiences as women within the Roman Catholic church and its ministry, it did not provide us with much direct information on how women as women experience the church and priesthood today.

The expressed purpose of the pre-conference process was to initiate reflection-groups who were to come together to “look at their lived experience, to reflect upon priesthood as they presently experience it, to analyze the ministries women are carrying out today and to see how such ministries would profit from ordination.” The second part of the process, which will be addressed by the panel on Chains that Bond, asked what a renewed church and ministry would look like. Thus the pre-conference process concentrated on the issues of ordination, ministry, women’s ministry and church.

The small local group in which I participated was made up of women in ministry or in theological education. We felt that the pre-conference perspective was somewhat “churchy” and insinuated reverse “clericalism.” We missed questions on the interconnectedness between church and society, on the experiences of tokenism and cooptation, on the discrimination and trivialization-experiences of those women who are already ordained in other Christian churches. Moreover, no specific structural issues within the Roman Catholic church were raised: Why do Catholics generally experience nuns as a quasi-clerical class? Why do clerics and bishops insist that the leadership of the women’s movement in the church has to be in the hands of women religious? Which present ecclesiastical structures are especially inimical to women? Where do we find new structures of ministry? How do we identify them? Why are women not “coming out of the closet” to make public their present leadership in liturgical and sacramental celebrations? How do we get from here to there, from our present experience of church and ministry to the future of a new priesthood and a new church?

The pre-conference process also did not include explicit questions on sexism and misogynism within the Catholic church. We therefore do not find much information on the God-question, on the understanding of Christ or Mary, on the experience of androcentricism in church liturgy, symbolism, and language. The narrow focus on church and ministry gives the impression that the pre-conference process did not sufficiently grapple with the issues of women’s liberation as pre-condition of the transformation of ministry and church. In short, insofar as the pre-conference process focused on personal experience and not also on structural issues, and insofar as it did not explicitly ask for women’s experiences as women in an androcentric church and ministry, it does not provide us with enough information on the “lived” experiences of women’s oppression. The responses are therefore informative with respect to ecclesiology and ministry but less critical with respect to women’s contribution to the ministry of the church today and in the future.

In addition to the initiation of reflection-groups the pre-conference process asked those women who believed themselves to be called to the priesthood, to submit accounts of their personal experience and theological understanding of their call to ministry. I personally did not participate in the second task of the pre-conference process. When a friend challenged me on this point I somewhat facetiously replied: “I do not feel myself called to become a priest and to live my life in obedience to a bishop in a job which no male wants to take on.” The experiences of ordained women in other Christian churches confirm that women’s role in the church will be as that in society, namely second class citizenship. Moreover, when I was a child I never said mass but I did hear confessions! In an essay which I wrote when I was seven, I confidently expressed that one day I would be a pope! I clearly had no intention of taking second place.

This somewhat flippant response was triggered by deep theological misgivings. Is the ordination-movement, despite all assurances to the contrary, after all only interested in getting a few women into the present clerical structures? Will it theologically be a step backward, since it seems to pre-suppose a cultic understanding of priesthood that was theologically undermined after Vatican II? Will this movement mean a strengthening of the present clerical structures and a clericalization of women? Does the movement miss the boat by shunning the theological questions of power and is it therefore in danger of coopting women’s creativity and powers for the present clerical system? After having read the accounts of the women who responded, I must say that my misgivings were either dispelled or at least muted. Yet it became evident that the hurt and the courage expressed in these stories told by women needs to be grounded in critical-theological analysis and a constructive theological conceptualization, if these experiences of women are to become deprivatized and are to have a pastoral-theological impact on the church.

Feminist Theological Reflection

Contrary to popular belief, there is not one single expression of Roman Catholic theology but a plurality of theological systems and approaches and a multiplicity of ways to do theology and to spell out Christian hope, faith and love. Scripture studies have shown that a pluriformity of theological reflections and expressions have found their way into the New Testament. Early Christian theology is not concerned with the formulation of timeless principles and doctrinal infallibilities, but with the theological response to various pastoral situations. The II Vatican Council has reasserted this pastoral approach of theology and of the task of the magisterium and has therefore opened up a variety of new ways to reflect and to express the Christian truth and faith. Since neo-scholastic theology is no longer the form of Roman Catholic theology, there is no longer one Catholic theology or one type of Catholic theologian.

Every theologian and theology has therefore to account for its presuppositions, conceptuality and commitment. As a Biblical scholar I have learned to think theologically not in terms of abstract principles and ecclesiastical doctrines but in terms of the Christian community and its theological and practical needs. Revelation is given for “the sake of our salvation.” As a feminist theologian my self-identification and my allegiance is with women. However in my feminist-theological understanding salvation and liberation cannot be derived from women’s nature, from her specific feminine qualities or from her biological powers but only from a critical reflection on women’s experience of oppression and women’s struggle for liberation. Feminist theology is therefore in my understanding a “critical theology of liberation.”

Since feminist theology is concerned with women’s experience of oppression and has a goal the liberation of both sexes, it has developed the tools and methods to make explicit the theological significance of women’s experience and struggle for equality. Three feminist approaches present themselves. They are not mutually exclusive, but are dialectically related to each other. All three approaches understand women’s present position in church and ministry as that of inequality and injustice. The exclusion of women from sacramental ministry is a violation of the equal rights that women have in virtue of their baptism as full members of the church. The church has therefore to change its present policy of the exclusion of women from ordination.

The first approach emphasizes “the unique gifts that feminine persons can offer to leadership and ministry in the church.” This theological approach that presupposes the complementarity of the sexes seems to be shared by many of the pre-conference respondents. When describing women’s ministry today and characterizing the new priesthood of the future, respondents often use so-called “feminine” qualifications: such as “more personal in style, homey, earthy, gentle, compassionate, touching, nurturing, supportive, sensitive, warm, giving, connecting people, more understanding, flexible, probably a little softer and rounder, less selfish, more encompassing, women having greater natural flair in their ministry.” Although there is some awareness that women’s ministries are privatized and lack implementing powers by their subordinate silent partnership, the respondents do not explore why they hold women’s ministry to be more humane and more Christian than male ministry. Since they do not reflect on how women have internalized the “false consciousness” of feminity, they are in danger of projecting sexist and negative features only onto male ministry.

Theological defenders of the Vatican Declaration against women’s ordination to the priesthood as for instance D. Burrell and M. Novak have moreover argued that the sexual differentiation between men and women justifies a sex-typed ministry and a “dual-sex” eucharist.(4) They advocated women’s participation in all ministries of the church except in the sacramental priesthood. Such an exclusion of women from the sacramental symbol system is according to Burrell required so that:

the Church could reflect in her manifold ministries the maleness and femaleness of God’s original plan, and the ordained priest would be able to see himself as the Declaration sees him: a performer of actions ... in which Christ Himself, the author of the Covenant, the Bridegroom and the Head of the Church is represented exercising His ministry of salvation.(5)

Such theological support for the Declaration’s androcentrism makes one wonder whether the argument that women should be ordained in order to complement the masculine ministry of the church could be fatal for women’s equality in the church and make impossible a non-sexist future of the church. Those arguing for the ordination of women on the basis of women’s special nature and particular feminine gifts are in danger of providing a theological justification for the exclusion of women from the sacramental priesthood and relegating women to “feminine” subsidiary ministries.(6) While the so-called feminine qualities must be intrinsic to the priesthood of women and men because they are Christian values, their privatization and distortion by sexism must first be confronted.(7) If the qualities of love, compassion, gentleness, sensitivity and nurturance remain restricted to women and to the ministry of women, they remain distorted by sexism and will help to psychologically adjust and to conform women ministers to the present structures of inequality in church and society.

The second type of feminist theology claims that Christianity is a patriarchal religion and therefore inherently sexist. Insofar as it theologically justifies women’s subordinate and inferior position, any attempt to incorporate women into the present structures of the patriarchal church will contribute even more to the sexist exploitation of women. One cannot be a feminist and a member of the Roman Catholic church and hierarchy. It is impossible to shed the “false consciousness of sexism when one continues to internalize its values by praying to a male God and a masculine Savior and by obeying the Fathers of the church. The Post-Christian Catholic theologian Mary Daly spells out this contention in a succinct way: ”Since God is male, the male is God. God, the Father, legitimizes all earthly God-Fathers. The idea of an unique divine incarnation in a male ... is inherently sexist and oppressive. Christolatry is idolatry."(8)

The Vatican Declaration against the ordination of women to the priesthood seems to confirm Daly’s contention when stressing the maleness of Christ.

When Christ’s role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this ‘natural resemblance’ which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man. Christ is, of course, the first-born of all humanity, of women as well as man . . . Nevertheless the incarnation of the Word took place according to the male sex; this is indeed a question of fact, and this fact, while not implying an alleged natural superiority of man over woman cannot be disassociated from the economy of salvation . . .(9)

This marks a theological watershed. For the first time a church document justifies the exclusion of women from the priesthood not on anthropological but on theological and christological grounds.(10) Christology has become androlatry and therefore idolatry. When the official church risks heresy in order to exclude women from the sacramental ministry, then the official church must feel that the ordination of women is a theological and structural issue of the first order.

The androlatry of the Vatican Declaration has re-defined the issue of the ordination of women. While previously the question was whether the hierarchy will admit women into its ranks, now the theological issue is whether women can belong to an intrinsically sexist church destructive as it is of women’s identity as women and as Christians, as Christ-like persons. Or as a friend expressed it: “I no longer can participate in a male-centered mass if I do not want to relinquish my faith in God and in the Christian Gospel. To witness the concelebration of ten or more men is to witness the demonstration of exclusive male power. The Eucharist has been perverted and become destructive of my Christian faith."

As long as we do not personally experience the deep anguish and alienation experienced by women at the celebration of every male eucharist, we will not be able to recognize the depth of our alienation and anger. Sr. Betty Carroll aptly expresses the deep pain and alienation of Roman Catholic feminists:

Prayer today is a battleground. Public prayer, especially the Eucharist, becomes a locus of almost unbearable pain. The oppressive quality of a male priesthood . . . overwhelms me. The insensitivity to language which excludes women from the saving act of redemption makes it almost impossible for me to be at peace enough to receive the Eucharist. To trust a God who is all-male is impossible. In every prayer there is a struggle: , , . Why does the Church not recognize women as God-worthy, capable of leading people in prayer and worship, capable of receiving all sacramental power.(11)

The third approach of feminist theology therefore seeks to reflect theologically on the alienation, pain and oppression of those Catholic women who against all hope have cast their lot with the people of God and consider themselves to be Christian feminists. It seeks to mediate between the “complementarity of the sexes” position and the post-Christian stance. I have called this third approach “a critical theology of liberation”(12) because it acknowledges and critically analyzes the oppressive sexist structures of Christian church and tradition while at the same time rediscovering the liberating traditions and elements of Christian faith and community. It urges us to take seriously the post-Christian feminist critique of Christian religion and church while pursuing the full equality of women in the church. It does not ask for the integration of women into sexist structures nor does it advocate Utopian separation, but looks for the transformation of women as well as of the Church. However, in distinction to the first two approaches it does not base its theology and strategies on the special nature, powers, and experience of women but on women’s experiences of oppression by sexism in church and society. While the first approach wants to complement male hierarchical structures with the qualities women can bring to ministry and the second approach wants to withdraw women’s powers and abilities from church ministries in order not to be coopted, the third approach insists on the conversion of the church as well as of women.

However, critical theology should not be understood as negative and judgmental, A participant in the pre-conference process warns in a “letter to the editor:” “According to your press release these stories will be studied by theologians. Please advise the theologians that I am studying them. ‘Blessed is the man who finds no stumbling block in me.’” Not only does this woman assume that the theologians are men but she also expects that their approach will be judgmental. Critical theology must not be so understood. We must rather see it in the Johannine sense of krisis. Feminist theology as critical theology explores the crisis-situation of women within the church and of the church itself. It seeks to surface the questions and to illumine our self-understanding as individuals and as church in such a way that it frees us from oppressive theological justifications and leads to the transformation of personal consciousness and of ecclesial structures. This approach therefore seeks to formulate the theological quest for women’s ordination not in terms of feminine values and in terms of equal but different ministries, but rather in terms of patriarchal-sexist oppression and liberation in Jesus Christ. The theological categories that present itself for such a re-formulation of the question of those of “patriarchal sexism as structural sin” and of repentance and partial identification with the church.”

Patriarchal Sexism as Structural Sin

While we generally understand sin as personal transgression and individual acts of infidelity against God, liberation theologians urge us to perceive sin not only in personalistic terms but also in terms of structures and institutions.(13) Sexism as structural sin encompasses the dehumanizing trends, injustices and discriminations of institutions, the theology and symbol system that legitimates these institutions, and the collective and personal “false consciousness” created by sexist institutions and ideologies and internalized in socialization and education. This “false consciousness” permits oppressed people and groups to accept their oppression and to internalize the values of the oppressor.(14) This understanding of patriarchal sexism as structural sin and evil power institutionalized in societal and ecclesial oppressive structures is akin to St. Paul’s understanding of sin as transpersonal, destructive power whose ultimate expression is the life-destroying power of death.

The pre-conference responses abundantly diagnose the destructive impact of sexism on the present ecclesial structures. Characterizations abound that speak of the present priesthood as “distant, judgmental, opinionated, ritualistic, hierarchical instead of pastoral, lacking ability to show love, stiff, irrelevant, remote, exclusive, sterile, stifled, regressive, paternalistic, male-dominated full of (expletive deleted), patriarchal, impersonal, frustrating.” These characterizations can be summarized in the following statements: “The Institutional church no longer mediates between the people and God.” “The official church consolidates the existing structures in society thus oppressing women and other groups.”

One pre-conference participant names the structural sin of patriarchal sexism as brokenness when she writes in her epistle to the archbishop Roberto Sanchez:

One encounter with the living God is denied me, not by God but by law. This denial is based on my sex and is rooted in a sexism within our Roman Catholic tradition which has grown over the centuries and has brought us, you and me to this moment, of brokenness . . . This brokenness means that an important way of releasing the power of God within me is being denied me and the community which desires my ordination and services.

The understanding of patriarchal sexism as evil transpersonal power and as structural sin helps us to trace the impact it has on the sacramental symbol system of the church. It helps us understand the deep-seated, almost irrational refusal of the male institutional church to admit women to the sacramental priesthood. It helps us to understand why the structural sin of sexism cannot but engender the symbolic sin of patriarchal sexism. E, Janeway (15) points out that the mythology of sexism is the product of profound cultural interests and emotional wishfulness. In her opinion it is useless to show that a myth or mythology has no basis in fact, that it does not correspond to our experience, and that it defies all logic. Nor can one qualify myth and mythology as false and nonsensical because it corresponds to the interests of the institutions and expresses the emotions of the dominant group.

Since Christian mythologies and theologies are created mostly by men they reflect the emotions and interests of men. These emotions and interests shaped by sexism are perpetuated by religious and theological patriarchal structures. We have therefore to recognize that the theological argument for women’s ordination will not be won on logical and intellectual grounds. Logical and intellectual arguments will only produce further legitimizations for the existing sexist structures.

First, by arguing that the sacramental priesthood should be restricted to men only, the Vatican Declaration and its theological defenders risk christological heresy in order to maintain the present sexist church structures and ideologies. By including women in all functions of ministry and excluding them only from celebrating the Eucharist and pronouncing absolution, church leadership degrades these sacramental actions to the level of juridical magic. That such a magical understanding of sacrament does not do justice to Christian sacraments is pointed out frequently in the responses to the pre-conference process. Yet such a degradation of the sacraments becomes more comprehensible in the light of cultural anthropology. In cultures and periods when the mother was the only known parent and her pregnancy was easily attributed to the wind or ancestral spirits, the power of women to create life was understood as a magical force. In the very earliest forms of art, the swollen breasts, the bellies and huge buttocks of the female signify female power to give life. Moreover, in recent times anthropologists have found numerous peoples who are still unaware that the male seed is as necessary to procreation as the female ovum and womb.

Scholars of religion and feminist scholars suggest that the myth of the magic female power to give life led to the worship and religion of the female, which later was usurped by patriarchal religion.(16) In patriarchal religion the ritual act becomes as significant to the process of human maturation, as pregnancy and birth. Patriarchal initiation ceremonies at which one of the elders of the tribe confers adult status on the boys are efforts by men to act out the rite of birth. Though women give birth to children in the ordinary course of events, by enacting the sacred rites of passage, men re-birth the initiates and turn them into full members of the clan.

The Christian sacraments are all rites which mediate life. Baptism is a re-birth, the eucharist is the “bread of life,” religious instruction is “mothermilk.” The sacrament of reconciliation restores life to its fullness, the sacrament of marriage protects and sanctifies the source of life, the sacrament of the sick heals and strengthens life threatened by death. We begin to see why those churches which have a sacramental priesthood are the most insistent on the exclusion of women from the celebration of these life-giving rituals. In maintaining a male sacramental system they have to insist on the magic-religious character of the sacraments. The sacraments as male rituals of birthing and nurturing appear to imitate the female powers of giving birth and of nurturing life.

Second, this juridic-magic framework seems to be one of the major reasons why male clerics perceive the quest for the ordination of women to the priesthood as the struggle of women to come in control of religious power. Although women studiously avoid raising the issue of power but speak of the priesthood mainly in terms of service to the community, the male clergy perceives an access of women to the Christian priesthood as a loss of male power and prestige. The magic roots and the mysterious character of the sacral priesthood serve in modern times as re-assurance of clerical masculinity in a profession which in our culture is perceived as “feminine.”(17)

Since women are culturally and theologically considered to be the “weaker sex,” women’s access to ordination implies for male clerics that they themselves will be reduced to the low status of women and that the church will be “feminized” and thus become second rate and powerless. This fear is expressed again and again by priests when discussing women’s ordination. After all the theological arguments are exhausted, sooner or later someone will raise the problem that the ordination of women will mean the complete feminization of the church. Since today most active members of the church are women and since the few remaining men will not respect a female clergy, women will completely take over the church, thus making the church obsolete for men and society. While women seeking ordination do so in order to better serve the people of God, the male clergy cannot hear what women are saying because they fear female participation in the priesthood will demasculinize their own professional status. This psychological threat of women priests to a male clergy is compounded by the fact that our culture considers the Christian values of love, compassion, nurturance, service, and so forth to be “feminine” qualities which are appropriate in the private sphere but do not determine public and political life. As long as these qualities remain stereotyped as “feminine” values and are not connected with any institutional and public power, men will need to project these human and Christian values onto women because they feel they cannot practice them in a masculinized culture. While the church preaches “feminine” values, its own praxis is determined by the masculine values of our culture.

As long as the sacramental priesthood remains masculinized it will not be nurturing, enabling and serving but will continue to represent male clerical power over the spiritual life of the laity who is perceived in a “feminine” role. Equally, as long as women are not accepted into the sacramental priesthood the sacraments will not lose their magic-male character and Christian ministry will not become an institution of service to the people. The structural sin of patriarchal sexism corrupts the heart of the Christian priesthood.

Third, if the structural sin of sexism is at the root of the male hierarchy’s refusal to ordain women to the sacramental priesthood, then rational theological arguments will not alleviate the problem. The only possible Christian response can be repentance and conversion. The overriding task conversely is to expose patriarchal sexism wherever we encounter it. This requires first of all that we ourselves repent our internalized “false consciousness” of sexism. Such a repentance will have to take different forms for women and for men since women’s and men’s Christian self-understanding and ecclesial functions are differently affected by patriarchal sexism.

If the structural sin of patriarchal sexism is at the root of the male hierarchy’s refusal to ordain women to the priesthood, then we must insist that the institutional church publicly repent its theological, symbolic and institutional sexism. As the institutional church has officially rejected all forms of national and racist exploitation and publicly renounced all anti-semitic theology, so it is now called to abandon all forms of patriarchal sexism by rejecting a theological and institutional framework that perpetuates the oppression of women. As long as the institutional male church does not hear this call to repentance the ordination of women can only lead to a further alienation and oppression of women within the church. Only if women are admitted to the full Christian priesthood, the episcopal office, will the need no longer exist to suppress the Spirit who moves and empowers Christian women to fully participate in the sacramental ministry of the church. Until then feminist theology will have to remain predominantly a “critical theology” that rejects a total identification of women with a male hierarchical church but persists in a “partial identification” with the church.(18)

As long as the institutional church does not hear the call torepentance, the ordination of women cannot become an authentic reality. If patriarchalism is sinful and evil, then women or men cannot accept ordination into such sexist-sinful structures. As long as the official church does not hear the call to repentance, our conversion should express itself in “institutional disobedience” and in anticipatory obedience to the vision of a non-sexist community. As long as the official church does not publicly repent, our conversion has to express itself in consistent resistance to sexist ecclesial structures, in the refusal to tolerate sexist theologies and in the refusal to participate in sexist rituals.

As long as the official church restricts the representation of Christ in the sacraments to the male and thereby affirms and continues its institutional sexism, we have to expose this sexism for what it is and to demand at the beginning of every sacramental celebration a public confession of the sin of sexism. As long as women cannot represent Christ in the eucharistic celebration, our participation at the table of the Lord remains a perversion of the eucharistic community intended by Jesus. Perhaps we should consider the appropriateness of a public spiritual hunger strike to expose the distortions of the eucharist by the sin of sexism. If there are any among us who would instinctively shy away from Christian confrontation, I would urge them to read again Galatians 2 where Paul speaks of his confrontation of the false consciousness and praxis of Peter. As Paul withstood Peter because he destroyed the unity of the eucharist and of the community so we today have publicly to insist that the exclusion of women from the sacramental priesthood corrupts the Eucharist and the Christian church. The ordination of women to the sacramental fullness of the priesthood, the episcopate, is not just a “women” issue but a theological and spiritual issue affecting the credibility and life of the whole church.

Such a repentance of the whole church from the structural sin of sexism is however only possible when both women and men identify with the struggle of women for societal and ecclesial equality and liberation. Such repentance requires that both women and men respect women in theology and ministry and so affirm the work of the Spirit among women today. It is therefore necessary that women stop pleading for ordination and justifying it in the face of sexist church traditions. Instead we should positively affirm women’s ministries and spiritual powers wherever we encounter them. We are called to affirm publicly and institutionally women’s ministries as theologians and pastors, as preachers and dispensers of the sacraments, as Church officials and leaders, as spiritual directors and community builders, as healers, reconcilers, and prophets.

Such a conversion from ecclesial sexism demands from us the courage to “come out of the closet” and to make public that we as Christian women have power to image Jesus sacramentally, to break bread in community, to reconcile people with God and each other, to proclaim the truth and power of the Christian gospel. If such a conversion from ecclesial sexism is genuine then we will experience that the power of God’s Spirit is mightier than that of a hierarchical male establishment dedicated to the preservation of ecclesial patriarchalism. Such a repentance from the structural sin of sexism will free us to risk our careers and our lives to exercise partial disobedience to the institutional church for the sake of a renewed church liberated from institutional patriarchalism.

Toward A Renewed Church

The pre-conference process documents that many women have already committed themselves to such a struggle for a renewed priesthood in a church liberated from all sexism. This commitment leads them to the prophetic refusal to identify with a patriarchal hierarchy and institutional church that does not repent its institutional sexism. At the same time many participants in the pre-conference process affirm that in their sacramental and pastoral ministry they make already present the sacramental grace of a liberated and liberating church.

Despite their critical understanding of priesthood and ecclesial structures, the majority of the pre-conference responses do not identify the church with oppressive hierarchical male structures but redefine it in terms of the People of God as Pilgrim People. Instead of allowing themselves to be pushed out of a church so unjust and oppressive to women, many of the respondents opt for a partial identification with the church. Hierarchical male structures and the pronouncements of the male hierarchy are no longer uncritically identified with the will of God or with the Christian community. One woman expresses her acute sense of alienation and partial identification when she introduces herself as: “I am called Catherine. I am a priest according to the order of Jesus Christ not according to the order of Rome.”

Many of the pre-conference respondents therefore do not understand their call to the priesthood in terms of the institutional church, personal piety, or cultic sacrifices. Rather they perceive their call and authority as empowerment by the Spirit to accept the call of the People of God. One voice may stand for many;

I recall being called to pray with a group of prostitutes in Brazil because one of their friends had died and the ‘priest’ in the area refused them use of the official church building for the services of the dead woman. We had our own service in their village and together we carried the dead woman to her place of burial and together we prayed and we blessed the body of this 15 year old girl . . . Time and time again I was called forth by the people to share sacramental moments of life and death with them.

Such an understanding of their call and authority as derived from the People of God allows women to continue in their ministry despite all obstacles brought to bear by the official male church.

These days I don’t worry about my own personal ordination. I just exercise my ministry. If someday the church catches up with me and officially ordains me, that may make some difference to the church authorities, but it won’t make much difference to me. For the last thirty years I have been fully committed to the church . . .(19)

Although many women continue to live their call and ministry within the established structures of the church, their position in it has become “increasingly on the margin, the growing edge . .” Dolly Pommerleau expresses so well what it means for Roman Catholic women to live on the “cutting edge” in “partial identification” with the church:

I have made the links between patriarchal oppression and my own alienation from structural church. I recognize the overt and subtle discrimination, the attempts to divide women, the promise made and not kept... I was raised a ‘religious object’ ... I am in the process of becoming a ‘religious subject’—someone who names and creates her own spirituality someone who joins hands with other oppressed women and caring men to create a renewed church.(20)

This commitment to such a renewed church, in which women can be religious subjects, compels many women today to ritualize and actualize God’s grace and the community of faith in the celebration of the sacraments. Since the sacraments, and especially the eucharist, are the symbolic center of the Christian community, they are not the private possession or privilege of the hierarchy but rightfully belong to the whole church. Church hierarchy and ecclesial office are not an end in themselves but exist to serve the People of God. The community has the right to receive the sacraments and the male hierarchy sins gravely, when it deprives the People of God of the eucharist rather than to ordain women. The exclusion of women from the sacramental priesthood goes against the church’s very own teaching on the centrality of the liturgy for the symbolic actualization and theological understanding of church.

The hierarchy’s refusal to ordain women also endangers the universal character of the sacraments insofar as it limits sacramental grace to institutionalized male rituals. K. Rahner has argued in an essay on Personal and Sacramental Piety that we should shift from a mere juridical to a more ontological understanding of sacraments so that sacramental grace is present wherever sacramental symbols are enacted. Such an ontological understanding of sacrament stresses that the reception of the sacrament continues

the life of faith and lets this identical faith grow up into the fullness of its being . . . Explicit expression is given now to the relationship all grace has to the Church by the fact that the Church takes a visible part by its (her) tangible action. In short, what had already been happening previously now becomes a qualified tangible event and appears publicly in the form of a means to grace which had already sustained the previous events and which is the Church.(21)

Ritual celebration of the sacraments therefore means an intensification of the sacramental grace already present in the private act of the individual.

If we extend this analysis to the sacramental ministry women exercise today then we can say that sacramental grace is present in every act of women ministers that reconciles people with God and mediates God’s grace to people. Insofar as women act as ministers of the church they publicly make visible the “relationship all grace has to Church.” This happens for instance when persons confess their sins to women or when women ministers break bread in community. One could argue that these sacramental acts of women ministers lack the public dimension of Church insofar as they lack juridical legitimization through ordination. This argument overlooks, however, that the denial of juridical ordination of women to the priesthood is engendered by the structural sin of patriarchal sexism. Since the symbolic sin of sexism destroys the universal character of the sacrament, one can argue to the contrary that women’s sacramental ministry symbolizes (i.e. sacramentalizes) fully the sacramental grace of the church insofar as “Christ’s deed and the vitality of the church” is not distorted by sexist symbolism. By refusing to publicly and officially acknowledge women’s sacramental ministry through ordination, the male hierarchy distorts Christ’s act of salvation and the character of the church as the universal sacrament of salvation. In Conclusion:

In pre-conference process has shown that most women do not seek ordination into the present male hierarchal structures on the one hand. On the other hand women already act on their call to the sacramental priesthood which they understand themselves to have received from the Spirit and from the People of God. This critical theological reflection on the pre-conference responses sought to understand this new consciousness of women and the theological refusal of the male hierarchy to acknowledge publicly women’s sacramental ministry through the ordination to the priesthood. Two ways of action suggest themselves for all those who struggle not for ordination into the present male structures of the church but for a renewed ministry and a renewed church. This struggle for a renewed priesthood in a renewed church demands first of all a prophetic refusal to identify with male hierarchy and institutional church that does not repent the structural sin of patriarchal sexism. Secondly, such a refusal to accept the structural sin of ecclesial sexism has to entail the affirmation of women as women, and especially the affirmation of those women who in their sacramental ministry make already present the sacramental grace of a renewed church.

It is therefore time to call publicly to repentance anyone, be it man or woman, clergy or lay, who espouses sexism as a Christian value. We have to do this not because women want to be ordained into patriarchal church structures, not because women want a share in the ecclesiastical pie, but because the credibility of the Christian gospel and church is at stake. In doing so we have to follow Jesus who paid for his resistance to the religious and cultural establishment of his day with his life. We have to follow Jesus who broke religious law because he cared for the weak, the sick, the outcasts and for women. Luke 13:10-17 thus becomes a paradigm for Jesus’ and our own praxis of liberation:

One Sabbath Jesus was teaching in a synagogue and there was a woman there possessed by a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent double and quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her he called her and said: ‘You are rid of your trouble.’ Then he laid his hands on her, and at once she straightened and began to praise God.

But the president of the synagogue, indignant with Jesus for healing on a Sabbath, intervened and said to the congregation. There are six working days: come and be cured on one of them, and not on the Sabbath.’

The Lord gave him this answer. ‘What hypocrites you are,’ he said . . . Here is this woman, a daughter of Abraham, who has been kept prisoner by Satan for eighteen long years. Was it wrong for her to be freed from her bonds on the Sabbath?

At these words all his opponents were covered with confusion while the mass of the people were delighted at all the wonderful things Jesus was doing.

The issue is not, as the pre-conference participants asserted again and again, ordination of women into sexist structures. The issue is whether Jesus and the Gospel still have the liberating power that enables women to walk upright.

Footnotes

1. I understand patriarchalism in the sense of a social system maintaining male dominance and privilege based on female submission and marginality. The word sexism was coined by analogy to racism. It denotes all those attitudes and actions which relegate women to a secondary and inferior status.

2. The pre-conference data are twice removed from actual experience. The group discussions and responses were recorded and thus already interpreted by the group facilitator or another group leader. They were then summarized by members of the ordination conference task force. I also want to apologize to all those women whose stories I quote without giving credit to them. However, these stories were not yet available to me in an edited form and some of them did not have names on them.

3. Cf. Fran Ferder, Called to Break Bread, Ml. Rainier: Quixote Center 1978, p. 48, whose psychological evaluation of the women called to priesthood seems to presuppose this approach.

4. M. Novak, “Dual-Sex-Eucharist,” Commonweal CIII (Dec. 17, 1976) 813-816: “The priest is ordained to be an alter Christus. A woman might be consecrated as an altera Ecclesia. A dual-sex liturgy would symbolically unite, in a way hardly possible in previous centuries, Christ with his church, the masculine with the feminine.”

5. D. Burrell, “The Vatican Declaration: Another View,” America, April 2, 1977, pp. 289-292.291f.

6. Cf. the commission report of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples on “The Role of Women in Evangelization,” Origins 5 (1977), p. 702ff and N. Foley, “Woman in Vatican Documents: 1960 to the Present,” in J. Coriden (ed.), Sexism and Church Law, New York: Paulist Press, 1977, pp. 82-108.

7. Cf. especially R. Radford Ruether, New Woman New Earth. Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation, New York: Seabury Press, 1975.

8. M. Daly, “The Qualitative Leap Beyond Patriarchal Religion,” Quest 1 (1974) p. 21. Cf. also her book Beyond God the Father.

9. “Vatican Declaration: Women in the Ministerial Priesthood,” Origins 6 (1977) 518-524.422.

10. Cf. the “Commentary on the Declaration of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood, ”which insists that the traditional exclusion of women is not based on the Fathers ‘prejudices against women.’

11. Elizabeth Carroll, rsm, “Prayer as Life’s Alchemy,” in The Wind is Rising, Quixote Center, 1978, p. 5.

12. Cf. my article “Feminist Theology as a Critical Theology of Liberation,” in W. Burkhardt, S.J., Women, New Dimensions, New York: Paulist Press, 1977, pp. 29-50.

13. Cf. G. Baum, Religion and Alienation, New York: Paulist Press, 1975, pp. 197-226.

14. Cf. P. Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 8th ed., New York: Seabury Press, 1973, p.48ff.

15. Man’s World Woman’s Place. A Study in Social Mythology, New York: Dell Publ. Inc., 1971.

16. Cf. especially Merlin Stone: When God Was a Woman, New York: Dial Press, 1978; C.P. Christ, “Why Women Need the Goddess,” in The Great Goddess, Heresies 1978, pp. 8-13.

17. Cf. Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture, New York: Avon Books, 1978.

18. For this theological concept cf. H. Schlette, “On So-Called ‘Partial Identification’ with the Church,” in J.B. Metz (ed.): Perspectives of a Political Ecclesiology. Concilium, New York: Herder, 1971, pp. 35-49.

19. Peg Fitzgerald: “Female Clerics— A Faraway View,” WOC Newsletter, October, 1977, p. 7.

20. “Spirituality Has Its Trials,” in The Wind is Rising, ibid., p. 17.

21. K. Rahner, Theological Investigations II. Man in the Church, London, Darton, 1963, p. 128f. I owe this reference and its possible in-pretation to Francis Schüssler Fiorenza.

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