ROME – To say that the Catholic Church, at least at the level of public impressions, has a “women problem” is hardly a novel insight. Beginning in the 1970s, coinciding more or less with the rise of feminism as a major Western political and cultural force, the Vatican has felt compelled to issue a major statement on the role of women in the Church, especially the hotly debated question of female priests, every 20 years or so.
The year 1976 brought Inter Insigniores from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, laying out the basic Scriptural and theological arguments for restricting the ordained priesthood to men. That was the same year the Episcopal Church in the United States voted to admit women to the priesthood, so the Vatican statement was a clear sign that a rift was opening up between Catholicism and mainline Protestantism that would only grow wider, in many respects, as the years passed.
The document, however, hardly dissuaded advocates of female ordination from pressing the case. It was only three years later that Sister Theresa Kane famously challenged Pope John Paul II during a visit to the United States to open “all ministries” of the Church to women, making her a hero in reform circles and a lightning rod in others.
The ongoing ferment persuaded John Paul to bring out another document, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in 1994, not only reviewing the case for the all-male priesthood but seeking to eliminate “all doubt” that the Church’s answer might change.
“It is the province of the Magisterium to decide if a question is dogmatic or disciplinary: In this case, the Church has already decided that this proposition is dogmatic and that, because it is divine law, it cannot be changed or even reviewed,” John Paul wrote.
Pope Francis repeatedly has affirmed that verdict, insisting that John Paul II closed the door on the question of women priests and it’s not going to be reopened.
It’s now been 24 years since Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which means that the Vatican is slightly overdue for another major statement.
Judging from the attitudes of leaders at a conference on women in the Church taking place in Rome this week – though, pointedly, not on the 108-acre grounds of the Vatican itself, as it has for the past four years – when that statement comes, it may need to concentrate less on what the Church says “no” to, and more on that to which it’s prepared to say “yes.”
The line-up represented at the conference reflects many of the progressive-minded Catholic feminist voices who have been leading the charge for women’s ordination for the last several decades.
Strikingly, however, at a Wednesday news conference in Rome to present the latest “Voices of Faith” gathering, taking place today at the general headquarters of the Jesuit order, six women from different parts of the world spent roughly an hour prior to taking questions from the media laying out their frustrations, critiques, and dreams regarding the Church’s treatment of women, without ever uttering the word “priest” — and without making even an indirect allusion to the debate over priesthood.
Most of those speakers are on record supporting women priests, so their discretion seemed especially striking. I asked them to explain why they seemed to be avoiding the subject.
Saying she found the arguments for excluding women from the priesthood no more than misogyny disguised as theology, Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland and a prominent campaigner for women’s rights, said of the priesthood question, “I don’t intend to invest much of my life in it … I’m just too old to be bothered anymore.”
“The question is, what should be on the agenda?” she said.
In effect, McAleese said, a strategic choice has been made to call the system’s bluff, given that women priests are off the table.
“How, then, do you propose to include women effectively in decision-making?” she asked. “They [the hierarchy] have to be put to the pin of their collar, their clerical collar, to explain the radical intuitions, ideas and strategies they’re going to achieve.”
Chantal Götz, managing director of Voices of Faith, echoed the sentiment.
“Maybe we’re wasting our energy on something that’s closed for the moment,” she said. “There are many, many other possibilities that are open, so why not push for that?”
Among those other possibilities, Götz mentioned adding laity, including women, to various Vatican commissions and councils, such as the “C9” council of cardinals who advise the pope, and also revising the Vatican’s human resources approach to ensure that women have opportunities to contribute based on their “skills and formation.”
Francis himself has vowed on multiple occasions to explore those possibilities, saying that “the presence of women must be guaranteed in … the various settings where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures.”
Yet, to be honest, five years in, young women such as Alina Oelher, a German who studied theology in Rome and now works as a journalist, said Wednesday that while many women contribute behind the scenes in the Vatican, those roles aren’t terribly “visible,” and most of her peers just don’t buy that the Church takes women seriously.
McAleese suggested that moving past the priesthood debate is largely a matter of strategy, not substance.
“Let’s move on strategically now,” she said. “If you mean what you say about the skills, the genius, the mystery of women, then tell us, how you intend to deploy it?”
“Don’t tell us what you’re not going to do,” she said. “Tell us what you are going to do.”
Perhaps Francis and his Vatican team won’t hear that challenge directly this week, since the women issuing it aren’t actually inside the walls this year. However, it’s a question that almost certainly won’t go away – and, this time, repeating the teaching of Inter Insigniores and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, by itself, won’t supply an answer.