When Pope Benedict XVI pays a visit to England and Scotland on September 16-19, poster advertisements taken out on London buses will say “Pope Benedict – Ordain Women Now!” Father Stephen Wang, the dean of studies at London’s main seminary for Catholic priests, published a semi-official defence against that request in a column that was carried by Catholic websites throughout Britain and on his own blog. The American television network CNN also interviewed Wang. He says that that Pope John Paul II declared in 1994, and Pope Benedict agrees, than the church has no authority to ordain women because Jesus chose 12 men – and no women – to be his apostles. That choice, Wang says, was deliberate and significant not just for that first period of history but also for every age. Men and women are equal in Christianity, but women cannot fulfill a basic function of the priesthood, “standing in the place of Jesus.”
Explanations such as these are unacceptable to Therese Koturbash. She is a young lawyer who is on leave from her job with Legal Aid Manitoba and she now finds herself living and working in London as the international coordinator for womenpriests.org, one of the groups that will be active during the pope’s visit.
Patriarchal attitude in church
In an interview via email from London, Koturbash says, “Nowhere is it indicated in scripture that women were excluded by Jesus for special theological or liturgical reasons. This clinging to a pseudo argument shows only too clearly that it is not a matter of recognizing historical or scientific truth. Rather such a stance merely conceals the deeply patriarchal, anti-feminine attitude which pleads the authority of Jesus and God because (today) it would be inopportune to come out openly against the admission of women to ecclesiastical office. This patriarchal attitude prevents St. Paul’s message in Galatians — that in Christ there is no male nor female — from being taken seriously. In religion gender differences are entirely irrelevant.”
Koturbash says she was raised as a devout Catholic at Kamsack in rural Saskatchewan and that in 2002 she was among thousands of young Catholics who attended World Youth Day in Toronto, an event presided over by Pope John Paul II. She says that the patriarchal church she saw on display in Toronto caused her to “fall into deep anguish” about the exclusion of women in the church. “As a devout and active Catholic,” she says, “it pained me to learn that according to Rome my sense about the place of women in the church meant that I was out of communion with the church.”
No to ordaining women
Pope John Paul had declared in 1994 that the church would never ordain women and he said the matter closed and not be to discussed further. In 2002, the Vatican moved with uncharacteristic haste to excommunicate the first seven women ordained by a group called Roman Catholic Womenpriests. The Vatican reaffirmed both the ban on women’s ordination in 2008 and the warning about excommunication, which is the harshest treatment that the church can convey. Those Catholics are denied access to both their church community and its sacramental life. The Vatican also announced in 2007 that any priest who tried to ordain a woman could be defrocked.
In July 2010, there was widespread consternation when Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, a Vatican spokesperson, said that ordaining women as priests was a crime comparable to pedophilia. He made his comments at a news conference that announced revisions to the church laws making it easier to discipline priests who are sexual abusers. Mary E. Hunt, an American theologian, wrote about that comparison in a magazine called Religion Dispatches. “Mixing [these] two issues, even under the same legal umbrella, is a profoundly perverse proposition,” she says. Either these gentlemen are more ethically tone deaf than one can imagine, or they are sly beyond the dreams of foxes in an effort to redirect attention from the criminal behavior of clergy against children to their wrath over the ordination of women. Neither option is terribly appealing.”
Women in the church
But the question goes beyond ordination to a fundamentally perceived difference about the role of women in the church, a debate at one level perhaps about theology but at another about power and control. In January 2008, for example, the Vatican announced that it would undertake a “visitation” to investigate nearly 350 communities of women religious in the U. S. to examine everything from how they handle their money to how their leaders deal with sisters who dissent from Catholic dogma. A second, “doctrinal assessment” was established to look into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the U.S. Both of these moves were interpreted as a signal of the Vatican’s unhappiness with the conduct of women religious in that country. The investigations stoked fears that nuns might be forbidden to continue much of their work in the community with the poor and dispossessed, and that the inquiryÂ might go beyond that into matters of where they choose to live and even how they dress. The leadership of the LCWR and many sisters understand this as an attempt by the male hierarchy to intimidate and control them.
Father Andrew Britz, former editor of the Catholic Prairie Messenger newspaper, has published a book this fall called Truth to Power, an edited collection of his editorials over 21 years. In one of those editorials, he wrote: “It is embarrassing to read what the great bishops and theologians of age after age in the church had to say about women . . . We live in a church which, through most of its history, has seen women as being inferior to men. Woman was viewed as the temptress: that justified men in seeking to dominate them-for their own good.”
It appears certain that Pope Benedict will hear from women in the church when he visits Britain in September.