As a Roman Catholic woman in dialogue with various religious traditions, I am, at times, questioned as to my commitment: Don’t I, as a Catholic woman, feel restricted and degraded by a Church that is stuck in the past and will not recognize gender equality in the priesthood?
When I then tell them that not only am I a Catholic, but that I am working towards an advanced degree in Catholic theology, the befuddlement just grows exponentially. The normal reaction is, “What can you possibly do with that if you can’t be a priest?”
It seems as though others recognize my ambition in trying to make a mark in the field of theology, but seeing no obvious path for a Catholic woman to do so, feel that the Church should be held accountable, or perhaps, that I should give up on it, choosing my dreams over my Church.
For the most part, those outside the Church, and even some within, see the restriction of the Catholic priesthood to men as misogynistic. However, the view ultimately stems from a characteristic worldview. Just as some people I have met in dialogue expect me to eventually leave the Church based on my own hopes and dreams if they should not be supported, the idea that women being barred from the priesthood is indicative of a worldview in which humanity and the choices they make dictate the order of the universe.
The Church, on the other hand, asks us to be teachable, to sit at the feet of God as Mary does when Jesus visits her home (Luke 10:38-42). The priesthood, as understood in the Church, is not an arbitrary institution or a human construct, but is set in place by God and affected only by God in the sacrament of Holy Orders.
Well why doesn’t God want to consecrate women in this way? If it is so, the reasons why are obviously beyond my own ability to comprehend, but it is certainly not something to mourn over. Everyone is still gifted with the grace of God and that in itself is something to celebrate, something greater than humanity could imagine. The unique gift of the priesthood is just that, a gift, and not a privilege that humanity can demand from God.
The restriction of the priesthood, when properly understood, should not be an obstacle to people’s service in the Church and should not be seen as merely an unjust restriction. It would seem logical and even compassionate that if God is the one who calls individuals to service, and God sets the restrictions of the priesthood, God would not call someone to a position they could not fill. There must be a belief in alternative paths to gain recognition and influence, to have one’s voice heard.
It is not to say that it is easy to find these alternative paths or that the Church has no problems including women in the upper levels of the Church. In fact, I have personally faced indifference on the part of the Church in certain areas. One time, a bishop ignored my strong interest in favor of searching for ways to get future priests involved in dialogue, a field most seminarians did not even know existed. But I have also found inspirational support from others, such as my mentor for the past several years who is a diocesan priest.
The Church can certainly do more, however, to make it clear that these openings exist for women who wish to pursue them, to show that the voice of these women faithful are held in high esteem. While the question of the priesthood, or even the possibility of a female diaconate, has taken center stage in this era, both of these positions belong to a realm that is beyond humanity’s influence. Both are sacramental in nature, instituted for God and belonging to the very nature of the Church. There are other, perhaps less contentious, ways that the Church can pursue greater input by women.
For example, the College of Cardinals, while traditionally composed of those who are at least ordained to the priesthood, is an institution based in canon law, and thus within the human realm. Should the hierarchy so choose, there does not seem to be anything within such a law to bar it from being opened to a wider variety of people, including the laity and women. The College of Cardinals is not merely an honorary title either, as they act almost as a Senate, a place where women can make a genuine contribution in advising the hierarchy of the Church. It is an example of a visible way that the Church can include women in the hierarchy.
Perhaps some may say this is merely a matter within the Catholic Church, but the lack of women in power within the Church affects how others see the Church and individual Catholics. Currently, people can look at the Church and call it outdated or misogynistic. These quick judgments harm the Church, keeping it from being a legitimate voice in today’s society which is saturated with notions of gender equality. Including women more visibly will make it a stronger Church, a better partner in dialogue, and if anything, it may supply a release from the relentless questions I face.
Photo by DrabnikPany, via Flickr Creative Commons.