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Let’s end the obsession with women priests: the arguments are outdated and the question resolved long ago

Campaigners such as Baroness Helena Kennedy think priesthood is all about power

By on Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Campaigners for women's ordination in front of St Peter's Basilica in Rome (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Campaigners for women's ordination in front of St Peter's Basilica in Rome (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

There is a lot to be said for being stuck in a traffic jam. This morning in the car I turned on BBC Radio 4 at Woman’s Hour, to stumble upon Jane Garvey hosting a discussion between Baroness Helena Kennedy QC and Madeleine Teahan, associate editor of The Catholic Herald. The subject: why can’t women be priests?

Somehow this debate seems very 1960s – the era of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, Gloria Steinem in the States and the slogan “Women need men like a fish needs a bicycle” (now why did I remember that?). In other words, it is dated. Baroness Kennedy came across as a bit of a feminist dinosaur in this regard, throwing out words like “patriarchy”, “oppression” and “misogyny”, phrases like “male exclusivity” and statements like “theology has been constructed by men”, “for too long the voices of men have dominated” and “The Catholic Church is an evolving institution”. It was as if she was rehearsing lines learnt from those hoary old feminists, yet deploying them in an arena in which they have become outdated and irrelevant.

Madeleine Teahan responded to all this annoyance and irritation with calmness and clarity, refusing to rise to the bait yet not allowing herself to be patronised by the older woman. She reminded Kennedy that the late Pope John Paul had never said, “I will not ordain women”; he had made it clear that “I cannot ordain women.” In other words, it was not within his power to do so. The priest has to represent Christ in His humanity; it was a question of magisterial teaching, based on the Gospels and mediated by the Church through the hierarchy.

The Baroness was having none of this: it was a debate in which the Church should show “transparency” and “openness”; there were many women who would make fine priests and “we are talking about the exercise of power”. After all, Baroness Shirley Williams and Mary MacAleese, the Irish president, both support the idea of women priests.

At one stage Jane Garvey politely asked her why she was still in the Church if she felt like this. The Baroness chose not to answer, thus implying that it was for the Church to change rather than for her to give way.

At intervals, Madeleine Teahan suggested that the Church is not a democracy. Describing herself as a feminist, she said that she, too, believed in a women’s right to vote – but that this was not what was at issue. “My generation believes it can flourish within the Catholic Church”, she stated, adding that she knew a lot of modern, emancipated women in the Church who definitely did not feel “oppressed”; it was not a question of “men versus women” but about those eligible to be ordained and those who are not.

The Baroness stuck to her hymn sheet: “Look at the people with power in the Church: where are the women?” she demanded to know. She told Teahan to “speak to the ordinary women cleaning the Church, doing the flowers”; they were not at all happy. Indeed, she is putting the case for women becoming priests in an open meeting in the House of Commons this afternoon.

I have two observations to make about this discussion. 1. It seems to me obvious that Baroness Kennedy is really arguing that women should have a slice of the “power” that she perceives priests enjoying. Yet, as I blogged recently about Una Kroll, once an Anglican priest and now a Catholic lay woman, the priesthood is not about power but about service; as Kroll put it, “I was called by God to move to a Church where I couldn’t exercise dominion of any sort, but where I could still learn what servant priesthood actually meant when put into practice.” 2. And as a corollary of this, Kennedy thinks it is demeaning for women in Catholic churches to do the cleaning and flower-arranging. This, too, was answered in the posts following my earlier blog: one person pointed out that they were not the only roles women could play at parish level while another said she was proud to fulfil these tasks.

I give the last word to Madeleine: as she said, there are many more important things to discuss in the Church today and it is sad to “obsess” about a question that has been decided long ago by God himself.

  • theroadmaster

    Baroness Kennedy sees priesthood through the prism of the gender battles fought in the sixties as Francis Phillips so articulately points out.  It does seem to her to be about the exercise of power rather than the humility of service.  Priesthood has been modeled on the perfect model of Christ for well nigh on 2 Millennia in the Church universal in both the East and West.  Thus this is the primary reason why the priestly office is restricted to male-only candidates.  The immense spiritual contribution of women religious over the centuries has not been diminished by this as their feminine genius has been recognized in such Doctors of the Church as Saint Teresa of Avila and St Thérèse of Lisieux.

  • AncientBriton

    I see that Una Kroll was still describing herself as “a priest in the Church in Wales” in April this year, the same institution which is to ignore God’s call to candidates who fail to follow the feminist line on the ordination of women.

  • Anonymous

    “As people of faith, we profess that the invitation to the ministry of priesthood comes from God.  We profess that God is the source of life, and created men and women of equal stature and dignity.  The current Catholic Church doctrine on the ordination of women implies that our loving and all–powerful God, creator of heaven and earth, somehow cannot empower a woman to be a priest”.                                                              Father Roy Bourgeois M.M. 

    From the foreword to Called- Women Hear the Voice of the Divine, Gretchen Kloten Minney, 2010

  • maryp

    Good article Francis. There are so many churches which do allow women priests, why doesn’t Helena Kennedy join one of these, or set up her own even? After all there have been 38,000 (and counting) churches since the Reformation. As for me, I’ll stick with the one, true, holy and Catholic church.

  • Phil E

    I thought Helena Kennedy was quite splendid this morning.

  • Phil

    The question has not been resolved. The way you have framed the discussion is completely warped. I expect higher standards of reporting from this newspaper – sadly what I find is the usual pap reporting maintaining the status quo.

  • Alban

    I don’t take much credence from what the Church in Wales (CiW) says. I remember that about 20 years ago, after the CofE had voted on the women’s issue, the CiW went through the same procedure, imploring its members to pray to the Holy Spirit to guide the vote. After the result was announced (against the creation of priestesses) the CiW declared it (the Holy Spirit) was all wrong and ordered a re-run of the vote. Of course the outcome is now pretty well known.

  • Anonymous

    ” – sadly what I find is the usual pap reporting maintaining the status quo.”

    Then why on earth do you presume ( or consider yourself specially entitled) to “expect higher standards of reporting from this newspaper”?  A fifth columnist protesting a little too loudly and thereby blowing his cover, perhaps?

  • Anonymous

    “The current Catholic Church doctrine implies… ”

    Current? Implies? Bourgeois?

  • Annie

    Oh yawn. If you don’t like the rules, dear Baroness, no-one is making you stay.

    All this clap trap about ‘oppression’, and every other word in the thesaurus for it, really gets on my nerves.

  • Anonymous

    I find it odd that Una Kroll is used to support the arguments against women priests.

    Anglican priests do not have to deny the validity of their ordinations when they are received into the Catholic Church and as I understand it Una Kroll, received into the Catholic Church in 2008, considers herself to be a retired Catholic priest, rather than a lay woman. She wrote an article in 2010 calling on the Church of England to ordain women as bishops.

  • AncientBriton

    You are correct Alban. The decision not to ordain women was described at the time as the work of the devil but became the work of the Holy Spirit after the ‘Yes’ vote. Feminists in the Church of England use the same tactics.

  • Anonymous

    There is no question to resolve – women CANNOT be priests – there is no mandate – nobody can make them a priest.

    End of story.

    Anyone who has a problem with it?
    Deal with it!

  • Anonymous

    They may not be explicitly required to deny their validity, but they are required to accept Church teaching on the subject, and that amounts to much the same thing. No woman’s orders are or ever can be valid, and by becoming a Catholic Una Kroll implicitly accepted this. The men are a slightly different question due to the input of episcopes vagantes such as the Old Catholics – it is possible that some Anglican men are validly, if illicitly, ordained, but trying to work out which are which is so tangled that it’s rather better not to go into it and just to ordain all of them.

  • Anonymous

    “the same institution which is to ignore God’s call to candidates who fail to follow the feminist line on the ordination of women”

    Is it? It isn’t to allow people to disagree on the subject at all?

  • Anonymous

    From the Tablet article it is clear that Una Kroll still considers her ordination, and that of all Anglicans, to be have been valid. Whether she is right or wrong about that is irrelevant to whether she is a good person to cite in support of the idea that women cannot be validly ordained.

  • Legible

    In George Weigel’s biography of John Paul II: Witness to Hope – re the Apostolic Letter, Priestly Ordination – Cardinal Martini is quoted as suggesting that ‘the future discussion of women’s “absolutely necessary and irreplaceable” mission in the Church should focus on the Diaconate, which, the Cardinal said, “the Pope does not mention and therefore does not exclude.” ‘

  • andy

    talk about a dinosaur. the Church is as brontosaurus as they come

  • Anonymous

    Maryp - Ms Kennedy probably won’t join one of the existing churches that ordain women, because they nearly all seem to be in serious decline.

  • Thethirdofnine

    Francis, have you found that simply dismissing the “other” and there point of view has worked well for you in the past?

  • Teacher

    Why can’t women be priests? It seems to be the reason is that we have not done it before. Read the article that states that they is NO theological reason why women can’t be priests by the Cardinal from Potugal. The males want to keep all power to themselves at the expense of over 50 percent of the church. They have so brainwashed the women that many of them do not dare to question what they say or dare to think for themselves or realize they are oppressed.

  • Anonymous

    The Catholic Church is slowly paving the way for women priests 99% of the eucharistic ministers at my church are women as it appears that the Parish Priest will only appoint women to to act as eucharistic ministers.

  • Anonymous

    There are plenty theological reasons – if you can’t be bothered to find out what they are that’s your problem.

    Nevertheless it’s irrelevant – The Church CANNOT ordain women for one simple reason – it hasn’t got the mandate from Christ to do it!

    ..and where’s this ‘oppressed women’ notion from?

    The priest is primarily a sacrificial victim for his community ‘in persona Christi’ – giving up on a life for himself and instead living a life of service.

    If you think being a priest is in any way a privilege – and that women are deprived by the intrinsic impossibility of their being ordained – you obviously have no idea what priesthood is.

  • Anonymous

    They’re not “eucharistic ministers”: the only eucharistic minister is the priest. They are Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, and they are one of the most abused innovations of recent years. The clue is in the name – extraordinary. They are not supposed to be used as a matter of course when there are enough clergy to distribute communion. They are only supposed to be used when communion would take an unreasonable length of time without them. Is this how they are used? No! They are used to make laypeople, as you say usually women of a certain age, feel “included”. Unfortunately this abuse has led to many people seeing them as quasi-sacerdotal, which they are not. It’s high time the bishops, both here and abroad, cracked down hard on this abuse.

  • Anonymous

    @Phil: in his Apostolic Letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (on the ordination of priests), of 1994, JPII wrote: “in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.
    I suspect that you will come back to me with “….but it wasn’t infallible”. Even if that were the case, I can’t see that this would not be binding, albeit not on the level of faith. You are still free to explore and evaluate reasons for this ruling.

  • Ralph

    One of the points that is always said in these discussions is that Jesus was male and therefore it must be male dominated organization.  Think about where we would be today in Jesus was born female.  Talk about turning the world upside down.  Ponder about that notion – it might be fiction – but God could have decided that way ( God has the power to do that ).  God had to decide either way – was it a flip of the coin – there was only two choices.  It could have been female. 

  • Phoebe

    Phoebe, a deacon of the church.

  • Anonymous

    @Phoebe Yes, but what did “deacon” mean in that context? It’s not quite as simple as pointing to a sentence with the word “deacon” in it. From what I remember, it indicates a person performing some kind of service but not necessarily a formally constituted office. I think we have to give Pope John Paul and his theological advisers the credit of being aware of such biblical passages.

  • Phoebe

    a servant of the servants of God.

  • The Moz

    These women are crack-pots: JOIN ANOTHER CHURCH THERE ARE HUNDREDS! WHY IS THIS SO HARD TO COMPREHEND? Geez…this whole debate really is tiresome.

  • GFFM

    I have to agree that the women priest issue is tired and so over. However, there is a certain generation of women, the Tina Beattie generation, who will beat this dead horse over and over again. The arguments they use are self absorbed and it is clear that this generation has read nothing new in the last 30 years. Or if they have, they purposefully misrepresent theologians such as Von Balthasar, John Paul II, Hauke and others. But worse than the whining feminist generation of current theologians such as Elizabeth Johnson and others, is the episcopal generation which has done a lousy job of defending Church teaching on male ordination. This lack has been evident amongst the US bishops for 40 years. How many of the bishops have actually read Mulieris Dignitatem? Is John Paul II’s contributions on women required reading in seminaries? If a critical mass of bishops, priests, and faithful theologians would actually teach On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, much could be done for the younger generations which have never been properly taught why the Church teaches is she does.

  • Seminarian

    Well said. ‘whining feminist generation of current theologians such as Elizabeth Johnson and others’ You are quite correct, they have not read a new book or thought a new though in 30 plus years. As you say also, the Bishop’s too have been on the whole an insipid lot when it comes to this issue. It is about time for some episcopal steel to remind everybody that while you may in a sense be granted the privilige to express an opinion or a point of view, you do not have the right to overide what the Magesterium have proclaimed as dogma; bound to be believed by all the faithful. So get over yourselves, end the biterness and stop devoting yourselves to a dead issue; better still, find the fullness of your womanhood in whatever way the Spirit leads you but you will never never be Priests.

  • Blessed

    If you love and desire a Catholic England, the women will help win it; and-of necessity- there will be a female Diaconate.

  • Laudator temporis acti

    ‘Let’s end the obsession with women priests: the arguments are outdated and the question resolved long ago.’ Quite right, most Christians (including many Catholics) resolved the question long ago and decided that they welcome women as priests and reject the outdated arguments by which the self-appointed leaders of the Catholic Church maintain their obsessive obscurantist opposition to the idea. You would have thought they might have learned by now that control freakery is a disastrous mode of Christian leadership – v. the paedophile abuse scandal, from which female leadership would have saved us.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry but they are decsribed in my church bulletin as eucharistic ministers

  • Contemplative

    I am surprised at the lack of nuance, sensitivity and awareness in this article and in many of these replies.  I am often embarrassed that our Roman Catholic Church has fallen behind our Jewish and other Christian brothers ans sisters for not allowing women into the priesthood.  I am a male under age 40 and I am quite surprised that many feel this is outdated, far from it.  The last time I checked we have a crisis of numbers, fewer and fewer priests and the time has come to take a serious look at this issue.  The main argument for women priests is that what makes us ministers of Christ has nothing to do with our maleness and to limit priesthood to one gender has little Scriptural basis.   Proponents of male priesthood like to proof-text and also use tradition and hierarchy as weak shields to hide behind. 

    When we can discuss an issue like this with sensitivity and a willingness to listen to the “other” side, then we may come to hear things we have never heard.  I am open to that as well, though I hear little substance in this blog.  My hope is that we can talk about this with care, intelligence and Christ’s presence in our hearts.  Then let us see what the results are.  Isn’t this the kind of dialogue we are called to as Christians?

  • theroadmaster

    First off, these are not “self-appointed leaders” of the Catholic Church, as they are appointed according to the age-old apostolic tradition of the Church and this is confirmed ceremoniously through the laying off hands by their brother bishops.  The Church universal through for 2 Millennia have restricted the priesthood to men as Christ willed it, when he chose only males  to be the first twelve disciples who would follow him throughout His ministry.  You bring up the current abuse scandals which are outside the context of this particular topic and talk about it typically in relation to “control freakery”.  There is no doubt that the abuse of children by ordained priests, has cast a very dark shadow over the authority of the Church.  But the pope in collegial harmony with this brother bishops, is rightly exercising his apostolic authority when he declares that he cannot overthrow what Christ has laid down, namely that the office of the priesthood can only be conferred on men.

  • Gerardy

    Surely a women can serve her parish/community as well as male, The obligation to women priests is just silly and ancient women have equal rights, the church showing its right wing muscle as usual, I’m glad to say all the women I know don’t go to mass they don’t like to be oppressed!

  • Tom in Ucity

    Indeed, “She reminded Kennedy that the late Pope John Paul had never said, “I
    will not ordain women”; he had made it clear that “I cannot ordain
    women.” In other words, it was not within his power to do so.”  However, he said this after refusing to accept the conclusions of his selected Biblical experts who said that they could find no Scriptural basis for denying ordination to women.  In citing his basis in Tradition, he offered no explanation for the inaccurate biology and philosophical paternalism in which much of it is based.  In other words, he offered his unsupported opinion that “I cannot ordain women.”  That does not even approach the level of infallible teaching which the present pope claims for it.  It is merely the opinion of the one in authority at the time.

    It would be much more believable that this is not about power if the Roman Curia were gender-balanced instead of entirely male dominated.  In a church with a priest shortage, surely there are many roles in the Vatican bureaucracy which could be filled by women and free the “necessary” males for parish or diocesan ministry.  Many US dioceses have done this without problem in the lower levels of the same fields.

    Similarly, I will believe that the RCC actually believes in the equality of the sexes when the entirely human creation of the papal electoral college is at least half female, even if restricted to electing a male.

    Interesting thought experiment:  what if all the papal electors were females, excluding all possible candidates from participating in and campaigning during the papal elections? 

  • Maryam

    The Church doesn’t have a shortage of  priests and religious vocations because it’s too strict. On the contrary, the Church is losing vocations because many religious orders are too lenient!

    One has only to look at some of the most “liberal” religious communities of nuns and priests to see that all their members are greying and dying, literally.

    On the other hand, one can just look to an order like the Missionaries of Charity, with its strict rules, to see the number of young women from all over the world running eagerly to join it.

    I, for one, am quite fed up with the laid back, watered down, I’m okay you’re okay, Jesus is my boyfriend type of Catholic worship absolutely rampant in the United States today.

  • Anonymous

    Jesus also chose only Jews to be the 12. And there were women who went with him – they are named in Luke 8.3. Benedict XVI is not a Jew – so what is Mr. Joseph Ratzinger doing in the priesthood ? Was Mr. Wojytyla a Jew ? No. Nor is Mr. Vincent Nichols. Apparently the argument from what Jesus did, ceases to apply when it crosses the will of the Pope. The argument that Jesus chose only men is contrary to the NT facts, and even if it were not, it would still be illogical.

  • Parasum

    “the priesthood is not about power but about service…”

    ## ROFL. That is *extremely* funny. Cardinals are not called “Bog-Cleaners of the Church” – they are called “Princes of the Church”. How many servants have as many changes of splendid clothes as the Pope ? And why does it never occur to people that, though the motives, or some of the motives, of those women who desire ordination may be wrong, perhaps the motives of those who are priests or bishops or Popes and say “No” are also questionable ? It’s not as though clerics of every rank have not shown an appetite for glory, honour & power before now – for they have, often. Only in the Church are our supposed servants really our lords & masters.

    Some photos of “Bog-Cleaners of the Church” in their (not inconsiderably expensive) finery:

    In a letter of 429, Celestine I criticised the use of fine clothing by the clergy, and said that they should differ from the laity not by their clothing, but by their virtues. I wish the clergy would return to that attitude. I suppose it’s easier to why fine clothing.

  • parasum

    to why fine = to wear fine

  • parasum

    “At one stage Jane Garvey politely asked her why she was still in the Church if she felt like this.”## Simple – the Church is not a club, but a Body. It’s not based on rules. And encouraging people to leave is a mortal sin. Why is Jane Garvey committing a mortal sin, and encouraging the Baroness to commit the mortal sin of apostasy ?

  • Mikecat10421

    Why is it so desperately important not to ordain women ? Of course they can be ordained  – alleged “things that cannot be done” are always got over somehow. The Church used to say it “could not”  give the Eucharist  to non-Catholics; but that has been unsaid. All that “The Church cannot” means, is “The Church does not want to”, or “does not have the imagination to see how it is possible for the Church to do whatever-it-may-be”. “The Church cannot” has been used, and later belied by events, too often, to be a convincing reply. The only question is which will be approved first – gay marriage, or women’s ordination.

  • Villamaudie

    Hear, hear!

  • Anonymous

    The Moz, I hope you realise that encouraging people to leave the Catholic Church is a very grave sin. To do so on a forum where you have no idea of how many people will read your words makes the offence even more serious. May I suggest that you repent of this sin and seek the opportunity of sacramental forgiveness for it at the earliest opportunity.

  • Anonymous

    A hundred years ago people used to say “Let’s end this obsessing about votes for women”, and those who advocated this reform were called fanatics. However while there remains a great injustice to half of the world’s population this issue is never going to go away.

  • Annie

    Brainwashed? Blinking cheek, and speak for yourself!

    As a woman, am I am neither brainwashed nor oppressed by the Catholic Church of which I am happily and blessedly a member.

    The opinion that women are unquestioning is ludicrous. I’m here, in the Church, BECAUSE I questioned, and believed what the Church teaches is true, yes, especially the male-only priesthood.

  • Annie

    I don’t see why the CofE aren’t ordaining women bishops, and I’m a Catholic laywoman.

    It makes no sense to me to not have Anglican women bishops if you have women priests already.