The Vatican has adopted what amounts to a “zero tolerance” policy against those Catholics who actively advocate for women’s ordination, particularly against anyone involved in the movement of Roman Catholic Womenpriests which, for the past three years, has ordained thirty-five women in the United States. This movement began in June, 2002, when seven women were ordained by some Catholic bishops in Austria. Later several of these women were ordained bishops by these same bishops. They, in turn, have ordained more women priests. From this has sprung an increasingly organized movement, which is developing the theological vision of church which they hope to generate and are laying down the formal rubrics for education and preparation for ministry of those aspiring to be ordained in their community.
The Vatican summarily excommunicated the initial seven women ordained in 2002. As more women were ordained it was at first silent and then decreed that anyone being ordained in this movement, as well as those supporting it, were automatically excommunicated. This saved them the trouble of addressing each of these women individually. However, they have escalated their campaign against women’s ordination in the last month in response to Maryknoll priest, Father Roy Bourgeois, who on August 9, 2008 in Lexington, Kentucky, concelebrated the mass where long-time friend, Sevre-Duszynska, was ordained. Father Bourgeois also preached the homily at this ordination mass, where he denounced the Church’s refusal to ordain women as a sin comparable to the sin of racism. “Sexism is a sin” he declared.
In late October Father Bourgeois received a letter from the Vatican through his Maryknoll Superiors, giving him thirty days to recant his position on women’s ordination or be excommunicated. Bourgeois refused to recant and has instead reiterated his view that his support of women’s ordination is a matter of unshakable conscience. For Bourgeois it is clear that that the Vatican is profoundly in error on this question of rejecting the ordination of women. Catholic Biblical studies have shown that there is no valid case to be made against the ordination of women from the Scriptures. Rather this rejection reflects fundamentally a sinful prejudice against women similar to traditions that believed that Blacks were inferior and should sit in the back pews of the church. It is the Vatican that needs to recant of this sinful prejudice and accept that it is God who is calling women to be ordained.
Bourgeois has also pointed out the harshness of the Vatican’s response to women’s ordination, in contrast to their slowness to take a strong stand against priests who abused children. Apparently the Vatican takes the sexual abuse of children by priests much less seriously than the challenge coming from those who disagree with their rejection of women’s call to ordained ministry. These women’s “sin” is that they wish to serve the church in proclaiming the gospel and celebrating the sacraments. Why is the Vatican so hostile to women’s call to ministry in a church clearly suffering from a vast deficit in adequate numbers of priests to pastor the people of God? How can it construe women seeking to minister in the church, and those who support it, as such a threat to its institutional order that they should be cut off from the sacraments of the church? Such a response to this movement and its supporters is nothing less than acts of spiritual violence, the equivalent of an effort to “kill” someone with whom one disagrees, to declare them spiritually dead and not in communion with God.
Why is the Vatican so threatened by this movement of women priests? One issue is that this movement is standing in judgment on the Vatican’s rejection of women’s ordination as both theologically in error and morally sinful, rooted in fundamental hostility to women as full human beings equally made in God’s image and capable of representing Christ as priest. If the Vatican’s teachings are wrong on this, then its claim to infallible authority is in question. Infallibility itself is an error that needs to be recanted. But the authority issue is simply the institutional façade that is in jeopardy with any challenge to any teaching. Bourgeois I think is right in recognizing that the deep roots of this rejection are indeed sexism, a fundamental unwillingness to acknowledge women’s equal humanity, an unwillingness that lurks behind all the romanticism about women’s “difference.”
Like Father Bourgeois I think Christians today of all traditions, but specifically Catholics, need to see this issue as non-negotiable. We need to insist on women’s capacity for ordained ministry and the validity of their call to such ministry by God. This means that we need to continue to pursue parallel paths to women’s ordination as long at the Vatican refuses to acknowledge the truthfulness of this claim. We will not be deterred by escalating blows of spiritual violence from the Vatican. As long as we are firm in our convictions, such blows finally cannot harm us. This perhaps is the deepest fear of the Vatican, to recognize that its most powerful weapons against this dissent are finally impotent.
Rosemary Radford Ruether, Ph.D. is Professor of Feminist Theology at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont School of Theology. She is also the Carpenter Emerita Professor of Feminist Theology at Pacific School of Religion and the GTU, as well as the Georgia Harkness Emerita Professor of Applied Theology at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary. Rosemary has enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a scholar, teacher, and activist in the Roman Catholic Church, and is well known as a groundbreaking figure in Christian feminist theology. Ruether is the author of multiple articles and books including Sexism and God-Talk, Gaia and God, Women Healing Earth and The Wrath of Jonah: The Crisis of Religious Nationalism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Her most recent books include Catholic Does Not Equal the Vatican: A Vision for Progressive Catholicism(2008), Many Forms of Madness: A Family’s Struggle with Mental Illness(2010), and Women and Redemption: A Theological History, 2nd ed.(2011).