The Anglican communion has done a great service to the Catholic Church by ordaining women as priest and bishops.
For some years it looked as if the ordination of women bishops in the Anglican communion was only a matter of time. In 1971 the most senior advisory body in Anglicanism indicated that it was possible to ordain women to the priesthood. Three years later a number of women were ordained in America and gradually the momentum built for the ordination of women bishops – what seemed a logical extension of women’s ordination to the priesthood. Two years ago, at the Church of England Synod, the vote for ordaining women bishops was narrowly lost but the feeling was that the breakthrough was just around the corner. That breakthrough took place at last week’s synod when, as a Tablet correspondent dramatically put it, ‘the stained-glass ceiling cracked’.
What was holding back what became an unstoppable tide was the unease within the Church of England (especially the evangelical wing) with this development. Another consideration was the reluctance of the Roman Catholic Church and the repercussions the ordination of bishops would have on relations between the Churches.
The Catholic Church fought a rearguard action trying to hold back the tide. At the Lambeth Conference in 2008 Cardinal Walter Kasper, who was responsible for promoting Christian unity, played a confining role. He told the conference that while there had been progress, in discussions between the churches, on a number of key elements, the ordination of women bishops would prevent the Catholic Church from recognising Anglican orders.
Kasper was speaking before the ecumenical thaw that accompanied the election of Pope Francis. The pontificates of John Paul and Benedict XVI were ecumenical Siberias and Kasper was singing from the official hymn-sheet. If Francis had been pope, I suspect the tone of Kasper’s remarks would have been quite different, though the content would be the same.
Ordaining women to the priesthood is a political as well as a theological problem for the Catholic Church and even though few would deny that the tide of history will eventually wash it up on the Catholic shore this huge change, despite those who are unhappy with the lack of progress, will be measured and gradual.
Ministry in the Catholic Church is coming to a significant cross-roads, as Catholic priests in the developed countries are becoming an endangered species. I’ve suggested in this space before that in 10 to 20 years the number of Catholic priests in Ireland will be small, aged and inadequate to the task in hand. This isn’t just a theory. It’s now mathematically certain.
So everyone knows, including the bishops who seem reluctant to address the situation (except to pray about it), that some movement in the direction of ordaining married men is inevitable. Everyone knows too, including the bishops, that attracting sufficient male, celibate vocations to the Catholic priesthood is not going to happen – no matter how much we pray about it or how many bishops, like the new bishop of Elphin, tell the people to go back to their parishes and start searching for priests.
The problem is that the Catholic Church is losing faith in an exclusively male, celibate priesthood. It’s seen as too difficult a life for the generality, too isolated a way of life for the individual, too problematic in terms of our recent history and distrusted crucially by parents who are actively discouraging their sons from it.
Francis knows what the problem is; the bishops (or some of them) know it; the priests know it; the people know it. Indeed it might be said, to coin a phrase, that the dogs in the street know it. But, as a Church, we’re going through the motions of pretending that, if we could get around God, all would be well.
Change will have to come, whether we like it or not. It will be, as I say, measured and careful, but it will come because it has to come because the Catholic Church has to face the inevitable truth that the Eucharist is more important than celibacy. If the people have a choice between a married priest or no priest, it’s what we call a ‘no-brainer’.
The first step will be ordaining married men. That will set up the return of priests who left to get married. And just as Cardinal William Conway, after the Second Vatican Council, introduced the vernacular into the Mass in piecemeal fashion, the Catholic Church will face the re-imaging of priesthood in its usual Catholic quick-step – two-foot forward, one-foot back.
Anglicans, waiting to bring the Catholic Church with them in making peace with modernity, have despaired of any real movement. So they have moved ahead, effectively breaking the ground for the Catholic church. Women have been ordained – a third of Anglican priests in England are now women. 37 women-bishops have been ordained world-wide, including Pat Storey, ordained Bishop of Meath last November. And around the bend, back the road somewhere, are Catholic voices murmuring regrets that ‘a further obstacle has been placed on the path to Christian unity’.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Anglicans are right to forge ahead and to ignore the Catholic voices using any progress as an excuse to throw cold water on the ecumenical project. The actual truth is that the Anglican communion has done a great service to the Catholic Church by ordaining women as priest and bishops. In the longer term it will be seen as beneficial to the Catholic Church, beckoning a naturally reluctant institution to make its peace with modernity. In the short term, it will probably mean more Anglican priests defecting to the Catholic Church, another unexpected blessing in that the growing number of married (ex-Protestant) will smooth the way for the introduction of married Catholic priests.
There’s a tide in the affairs of men, Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune. In the affairs of women too, he would have added, if he was writing now.