24Aug On women’s ordination, who is able to speak?

I have sent three letters  to theological associations here in the States and to a number of theologians; also to Archbishop Martin of Dublin, and to the Irish Theological Association.

I mailed the three letters on the Feast of the Assumption to Pope Francis and to each member of his Council of Cardinals.

If the bishops in this country are incapable of addressing women’s ordination—perhaps partly because of loyalty, partly because the church never makes mistakes, partly because of fear, and partly because they simply are not informed enough to speak—and if the theologians in this country who are informed enough to speak are also incapable of addressing women’s ordination—perhaps partly because they have been told by the bishops to be quiet, partly because of fear, and partly because of the prospect of jeopardizing their academic careers—then who is able to speak?

All of this induced silence raises the question of the role of the bishops and the theologians in the church. If they are our teachers, how can they have so little concern for intelligent, informed, and engaged pedagogy?

What is the impact of squelched, truncated, and timid thinking—over two decades of a forced and enervating silence—not just on the ordination of women but also on any open, honest, and fruitful discussion of the ministerial needs of the church?

What happens to the church when it is separated from a living theology?

Do we realize the price we are paying for an un-called-for and unhealthy failure to speak?

In how many ways are the women, the men, the children, the remaining priests—all the people of God—paying that price? Likewise, do we realize what happens to our theology when it is separated from the living church?

Are we aware of that price too?

Jesus keeps saying; “Do not be afraid.”

Pope Francis keeps saying: “Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.”

But how are courage and dialogue possible in a church where women—seen by some as another species—are rendered structurally voiceless and where bishops and theologians are only present by carefully and safely silencing themselves?

Is there any possibility at all for a church that is beyond dumb—for a whole, life-giving, honest, authentic, and Spirit-filled church, for a church that respects each person’s voice and gifts for ministry, for a church of hospitality that is responsible and adult, for a gendered church that is as fully human as Jesus is fully human?

At this point, do our bishops and theologians—so similar in so many ways—only serve as a pale reminder of the events, the promise, the fortitude, and the aliveness of yesteryear?

Are we still recovering from the Americanist heresy?

Is Vatican II a reality for us or just another event to be chronicled? Have we devolved—in pacifying yet paralyzing pusillanimity—to the point where the only good church is a silenced church, a gathering of the voiceless and leaderless, a Vatican-fettered church we cheerfully accept not only as patently sexist and rigidly controlling but also as dialogically dead?

Is it already too late to talk about the search for truth? Is skewed patriarchal thinking the best we can bring? Are historical explanations the same as theological explanations? Is a folk theory of gender the essence of revelation? Was Jesus wonderfully patriarchal? Is the past prologue or is it meant to be an endless present of male superiority and privilege?

What does it mean today for us be just stewards? Do the people of God need engaged teaching appropriate for adults? Are silence and safety the new testament? Is theology about faith but not about understanding? Is there salt without savor?

How long? How long? How long? How long?

When is too late?

Peace,

John Shea

 

Letter-to-Pope-Francis

 

 

 

Letter to Cardinal Maradiaga

 

The Assumption, 2016

Dear Cardinal Maradiaga,

I am writing again to you and to each of the other members of the Council of Cardinals on this Feast of the Assumption, when Mary was welcomed—body and soul—into heaven, to ask you to discuss at your next meeting a core issue of structural reform—ecclesia semper reformanda—an issue that disrespects every aspect of the church’s identity and mission: the decision to see women as biologically unworthy of ordination to the priesthood.

Of all the things that Pope Francis has said and done, his opening of the Synod on the Family in 2014 was perhaps the most extraordinary: he asked the bishops to speak “freely,” “boldly,” and “without fear.” On the one hand, this exhortation is incredibly shocking, that he would have to ask his fellow bishops—grown men and the teachers of the church—to speak honestly to each other. On the other hand, given the atmosphere of the Vatican, his exhortation was not only necessary but also a modest sign of hope in our dialogically challenged church.

If you believe that the ordination of women to the priesthood is necessary for the integrity, mutuality, vitality, and viability of our church, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If you find nothing in Scripture or tradition prejudicial against women or precluding their ordination to the priesthood, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If you know that the actual history of ordination—of women as well as men—needs to be acknowledged and carefully understood by you and all the bishops, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If you believe the letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, eviscerated dialogue on women’s ordination just when it could have been open, intelligent, honest, and fruitful, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If you know that any given woman is as religiously mature and able to provide pastoral care as any given man, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If you know that seeing women and men through a “complementarity” lens or in light of precious “theological symbolism” is not pertinent to ordination, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If you see the letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, as an historical explanation of ordination rather than a theological explanation, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If you think the theological explanation put forth by the Vatican in the 1970s and 1980s—that women cannot be ordained because they are “not fully in the likeness of Jesus”—would be silly if it were it not so heretical, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If you know that the church’s opposition to the ordination of women is taken—within the church and throughout the world—as affirming the inferiority of women and justifying horrible violence against them, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If you understand why so many of the adult faithful are leaving the church in droves over the injustice of women barred from priesthood—if you see that a “patriarchal Jesus” is a colossal contradiction—I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If the church’s present practice directly undermines our God’s relational Three-in-Oneness—if a huge patriarchal plank is stuck in the church’s eye, worshipping the Father as male, the Son as male, and the Holy Spirit as male—I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If you want our church to walk proudly on two feet instead of aping patriarchal culture and hobbling around on one, please—honoring the human and the divine—have the courage to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If you have some inkling that all the other reforms you are under- taking do not mean very much as long as women are not fully in the likeness of Jesus in our meant-to-be “catholic” church, I ask you on this holy day of the Assumption to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

Cardinal Maradiaga, is injustice to women to cripple the Christian message forever? Like the reformation of inclusion in the infant church, can you and your fellow bishops see and hear and name what Pope Francis is not able to see and hear and name?

Sincerely,

John J. Shea, O.S.A.

Copy: Pope Francis

 

 

Letter to all  the ordinaries of the dioceses in the United States

The Beginning of Lent, 2014

I am writing to you and to all the ordinaries of the dioceses in the United States to ask you and your fellow bishops in your role as teachers to provide a clear and credible theological explanation of why women are not being ordained to the priesthood in the Catholic Church. I write not to challenge the teaching of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis on women’s ordination. Rather, my concern is the theological explanation of this teaching— theology being, as Anselm said, “faith seeking understanding.”

Two years ago, I wrote to all of you with the same request. At that time, I was teaching in the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College. The teaching on women’s ordination was extremely important for many of the students—women, of course, but men as well—and a number of them were simply leaving the church because the theological explanation that was offered made no sense to them. Before my letter, I had already stepped aside from active ministry as a priest until women are ordained. After my letter, Jesuit-run Boston College terminated me as a professor. My provincial, with the urging of several archbishops, has given me two “canonical warnings” threatening me with being “punished with a just penalty” for voicing my concerns.

In case you are wondering who is writing to you, I am an Augustinian priest, solemnly professed for over 50 years. Before serving at Boston College (2003-2012), as Professor of the Practice of Pastoral Care and Counseling and Dual Degree Director (MA/MA and MA/MSW), I taught in the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education at Fordham University (1981-2002). My areas of expertise are in pastoral care and counseling (Fellow, American Association of Pastoral Counselors) and the psychology of religious development (Ph.D., Psychology of Religion), areas that today would be considered practical theology. I also have graduate degrees in theology, philosophy, pastoral counseling, and social work.

I mention this background because as a practical theologian I too have questions about the theological explanation of why women are not ordained. In all of my study, in all of my training, in all of my counseling experience, and in all of my years of teaching I have not come across a single credible thinker who holds that women are not fully able to provide pastoral care. Likewise, I have not come across a single credible thinker who holds that women are deficient in religious development or maturity. From the perspective of practical theology— a theology of the living church, a theology that takes experience seriously—I find absolutely nothing that does not support the ordination of women to priesthood.

It seems that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the document on the ordination of women that the Vatican and the bishops keep pointing to, is actually an historical explanation of the issue. It looks back at what it we think Jesus was doing in appointing the 12 Apostles. An historical explanation, however, raises a number of questions. Was commissioning the 12 a unique event? Did Jesus mean to ordain the way we understand ordination today? Was it the intent of Jesus to inaugurate ministry only males could carry out? Did he ever say this? Was Jesus only doing what he thought would work best in the patriarchal culture of his day? What was it about the religious role of the scribes and the Pharisees—all of whom were male—that so incensed Jesus? Was Jesus patriarchal? Did he see women as inferior to men? Did Jesus envision women in ministry? Finally, what about the history of ordination in the last two thousand years, an amazingly checkered history that clearly includes women?

The problem with historical explanations is that they suffer from an incomplete logic. They cannot complete the circle. On their own, they cannot say that “what was” also “had to be.” On their own, they cannot say that this particular event must have this particular meaning. History necessarily involves interpretation. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, for example, gives a paradigmatic meaning to the commissioning of the 12 Apostles. Could not another perfectly logical interpretation of the meaning of that event be that a number of patriarchal men—then and now—were and are dead set against women having any authority over them?

If history is not a good proof, it does have many valid uses. A very brief look at the history of slavery, the history of racism/religious intolerance, and the history of women’s inferiority in the church is helpful in challenging our tendencies to absolutize as well as in chastening some our hallowed self-evaluations. Each of these three issues is about what makes us equal and fully human. Each is the cause of incredible violence—often in the name of God—violence that is beyond all telling.

  • Slavery—That men, women, and children would become slaves either by conquest, retribution, or inferiority was seen as something almost “natural.” Strangely, Jesus and St. Paul did not seem to have had a lot of problems with it. For centuries the permissibility of slavery was seen as part of “the ordinary infallible teaching” of the church. Over time, however, and in conjunction with racism and religious intolerance, the thinking in the church changed dramatically. Now, the inherent evil of slavery is part of “the ordinary infallible teaching” of the church.
  • Racism/Religious Intolerance—Jews came to be seen as “perfidious” and were severely persecuted. Muslims were “infidels” and had crusades led against them by the popes. It is fair to say that for centuries the inferiority of Jews and Muslims was part of “the ordinary infallible teaching” of the church. Later, with the colonization of the Americas and then of Africa, the question was whether or not these native peoples were really human beings with souls like those of European males. It took a long time with immense suffering, but eventually the utter abhorrence of racism and religious intolerance became part of “the ordinary infallible teaching” of the church.
  • The Inferiority of Women—Women’s inferiority was seen as “natural” by the cultures that cradled Christianity. In our history, this inferiority was generously reinforced by the teachings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. These two wonderful theologians— arguably the two most influential in the West—not only questioned whether women had valid souls, but they outdid each other in describing women in the most vile and profoundly dehumanizing ways. No thinking in the church is more virulent and intractable than the patriarchal strain that so disrespects women. When the Vatican reasoned in the 1970s and 1980s that women could not be ordained because “they are not fully in the likeness of Jesus,” it was affirming an “ordinary infallible teaching” with roots incredibly deep in the substrate of our church. 
A theological explanation weighs any issue against the core of the Christian message. It obviously takes historical events and their interpretations into account, but the focus is on those understandings of the Christian faith so central that our Christian identity and the very meaning of the faith are at stake. In their ordinary infallible teaching that women cannot be ordained in the church because “they are not fully in the likeness of Jesus,” the Vatican and the bishops were offering a much- needed theological explanation of the issue. It was an explanation meant to complete the circle, an explanation meant to settle the question of women’s ordination in terms of Christian identity. 
Unfortunately, this teaching that “women are not fully in the likeness of Jesus”—qualifying, as it does, as a theological explanation —is utterly and demonstrably heretical. This teaching says that women are not fully redeemed by Jesus. This teaching says that women are not made 
whole by the saving favor of our God. This teaching says that the “catholic” church is only truly “catholic” for males. In time, many Vatican officials and bishops rejected the ordinary infallible teaching they had just affirmed. Now they say: “Of course, women are fully in the likeness of Jesus in the church.” Respectful words to be sure, but are they real?

We revere Jesus as priest, as prophet, and as ruler. If “women are fully in the likeness of Jesus” in our church, they fully share in the priesthood of Jesus—but in fact women are completely excluded from the priesthood of Jesus. If “women are fully in the likeness of Jesus” in our church, they speak for God as Jesus did—but women are completely without voice in the church; as if they were children they cannot read the Gospel at the liturgy and are forbidden to preach the Word. If “women are fully in the likeness of Jesus” in our church, then they fully share in the formal authority of our church—but women, solely because they are women, are completely barred from church authority.

As a bishop, how long will you champion the inferiority of women in the church? How long will your teaching on women be an obvious and eye-popping contradiction? How long will your demeaning patriarchal stance violate women’s human and religious equality in God’s name?

Two more years have come and gone. The priests are voiceless. The academic theologians are nice and safe. The bishops make statements but do nothing that would be recognized as engaged teaching. The adults—desperate for something that respects their intelligence—leave the church in droves. How many serious people, young and old, have given up on ever finding a theological explanation of women barred from priesthood—an explanation not hopelessly patriarchal and sexist, not serving inequality and subservience, not aiding and abetting violence?

Again, it is the beginning of Lent, a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, a time of for all of us in the church to be mindful of how we are in our caring and in our justice. Cardinal O’Malley, is providing a credible, non-heretical theological explanation of why women are not ordained in the church something you can do as part of your teaching responsibility as a bishop, as part of your caring and your justice?

Sincerely,

John J. Shea, O.S.A.

 

 

9 Responses

  1. Roy Donovan

    John Shea, thank you.
    Thank you for the energy you are putting into communicating this critical issue for the future credibility of any Church that dares to claim it belongs to Jesus Christ.

    It is a must and a central truth – that a woman’s experiences of life and divinity are equally as valid as a man’s. We need completely new structures to communicate this truth.

    I cannot see the Catholic Church embracing these realities. You might say I am being negative. I believe I am being realistic.

    Can I continue to live with lowering my expectations???

    I think the present Catholic Church is beyond reform. We need to start all over again.

  2. John Quinn

    I cannot help but go back to what one of my all-time-favourite-authors, Sam Keen, wrote in To A Dancing God, in 1970.
    “A theologian who cannot remain an amateur should get out of the profession! Professionalism has killed the profession – learned men (without biographies} talking with one another in bloodless dialogues; repeating the opinions of authorities sanctified by tradition or ecclesiastical popularity; never taking the risk of speaking from the precarious position of their private experiences of life.”

    I am not referring to John Shea but rather to rather to
    “the bishops in this country are incapable of addressing women’s ordination—perhaps partly because of loyalty, partly because the church never makes mistakes, partly because of fear, and partly because they simply are not informed enough to speak—and if the theologians in this country who are informed enough to speak are also incapable of addressing women’s ordination—perhaps partly because they have been told by the bishops to be quiet, partly because of fear, and partly because of the prospect of jeopardizing their academic careers”

    The only “theologians” who make any sense to me are those who are willing to work with, listen to and dialogue with real people in the real world and who are willing to
    take “the risk of speaking from the precarious position of their private experiences of life.”

    Those include:

    Joan Chittister OSB
    Tina Beattie
    Christine Schenk CSJ
    Teresa Forcades OSB
    Heather Eaton
    Paul Lakeland
    Roy Bourgeois
    Michael Morwood
    Diarmuid O’Murchu MSC…..et alia

    Keen finishes his article, originally written in January 1969 with the following
    “The reader I had in mind could be a professional theologian so long as he was an amateur human being; living, charting his own unique pathway through the wilderness with a few companions but without official maps provided by the ecclesiastical A.A.A.”

  3. Padraig McCarthy

    “In our history, this inferiority was generously reinforced by the teachings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.”

    This is a widely held view. However, it is disputed by Michael Nolan (formerly of Dept of Psychology, UCD): “What Aquinas never said about women”:
    https://www.firstthings.com/article/1998/11/003-what-aquinas-never-said-about-women
    There is a link at the end of that article to another of his: The Myth of Soulless Women.

    There are, of course, others who disagree with his analysis!

  4. Teresa Mee

    John’s article and letters at the top of the page are highlighting the number of issues that are simply not being dealt with by the Church leadership in Ireland.
    I doubt if there are many women waiting to be ordained as priests in the present dispensation. How many are prepared to put their necks into a noose?

    I heartily agree on the urgent need for open, fearless dialogue at every level in the Church, the Church of Vatican II, of the People of God, not just clergy.
    Imagine a woman at the altar saying ‘For us MEN and for our salvation… ‘pray BRETHREN that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable….Until accredited with full Church membership, I can’t envisage women in the queue for ordination to priesthood.

  5. Darlene Starrs

    Is it because of Pope Francis that Bishop Longs perceives that the RC Church is on the threshold of transformation and rebirth?…I am more inclined to see the Church in Exile, particularly, for women who have been called by Christ to serve the Church in greater ministerial capacity. Surely, Vatican II was the threshold for transformation and rebirth, but, it has been sabotaged. More change will need to be initiated by Pope Francis, particularly, in relationship to women, but, also, in terms of how the Church organizes itself. The Roman Curial system must absolutely be revamped. It is so unfortunate that the Vatican and its departments cannot see what so many of us, on this side of the altar see.

  6. Raymond Ikponmwoba

    I am not a professional theologian but one who truly believes in God and loves God. When argument is based on accusing others as afraid, timid or protecting their positions as the reason not being able to speak on issue like the ordination of women, one is only trying to appeal to emotion. I also disagree that ordination of women is a gender issue. This is completely missing the point. It is the modern mind that creates a problem and interprete everything that never was issue in the early Church as “big” issue today. We are our own problem by creating dichotomy between men and women.
    The Church has always believed in women and the wonderful role they play in the Church. With regards women’s ordination, the Church would refer back to her founder’s choice in the call of the twelve apostles. We’re there no women then? Was Christ anti women? Yet he had women taking care of his needs, visiting them and gave them their own assignment.
    Ordination of women is not what will show tolerance to women folk but building a true and just society where everyone is seen as God’s own child – male or female, whatever colour or race.
    Are we afraid that the Church would go into extinction because males are no longer showing up for the priesthood. This is another kind of famine – a spiritual famine. Alternatives are never the solution but sincere return to the true faith. We have abandoned the Lord and are ruled by the principle of the world. We are, like Jesus once said, “a faithless generation. Where are our children? We have so much time taking them for shopping but no time for worship, for family prayer.
    It is rather a call for true repentance that we need and not the clamour for women’s ordination. It is nothing but distraction to the core issue of faith and commitment to the LORD JESUS CHRIST.

  7. Darlene Starrs

    I don’t know about anyone else Raymond, but, I’m thinking, you missed the God point somewhere! Women being allowed to preach for example at Church, is only and completely about our Lord Jesus Christ…

  8. Joe O'Leary

    Raymond, the early church had no problem with slavery either. Closing down discussion on such a basis could amount to quenching the Spirit.

  9. Paddy Ferry

    As always, Joe, spot on.!!


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