Catholic Feminists Unsure About Ordination Goal

Author: Donna Steichen


by Donna Steichen

Editor's note: As we go to press with this issue of HLI Reports the Vatican has announced that the Roman Catholic Church has no authority to ordain women priests. But the reaction of radical feminists to the Vatican announcement indicates the matter is anything but settled in their minds.

Women's Ordination Conference was founded 20 years ago to urge the admission of women to the Roman Catholic priesthood, but its leaders have changed their minds. At an anniversary celebration in Arlington, Va., 10-12 November, the major debate was whether ordination is still worth seeking or would merely mean assimilation into oppressive male-dominated system. Chief proponent of the latter view was feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza of Harvard Divinity School, who declared in her keynote address, "We have to come together today to say, "Ordination means subordination."

Schussler Fiorenza was a speaker at the initial 1975 WOC meeting and has long been a member of the group's National Advisory Board. Instead of seeking "a piece of the clerical pie," she proposed, WOC should aim to transform society into a "discipleship of equals" where all the baptized share priestly power. Her disavowal of ordination into what she calls the "kyriarchy" was endorsed by the full WOC board. Yet, during a "Congress of Equals" session, it evoked heated dissent from an audience of more than 1,000, most of them apparently nuns. If no one defended the authority of the Holy Mother Church, neither did anyone exhibit docility toward WOC.

"If Women's Ordination Conference is giving up the struggle for renewing priestly ministry, then I cannot buy in," said Sister Joan Sobala, SSJ, of Rochester, NY. Sobala served on the WOC staff from 1979-1982. while the organization was engaged in formal "dialogue" with the national bishops' Committee on Women in the Church and in Society. "Part of the genius of the organization in those early years was the single focus," she said. "I want us to live and celebrate the discipleship of equals-and I want us to continue the struggle within the institution. I think it should be both."

A German visitor dismissed the leaders' logic with scorn. They say in their newspaper , that "as we proceeded with the planning process we asked ourselves, will ordination now tee good for women? Will it subject them to the restrictions of an increasingly authoritarian system, coopt them into the priesthood as an inherently hierarchical concept? And the answers were always yes."' She said she had "struggled for women's ordination since Vatican Council II," and thinks women can make such decisions without "teachers" to tell them whether it will be good for them.

"If WOC is thinking about giving up the agenda of renewing the church, where does that leave everybody who has been trying so hard?" wailed Sister Nancy DeRycke, another Rochester SSJ. "For 20 years we've been saying 'It's our church!' We can't just drop it and start something else from scratch! Schism isn't the only way! Ordination doesn't have to mean subordination."

Rosa Manricas from the non-canonical Immaculate Heart Community in Los Angeles said she had wondered: "What am I going to do, when I get off that plane, as I schedule those little altar servers, and teach the Confirmation class, and sit in church receiving the Eucharist daily? Yes, I am returning to that place where Peter sits on his chair, but I'm going to return as Paul. Paul will not be silenced. Paul will tell Peter, "I love you, Peter, but you are going to listen to me, and you're going to find out that indelible mark is on me. And I am going to have to be kicked out before I leave."

Christine Nusse, a leader in the Conference of Catholic Lesbians, had a more expedient motive. "We want ordination now, period," she said. "We don't care if the priesthood is good or not good. That's not the point; the point is justice. If we end up with a woman as head of the Holy Inquisition, so be it! The second point," she added, "is the Roman Catholic Church is essentially patriarchal. When you change that, the whole thing will crumble. So that's where we have to go!"

'We need spokespersons outside the walls of the kyriarchy blowing the trumpet, making encampments, reminding us constantly of this vision of a discipleship of equals," said Sr. Maureen Fiedler of Quixote Center. "But we also need people with chisels inside, chiseling away at that institution, or it's never going to come down." Vatican officials, she said, would be glad if WOC "no longer wanted the ordination of women. I am unwilling to hand the hierarchy of this Church such a major victory!"

"We do not want to leave this wonderful weekend divided," said Sister Frances O'Connor, CSC, a scholar at the University of Notre Dame, trying to affirm everybody. "I think we need to join hands-those who are called to ordination and those who feel they could not enter the ordained ministry in this patriarchal church- so that we can leave this conference united."

Responding to the dissenters, Schussler Fiorenza said she was grateful. "What we are experiencing here is the assembly of free citizens." she said. WOC can work both for a "discipleship of equals" and for ordination. "But de facto, what it is in the moment, the heart of the ordination rite is the paradise of obedience. De facto, what ordination is in the moment, is subordination. It should not be this way, but this is how it is."

Gradually, a clearer picture emerged of a church of autonomous equals growing within the Catholic Church like a cancer. Rosa Martha Zarate of California announced, "I am a priest to my people with the hierarchy or without it!" Mary Ann Hinsdale said, "I have been ordained. I realize I have been ordained by my family when they ask me to preach ... I have also been ordained by my religious community, when I have presided in the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup ... We need to break our silence, those of us who are doing these things. We need to remain in their faces ... and do it by telling our stories in a way that can't be disregarded."

"A little lesson in Sacramental theology: the indelible mark is on every person in this room from your baptism. We don't need to wait for that other indelible mark." said Sue Seid-Martin. "My sense of the Spirit is. the hierarchical Church is dying! I've been a seminary teacher, and there are not men coming in. So let's give it loving hospice care, and be about transforming the Church from a baptismal ministry .... Richard McBrien gave us the challenge 20 years ago: He said women who want to be priests must just act as if they are!"

WOC's stand on ordination seemed more negotiable than its commitment to abortion. Gallant Vanessa Nessman, a 20-year-old from the University of Florida, told a hushed assembly, "I was very disappointed when I read the vision statement on page 33 of the program: We pledge our lives and our resources to guarantee sexual and reproductive choices for all.' In the brochures for this conference, I was led to believe that this was not an issue that would be addressed ... In my opinion, if we're going to respect women, we need to respect our gift to bear life within ourselves." Her remarks received scattered applause (young women are rare and valued in WOC) but no one responded to her words. The silence was not surprising, considering the prominence WOC gives Catholics for a Free Choice.

Donna Steichen, a Catholic journalist, frequently lectures at HLI conferences.

Taken from the December 1995 issue of "HLI Reports." To subscribe contact: HLI Reports 7845 Airpark Road, Suite E Gaithersburg, MD 20879