The "Women's Ordination" Question

Human Development, Summer, 2001

[My proposed title was: What Can We Learn From

The "Women's Ordination" Question?]

In this piece I would like to start from a heated contemporary issue, the possibility of the ordination of women; use it to explore the ecclesiological question of the legitimating of public charisms; and then draw some conclusions about possible policy changes which, regardless of one' s position on the ordination of women, could be beneficial to our church at this juncture.

To tip my hand at the outset: I would personally be very happy if our church ever finds itself free to ordain women to the priesthood and acts on that freedom by actually ordaining them.

I must, however, immediately follow that with a disclaimer: I used to be in favor of "women's ordination", but recently I have discovered that the phrase may have a sense in which I am decidedly not in favor of it.

To be asked whether one supports "women's ordination", it turns out, is not a simple proposition. The meaning of the question turns on many different assumptions one might bring to it. Depending on those assumptions one could be talking about exclusionary attitudes and the alienation they cause (I hope we're all against them); church practice; basic church policy; the nature of ministerial service; the nature of church; and ultimately the soteriological intention of Jesus.

Now that's weighty stuff. To illustrate some of the connections, let us consider a TV program that was widely disseminated recently. The program was a fine reflection on the changes that have been and are taking place in our understandings of women religious and their ministerial role in the building of the kingdom of God. In its latter segments the program turned to the question of the ordination of women and presented some film clips from a recent meeting of the Women's Ordination Conference. Some of the women interviewed spoke movingly of their personal call to priestly ordination and their pain at being excluded from it. Any sensitive listener would have to be impressed at the intensity of their conviction and the depth of their corresponding pain at being excluded from the possibility of ordination.

The same sensitivity might, however, detect another note in the speakers' testimony, and that's where the issue shifts. Some of the speakers seemed to be asking us to espouse a position which might in effect mean "I have discerned that I am called to priesthood; therefore it is unjust that I be denied my right to this ministry". I may have misunderstood them and if so I ask their indulgence; but the very possibility that that is indeed what is being said can guide us into some fruitful reflection.

If that is what is intended by the phrase, I am opposed to 'women's ordination'. Indeed, in that sense I am opposed to men's ordination, my own included.

Community Input Essential

Any approach to the call to orders (or indeed, the call to any public ministry) which severs personal charism or call from its acceptance and validation by a community of the faithful who are to be served by it is surely a distortion of the meaning of ministry and the nature of the church. To accept self-authenticating call as an entitlement to orders or other forms of public ministry is to promote, not church, but sect. And ultimately it would violate a Christian understanding of that interdependence of persons which alone is salvific.

In Lumen Gentium (n. 9) our church reached a significant new level of appropriation of the full meaning of the Gospel when it proclaimed that "it has pleased God ... to make men holy and save them not merely as individuals without any mutual bonds, but by making them into a single people, a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness". If salvation is predicated upon the difficult demands of interdependence involved in becoming one people, it is hard to imagine that one of the substantive manifestations of the life of such a people, its public ministry, could be authenticated solely on the basis of the personal discernment of an individual Christian, regardless of that person's gender or personal conviction. A church minister must be called to that service by some level of Christian community. By others. It is one thing to say that it is unjust that a group of persons can be excluded from the possibility of a public ministry a priori, without reference to the evidence of personal gifts that might be of service to this church community; it is quite another to say it is unjust for the church community and not the individual to be the final decider as to one's suitability for a particular service to be exercised in the name of the church.

That fact brings with it the possibility that after evaluating the claimant's self-presentation a church community may reach the painful conclusion that the individual may indeed be personally holy and even ministerially gifted but that his/her gifts are not suited to the role of public minister in that particular church community or the church community in general. The community must always retain the responsibility for assessing those who believe they are called to public ministry or else it could find itself hostage to mystifiers and rogues of all stripes. I hope it is not unfair to note that for centuries, and down to this day, individual males have thought they were suited for ordination and discovered that the church did not accept their self-assessment.

Which brings us to our present policy issue. Once one acknowledges that the church community must be the body which legitimates charisms that are to be exercised in the name of the church the next questions are unavoidable: to whom should the responsibility for such judgment be entrusted? How centralized need the procedures for exercising this delegation be? What are the norms for its exercise? And how is the performance of those who exercise these judgments in the name of the community to be assessed? And even more intriguing: who is the community in whose name these decisions are being made, and how do its cultural norms enter into the process --- if, as Vatican II tells us, "church" is in the first instance an inculturated reality?

At this point, for example, we might explore the fact that for many centuries church policy did not allow the practice of absolute ordination, i.e., that a man could be ordained simply to be "a priest"; priesthood was tied to service of a particular local church. The council of Chalcedon banned absolute ordination and it was still being forbidden by local synods into the late 11th century. It would make a fascinating study to uncover the process by which the localness of call yielded to our present practice of ordaining absolutely. The now centuries-old practice is not likely to be reversed, of course, but the history can serve to remind us of the church's freedom to locate a variety of powers at the level of the local rather than universal church.

Determination of Suitability

So let's focus on the present operational procedures for determining that a man is or is not suited to be ordained, which is the area where more options may indeed be open to us since many of the procedures are not in the realm of law but, rather of prevailing (and frequently unexamined) custom. I would suggest that we consider two areas for immediate revision: the persons doing the evaluating, and one very specific criterion that should be high on the list of qualifications.

How does the process generally operate now? First we observe that except for the smallest dioceses with the most extraordinary bishops it is sheer romanticism to assert that the bishop who will actually ordain a man has any in-depth awareness of the man's suitability for ordained ministry. This is not a critique, it is simply a fact. Bishops rely on the judgment of others, they delegate responsibility for assessment of a man's readiness. The rite of ordination itself has the bishop ask the presenter for his judgment on the question.

But if not the bishop, who then really makes the determination? With what. criteria? And on. the basis of what competence?

In practice it will be a judgment made by a seminary faculty or a committee of the same, finalized by the rector. Question: is it fair automatically to assume that these people are best suited to make such judgments? Do they know the candidates best --- or the kind of local church to be served, the forms of service being called for? The practice is based on the assumption that, after all, these men have lived closest with the man and are therefore best suited to make the judgment. Might one not turn the argument around and raise the question that that very fact makes them the least suited to judge because they are too captured by the assumptions of their shared personal life (which more disaffected people might call an old-boy network)? Why not have the ministerial assessment team that makes the final recommendation be composed largely of people who have or will receive the ministrations of the man up for ordination: men and women not themselves ordained but qualified to judge how the man is likely to relate to a Christian community --- or better, to the particular church in which he is going to minister?

Is such an arrangement going to insure that mistakes won't be made and poor ministers created? No, but when one sees men being ordained and then discovering within only one or two years that ministry isn't for them, isn't it fair to ask that we try for something better?

Such a method might also gradually impact the criteria issue as well. To put it bluntly: any seminary that is not preparing its candidates to relate to women as peers and to function constructively in communal projects with women as their leaders is doing a positive disservice to the future of the church in our country and should lose its accreditation. Bequeathing the church yet another 35-40 years of misogynist patriarchy is hardly doing us all a service.

Nor is this merely a matter of rhetoric to be satisfied in a seminary's catalog as it competes with other seminaries to get bishops or major superiors to send their students there. It's a matter of attitudes that can easily be noted by a trained outside observer. It's a matter of skills that should be being transmitted. It's a matter, finally, of changes that a candidate will either exert himself to make or else he should be judged unsuitable and sent to find his arena of service elsewhere.

Change Needed Now

We may or may not be ready as a church to give a positive answer to the ordination of women. It may or it may not be effective strategy to push for it in the present moment. In the meantime what would be tragic would be for us to use all of our energies in fruitless ideological warfare and fail to do those things which are already within our power to enable women (and lay men) to exercise their baptismal responsibility for the church by playing a significant role in determining both the expectations to be placed on males who might feel called to the ordained ministry in our church and the particular males who show the best promise of fulfilling those expectations. There are changes we can make now to improve our church's service within the culture in which our God wills us to serve.

(George B. Wilson, S.J., is an ecclesiologist who does church organizational consulting with Management Design Institute out of Cincinnati, Ohio.)