Dismissal renews women’s ordination controversy
Rose Marie Dunn Hudson and Elsie Hainz McGrath kneel before Patricia Fresen during a ceremony in 2007 “ordaining” them into Roman Catholic Womenpriests. CNS photo/Karen Elshout

When former Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois participated in the 2008 ordination rite of Janice Sevre-Duszynska, a member of a group that calls itself “Roman Catholic Womenpriests,” he once again drew attention to a long-standing point of difficulty for many American Catholics: the teaching that the Church has no authority to ordain women to the ministerial priesthood. 

Bourgeois has stood by his decision to support the ordination of women, despite the Church’s teaching, and on Nov. 19 he was formally dismissed from the Maryknoll congregation. According to a statement released by Maryknoll, the Holy See and the Maryknoll society encouraged him to reconcile with the Church. 

“Instead,” the statement said, “Mr. Bourgeois chose to campaign against the teachings of the Catholic Church in secular and non-Catholic venues. This was done without the permission of the local U.S. Catholic bishops and while ignoring the sensitivities of the faithful across the country. Disobedience and preaching against the teaching of the Catholic Church about women’s ordination led to his excommunication, dismissal and laicization.” 

His dismissal has brought the issue back into the news, now 10 years after Womenpriests came onto the scene with the “ordinations” of seven women on a barge in the Danube River in Europe; the organization says it now has more than 100 female priests serving in 29 states.

Settled teaching

It is 18 years since Blessed Pope John Paul II settled the teaching of the Church on the matter with his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and more than 35 years since Pope Paul VI and the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith addressed the matter in the declaration Inter Insigniores (On the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood) in 1976. 

No Authority
“Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren ... I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.” 

The problem, said Sister Sara Butler, MSBT, is that advocates for admitting women to holy orders are not looking at the sacrament through the right lens. 

“For most people, it’s dominated by a feminist approach to individual rights and a Protestant understanding of ordained ministry,” said Butler, author of “The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church”(Hillenbrand Books, $23). 

Many people — especially in the United States and Western Europe — believe that it is unjust to bar women from positions of leadership that they seem to be perfectly competent to assume, Sister Butler said. 

What they don’t see is that no one — man or woman — has the right to ordination. Holy orders are a gift from God, and the Church takes the example of Jesus calling only men to be among the Twelve Apostles as an indication of who is called. For those men who are called to holy orders, priesthood is not a role that they play or a set of functions they perform. It is who they are, Butler said. 

As priests, they stand in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”) as they consecrate the Eucharist. They are called Father — a position in the family that no woman can hold, even if she is the head of the household. 

“It should be a man acting in the person of Christ because Jesus was a man, and he called men as his apostles,” Sister Butler said. “The call of Christ to the priesthood constitutes a new relationship to Christ’s Church.” 

Because Catholics believe sacraments are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1131), the Church itself is not free to change any of the matter used in them. Baptism requires water, Eucharist requires bread and wine, confirmation and anointing of the sick require sacred oils. The Church can’t change those requirements, and it can’t change the fact that holy orders is restricted to men, Sister Butler said.

Other viewpoints

Protestants have long taken a different view toward the sacraments, in particular ordination, she said. Many Protestant churches do not consider ordination a sacrament; it’s more a ceremony akin to the installation of a pastor, which allows the person to assume the authority necessary to their position without any ontological change. 

Many Catholic advocates for women’s ordination argue that the reason Jesus did not call women to be among the apostles is that it would have been unacceptable in the social order of the time. But Pope John Paul II rejected that argument in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, pointing out that Jesus often interacted with women in ways that would have been considered taboo. He interacted with women in ways that were “unconventional and even revolutionary … including them in his company and in his parables, opposing the traditions that discriminated against them, pardoning them, healing them, conversing with them, teaching them, sending them on missions and entrusting them with the message of the Resurrection,” Sister Butler wrote in the essay “Embodied Ecclesiology: Church Teaching on the Priesthood,” which was included in the 2012 book “Women, Sex, and the Church: A Case for Catholic Teaching ”(Pauline Books & Media, $19.95). 

“Jesus was supremely free in his relationships with men and with women,” she said. “It’s impossible to say he couldn’t have chosen women if he wanted to.” 

His interactions with women — and the status of his mother, Mary, as the very model of discipleship — inform Church teaching on the radical equality of men and women before God. Pope John Paul emphasized the same point: “In calling only men as his apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner. In doing so, he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his behavior, he emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women, without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, No. 2).

All are called to be holy

Sister Butler said she understands where people who advocate for women’s ordination are coming from because she once supported it. She changed her mind when she was involved in a Catholic-Anglican dialogue about sacraments and came to understand the differences. 

Unfortunately, she said, she has not seen many other people change their minds. 

To women who believe they have been called by God to the priesthood, Sister Butler said, the Church must try to explain its teaching and remind them that we — all people — were not necessarily made to be priests, we were made to be saints. Holiness, not holy orders, should be the goal, and there are as many ways to achieve that as there are saints. “If they don’t want to do anything but be priests, then perhaps they have the wrong idea,” she said. 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.