Women are the backbone of the Catholic Church. We hold 80% of lay ecclesial ministry positions (including women religious) and I venture to say we do the lion’s share of the volunteering. Without women, parishes simply would not be able to operate. Period. Yet, we are excluded from Church governance and sacramental ministry. Why--why—do we accept this treatment?
Sociologists have studied ad nauseam the myriad ways cultural messaging tries to shape and control women. We are expected to sacrifice, to accommodate, to be silent. To be the caretakers, the harmonizers, the peacemakers. We are warned about being too loud, too ambitious, too demanding. And above all, we—unlike the boys—are expected to follow the rules, especially when those rules don’t serve us.
What if we stopped behaving?
Want to see the gears of the Catholic Church come to a grinding halt? Imagine all female staff going on strike. And all female volunteers following suit. And all the men who are down for the cause doing the same. Now imagine all the women parishioners who give to their local parish or school or Archbishop’s appeal diverting all of their families' donations into a fund to pay the wages of the workers who are on strike. And now imagine all those staff and volunteers using their newfound free time to pester the shit out of the bishops—the same bishops who would begin to feel the squeeze from stressed priests who can no longer keep their parishes running without the support of women. What would happen then? Would we be taken seriously?
The truth is women already have the collective power to create change in the Church. It is up to us to stand together as one body in the Spirit and use it.
I personally know many priests who privately believe the Church should ordain women to the priesthood. And though I don't rub elbows with Bishops, I imagine there are a fair number of them who think the same. So, the question is, why--for the most part (thank you, Germany and now Ireland)--aren't they speaking out?
Practicing dissent in the Catholic Church is *tricky* business. It's easy enough to internally dissent on this or that issue in the quiet of our own hearts. We can also privately dissent with a friend or colleague--even with a priest or bishop--without much ado. But open and public disagreement with official Church teaching? This is much harder, especially if the end goal is to inspire movement on a teaching. This is because the magisterium generally relates to acts of dissent as threats to its teaching authority rather than as promptings to discernment. And though Pope Francis has a gentler touch on these kinds of things, obedience is deeply, deeply etched into the Catholic psyche. We all know what happened to theologian Charles Curran and Fr. Roy Bourgeois for challenging the magisterium on points of Catholic teaching. Public dissent means potentially attracting the Eye of Sauron, and with it grave punishment.
In such a climate, priests and bishops who believe in ordination justice for the most part simply stay quiet, opting to minister as best they can under the circumstances. It's understandable. Still, we have to ask: what is the cost of this silence? Women suffer psychological injury, girls are taught they are less than human, boys learn they are inherently superior, and men never have to relate to women as true equals (and you better believe this also shows up at home and in the workplace). Further, the Church not only loses out on the gifts of female leaders, it increasingly forfeits its power to participate in the public square in meaningful ways. Understandable or not, the cost of this complicit silence is enormous, and as long as these priests and bishops stay quiet, a great moral maiming continues at the hands of the Catholic Church and, very sadly, in the name of Jesus.
Yet, things could change--and change rapidly (at least in Church time). What if our brothers who have collars and wear mitres transitioned from private allies to public dissenters? What if they called for open dialogue on ordination? What if in one collective and prophetic voice they made a stand on behalf of women, on behalf of God? Imagine, just imagine, the difference they would make.
So, gentlemen, how about it? We need you to use those balls God gave you and make a stand for justice.
I've grown tired of people singing Pope Francis' praises. Yes, he is an awesome human being with one of the hardest jobs in the world. He is deeply compassionate. He is a man of prayer and discernment. He centers the experience of the poor. He cares for creation. He provides us with stirring documents. He has to deal with backstabbing garbage from people like Archbishop Viganò, and he does so with grace. And yes, he has appointed women to positions of power, even giving one of them an actual vote (yes, but one out of how many--let us not get too excited about the tiny crumb from the table).
Yeah, yeah, yeah. He's great. He's so great, that he has been pushing for synodality for years, working to decentralize power so that decision-making in the Church is more collaborative and consultative. Synodality is all about journeying together, accompaniment, dialogue. In fact, there is an excellent article by Cardinal Tobin in this month's Commonweal that describes this "long game" and its benefits.
I get that. Synodality is super important and absolutely must be pursued. But pin our hopes on it? I don’t know. Maybe this is easy for the people at the top to do. But down here on the bottom, things are a mess. We have a Church that people are leaving every year BY THE THOUSANDS. Bishops have zero credibility in the secular world after the sexual abuse crisis (and clamoring to deny people communion based on this or that reason ain't gonna earn it back, guys). Parish staff are being crushed to death by never-ending workloads and poverty wages. Every week there seems to be yet another atrocious scandal in the media (mother and baby homes, anyone?). And, oh yeah, we are running out of priests. The Titanic is sinking, so forgive me if I roll my eyes every time I hear about the long game of synodality. By the time the long game kicks in, how many of us will have drowned? (And, by the way, is true synodality even possible when women are not part of the magisterium?)
Here's the thing: This colossal mess—it's not just about the Church. It is about the world. The Church's mission is to be God's love in the world, and let's face it, we are in such a mess at this point that it is very difficult for us to do this effectively. Let's take Ethiopia, for example. Right now women are being systematically gang raped by Eritrean soldiers as a tactic of war. Really think about what that must be like for a woman to experience, about the impact it must have on her life, her family, her relationships, her health, her dreams. Now, I ask, how can the Catholic Church--with no credibility in the eyes of the secular world and with its very own long history of oppressing women--say one damn thing to confront this situation in any sort of meaningful way?
The truth of the matter is that there are millions and millions of people both in and out of the Church that simply cannot afford to wait for the long game to materialize. This does not mean the long game should not be played--it should. But, we also need a short game, and an aggressive one at that. To this point, I invite Pope Francis to more boldly claim his papal power even while he diligently works to decentralize it. And one thing he can do right now is #LiftTheBan and allow us as a Church to freely dialogue about ordaining women to the priesthood. For we will never--and I mean NEVER--get out of this mess as long as women are excluded from fully participating in leadership and governance. We cannot wait any longer. The only way forward is for both men and women to collaborate with the Spirit on charting the course to tomorrow.