Feminist activists are in a long-term struggle with the Vatican
over the issue of ordination to the priesthood. I had the opportunity to examine
the impact of such activism as part of a panel at the National Women’s Studies
Association. The panel defined activism as the practice of vigorous action
or involvement as a means of achieving goals directly related to issues of
women’s oppression or inequality. In our case, the inequality is clear: men
can be ordained priests, women cannot, and this leads to various oppressions.
The vigorous action or involvement may be less obvious; to me it includes
public actions on several different levels, from demonstrations in favor of
women’s ordination at cathedrals to the development of feminist theology.
The Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) has been at the center of this activism,
but not alone in the struggle.
Catholic Opinion Evolves
Certainly the ideas of ordinary Catholic laypeople have changed over the years
of WOC’s existence. In 1974, 29% of Catholics favored women’s ordination.
By 1985, eleven years later, 47% did. In 1992 and in polls since, about two-thirds
of Catholics -- and in at last one poll, 80% of those under 35 -- agreed that
women should be ordained.
But did Catholic feminist activism in general and WOC in particular
cause that change? That is more difficult to say. WOC has articulated a feminist
vision of equality in the Catholic church, but we have not organized a massive
grass-roots movement. We have benefited from feminism in general as well as
from changes in other churches.
Progress for women generally has benefitted WOC. While America
certainly has not fully accepted women’s equality, I think that certain aspects
of the feminist agenda have become new cultural norms, such as equal pay for
equal work and equal opportunity regardless of gender. These norms support
what seems to the general public to be the employment rights of women in the
church, so that when Catholic feminists say there is hypocrisy when the church
talks about the equality of women and yet refuses to ordain them, the idea
Also, the Catholic movement for ordination continues to benefit
from comparisons with other churches which have given women equal access to
ministry. Where I live in Philadelphia, for example, Catholic women were part
of an ecumenical group which began meeting around 1970. Some of the Episcopal
members were among the eleven who were ordained "irregularly" in 1974. That
event, and the regular ordinations a year later, was one of the sparks that
resulted in the organization of the Women’s Ordination Conference in 1975.
Issues of Power and Symbol
In the Catholic church, priesthood is power. No decision-making structures
include anyone who is not ordained. This is why ordination is even more politically
important than it is in most mainline Protestant churches, where major decisions
are made by representative bodies that include lay people.
Some in our movement are uncomfortable with a focus on issues
of power rather than of ministry, but to me it is very important to also think
of power. For the good of the whole church, women need to be empowered within
Women who want to be ordained have always had strategies for
claiming their power and exercising their ministry. Many now perform priestly
functions, either within small, autonomous communities without official sanction,
or within the church, without official authority, and often in limited roles.
Others do it by leaving: going to another church and becoming a priest or
minister. I support the efforts of these women, but in a political sense these
strategies are limited.
Women's ordination is a central symbolic issue for the Catholic
church. The priest is at the heart of the church, the person most identified
with its sacraments and its teaching. The inequality that exists can't be
solved by people doing their own thing and ignoring the official life of the
church. Ordination is a church function. It is an internal issue. It requires
a decision for the church as a whole and I argue that despite papal pronouncements,
the dialogue continues within the church. Indeed, the Vatican’s intense reactions
indicate the high level of our success.
Different Forms of Activism
In my opinion, activists who favor women’s ordination have been extremely
successful at capturing the agenda of bishops, especially the Bishop of Rome.
There has been a major statement about women’s ordination from the Vatican
about once a year for the last decade. Recently it has issued one statement
discouraging the use of lay persons -- and I think the real target was women
-- in various ministerial roles not requiring ordination, like chaplains or
Eucharistic ministers; another confirming that women cannot be deacons; and
a third using women’s non-ordination as an example of a non-defined definitive
teaching. In addition, the Pope now speaks often on women, not only on ordination.
In an attempt to soften the unpopular consequences of his absolute position
on that, he has put forth statement after statement about women’s "genius,"
based on an essentialist anthropology that has turned off feminist women and
still proved ineffective in blunting the movement for change in women’s official
At the same time that women’s ordination has dominated the agenda,
the needs of the church have demanded more and more women serve in expanded
ministerial roles. Officially, the church is drawing the lines tighter and
tighter but the reality is that women are serving in more and more roles;
and they assume the power that accompanies those roles. Women’s situation
in the church continues to evolve and improve, despite official statements.
However, some areas of expansion which had been allowed before have been withdrawn.
For example, in seminaries women spiritual directors, serving as advisors
to priests being trained, have been eliminated or reduced. Without formal
power, women are vulnerable to this kind of reversal, with few routes of appeal.
Theologians have another kind of power in the church, an intellectual
power, with its own limits. On them, the impact of feminist activism for women’s
ordination is much more direct and positive. Indeed, I would argue that feminist
theologians are activists according to the panel’s definition: the practice
of vigorous action or involvement as a means of achieving goals directly related
to issues of women’s oppression or inequality. Theology may not be vigorous
action, but it is involvement, and it is absolutely necessary to the women’s
agenda in the church. It is the theoretical rationale for action. Much of
what the Vatican is responding to is the doctrinal and scriptural exploration
by those scholars whose official role is limited, but whose influence is large,
especially in the United States, where the tradition of academic freedom can
be called upon for some protection. While some progressive theologians around
the world and in this country have been censured or suppressed, the constant
flow of papal documents can be seen as an indirect attempt to answer the critiques
these theologians present.
Further, in the United States at least, organized Catholic theology
has taken stands in favor of women’s ordination. Women have risen to leadership
in professional organizations, and their very presence is a call to reconsider
other barriers they face in the church. There are still some limits, especially
on feminists teaching in Catholic institutions of higher education. Their
ability to even state their considered opinion, not to mention to do research,
can be limited by official policy. Two cases of women relieved of their duties
have become causes celebres in the last five years; Carmel McElroy signed
a petition asking for dialogue on women’s ordination; Barbara Fiand was criticized
anonymously about her attitudes toward priesthood in general. And I sometimes
think even worse is the self-censorship that occurs in tyrannical systems;
women’s issues don’t get articulated and feminists become clandestine, not
because of actual suppression, but because of fear of reprisals; no punishment
is necessary because the challenge never occurs. Some of the most prominent
Catholic feminist theologians are not in Catholic institutions; they can speak
out more freely. And activists keep the pressure on.
Where Are We Now?
As I was preparing my talk, Pope John Paul II spoke to American bishops from
Michigan and Ohio about women’s ordination and gave me a perfect example of
many of the points I wanted to make. He said, "As bishops, you must explain
to the faithful why the church does not have authority to ordain women to
the ministerial priesthood, at the same time making clear why this is not
a question of the equality of persons or of their God-given rights. The fact
that Jesus himself chose and commissioned men for certain specific tasks did
not in any way diminish the human dignity of women, which he [Jesus] clearly
intended to emphasize and defend." This is a far cry from the first modern
papal statement against women’s ordination in 1977 by Pope Paul VI, Inter
Insignores, which fueled countless activists by stating that women did not
"image" the male Jesus. That was scandalous in a tradition that held that
men and women were created in the image of God, but it reflected how far the
papacy was from modern thought. Today the Vatican knows better, a result of
the feminist challenges of the last twenty years. The Pope is instructing
the Bishops to provide ordinary Catholics with a rationale which does not
offend their sensibilities, now formed by feminism and communicated within
the church by Catholic feminists.
What Comes Next?
Finally, what is the future of Catholic feminist activism and the movement
for women’s ordination in the church? To discuss this, I will use the Movement
We have definitely passed the early stages, when interest in
the issue is created and the established channels reveal themselves as inadequate
to effect the desired change. We have had our trigger events, the ordinations
in the Episcopal churches; we have gathered our 60% in the polls; we have
women and men theologians who have developed a spectacular theoretical background,
so resources for education abound; and we have a variety of national and grassroots
organizations, which get local, national, and occasionally world-wide media
The next stage is called "Perception of Failure,"(2) which intrigues
me as the activist head of the almost quarter-century-old Women’s Ordination
Conference. If we understand this perception of failure as a natural stage
in social movements and move on without becoming obsessed with it, we can
avoid the pitfalls which often surface. Numbers go up and down, and some events
"offend public sensibilities." Some members seem almost to desire to become
"a permanent counterculture sect that is isolated and ineffective."(3) There
are splits in the movement, and the media seize on them, though in our case,
they have not seized on the most dangerous issue, in my opinion. They have
focused on the split between those who continue to want ordination within
the church structure and those who feel that ordination is irrelevant to women
who can operate outside the church. A far more difficult division, which we
have always tried to mute, is over reproductive rights. We are more pro-choice
than the average Catholic organization and more pro-life than the average
feminist one. We have to walk a very narrow line or we risk losing significant
support from one side or the other.
I think we can get past the perception of failure and approach
the next stage, "Winning Over the Majority." "Protest in crisis gives way
to long-term struggle with power holders. The goal is to win majority opinion.
Many new groups, which include people who previously were not active, are
formed. The new groups do grassroots education and action. Broader coalitions
are formed, and mainstream institutions expand their own programs to include
the issue."(4) In the last ten years, accelerating after the defeat of the
pastoral on women, broader-based activist organizations have grown. While
they do not focus only on women’s issues, they include them. Some are led
by feminists, like Catholics Speak Out and the We Are Church referendum, and
others are much less obviously feminist, like FutureChurch and Call to Action,
which have recently collaborated on an initiative called "a call for national
dialogue on Women in Church Leadership" which walks a thin line between "continuing
to advocate for opening the possibility of ordination to all who experience
a priestly call" and "calling for expanded leadership roles in our churches
right now, short of ordination." These groups are proving more effective than
we have been at organizing the grassroots, not on the justice issues that
WOC has always held to, but on the scarcity issue: without women and married
men, the church is threatened because the priest shortage is becoming so severe.
Most of these people deeply believe in justice for women, but they are not
relying on it to mobilize their constituency. I know we have not yet arrived
at the success of the last stages, "Achieving Alternatives" and "Consolidation
and Moving On,"(5) but we have to keep them in mind. We have not reached our
narrowest and clearest goal, ordination of women, but we have always had a
broader goal: that this change be accomplished by renewing the priestly ministry
and the church itself. We do have "a different way of looking at things: a
new framework or paradigm. A successful social movement, therefore, can gain
objectives that, although grudgingly yielded by the power holders, introduce
new ways of operating and of being."(6) Our goal is a renewed church.
These stages are long, and eventually result in forcing those
who hold power "to change their policies, have their policies defeated, or
lose office."(7) This is where this American model of democratic social change
breaks down for those working to reform the church. We face a special hazard
because of its non-democratic structure. But that only makes Catholic feminist
activism more necessary. It is very easy to be passive in the face of seemingly
absolute authority; passivity is bred and encouraged, especially among women.
Instead, we develop our expertise, increase our numbers, and insist on our
genuinely appropriate place. Women are engaged in a long-term struggle with
the Vatican, one we intend to win.
1. Berit M. Lakey, George Lakey, Rod Napier, and Janice M.
Robinson. Grassroots and Nonprofit Leadership: A
Guide for Organizations in Changing Times. Philadelphia: New Society
Publishers, 1995, Chapter 1, 14-26.
Regina Bannan, Ph.D, President of WOC’s Board of
Directors, 1997-2000, teaches in the American Studies and Women’s Studies
programs at Temple Univeristy, Philadelphia, PA.