The women who experience a call to priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church today are not radicals on the fringe of the church. They are mature, well-educated regular churchgoers, active in their faith communities. More than half are actually employed by the institutional church in ministerial positions.
Yet even in the midst of this authoritarian, patriarchal structure, these women hold views that, if put into practice, would transform the church into a community that is democratic, egalitarian and truly ecumenical in outreach. They would give enormous emphasis to social justice, revamp church policies on sexuality and reproduction, end the requirement of mandatory celibacy for priests, and exhibit profound respect for individual conscience. These are the findings of a survey conducted in 1999 by the Women’s Ordination Conference.
These women are not just average Catholics in the pew. They live and worship and work in the heart of the church; for many, the church is their life. Yet they believe the stirrings of the Spirit in their hearts rather than the words of Rome. They are steadfast in believing that the gospel calls the church to treat women and men equally.
Of the nearly 10,000 questionnaires distributed, 894 were returned by the deadline of March 16, 1999. More than one fourth of these respondents (265) reported that they experienced a call to ordination in the Roman Catholic Church. We took this subset of 265 and analyzed, among other things, their opinions about issues confronting women in the church today as well as what they think about priesthood.Benevolent Subversives
They don’t think of themselves as heretics, disloyal Catholics or even dissidents. Rather, they are “loving critics and critical lovers” of the church, believing that the community of which they are a part will one day live up to the ideals of Jesus who welcomed women as well as men to ministry. They are, in short, Benevolent Subversives — seeking profound change from within for the sake of the gospel and the Catholic community of faith.
Heralding the Church to Come
Ninety-nine percent of these respondents said that priests should treat the laity as equals in ministry, and that it is important to use gender inclusive language in liturgy. Ninety-six percent said that the ordained have a special responsibility to work for economic justice; that recognition of an individual’s ministerial gifts and call should come from the faith community as well as the bishop; and that God should be imaged as female as well as male. Eighty-four percent said that decision-making in the church should be separated from ordination. Fifty-four percent said that the church today is too patriarchal for women to seek ordination now. Only ten percent said that the church is so patriarchal that women should never seek ordination.
Ninety-nine percent believe that working for justice is necessary in parish life; that Catholic parishes should be actively involved in working for economic justice for the poor; and that the church needs to be more vigorous in pursuing ecumenical unity with other Christian churches. Ninety-seven percent think it is possible to be a good Catholic and publicly disagree with church teaching; and that the church should welcome married priests back to active ministry. Ninety-five percent believe the Vatican should eliminate the celibacy requirement for priesthood; and that couples should be permitted to make their own decisions about forms of birth control. Ninety-four percent want divorced Catholics to be able to remarry in the church. Ninety-two percent want a democratic governance for the church. Eighty-five percent find that sexual relations between lesbian and gay persons in a committed relationship can be morally acceptable, while seventy-five percent think pre-marital sexual relations between two persons who are committed to each other can be morally acceptable. Seventy-four percent believe that there are circumstances in which abortion can be a morally acceptable choice.
A Vanguard of the Future
If these women ran the church, it would be a vastly different institution than it is today. The vast majority embrace the contemporary church reform agenda, calling for broad changes in key policies. These are not women who seek the priesthood for status reasons. Only sixteen percent think that priests and deacons deserve any special status as clergy; and only nine percent would limit the preaching of homilies to clergy.
We asked these women to check off their personal musts for them to be willing to be ordained. Seventy-three percent listed shared decision-making in their immediate ministry; sixty-six percent listed shared decision-making at the diocesan or higher levels affecting their ministry; sixty-four percent marked a call from a faith community, not just a bishop; fifty-nine percent marked dropping ny celibacy requirement; thirty-eight percent said removing the required vow of obedience to the bishop; thirty-four percent said removing any requirements for clerical garb.
Interestingly, the most important factors when it comes to musts for willingness to be ordained have to do with decision-making and community call – a reflection of the desire for an inclusive model of church. The institutional Roman Catholic Church can ill afford to lose women like these: talented, highly educated, fiercely loyal and deeply spiritual. These women are like yeast waiting to be kneaded into the dough of the church. Once that happens, the transformation from within will be dramatic, alive, warm and rising!