Angela Hanley’s review of ‘Women’s Ordination in the Catholic Church’ by John O’Brien


by John O’Brien

(Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2019)

by Angela Hanley

My first reaction to such a title was “do we really need yet another book on women’s ordination?” Not that I think it is subject that is closed but because women who feel called to priesthood are tired of waiting for crumbs to fall from the table of those in charge. They recognise the harvest is great and the labourers are few, and they are responding to the urges of the Spirit and not to the patriarchy that currently rules our church. It has been my pleasure to meet such Roman Catholic women priests and feel the depth and sincerity of their vocation.

So, another women’s ordination book? Reading John O Brien’s book, the answer is an emphatic “Yes.” I’ve just two small gripes with the book, and the first one is the layout of the first chapter. It could have been structured better – opening with the quotations from the document under discussion could be off-putting at first sight. This would a pity, for this book deserves to be read.

The author takes the 2018 document from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: The Definitive Character of the Doctrine of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis—about some doubts as a useful summary of the issue to date. He examines the claim that the resistance to ordaining women is “predicated on the claim that it confirms what the ordinary and universal magisterium considered throughout the history of the church as belonging to the deposit of faith. From the point of view of theology, as distinct from church discipline however, that is something that can be verified only from historical-theological study and not merely by declamation.” (pp. 4-5). And that’s what O’Brien does across the following six chapters. He takes all the claims against women’s ordination and deconstructs them using the Church’s own theology, ecclesiology and tradition. A strength of the author’s work is translation from Latin and/or Greek. Received translations are not without the risk of being skewed to suit particular purposes. As one biblical scholar says “The meaning of a text is in practice deeply intertwined with its own tradition of hearing and heeding, interpretation and performance.” (Bockmeuhl, Seeing the Word p.65).

O’Brien points out that we cannot dismiss the practices of the Church in the first millennium with regard to ordination of women and men, as presbyters and/or deacons as somehow being functionalist, as if “it did not imply a true consecration to the exercise of the corresponding ministry.” And that “It would be anachronistic to dismiss first-millennial Church practice because it was not interpreted according to a second-millennial theological vocabulary.” (p.110).

A particular strength (among many) of this book is the author’s dissection of canon law on the subject. It is clear and well explained. He walks the reader through the arguments deftly and with great clarity.

This book is well annotated, and my second small gripe is the lack of translation of some of the notes from original language. That said, he translates one very important note on p.117 – n.27 which shows the inconsistency that we’ve come to expect from Vatican documents in our time. Contrary to the claim that the Church has no power or authority to change things already decided, we see that this is not so. A 1947 document Sacramentum Ordinis states very clearly that …[T]he traditio instrumentorum is not required for the substance and validity of this Sacrament. . . . If it was at one time necessary even for validity by the will and command of the Church, everyone knows that the Church has the power to change and abrogate what she herself has established.” A.A.S. 1948, 5-7. [Emphasis mine].

The author clearly shows, by quoting authors themselves how the theologians and canonists of the second millennium consistently and definitely brought the existing misogyny to the fore in the Church and how the great institutional injustice to women in the Church was structurally incorporated into its functioning over that time. In its recent documents excluding women from ordination the magisterium “…it anachronistically imports later, developed theology, ritual, and practice of the priesthood into earlier decades. The New Testament has little to say about women becoming Catholic priests in the sense that this is discussed today, because it does not operate with today’s concept of the ordained priesthood.” (p.139).

While sound theology and sound pastoral instincts imbue this whole book, the final two chapters bring theology of ministry more to the fore. The author has what is a very desirable trait in any theologian – imagination. That of bringing “what is not” to mind, and anticipating “what might be”. He doesn’t believe the ordination of women will suddenly solve the Church’s pastoral problems but that is no reason not to do it. “Without reimagining and reconstituting the presbyterate as service [rather than power connected to Eucharist], and that as ministry within a servant church, ordaining women will of itself do little to effect renewal of the Church. But that does not mean that it should not happen. We may not excuse ourselves from doing what is just, simply on the grounds that it might be abused. Otherwise, abuse of the office of priesthood by some men should debar men from ordination.” (p.147)

The author’s arguments are well-formed and cogent. His sources are wide and reputable. He focuses particularly on the Church’s own arguments and with honour and fairness dissects them with intellectual honesty. There are no forced conclusions. He doesn’t tip-toe around the Church’s misogyny and patriarchy – he names them for what they are. Given the fear induced in some and unjust sanctions inflicted on others by the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, John O’Brien’s voice rings clear and true. His courage is admirable. I will certainly be adding this book to those I already have on my shelves on women’s ordination. (A digital copy just won’t do!) Chavez, who studied women’s ordination from a sociological perspective points out that while grassroots organisation can and does bring about change “The appropriate general conclusion… seems to be that both collective action from the ‘bottom’ and elite action nearer the ‘top’ of denominations increase the likelihood that conflicts over women’s ordination in fact lead to greater formal gender equality within denominations.” (p.181). Is this the real reason the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s readiness to shut down any discussion on the issue? And to unfairly and unjustly punish any priest who dares to speak truth to power on this issue?

John O’Brien’s book is an ideal book to have a Zoom discussion about – priests who are struggling with their function and purpose since the arrival of Covid-19 could do worse than discuss this book among themselves, and especially with deacons where they are in place, to see how the gatekeepers are keeping the labourers from the harvest. Then, more importantly, decide what they are prepared to do about it.

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  1. Soline Humbert says:

    Thank you Angela for this really excellent review. I have read the book and I agree John O’Brien has done a great service in writing it. I second your call for a wide readership, discussion … and following up with action. The time has come for courageous witness, not keeping one’s head behind crumbling parapets!

  2. Soline Humbert says:

    Prof John O’Brien will be speaking on the Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church on Wednesday 28th October 3 to 4 pm ( on Microsoft Teams). His talk is organised by the Irish Institute for Catholic Studies at Mary Immaculate Limerick. All welcome.

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