Brendan Hoban: Ordaining women priests back on the agenda     

Ordaining women priests back on the agenda     

Western People 12.01.21

We live in strange times. What seems like just a few years ago Bishops Christy Jones and Brendan Comiskey were rapped on the knuckles by Rome for suggesting that the Catholic Church might reconsider its discipline on mandatory celibacy for priests. A week or so ago, the archbishop-elect of Dublin, Bishop Dermot Farrell, indicated he was in favour of ordaining women deacons, looking at the celibacy requirement for priesthood and that the argument against women priests was based on tradition rather than on scripture.

Here’s a question: what has changed? Here’s the answer: Pope Francis.

From the night of his election almost eight years ago – when he introduced himself to the thousands milling in St Peter’s Square in Rome as ‘the bishop of Rome – it was clear that the reform ‘reformation’ intended by the Second Vatican Council was back on the papal agenda again. Of course, we couldn’t quite believe the sudden about-turn. After nearly half a century of the long winter of discontent during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict – as the Catholic Church held grimly to its medieval traditions even though they were spectacularly out of sync with the signs of the times – it seemed too good to be true. The Holy Spirit was alive and well and, as a friend of mine confided, ready to do Her best for a dying Church.

At first Francis sent little indicators that a new papal dispensation was at hand. He carried his own bag; he didn’t want to live in a palace; and he was happier travelling in a modest Fiat. Was this just PR, we wondered? Pressing the right buttons to get the media on-side? Soon, however, he was indicating very clearly that ‘Vatican Two’ was back on the Church’s agenda and, miracle of miracles, he was chastising the Vatican clerics for their ambition and their easy presumption of privilege and preference.

Suddenly there was a very different kind of writing on the walls of the Vatican. And the reverberations were such that it was as if Francis in 2013 was nailing the equivalent of Luther’s famous 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517. It was too a bit like the aftermath of the great flood in the Book of Genesis (chapters 6-9) when Noah and his entourage emerged nervously to survey the waters receding. Could it possibly be true what God said to Noah – that (to paraphrase) the bad times were over?

It took a while for Catholics to understand that Francis was serious. That it wasn’t all just a PR exercise. That significant and worthwhile change could and would happen. That issues beyond the scope even of our wildest dreams would be again subject to possibility and promise. There was again reason for hope. A possible spring-time?

Then the backlash started as the grumbling Vaticanistas demonstrated an unexpected resilience in objecting to the new reforms. Cardinals (no less!) who had gloried in their obedience to Pope Benedict, set about undermining his successor. Some bishops, especially in the United States of America, made unhappy noises about the direction Francis was taking the Church, and opted instead to follow the flag of the disgraceful and disgraced President Trump!

Ultra-conservative Catholic groups, many being funded by American money from similar organisations, entered the fray – some criticising Francis directly, others criticising him implicitly, by lauding his predecessors – and, because of the attention given to them by an ineffectual church leadership, punching way above their weight numerically or sensibly.

This created the impression that there was (i) huge unease in Catholic circles with Francis’ reforms and (ii) that the Catholic Church would divide – with the word ‘Schism’ with all its ruinous connotations used to paint a bleak future.

It would seem that even Francis has paused for thought, fearful of the consequences of dividing the Church. And, in Bishop Farrell’s interview with Patsy McGarry in the Irish Times, it is clear that he too has reservations in his comment that the issue of women priests had split the Church of England. But, as Archbishop John Neill pointed out in a letter to that paper, the division in the Church of England was not about ordaining women but on whether the CofE had the authority to act unilaterally when the major part of the Western Church was not then on board.

However, the indications are, particularly in the ‘developed world’, that the ordination of women deacons and priests has huge support among Catholics, as surveys constantly indicate. And, the truth is that those who oppose it are in comparison a small, unrepresentative segment of the Catholic Church.

Here are a few big questions: one, will Francis hold his nerve and continue his reforms or be panicked by the scare tactics of the few rather than the support of the many? And, two, is Bishop Farrell’s support for women deacons and/or ordination of women the usual formulaic gesture towards the obvious ­challenges the Catholic Church now faces – women, young, governance, etc. In other words, is it just the usual PR spin to make a favourable impression and to mollify the media?

The answer to the first question will be answered in the new year when Francis continues to focus on a synodal church – less clerical, less centralised, giving lay Catholics a more central role; new regulations for the Curia in Rome; revamping the leadership of Vatican congregations; and emphasizing a more just and sustainable world. Those closest to Francis say Francis is ‘up for it’ and ‘is firing on all cylinders’.

The answer to the second will emerge when the enormity of the challenge facing Bishop Farrell in Dublin emerges within the next few months, not least the obvious truth that half of the Dublin priests are in their seventies.

That statistic alone will help to focus his mind and keep women deacons and priests on the top of the Dublin agenda.

Copies of my new book, ‘A Priest’s Diary’, are now available at €15 from all local bookshops or online from





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