Male and Female, in the image and likeness of God?

John J Shea has written to Pope Francis and to each member of the ‘council of cardinals’ to say that a theological explanationof the church’s practice of barring women from priestly ordination is still missing.

He asks “Is an intelligent view of gender able to surface in our church? Do women have sufficient ontological-theological status to join in the dialogue?

Can we do better than the literal, ‘finger and thumb,’ patriarchal theology that presently constricts our thinking? What about a deeper metaphorical and Trinitarian theology?

If, for example, it is not in his maleness that Jesus images the Father—if the Father is not biologically male—what is to be found in the nature of the imaging?

Is the core question: ‘Who and what is the Incarnation?’ ‘It is a mystery that both men and women are heir to’ might be one answer.”


Letter to Pope Francis

Pentecost, 2018

Dear Pope Francis,

I hope you are well. And I hope your staff lets you read this letter. I am praying for you. Your overall concern for injustice, for the poor, for the environment, and for some reform in the church is inspiring.

Enclosed again are two letters about the ordination of women: the first is sent to each member of the Council of Cardinals with whom you are soon meeting; the second is a letter for background that I mailed to all the ordinaries of the United States at the beginning of Lent in 2014.

When you first talked about the need for honest dialogue on the issues that we face as a church, it was heartening. You kept insisting: “dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.” In fact, you said: “dialogue fearlessly.”

Yet, there is not nor has there been any dialogue—fearless, gender inclusive, or otherwise—on the ordination of women, arguably the most important issue in the church. As Supreme Pontiff can you call now for synodal dialogue and end the appalling silence of our church?

Can the church ever be whole if women are “not fully in the likeness of Jesus”? Not to affirm the body-and-soul wholeness of women—leaving their integrity ignored, disparaged, and denied—is an injustice that stifles the Spirit and gives a lie to the Good News.

Pope Francis, as Pentecost approaches can we hope that ministry will finally be separated from patriarchal conceit? Can we hope that an intelligent view of gender will finally affect a comatose hierarchy?

Is time-honored and Vatican-championed misogyny—so blatantly disrespectful and so obviously immature—to corrupt with abandon all four traditional hallmarks of our church?

How long? How long? How long? How long? Sincerely,

John J. Shea, O.S.A.


Letter to the Council of Cardinals


Pentecost, 2018

Dear Cardinal Marx,

I am writing to you and to each of the members of the Council of Cardinals yet again to ask you to directly address in your next meeting the church’s continuing decision to see women as lacking the body-and- soul integrity to be ordained to the priesthood. This decision so needing reform—ecclesia semper reformanda—radically disfigures the church’s identity and seriously compromises its wonderful mission in the world.

Of all the things that Pope Francis has said and done, the way he opened the Synod on the Family in 2014 was perhaps the most extraordinary. He asked the bishops to speak “freely,” “boldly,” and “without fear.” This exhortation is quite shocking: he had to ask his fellow bishops—grown men and the church’s teachers—to speak honestly to each other. Given a hierarchy so incredibly challenged by dialogue, however, his exhortation was not only necessary but also, at least at that time, a small sign of hope.

If women and men together in priesthood is vital for the future of our church—if leadership hopping around on one foot is at once lame and dismissive—I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If you know there is nothing in Scripture or tradition that prohibits the ordination of women to the priesthood, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If you know from your own experience that any given woman is as religiously mature and able to provide pastoral care as any given man, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If seeing women and men through a complementarity lens or in light of precious patriarchal symbolism is not ad rem to women’s worthiness of ordination, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If you find the 1994 letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis:
1) was the fruit of doctrinal fiat and not dialogue;
2) was written directly in the face of—and arguably to cut off—serious scriptural-theological dialogue actually taking place; and
3) then mandated that no dialogue at all—let alone anything fearless or gender-inclusive—is allowed going forward, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If you see that the letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, is basically an historical interpretation of ordination rather than one that is seriously theological, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If the theological explanation actually put forth by the Vatican in the 1970s and 1980s—that women cannot be ordained because they are “not fully in the likeness of Jesus”—would be silly if it were it not so heretical, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If it beggars believe that women fully created in the image and likeness of God does not mean they are fully created in the image and likeness of God’s Son—if Jesus is thought to image a Father who is biologically male—I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If our church is actually undermining the Three-in-Oneness of our God—if a huge patriarchal beam is wittingly stuck in the church’s eye, worshipping the Father as male, the Son as male, and the Holy Spirit as male—I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If it is alarming that the adult faithful are leaving the church in droves because of women not worthy of priesthood—if you see that “a patriarchal Jesus” severs the roots of inclusion, respect, and trust in the church—I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If it troubles you that banning women from ordination is taken—in the church and throughout the world—as affirming women’s inferiority and justifying domestic violence, infanticide, trafficking, and many other atrocities, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If bishops, theologians, and the faithful need to work in a synodal way under the aegis of a genderless Spirit to affirm the body-and-soul integrity of women and let our blind, demeaning, overbearing church find healing, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

Cardinal Marx, how does the dehumanization of women in the church affect you? Are women whole? Are they fully in the likeness of Jesus? Is this the time for a serious voice of reform to be heard? Like the reformation of inclusion in the infant church, can you and the other bishops see, hear, and name what Pope Francis cannot see, hear, and name? Will you speak freely? Will you dialogue boldly and without fear?


John J. Shea, O.S.A.





Similar Posts


  1. Bernard Whelan says:

    It would be wonderful, indeed miraculous, if Pope Francis were to read and take to heart Fr Shea’s letter. But it’s not a miracle that I’m expecting, because of the two institutional blind spots which are deeply embedded in the Pope.
    Firstly, he shares that mindset which regards it as Christ’s particular wish that one half of all those who choose to follow him should be excluded from any senior position of authority in the church, and from the ordained ministry, for no reason other than their function in the reproductive process. Pope Francis pays lip service to the cause of women, for example calling for a deeper theology of women, and Mary McAleese has blown that one out of the water. And again, in Evangelii Gaudium (paragraph 104) Francis acknowledges that, with regard to women, the church has “profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded”. But in his very next sentence he does exactly that, he evades the profound and challenging question of whether women can be priests, asserting that it “. . . is not open to discussion.”
    His other blind spot is to equate the papacy with the Church. In an early interview, asked about the possibility of women priests, Francis also said “the Church has spoken.” Not true: the Church has not spoken, and hasn’t been given the opportunity to speak on the subject. It was just one man who spoke, Pope John Paul II. Is the Pope really the Church? Are they one? Francis seems to think so. Makes you wonder where it leaves the rest of us.

  2. declan cooney says:

    Pope Francis has already stated clearly that there can never be priestly ordination of women. Dialogue is speaking AND listening.
    Let’s listen to our Holy Father. He speaks the Truth.

  3. Mary Vallely says:

    I applaud John J Shea’s letters and excellent point, Bernard @1.
    “The Church has spoken.” Indeed, who or what is ‘the Church?’
    It’s that old problem of infallibility again and having made Pope John Paul II a saint it seems that his decisions cannot now be questioned. It reminds me of growing up in the 1950s when parents would wearily respond to the child’s, ‘Why’ question with a ‘because I said so.’ Not much difference that I can see.

    To speak ‘freely, boldly, and without fear’ surely is what we should naturally do as committed Christians. I suppose it is harder for those on the higher rungs of the ladder when there is something to lose and easier for those on the bottom rung since they would hardly notice the fall.

    It is simply wrong to ignore the sensus fidei and not to give cognisance to those lay voices in the Church who bring a richness of lifetime experience to many of our moral dilemmas. Most sensible people now realise that shutting anyone out because of gender or race is not what a Nazarene follower is about.

    Last Sunday an 80+ year old regular mass goer approached me at our WAC vigil outside the cathedral gates which was raising awareness about women’s ordination and she said, with a puzzled look upon her face, “ Sure why would you want to join them? Aren’t they all misogynists?” This was a woman I have secretly admired for her ability to continue to wear high heels well into her 80s and now realise she has untapped potential. She has wisdom and can speak freely, boldly and without fear to a fellow spirit. If some of the 1000 ACP priests who agree with raising the issue of women in governance and/or ordination would only speak up with that same boldness and courage we might begin to crack on seriously with a proper dialogue.

    Do you remember AB Diarmuid Martin’s astonishment at the fact that the Pope asked them about their lives as bishops during their Ad Limina visit to the Vatican and that he LISTENED to them! That’s the starting point for dialogue. What is there to fear? Are we not all thinking beings with a desire to treat each other in the way Christ showed us?

  4. William Herlihy says:

    Male and Female, in the image and likeness of God?

    The above was the norm, to Jesus when he walked this earth.
    He chose to speak to a woman first, on his resurrection.
    See John 20/16.
    To put this in perspective,women were just the chattels of men, when Jesus walked this earth.
    It is obvious to me, that Jesus did not view them thus.
    Presently, I remain to be convinced, that the present cabal in Rome see Male and Female in the image and likeness of God?

  5. Darlene Starrs says:

    Bernard Whelan, you have said it all! John Shea has created a “masterful” letter! Perhaps, John Shea ought to be Bishop and Cardinal! It is highly unlikely with the opposition already present for Pope Francis, that he will upset the female apple cart!

  6. Lee Cahill says:

    Thank you, William.
    In the man, taking a woman as his spouse, can we not see the MASCULINE image and likeness of his Maker? In the woman, taking a man as her spouse, can we not see the FEMININE image and likeness of her Maker? In their male and female (comm-)union can we not see the projection of a more wholesome image and likeness of God?
    (Please see this as a statement, only relating to marriage as handed on through the generations of Christianity. It is not to be understood in any way as a comment (still less as a judgment) on the increasingly various forms of “marriage”, that prevail at present). LC

  7. Margaret Hickey says:

    William Herlihy at 4 ‘male and female in the image of God’ does not mean identical roles always. This is my view.
    Ordaining women would not achieve change sought … – The Irish Times…/ordaining-women-would-not-achieve-change-sought-b…

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.