Ordination of women; Why not ?

We all have experience of telling a child not to do something, knowing that really it is the best way to encourage the very activity we bemoan. There must be something attractive in a prohibited action if grown-ups make such a fuss about not getting involved.

Leaving aside the imagery of childhood, let’s turn to adult relationships and the rules by which we live. A society that has any chance of survival must have some code of behaviour that is agreed by the majority and followed for the well-being of all.

The consequences of one or two people rejecting the common agreement to drive on the left (on UK roads) are all too plain to see. I can still remember driving to London on the M40 just after it opened. The traffic was light. I moved into the middle lane to overtake a car when I realised that the car in the outer lane was approaching me at high speed. How the driver got into the outer lane South and was driving North I never found out. There are some things you can’t do and there is good reason for the agreement.

There are different arguments in play when matters of opinion and choice are involved. It is then that we look to other sources to support and develop our position. It is perfectly possible to hold an opinion that differs in some substance from that held by others. I might like the colour ‘red’ whereas you prefer a ‘deep green’. Tough. Neither of us will lose any sleep over our differences and no one gets hurt. At least, we don’t expect to. In some countries where colour is closely associated with a political party or a national flag, the situation may be a little more delicate.

So where do we stand as Catholic Christians of the Latin Rite when it comes to the issue of the ordination of women? The topic is back in the news after recent remarks made by the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Writing in L’Obsservatore Romano on May 30th, the Cardinal-designate Luis Ladaria sj. recalled John-Paul’s teaching on this matter in an Apostolic Letter issued in May 1994. The ordination of women wasn’t going to happen, the sacrament of ordination to the priesthood has been, is and will remain gender-sensitive, the preserve of men. This position has been re-stated by Ladaria’s article so that is an end of it.

Or is it? Not everyone agrees and there are indeed many who wish to continue the discussion. Just to say ‘it can’t happen’is not good enough, the position requires greater justification than that.

The oft-quoted argument that is used to challenge the validity of women’s ordination, that priesthood was conferred initially on twelve men sharing a Passover meal doesn’t hold water. It is more than likely that other women were present; no-where in the Gospels is ‘priesthood’ claimed as an exclusive male prerogative. Only through time and custom has that come about.

We now live in radically different times. The social awareness of the West is based on equality of opportunity, whether that is in respect of race, colour, religious belief or sexual orientation.

We are highly critical of those societies where women are treated as second class citizens, having little or no say in the patterns of life and social action designed by and administered by men.

And so we should be. But we cannot continue to support equality if, within our own community, the Roman Catholic Church, we maintain masculine dominance in a core aspect of our teaching.

We have only to look at the experience of women’s ordination in the Anglican communion. Since its acceptance in England, not without strong feelings being expressed, with the first ordination taking place in 1994, the numbers have increased dramatically. Indeed without their ministry, many parishes would have long since closed.

The discussion we need to pursue is not one that sees a way of avoiding parish closure; rather we must ask the fundamental question, why not? From our own narrow perspective we have determined to follow a particular pattern, historically set by social practice and seem frightened to consider alternatives. Stating an opinion should not be the closure of a conversation unless that opinion has overwhelming and convincing support.

There are times when saying nothing won’t do. “You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say”, wrote Martin Luther. So the conversation must continue, in an exercise of charity when opinions differ, but always with respect as we seek a way forward.

We are no longer children who respond to being told we can’t do something, but adults teaching each other how we might be Christians in difficult days.


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  1. Brian Fahy says:

    I was the golden boy, the first-born son, and the boy who went away to be a priest. It did me no favours. It cast the other siblings in my shadow, my two sisters and my young brother. But as life went by they also grew into their lives and became truly influential people in their worlds. Tricia a teacher, Sheila a teacher and translator, Michael a teacher working with troubled young people.
    Their lives did not have the spotlight in the Catholic community as mine did, but their lives of dedicated service were equally as noble as mine. For example, just as the Redemptorists claimed to work for the most abandoned, my brother, Michael worked his whole life with children who had suffered emotional abandonment from their earliest years. I had the accolade. Michael had the experience.
    The women in my life have been terrific. My mother was a powerful Irish mother. From the most humble surroundings she went out into the world and became not only a wife and mother, but also a nurse and the matron of an old peoples’ home. She lived to be 94 and was wisdom and holiness personified.
    My two sisters have lived good and holy lives and have contributed to society in ways I cannot begin to enumerate. I think they are brilliant women, who like so many more have lived their days in our male dominated world.
    My beloved wife, Margaret, whose life was cut short by illness, had more about her than I can begin to explain. She was love in action and I thank the living God that I met her.
    There are many more women that I have met in the course of my life, whose virtue and loveliness I cannot begin to explain.
    When I first encountered the refusal of the Church to consider the ordination of women, to lead the Eucharist and the community, I looked, like an obedient soul, for a good reason why not. The historical reason does not convince, but I wondered whether the gender reason held some sort of validity: that something in maleness suits priest while something in femaleness suits another role. I saw no answer there.
    It is hard for most of us to see into the future. History teaches us that, when we study the lives and the views of our forebears. But certainly the writing is on the wall to tell us that the old system is fading away and that new forms will surely come. In the old days we promoted junior seminaries and took children away from their homes and families. We don’t do that now! When I was a priest it was not easy for me to speak about these things for I was still a part of the story and that truly hampers our ability to speak freely.
    ‘Abide with me’, the hymn, speaks about ‘change and decay in all around I see.’ But change also signifies new life and new life is what we so dearly desire and it will come.
    Blessed are we among women!

    Brian Fahy

  2. Helen Oxenburgh-Lowe says:

    Thanks Brian for your story. I do hope you have sent it to Luis Ladaria, he needs to read it.

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