Speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

September, 2015
Dear Bishop Kambanda,

I am writing to you and to all the bishop delegates of the Synod on the Family during this rich interstitial time to ask you to address an underlying question of critical importance to the family—the question of ordaining women to the priesthood in our “catholic” church.
Of all the things that Pope Francis has said and done in the last several years, his opening the Synod on the Family was perhaps the most extraordinary: he asked all of you to speak “freely,” “boldly,” and “without fear.” On the one hand, this exhortation is incredibly shocking, that he would have to ask his fellow bishops—grown men and the church’s teachers—to speak honestly about what they are feeling. On the other hand, given the atmosphere of the Vatican where “dialogue” is a language spoken haltingly if at all, his exhortation was not only quite necessary but also a modest sign of hope in our not-very-relational church.
If you believe that the ordination of women to the priesthood is vital for the integrity and mutuality of our church—including the domestic church—I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.
If you find there is nothing in Scripture or tradition that is prejudi- cial against women or that precludes their ordination to the priesthood, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.
If you know that any given woman is as religiously mature and able to provide pastoral care as any given man (please see the enclosed letter), I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.
If you believe seeing women and men through a “complementarity” lens is not pertinent to women being worthy of ordination, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.
If you know that the actual history of ordination—of women as well as men—needs both acknowledgement and careful study by all teaching bishops, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.
If you believe that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis put a stop to dialogue on the ordination of women at a time when it could have been open, intelli- gent, and fruitful, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.
If you see the letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, as an historical expla- nation of ordination rather than a theological explanation (please see the enclosed letter), I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If you think the theological explanation 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 he- retical, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.
If you think the “ordinary infallible teaching” of Ordinatio Sacerdo- talis should be seen in light of other “ordinary infallible teaching” down through the centuries (please see the enclosed letter), I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.
If you feel that the church’s stance against the ordination of women is understood—inside and outside the church—as affirming women’s in- feriority and as justifying domestic violence and other atrocities against women, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.
If you are concerned about families in many countries leaving the church in droves over the injustice of women barred from priesthood—if you see that a “patriarchal Jesus” is a colossal contradiction for adults and the young alike—I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.
If you do not identify as a patriarch in our patriarchal church—if mutual respect and honest dialogue must triumph over vacuous “theological narcissism”—I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.
If you believe the church’s current practice distorts our God’s relational Three-in-Oneness—if there is a huge patriarchal plank set firmly in the church’s eye—I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.
If you want the church—including the domestic church—to walk proudly on two feet instead of imitating patriarchal culture and hobbling around on one, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.
Bishop Kambanda, if you know that the church and the family can never be fully in the likeness of Jesus until women are fully in that likeness, please—honoring the human and the divine—have the courage to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.
John J. Shea, O.S.A.
P.S. Enclosed is a letter I mailed to all the ordinaries in the United States at the beginning of Lent in 2014.

Letter to all bishops of U.S.A.

The Beginning of Lent, 2014
I am writing to you and to all the ordinaries of the dioceses in the United States to ask you and your fellow bishops in your role as teachers to provide a clear and credible theological explanation of why women are not being ordained to the priesthood in the Catholic Church. I write not to challenge the teaching of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis on women’s ordina- tion. Rather, my concern is the theological explanation of this teaching— theology being, as Anselm said, “faith seeking understanding.”
Two years ago, I wrote to all of you with the same request. At that time, I was teaching in the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College. The teaching on women’s ordination was extremely important for many of the students—women, of course, but men as well—and a num- ber of them were simply leaving the church because the theological ex- planation that was offered made no sense to them. Before my letter, I had already stepped aside from active ministry as a priest until women are ordained. After my letter, Jesuit-run Boston College terminated me as a professor. My provincial, with the urging of several archbishops, has given me two “canonical warnings” threatening me with being “punished with a just penalty” for voicing my concerns.
In case you are wondering who is writing to you, I am an Augustinian priest, solemnly professed for over 50 years. Before serving at Boston College (2003-2012), as Professor of the Practice of Pastoral Care and Counseling and Dual Degree Director (MA/MA and MA/MSW), I taught in the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education at Fordham University (1981-2002). My areas of expertise are in pastoral care and counseling (Fellow, American Association of Pastoral Counselors) and the psychology of religious development (Ph.D., Psychology of Religion), areas that today would be considered practical theology. I also have graduate degrees in theology, philosophy, pastoral counseling, and social work.
I mention this background because as a practical theologian I too have questions about the theological explanation of why women are not ordained. In all of my study, in all of my training, in all of my counseling experience, and in all of my years of teaching I have not come across a single credible thinker who holds that women are not fully able to provide pastoral care. Likewise, I have not come across a single credible thinker who holds that women are deficient in religious development or maturity. From the perspective of practical theology— a theology of the living
church, a theology that takes experience seriously—I find absolutely nothing that does not support the ordination of women to priesthood.
It seems that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the document on the ordination of women that the Vatican and the bishops keep pointing to, is actually an historical explanation of the issue. It looks back at what it we think Jesus was doing in appointing the 12 Apostles. An historical explanation, however, raises a number of questions. Was commissioning the 12 a unique event? Did Jesus mean to ordain the way we understand ordination today? Was it the intent of Jesus to inaugurate ministry only males could carry out? Did he ever say this? Was Jesus only doing what he thought would work best in the patriarchal culture of his day? What was it about the religious role of the scribes and the Pharisees—all of whom were male—that so incensed Jesus? Was Jesus patriarchal? Did he see women as inferior to men? Did Jesus envision women in ministry? Finally, what about the history of ordination in the last two thousand years, an amazingly checkered history that clearly includes women?
The problem with historical explanations is that they suffer from an incomplete logic. They cannot complete the circle. On their own, they cannot say that “what was” also “had to be.” On their own, they cannot say that this particular event must have this particular meaning. History necessarily involves interpretation. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, for example, gives a paradigmatic meaning to the commissioning of the 12 Apostles. Could not another perfectly logical interpretation of the meaning of that event be that a number of patriarchal men—then and now—were and are dead set against women having any authority over them?
If history is not a good proof, it does have many valid uses. A very brief look at the history of slavery, the history of racism/religious intoler- ance, and the history of women’s inferiority in the church is helpful in challenging our tendencies to absolutize as well as in chastening some our hallowed self-evaluations. Each of these three issues is about what makes us equal and fully human. Each is the cause of incredible violence—often in the name of God—violence that is beyond all telling.

  • Slavery—That men, women, and children would become slaves either by conquest, retribution, or inferiority was seen as something almost “natural.” Strangely, Jesus and St. Paul did not seem to have had a lot of problems with it. For centuries the permissibility of slavery was seen as part of “the ordinary infallible teaching” of the church. Over time, however, and in conjunction with racism and religious intolerance, the thinking in the church changed dramatically. Now, the inherent evil of slavery is part of “the ordinary infallible teaching” of the church.
  • Racism/Religious Intolerance—Jews came to be seen as “perfidious” and were severely persecuted. Muslims were “infidels” and had cru- sades led against them by the popes. It is fair to say that for centu- ries the inferiority of Jews and Muslims was part of “the ordinary infallible teaching” of the church. Later, with the colonization of the Americas and then of Africa, the question was whether or not these native peoples were really human beings with souls like those of European males. It took a long time with immense suffering, but eventually the utter abhorrence of racism and religious intolerance became part of “the ordinary infallible teaching” of the church.
  • The Inferiority of Women—Women’s inferiority was seen as “natural” by the cultures that cradled Christianity. In our history, this inferi- ority was generously reinforced by the teachings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. These two wonderful theologians— arguably the two most influential in the West—not only questioned whether women had valid souls, but they outdid each other in describing women in the most vile and profoundly dehumanizing ways. No thinking in the church is more virulent and intractable than the patriarchal strain that so disrespects women. When the Vatican reasoned in the 1970s and 1980s that women could not be ordained because “they are not fully in the likeness of Jesus,” it was affirming an “ordinary infallible teaching” with roots incredibly deep in the substrate of our church.
A theological explanation weighs any issue against the core of the Christian message. It obviously takes historical events and their interpretations into account, but the focus is on those understandings of the Christian faith so central that our Christian identity and the very meaning of the faith are at stake. In their ordinary infallible teaching that women cannot be ordained in the church because “they are not fully in the likeness of Jesus,” the Vatican and the bishops were offering a much- needed theological explanation of the issue. It was an explanation meant to complete the circle, an explanation meant to settle the question of women’s ordination in terms of Christian identity.
Unfortunately, this teaching that “women are not fully in the likeness of Jesus”—qualifying, as it does, as a theological explanation —is utterly and demonstrably heretical. This teaching says that women are not fully redeemed by Jesus. This teaching says that women are not made whole by the saving favor of our God. This teaching says that the “catholic” church is only truly “catholic” for males. In time, many Vatican officials and bishops rejected the ordinary infallible teaching they had just affirmed. Now they say: “Of course, women are fully in the likeness of Jesus in the church.” Respectful words to be sure, but are they real?
We revere Jesus as priest, as prophet, and as ruler. If “women are fully in the likeness of Jesus” in our church, they fully share in the priesthood of Jesus—but in fact women are completely excluded from the priesthood of Jesus. If “women are fully in the likeness of Jesus” in our church, they speak for God as Jesus did—but women are completely without voice in the church; as if they were children they cannot read the Gospel at the liturgy and are forbidden to preach the Word. If “women are fully in the likeness of Jesus” in our church, then they fully share in the formal authority of our church—but women, solely because they are women, are completely barred from church authority.
As a bishop, how long will you champion the inferiority of women in the church? How long will your teaching on women be an obvious and eye-popping contradiction? How long will your demeaning patriarchal stance violate women’s human and religious equality in God’s name?
Two more years have come and gone. The priests are voiceless. The academic theologians are nice and safe. The bishops make statements but do nothing that would be recognized as engaged teaching. The adults—desperate for something that respects their intelligence—leave the church in droves. How many serious people, young and old, have given up on ever finding a theological explanation of women barred from priesthood—an explanation not hopelessly patriarchal and sexist, not serving inequality and subservience, not aiding and abetting violence?
Again, it is the beginning of Lent, a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, a time of for all of us in the church to be mindful of how we are in our caring and in our justice. Cardinal O’Malley, is providing a credible, non-heretical theological explanation of why women are not ordained in the church something you can do as part of your teaching responsibility as a bishop, as part of your caring and your justice?
John J. Shea, O.S.A.

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  1. Kathleen Fitzsimons says:

    What John has written in his letter to Bishop Kambanda and in the letter to the Bishops of the USA from Lent 2014 about women’s ordination and the understanding of women in general, is so comprehensive that I am really thinking now that the challenge is not to help them to understand how mistaken they are but to help them to overcome their fear of working alongside women in the church and the implications of that change. Not all suitably qualified women feel called to priesthood but some do and we should be able to acknowledge that there is no ‘real’ reason that they shouldn’t be able to respond to this call. Many would not want to be part of such a hierarchical body and would no doubt suffer because of the many injustices within it but this has not put them off. The reason for this is that they feel they have a call. How many young religious today have said in their vocation stories that they hoped this ‘call’ would just go away but didn’t. They just had to lay aside the ideas that they had had about their futures and begin to walk on this road less travelled. Many look back now with so much gratitude not because the road is easy but because it is the road they are meant to travel and like all journeys it has its’ ups and downs. When will the ordination of women and the ‘modus operandi’ of the institutional church become history just like slavery?

  2. Br Graham-Michoel SH says:

    John’s two eloquent letters more than ably cover the issue that faces the Church – especially that part of the Church that doesn’t wish to see it in its face – concerning the place of women in the Church and the full and dignified inclusion of women in three ordained ministries, namely deacon, priest, and bishop.
    I believe we are well beyond the point of ‘should they be’ to a place of how do we arrive at amicable solutions – how do we help those men and women who say no to their ordinations.
    I think of many an African American who, at the abolition of slavery, was strong enough to say, “that was then, this is now, let us go forward together as one people.” And such strength was echoed when Black South Africans were first able to vote in ‘their’ country.
    With prayer in the strength of the Holy Spirit every believer in the diaconal, priestly, and episcopal ordination in ALL branches of the Catholic Church must be given the strength and the opportunity to sit and share with those who do not. We must walk together on this – even if our anti-ordination brothers and sisters wish to walk one step behind.
    Reach out – hold hands – share with our Anglican friends who have been through these pains over the past few decades – learn from each other. Above all, no more shouting and haranguing from the shadows and the side lines – let’s get onto the field together.

  3. I agree fully with John J. Shea’s eloquent call for the ordination of women priests.
    I would encourage all priests to speak out in support of the full equality of women in our church.
    But please remember that Fr Tony Flannery remains silenced for his support of women priests.
    And Fr Jack McClure (71) from San Francisco was banned from saying mass by his bishop 2 days after he spoke at the Women’s Ordination Worldwide conference in Philadelphia on 19 September 2015.
    While Pope Francis may call for dialogue, the CDF will silence any priest who dares support this issue.
    Unless of course too many priests speak out!

  4. Apparently, Pope Francis, on his return flight to the Vatican, from the United States, was questioned about the possibility of women’s ordination. He reportedly, bluntly replied, “it cannot be done, as Pope John Paul II decided that the answer was “no women priests”…….I guess that makes JPII…..the Decider. Pope Francis believes that Pope John Paul had done sufficient and accurate reflection on the issue…..Well….who did JPII consult? Who did he listen to?….I imagine, Pope Francis would say that JPII consulted the Scriptures and listened to the Holy Spirit…..Hmmm……Is that sufficient?….Should he not have given the many voices of women theologians in particular, a fair hearing?, as well as countless other theologians and scripture scholars? Surely, in the never ending debate, the Holy Spirit has also spoken through the so called “dissenters.” I doubt that JP II listened to or consulted said interested parties…..I do not in any way believe….it ought to be left to John Paul II to decide….and to decide forever and ever.
    Do any of us actually believe that John Paul II had reached that place where his thoughts were God’s thoughts?….No….I can tell you from life experience with Christ….that “our thinking” is very, very, far from “God’s thinking”, therefore to assume, that John Paul II had it all “correct” and in alignment with God’s truth, about women and ordination is folly.
    I can see…God….discouraging the ordination of women….until….abuses in the clerical system are identified and resolved.
    I have no qualms in saying that if John Paul II could speak to us from his place of having the “fullest of revelation”, he would rescind his paper and Pope Francis, while being in my highest esteem, is just plain…..WRONG….
    If he doesn’t come to this realization during his Papacy, he surely will be confronted with this, when he sees Christ face to face.
    I believe that St. Francis……continues to echo…..”repair my Church”….and no repair is complete until the DISCARDING of the assumption/belief that Christ did not, does not, and will not call and empower women to preach, teach, and sanctify……at the very least….preach.
    When the above happens…. St. Francis might well say…..the Church is repaired…
    Father John Shea has taken a courageous stance.

  5. Mark 9 38-40
    “38 And John answered him, saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbad him, because he followeth not us.
    39 But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me.
    40 For he that is not against us is on our part.”
    (King James translation)
    Perhaps women who feel called should not seek to be within the clerical system, but should follow a different path.

  6. Women have waited too long to be treated as equals. Barring women from ordination to the priesthood,while at the same time protecting abusers has destroyed the church . It has always been incomprehensible to me why so few clerics who were aware of the abuse of children were not incandesant with rage,unable to sleep at night,until the offender was removed. Instead at every level in the church right to the Vatican cover up was the name of the game. Thankfully much of this has been addressed,but it was a long time coming.
    The thought of an all male elderly celibate men discussing the way forward for family life is ludicrous. They still think that Catholics are going to revert back to having fourteen children, because mark my words if one is depending on natural family planning ,unplanned pregnancies are the norm rather than the exception. It is not rocket science to work out why women of my generation had large families,while our sons and daughters have an average of about three children.

  7. The case well made. Let the Catholic Reform groups worldwide now place this top of their agendas and no longer tolerate Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’s attempt to silence the voice of the Spirit. Let us clearly demonstrate our minds are not for sale. The bishops of the world may hold their hands to their ears and refuse to listen, but let us not neglect to speak. With ordained women at the heart of the decision making processes of the church, other reforms will flow naturally.

  8. Peter Shore says:

    John Shea’s assertion that the Church’s stance on women’s ordination is seen as “justifying domestic violence and other atrocities against women” is preposterous. Priestly ordination is not a matter of women’s equality, nor of their dignity. If that were so then the Church would be saying that the Blessed Mother — who was neither ordained nor an apostle — was the inferior of the apostles. So says the Declaration Inter Insigniores (approved by Pope Paul VI, not John Paul II).

  9. Kevin Walters says:

    Darlene Starrs @4
    I can see…God….discouraging the ordination of women….until….abuses in the clerical system are identified and resolved
    Darlene we need a sea change within the hearts of the leaders of the church, for the ordination of women to become open for consideration.
    Pope Francis
    “It is very disturbing to know that in some cases bishops even were abusers. I pledge to you that we will follow the path of truth wherever it may lead”
    Pope Francis has committed to serving the Truth in this matter, if this materializes we will see the Papacy acknowledging its part in the culture of cover up, then we will have sea change within the church, as it will break the culture of clericalism from the papacy downwards, creating a more honest church. In this new transparency dogmatic statement such as the ordination of women and the roll they have to play within the church will become open for discussion. If this does not happen little will change as the rigidity of the hearts of the elite will stifle any debate for the present moment.
    Ann @6
    Instead at every level in the church right to the Vatican cover up was the name of the game. Thankfully much of this has been addressed, but it was a long time coming
    Anne, you may feel much has been addressed but many do not see it that way. For a true healing process to take place we need to see an act of TRUE humility (Acknowledgement) from the bishops before mankind for the part they have played in the cover up and also a change to canon law by abolishing the pontifical secret over allegations of the sexual abuse of children by clergy and religious.
    From the link below
    Cardinal Francis George wrote in an article in 2003 that if you want to change a damaging culture, you first have to change the laws which embody it. The buck for maintaining secrecy over the sexual abuse of children within the church truly stops with Pope Francis
    In matters of child sexual abuse, Pope Francis has no constitution, no Congress, no Senate and no Supreme Court that could restrain him from changing canon law. He has no obligation even to consult anyone. He is the last of the absolute monarchs.
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  10. Inter Insigniores : Mary, the Mother of Jesus already had a life task – so she was not commissioned to be a travelling preacher (apostle). In any case her age and the way the times were would not have made it a wise or practical lifestyle. We can say though that she was almost certainly the source of much of the early material in some of the Gospels. So we can say she was also a prophet, and maybe mentor of the apostles after the Ascension.

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