The church’s problem with the role of Women in Church

Enclosed are letters I mailed before the Feast of Saint Augustine to Pope Francis and to each member of his Council of Cardinals. They meet September 10-12 to discuss reform of church structures.

If our bishops remain unable to address women’s ordination and if our theologians who are informed enough to speak are also unable to address it, then who is able to speak?

This silence raises the question of the role of the bishops and theologians in the church. If both groups are meant to be our teachers, why is there so little concern for intelligent, informed, and engaged pedagogy?
What is the impact of deadening silence—for over two decades now—not just on the ordination of women but on any open, honest, and fruitful discussion of the ministerial needs of the church?
What happens to the church when it separates itself from a living theology?
What happens to bishops and theologians when they do that? What price do the people of God pay for their continuing silence?

Jesus keeps saying; “Do not be afraid.”
Pope Francis keeps saying: “Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.”
But how are courage and dialogue possible in a church where women — seen as another species — are rendered structurally voiceless and where bishops and theologians are only in attendance by not speaking?
Is there a future for a church that is deliberately dumb? Is there any hope for a church that respects each person’s voice and gifts for ministry, for a church that is whole, life-giving, authentic, and Spirit-filled, for a church that is responsible and adult, for a gendered church that is as human as Jesus is human?

Are we able to find something theologically better than the literal, “finger and thumb,” patriarchal thinking that so constricts us? Could a deeper metaphorical and trinitarian theology be entertained? If, for example, it is not in his maleness that Jesus images the Father — if neither the Father nor the Spirit is biologically male — what is to be found in the nature of the imaging?

How long will a culture of puerile sexism continue to devastate the church?

Will women in the church ever be human enough to be priest, prophet, and leader?

How long? How long? How long? How long?


John Shea


Letter to the Council of Cardinals


Dear Cardinal Marx,

Feast of St. Augustine, 2018

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 frame 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 thoroughly compromises its mission in the world.

Of all the things that Pope Francis has said and done, his opening of the Synod on the Family in 2014 was perhaps the most extraordinary: he told the gathered bishops to speak “freely,” “boldly,” and “without fear.” Lamentably, he had to ask his fellow bishops—grown men and the church’s teachers—to speak honestly to each other. Not only necessary, this request suggested at the time that real dialogue might at long last be possible in the church.

If you find nothing in Scripture or tradition that keeps women from being ordained to the priesthood, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If women in the priesthood is vital for the church’s future—if hierarchy hopping around on one foot is not just dismissive but tragically horrific—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 being worthy of ordination, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If you know from 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 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—would be allowed going forward, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If you find 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 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” — simply would be silly if it were it not 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 biological male — I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If the church blithely distorts the Three-in-Oneness of our God — if a huge patriarchal beam is 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 you are alarmed because adult faithful are leaving the church in droves over women not being worthy of priesthood — if a “patriarchal Jesus” severs the roots of inclusion, respect, and trust for both women and men — I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

If it troubles you that banning women from ordination is taken — within 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 all the faithful need to dialogue together under the aegis of a genderless Spirit to affirm the body-and-soul integrity of women and let our blind, sexist, justice-wounded church find healing, I ask you to speak freely, boldly, and without fear.

Cardinal Marx, does the church’s dehumanization of women disturb you? Are women whole? Are they fully in the likeness of Jesus? Is now the time for a collegial voice 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 does not see, hear, and name? Will you speak freely? Will you dialogue boldly and without fear?


John J. Shea, O.S.A.

Copy: Pope Francis



Copy of a Letter to the bishops of the U.S.A.

Dear Cardinal O’Malley,

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 ordination. 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 number of them were simply leaving the church because the theological explanation 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 intolerance, 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 crusades led against them by the popes. It is fair to say that for centuries 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 inferiority 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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One Comment

  1. Frances Burke says:

    Thanks John for continuing to call for equality for women within the Catholic Church. I appreciate it. With all the issues that the Church is going through at the moment I’d imagine addressing women’s inequality is way down the list.

    The cartoonist David Hayward has a fitting sketch on how the significance of women has been erased from its history. In the sketch there are three women standing to the left and a group of men standing to the right and underneath is the caption ‘So ladies, thanks for being the first to witness and report the resurrection and we’ll take it from here’

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