Recognizing female Roman Catholic priests: It's long overdue

By Fr. Rich Hasselbach

Through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 1: 26-28).

The great work of married priests is to serve the alienated and disenfranchised Catholics -- the folks who fall through the cracks of corporate Catholicism. We bless second (and third) marriages; we welcome folks living gay lifestyles to the table of the Eucharist; we minister to the abused and neglected -- the Church's throw-aways.

In fact we ourselves are disenfranchised Catholics. With rare exceptions, if our local parishes knew of our ministry, the married priests among us would not be welcome to take up the collection there. The corporate church does everything in its power to discredit us, and de-legitimize the ministry we offer, the sacraments we celebrate. Just recently I had a wonderful couple back away from a wedding because their pastor convinced their family that, should these kids be wed before a married priest, they'd be heading to hell on skis.

In a debate last year, on the Alan Colmes radio program, the information director of the Washington Archdiocese, Opus Dei priest C. John McCloskey, told me that I (and married priests like me who continue to do ministry) should "get on with life and stop pretending to be a priest." One of the greatest barriers I see to our ministry expanding is the patina of illegitimacy that the corporate church so deftly applies to us.

There is another group of disenfranchised Catholics -- women! Especially women who feel called to priestly ministry.

According to Rosemary Reuther, "The local parishes available to [women] are alienating and even offensive. For some this is due to the sexist language and male priesthood, which rejects in principle the possibility of women's full and equal membership in the church." Of course not all women feel this way, but lots do.

This is a tremendous injustice in the Church, and male priests who don't speak out and do something to effect change are complicit in the injustice. While there may be some "mission creep" in accepting this woman, assuming she is otherwise qualified, it would be a logical next place for CITI to go in its outreach to the alienated.

Dr. Kelley A. Raab, a professor of Religious Studies at St. Lawrence University, has an interesting take on the problem. "It is my conviction," she writes, "that women priests will not be officially permitted in the Catholic church until there are women priests. "In other words," Raab continues, "Catholic women must be seen in a priestly role, in particular celebrating the Eucharist, in order to be approved and ordained priests [by the corporate church]."

In effect, they need to "just do it."

For the past twenty years or more, women have been doing it -- in their own communities, often communities deprived of meaningful ministry. Nuns have little control over their sacramental life; they have to take the priests they're sent, and they often get the dregs. Often enough they take matters into their own hand and celebrate the Eucharist among themselves, without ordained male priests presiding. Are these celebrations really the Eucharist? Of course they are. What makes Christ present at the Eucharist is the gathering of two or more in His name -- in faith. There is no special power only in the ordained priest -- the Spirit cannot be held hostage to ecclesial clericalism.

For at least a decade some pioneering women, called by local communities that identify with Roman Catholicism, have been functioning as ordained ministers. Their problem, like ours, is that the corporate church, fearing them, does everything in its power to de-legitimize them, to make the faithful think that ONLY celibate males can be, and are, Roman Catholic priests.

To again quote Reuther:

The institution claims to possess the Holy Spirit under the control of its institutional channels and to be the sole cause of grace, rather than understanding itself as, at best, a context and occasion where experiences of the Spirit may take place. It claims that only the words preached by the ordained, whom it has designated and whose theology it controls, preach a valid Word of God, and only the rituals it validates mediate relation to God. In so doing the institutional church creates a sacramental materialism that teaches people that only the actions of the validly ordained, according to its rubrics, can cause the gracious life of God to be present.

Courageous women who feel called to ministry are attempting to establish their legitimacy as priests -- and challenge the "sacramental materialism" of the corporate church. As spurious as "apostolic succession" is, (Jesus didn't found a hierarchical church, nor did he "ordain" the apostles to the episcopacy), some women have found bishops with "apostolic succession" to ordain them, realizing that only with legitimate episcopal ordination would they have the chance of being taken seriously. "Tin can bishops" may have ordained them, but in rectories and chanceries around the country, we are likely referred to as "tin can priests," or so Fr. McCloskey has led me to believe.

Roman Catholicism isn't owned by the hierarchy -- isn't that the rationale for what we do in CITI? The tradition belongs to all God's people. And the Spirit moves in all God's people, regardless of random distinctions of race, gender or social status. There are no Greeks, no Jews, no slave, no free, no male, no female; just radical equality before the Lord. That was the wisdom of the apostolic church.

Somewhere along the line, that fundamental equality of the children of God got lost in the burgeoning bureaucracy that became the "Catholic" Church, modeled on the organization of the Roman Empire itself, which quickly began assuming to itself both wealth and temporal power. "The institutional church of episcopal hierarchy is not the successor of [the] apostolic church, ... it arose by suppressing [the] apostolic church."

It is completely faithful to the Roman Catholic tradition, writ large, to accept the orders of female priests - hearkening back to the practice of the apostolic tradition. If Dr. Raab is correct, though, (and I think she is) paradoxically the church (understood as the People of God) must recognize women priests before the institution's corporate leadership will be able to accept their service. The church needs married priests for exactly the same reason. We have common cause with these women!

But for women priests to succeed their ministry needs to be accepted; they need credibility; they need legitimacy. The corporate church will never give that to them, but, in a small way, on behalf of the people of God, married priests can -- by accepting these women as our sisters and co-laborers in the vineyard of the Lord -- and honoring their priesthood. Unless the ministry of the ordained female clergy gains a foothold in praxis, the corporate church will not find its way to welcoming women in priestly ministry. The same may be said for the ministry of married priests in the Latin Rite.

We may ruffle a few feathers by accepting female priests and their ministry; we may turn some folks off. Isn't that exactly the risk Jesus ran when, against the advice of more cautious and prudent heads, he ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners, when he picked corn on the Sabbath, and when he openly challenged the hypocrisy of the religious elites of his day.

Can we accept the proposition that the hierarchy has the right to call the shots for the entire Catholic tradition, even when the shots it calls are unjust, unwise, or unkind? Isn't CITI's rejection of that proposition a foundational principle of its being? If we believed that the Corporate church couldn't be challenged on its narrowness, each one of us would have, long ago, heeded Fr. McCloskey's advice and gotten on with our lives. We didn't, and we can't, because we know the Spirit calls us to ministry.

So do these women! Yes, there are risks associated with this (as there were dangers associated with Jesus own ministry to the outcasts). Accepting women as a "Roman Catholic" priests may make CITI look less "Catholic" itself -- cause married priests to lose some credibility. I would rather lose credibility, though, than be complicit in an injustice.