A Challenge to Pope Benedict XVI: Create an Inclusive Church

While Pope Benedict XVI served in his former job of head of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he affirmed the Roman Catholic Church's practice of gender apartheid in its selection of males-only for priesthood. Women, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, cannot be another Christ because Christ was a male person. This teaching, promoted by Cardinal Ratzinger, negates the teaching of St. Paul about baptism, contradicts the example of Jesus, and ignores the experience of women in priestly ministry in the early church.

In Galatians 3:28, Paul teaches the radical equality of women as images of Christ who by our baptism represent Christ. ""All of you who have been baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or citizen, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus. " Baptism makes women fully qualified to represent Christ. Church authorities use the metaphor of Christ as bridegroom and the church as the bride, to justify an all-male priesthood. Christ did not use this image to limit the role of his female disciples. Paul affirms that in Christ, there is no second class citizenship for any group. A metaphor should not be taken literally. So why does the institutional church insist that only men can represent Christ if women and men are equal images of Christ by their baptism. It makes no sense to me, and appears to be sexist.

In the Gospels, Jesus treated women and men as equals and partners. The Twelve were with him as well as some women ...Mary, called Magdalene..., Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward, Chuza and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources." (Luke 8:1-3) According to all four Gospels, Mary of Magdala is the only person described as being present at both the cross and the tomb. She is first witness of the Resurrection. Mary of Magdala was called by Jesus to preach the first Easter homily: "Mary Magdalene announced to the disciples , I have seen the Lord." (John 20:18) The early church fathers referred to Mary of Magdala as "the apostle to the apostles".The Samaritan woman was the first evangelist, who brought her entire village to faith in Jesus. Martha's proclamation of faith is similar to Peter's "I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, God's Only Begotten, the One who is coming into the world."(John 11:27). As she challenged Jesus' understanding of who he was, the Canaanite woman invites us to open the doors of our hearts to all believers. The woman who anointed Jesus' head broke through societal norms and overcame false perceptions about Jesus' mission. Scholar Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, in her groundbreaking book, In Memory of Her, concludes that unlike the male disciples who did not comprehend that suffering is part of the mission of Jesus, the woman who anointed Jesus' head recognized that Jesus messiahship meant suffering and death. Unlike the male disciples who abandon or betray Jesus, the female disciples become the true disciples of Jesus.

In Romans 16:7 Paul identifies Junia and Andronicus as "outstanding apostles."Paul's reference to Phoebe as "our sister and diakonos"(Rom 16:1) is the same word used to describe Timothy as "our brother and God's diakonos." (1Thes 3:2) Paul commends deacon Phoebe of the church at Cenchreae near Corinth, as a leader and missionary. (Rom. 16:2)

Fifteen archaeological inscriptions have been found that demonstrate women were sacramental ministers in the first three centuries after Jesus' death and resurrection.The catacombs and churches in Rome display beautiful mosaics and frescoes showing that women served priestly roles in the early church. Pilgrims can see how seven early Christian women celebrated eucharist at a overnight vigil in a fresco in St. Priscilla's catacomb. A fourth-century fresco in this same catacomb depicts a woman deacon, and a bishop ordaining a woman as a priest. In this fresco there is a third woman dressed in a bishop's robe, seated in a chair with a baby on her lap. Archaeologist Dorothy Irvin concludes that "these attributes indicate that she is thought of as a bishop, while the baby she is holding identifies her as Mary." The means according to Irvin that "women's ordination.... was based on succession from the apostles, including women such as Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary from Magdala, Phoebe, Petronella, and others, about whose status among the founders of the church there could be no doubt." In a fresco in the Catacomb of San Gennaro, Vitalia, a woman priest, is depicted celebrating Mass. (For more information on archaelogical evidence of women priests and bishops,contact irvincalendar@hotmail.com.)

In his most recent letter on the role of women and men in the church, Cardinal Ratzinger reached the preposterous, illogical conclusion that women cannot be ordained because Mary, Mother of Jesus, is a model of holiness by her "listening, welcoming, humility, faithfulness, praise and waiting". In this time of crisis in the church, the credibility of the hierarchy is on the line over the shocking world-wide clergy sex abuse of minors and subsequent cover-up by church authorities. The entire church needs to imitate Mary's virtues especially her courageous witness to the Gospel of Jesus. More than ever we need Mary of Nazareth's strength in our souls to speak truth to power, to do justice for victims and survivors of abuse, and to reform our beloved church. As a strong model of integrity, Mary is an inspiration for all God's people, including priests, both male and female.

It is my hope that as our new Pope, Benedict XVI will reflect on the example of Jesus, Mary, and the early Christian women who lived the Gospel of inclusion and mutual service. It is my hope that Pope Benedict XVI will follow the example of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and treat women as equals and partners, capable of reflecting fully the image of Christ. A good first step would be to invite Catholic women to fill 50 percent of leadership roles in church institutions. If Pope Benedict XVI listens to women's experiences, opens the priesthood to women, and extends leadership positions in the church to women, he will advance the cause of women in the church. Then, we may witness a new Pentecost in the 21st century.

Bridget Mary Meehan

Dr. Bridget Mary Meehan, sfcc is author of 20 books on spirituality, including Praying with Women of the Bible. She is co-coordinator or Women-Church Convergence, an international coalition of Catholic feminists' organizations.