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Its principles will stand, but the church shall change.

The debate over the ordination of women in the Anglican church has ended. The clock cannot be turned back. I hope our Roman church will open its theological and official mind for a free discussion of the same issue. To that end, I'll express as clearly as I can my opinions.

I believe there is no solid theological ground for forbidding the ordination of women to the Christian priesthood. I favor the practice, which I believe will become necessary if the faithful are to be given the pastoral care that they need so desperately and that - let me say it bluntly - an exclusively celibate male priesthood cannot supply any longer.

I understand clearly the historical, cultural and emotional impediments to such a move, even in evolved communities and certainly within the Vatican itself

I believe nonetheless. that such impediments will be overcome, must be overcome, if the church is to grow. Let me reason the matter in love and out of my own experience.

I received my first nurture in the faith from a woman. A woman taught me my first prayers. Woman, for me, was the natural eucharistic minister who held the family together, nourished it with love, moderated its disputes and turned its vexations into a Christian agape.

Why should I, now or ever, decline to hear from a woman's lips the word of God, or receive from her hands the bread of life? Who, I ask myself, has the power or the right to deny her these functions that have been hers from the beginning?

We all are aware of the shortfall in vocations to a celibate, male priesthood and to older forms of conventual life for men and women. Many of us are aware of the tolerance of clerical concubinage necessary in certain areas to sustain even a minimal pastoral service.

It is an official hypocrisy to claim that in some miraculous fashion the shortfall will be made good and the abuses will cure themselves. Curiously enough, the impulse to charity and service is no less than it ever was. But men and women are choosing other modes of service, more demanding sometimes but less restricted by traditional canonical legislation or a single-option theology exempt from challenge or discussion.

The older I get the more I am concerned with the divisive power of language, the futility of juridical attitudes in the face of human distress and the explosive power of the historical baggage we, all unknowingly, cart around with us: half-truths, myths, historic constructs, tribal enmities, sexual and social prejudices. They beckon us like folly-fires into misty bogs. They ambush us like ruffians on the safest roads.

The taint of Manichaeism lies like a snail track across the whole argument about women's roles in the church. The root question on a celibate clergy is not chastity but inheritance and economics.

The problem for the 20th-century church is the use and abuse of the magisterium - the power vested in one man and exercised through his cabinet of curial officials to close public debate on questions that touch all our lives, here and hereafter. The debate goes on, of course, but it can be made to, appear like a conspiracy. Worse, still, there can and does follow the schism of indifference in which people and pastors lead lives seemingly irrelevant to each other, lives in which the unity of the spirit in the bond of faith has simply worn itself out.

I cannot predict when, and I am certainly in no position to prescribe how, change may come, but come it will, come it must. The church, the assembly, visible and invisible, of the people of God is not a static institution. It is like creation itself, open and developing. The fundamental truths, of which it claims to be the custodian and interpreter, are mysteries, slowly revealing themselves to us as we make our pilgrimage from birth to death and the final revelation.

The dogmatic definitions in which the mysteries have been encapsulated down the centuries are artifacts, fashioned in the most fragile and mutable medium of all, human language.

The laws by which the assembly is governed also are mutable, Only the principles that they express do not change: love, justice, mutual support - the unity of the spirit in the bond of belief.

I do not now and I have never been able to believe in the fragmentation of the economy of salvation. In the end, all sacraments deliver only one gift, the union of the creature with the creator. All symbols signify a single transcendent truth: God has visited his people; the word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

It is in this unitive spirit that I, as an individual, approach the question of women in the priesthood. I have the experience - for which I thank God - of being made one flesh with a woman I love. So for me there is no argument. Fiat. Let it be done, as our Anglican friends have done it, by collegial discussion and consensus and with due regard for the temper and the needs of the people who are the subject and the object of all ministry.

Take away the people and there would be no need of ministry. The incarnation itself would have been a cosmic irrelevance.

Because everything I do and say now is subject to a very proximate judgment, I must take full responsibility for it. From where I stand, I can see the lights of the further shore, but I still hold to what I wrote in Rome 23 years ago:

I claim no private lien on the truth, only a liberty to seek it, prove it in debate and to be wrong a thousand times to reach a single rightness. Ever since the Greeks, we have been drunk with language! We have made a cage of words and shoved our God inside, as boys confine a cricket or locust, to make him sing a private song!

Morris West, author of The Devil's Advocate, The Clowns of God and many other books, lives in Australia.
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Author:West, Morris L.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Feb 12, 1993
Words:1011
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