It's time to cross into forbidden territory.
My stomach turned when I saw that picture. It was a clear statement that some Anglicans felt so strongly about the matter that they actually were convinced that the reception of priestly orders by females would kill the Church of Christ in their tradition. The secular and Catholic presses couldn't wait to barrage us with the numbers of Anglican priests and their families who would be leaving Anglicanism--estimated at 500 to 1,000-and turning to Roman Catholicism to escape the travesty befalling them. The implication, of course, is that the Roman Catholic, priest-hungry Church will willingly embrace these Anglican priests into the Roman communion. Let's think this out.
Years ago I had an experience that helped sharpen for me the dilemma females pose for the Christian Church. I was 28 years old and recently graduated with a Master of Divinity Degree from a Roman Catholic theological school. It was the 1970s. This decade seemed to be an era of exploration; we were living the first wave of aggiornamento, open to new theologies, focused on justice, and seriously considering the evolving roles of women in ministry and authority.
In 1971 the U.S. Catholic bishops issued "Justice in the World." This document brought worldwide Catholic attention to the relationship between preaching the gospel and social action. By 1976, the Ad Hoc Committee on the Role and Status of Women in Society and Church, formed by the U.S. bishops in 1971, began issuing reports calling for "urgency" in dealing with the disturbing new consciousness regarding the depth of female oppression in Roman Catholicism.
This was the milieu of my seminary education. I would discover in short order that females were, are, and will be a problem vexing the church like a wound that will not heal.
In 1978 the social-justice group Call to Action, formed in Chicago as a direct response to the bishops' call for justice, held its first gathering. I was invited to participate in the liturgy and preach the homily. I vested for the eucharistic liturgy, proclaimed the gospel, offered the homily, and assisted during the liturgy.
A few days after the conference a reporter for a national Catholic periodical published "`Call to Action' Road Show Hits Chicago." The following appeared under the subheading "Premeditated Disobedience":
The closing liturgy was celebrated by the newly
inaugurated president of the Association of Chicago
Priests. The homilist was Avis Clendenen. Tall and
slim and clad in an ankle-length white gown, she was a
striking figure--in forbidden territory--as she delivered
the homily. That it was done with quiet, reverent
dignity does not change the fact that it was done in
calculated, premeditated disobedience to the rule
forbidding women to do this, a disobedience joined in
by the celebrant himself . . . As Mass proceeded,
Clendenen hovered a few steps behind and to the right
of the celebrant . . . anything seems to go as long as the
"Spirit" moves. One must wonder how it can be
imagined that the real Holy Spirit, as opposed to some
sort of imaginary one, can be present in the presence of
disobedience and flaunting [sic] of the authentic
teaching of His Church.
The reporter wrote nothing about what I said. His reporting focused attention on what I was wearing and where my body was in relation to the sacred action of the altar. I was not vested in an alb but "clad" in a gown. I experienced myself as a woman in the sanctuary in the activity of communal prayer. He saw me as a "striking figure in forbidden territory." I assisted at the altar, as numerous times before, in a manner quite ordinary for someone skilled in liturgical ministry. He chose to describe my liturgical presence as "hovering." A community of faith had invited a member of the faithful, fully trained, even gifted, in the ministry of preaching, to preach. In two pages of reporting, he never once mentioned anything about what I said in the homily.
This reporter trailed me for a number of years and attempted to catch me in other disobedient acts and make me pay for them by reporting such travesties to the authorities. Finally I was told by Cardinal John Cody of Chicago not to continue in the "disruption of the integrity of any rite." The mere presence of my person, the female body, in the sanctuary had finally been interpreted as a disruption of the integrity of the sacred rites of the Catholic Church. I was warned to remain outside the altar railing while doing any kind of liturgical prayer. I was not permitted to enter the sanctuary except when standing next to an ordained man, who would have authority over where I could sit, stand, or move. By 28 years of age, I knew, in the biblical sense of knowing, that my body was persona non grata in the sacred context.
Think about what we are saying when we say that a baptized Christian female is verboten in the sacred context. Liturgical action in the sanctuary of Christ is so constricted for women that they appear to be forbidden figures in forbidden territory all too often. There is enormous, often irrational, fear about a woman's body in relation to sacred action. Only a baptized, ordained male can legitimately confect the body and blood of Christ. What does that mean? To legitimately, theologically, and canonically confect is to make real, to transform the apparent substance into its full mysterious potential.
Wasn't it a woman's body--God's own mother Mary--that first confected the very body and blood of Jesus in her womb? If there is a symbol within the tradition of the actualization of life, it must joyfully include the life-producing physicality of woman.
I SOMETIMES WONDER HOW WE CAN EDUCATE IN faith another generation of girls and boys and pass on the aberrant reality of the supposed female lack of sacrality. Will the next generation be able to sustain initiation into a faith that baptizes her in Christ as a new being and in the same moment reinforces her supposed incapacity to fully represent Christ to God's people?
Why is it that women can get some graces but not all graces? How is it that the female has the capacity to receive grace but not dispense grace? Let's think about the implications of maintaining the exclusion of the female as a vehicle for Christ's redeeming grace in word and sacrament.
I remember a priest friend of mine dashing in late for a liturgy because of a problem he had encountered on his first day of training a new group of altar servers. His parish had decided to include girls in the ministry of service at the altar. The girls had arrived first for the session. The boys came into the room, took one look at the girls, and proceeded to walk out. Father Jim went after them, initially confused by their reaction. When confronted with their abrupt behavior, the boys indicated they had no intention of preparing for altar service if it included girls. Jim told me the boys said: "If they can do it, it doesn't mean anything anymore.
If they can do it, it doesn't mean anything anymore." Out of the mouths of babes springs forth, unfiltered, an eye-opening, deeply disturbing conviction. If girls can do what boys can do, then boys are nobodies. If women can be included in what men value as important, then the value becomes of lesser quality.
How long is long enough before the Roman Catholic communion takes the Incarnation completely seriously and with profound delight? God made flesh. Jesus of Nazareth is the irrevocable and irreversible fact of Christian faith. It was never the maleness of Jesus that was redemptive. Jesus redeemed through his humanity completely and freely disposed toward God.
Maintaining tradition for the sake of tradition can be a form of idolatry. Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner once cautioned: "Do not make it impossible for the word of God to say what it might please God to say, to tell us under what guise God wishes to encounter us."
Yes, it is no longer gray matter to some of us that the idolatrization of maleness must now be abandoned as a universal category that alone possesses redemptive capacity and the singular ability to be in persona Christi, mediating the graces of Christ. Without any minimization of the historical particularity of Jesus' maleness and maleness in general, we must move beyond male sexuality as possessing the graced vehicle of all Christian redemption.
This is not a question of rights, or even of fairness in the social or ecclesial order. It is a question of an adequate, believable, and liberating Christian theology. Humans--male and female--are adequate, albeit partial, symbols of God's own image. It is not possible for any baptized Christian, because of the particularity of sex or race, to be a forbidden figure in Christ's salvific territory of the proclamation of the word and ministry at Christ's eucharistic table.
The church struggles with a theology that promises equality with differences. We ask the question, Women are different from men, but are they really equal theologically?
It is my position, now in midlife, that the theological tradition of excluding females from sacred orders due to an innate spiritual incapacity to receive the grace of orders retains a historic and intelligible logic. I do understand patriarchal reasoning. Is it, however, any longer theologically defensible? Let us not rush to embrace our Anglican brothers too quickly. They may come with coffin in hand. Is that the picture we want our children to remember when our day comes to embrace the inclusion of women in sacred orders?
Someday is simply not soon enough. Until that day, however, women and men of hope continue to work and wait for the new Pentecost. Theologian Dorothee Soelle once said something that rings in my ears today: we are responsible for the house which we did not build but in which we live. Let us keep remodeling until there is no forbidden territory.
By Avis Clendenen, assistant professor of religious studies at Xavier University in Chicago. Portions of this article appeared previously in the winter 1994 edition of Religious Education.
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|Title Annotation:||allowing women to be ordained by the Catholic Church|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1994|
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