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Well beyond the ordination of women.

The question of whether women in Christian sacramental traditions can be ordained has been settled definitively by several sacramental denominations. Lutheran and Episcopal/Anglican women are ordained through the episcopacy. No theological reasons prohibit it in those churches. Catholics' closest ecclesial cousins. Today's key question is whether women ought to be ordained given the kyriarchal nature of the institutional church.

Theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fio-renza reported that when she was a student some decades ago, her professor, a certain Joseph Ratzinger, was confronted with the reality that nothing stands in the way of ordaining women priests in Roman Catholicism but custom or tradition. He acknowledged as much, but said that if Catholics ordained women nothing would distinguish Catholics from other denominations. Who knew?

Pope Francis' repeated insistence that his two predecessor popes settled the question is not much help. Theologian Sr. Anne E. Patrick, in a recent WATER teleconference, suggested that his reluctance to engage the topic might be a sign that change is in the wind. Patrick, a sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary spoke of a study of papal documents in which journalism professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson noted a pattern: A period of "papal silence" is observed before important changes are announced. Perhaps we are in such a period. though I am not confident or even very intrigued.

The increase in feminist ministers, including some who are ordained as priests, is interesting. The Women's Ordination Conference and the umbrella organization Women's Ordination Worldwide demonstrate that a global movement has just begun. The movement has generally been led by women without concern for ordination. But the advent 10 years ago of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests, and now the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, and the ordination of women in the Old Catholic church, not to mention the ordination of many Catholic women in other Christian denominations, create a new reality.

People can now worship in Masses presided over by women with no apparent contradiction in faith. Many small communities avail themselves of the priestly ministry of women.

Just as with men, women who are well-trained and pastorally astute are not just good worship leaders, but good pastors. However, ordaining anyone, male, female or otherwise identified, is fraught in the current climate. Since baptism is the root of ministry I suggest that we not ordain anyone for a while, maybe 100 years, until ordination loses its current content. Otherwise, ordaining Catholic women carries the risk of reinforcing and re-inscribing problematic concepts of priesthood and episcopacy left over from kyriarchy.

For instance, if traditional theology holds, then the qualitative difference between clergy and lay applies. Why would women priests think that the celibacy requirement of the current church would not apply to them'? The current model continues a hierarchical ordering: Deacon reports to priest, priest reports to bishop, bishop reports to pope in a way that does not work for people accustomed to democracy. Why reinforce that structure? Can't we be more inventive?

Horizontal models of church--such as circular models with shared leadership as we experience in Women-Church--can and do work. The nightmare of chaos, nobody in charge, a lack of focus that some people worry about is a far cry from the reality. There is a deep and serious sharing of gifts of the Spirit in such groups that function without benefit of clergy. I propose we try it for a century and see what happens.

On the one hand, if anyone is to be ordained, then women as well as men, married as well as single, straight as well as queer ought to be eligible. Let the ecclesial marketplace sort it out--your fruits you will know them." Anything less seems indefensible in the 21st century for reasons other than rank discrimination or the frank acknowledgement that women are not people.

On the other hand, a deeper question emerges, namely, not what priesthood is or ought to be, but how it functions in our church. Priesthood may be innocent enough as a concept. To have people who take responsibility for the worship life of the community makes a certain kind of sense. Presiders can be trained and invited, ordained or not. But there are many problems with the Roman Catholic kyriarchal model.

First, in Roman Catholic experience, priesthood is a route to decision-making and power (jurisdiction) that is not shared with the rest of the community That accounts for what I have come to think of as real estate wars--who gets to decide that the Legion of Mary but not a Women-Church group can meet on church property Will women priests change not just the decision, but who decides?

Second, those who are ordained are constrained. Many men fly under the radar as long as they can. But in time, many ordained male priests run into the conflict between their pledged allegiance to the institution and their pastoral sense of how we ought to be in community.

Furthermore, calling a priest to preside at Eucharist without regard for her/his place in the community is theologically dubious. It is as if somehow the Eucharist were dependent on the person of the presider instead of the community gathered. This was handled long ago by the concept of ex opere operato, meaning that the sacraments work on their own regardless of the minister or the recipient.

Third, the model of calling in liturgical presidents rather than having the community gathered organize the worship is reminiscent of an earlier day, but not adequate to contemporary sacramental theology. In the 1970s, theology professor Jesuit Fr. Tad W. Guzie of Marquette University asked rhetorically, "What is a Eucharist without a priest?" The answer was, "A Eucharist without a priest is a Eucharist without a priest." It is no less or more a Eucharist. The presence of an ordained person does not "make" the Eucharist.

Some women priests believe that because they or their bishops were ordained by bishops in full apostolic succession (the hands that laid the hands that laid the hands, in regression to the time of Jesus), they, too, confect the sacred mysteries validly, if illicitly.

I, on the other hand, am less impressed with ecclesial pedigree, which I think is dubious at best, irrelevant at worst. I am more impressed with those who engage in feminist ministry, letting the needs of the world, not the failings of the church, set the agenda. These other issues that stem from wanting to be "authentic," i.e., "more papist than the pope," can be a distraction.

A fourth problem is the shortage of clergy, which makes priests available to preside at Mass increasingly rare. They are a kind of boutique or luxury item restricted generally to those who can pay for their services. At the same time, the need for communities to gather to give thanks and to draw strength from one another and the Divine in connection with the Jesus movement only grows. What to do?

For starters, I respectfully suggest focusing on the most useful question. In my view, it is not whether women should be ordained. The answer to that is yes: If men are, women should be. In fact, many women are far better prepared than many men. Some have doctorates beyond their divinity degrees, and many have advanced pastoral training.

Some women are far better preachers then some men. Patricia Fresen, ordained a bishop of Roman Catholic Womenpriests, is a Dominican sister in South Africa who taught preaching but was prohibited from preaching. Many women are more creative liturgically than the garden-variety parish priest. So the matter of having women priests is a no-brainer, unless for some reason one still thinks that an ordained male is necessary for the legitimacy of the sacrament.

More to the point, there are plenty of options that eucharistic base communities employ around the country to great ends. The principle of subsidiarity applies. Let people decide how they want to worship. Local options abound. Catholics have long been taught that our richness lies in our sameness--the same Mass in all parts of the world. But I suggest that a postmodern redaction of that insight is that our richness lies in our diversity of models of church, ways of celebrating, modes of acting. No one group can dictate to another how it will worship. They are all Catholic.

Practically speaking, this means changing the focus. Would anyone ask in 2014 if a Roman Catholic church should have an African-American male priest? If not, then I respectfully suggest that it is inappropriate, bordering on insulting, to ask the question about women priests either. More helpful questions to ask are about the role of presider at Eucharist, the role of a pastor, the job of a minister, what other functions need to be fulfilled in a given community.

Then other questions emerge, such as what we think Eucharist is and whether we need a presider as such at all, how the many responsibilities in a given community are shared, and so forth. Theological understandings of church and sacrament have evolved well beyond the gender of the presider.

I respectfully suggest that Catholics experiment with a wide variety of forms of worship the way Women-Church and some Dignity groups do. Amazing as it may sound, some people gather online or on the telephone to pray and worship with people across the country Some women's religious communities engage in daily prayer, including Eucharist, without priests. Base groups have Eucharist with a variety of presiders, with lots of co-presiders, or no presider at all.

All of these point to the community as the ordinary minister of the sacrament, "where two or three gather together"

A lot of education remains to teach people that the Eucharist belongs to the whole community, not to any presider. Let the whole community gather to pray and sing, preach and teach, and extend hands in blessing before sharing the bread and wine that has sustained people in justice struggles for millennia. This is what spiritual adults do.

[Mary E. Hunt is a feminist theologian who is co-founder and co-director of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) in Silver Spring, Md.]
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Title Annotation:THEOLOGY
Author:Hunt, Mary E.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 19, 2014
Words:1690
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