[This letter--written by Professor John Shea of Boston College, who is an Augustinian priest, is publicly available elsewhere on the web. I thought that some MOJ readers would be interested.]
The Beginning of Lent, 2012
Dear Archbishop O’Brien,
I am writing to you and to all the ordinaries of the dioceses in the United States to ask you and your fellow bishops in your role as teachers to provide a clear and credible theological explanation of why women are not being ordained to the priesthood in the Catholic Church.
I write not to challenge the teaching of the church as set forth in the 1994 Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis , concerning priestly ordination. My concern is the theological explanation of this teaching. Theology I take to be essentially what Anselm said it is, “faith seeking understanding.”
I teach in the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College. As you might expect, in the school we have a number of students—women and men—who are preparing for ministry of one kind or another. As serious students of theology and ministry, the issue of women’s ordination is extremely important for many of them—how this issue is now understood and has been in the past, what the requirements for ordination are, and especially what a clear and adequate theological explanation of this teaching might be. For some of our students, this issue is the most important one they wrestle with. For some of them, what resolution they come to determines whether or not they stay in the Catholic Church.
Yet, in the Catholic Church there is a rule of silence. We are told that women’s ordination cannot be discussed. The issue that cries for theological explanation is not to be discussed in schools that have theological explanation as one of their prime reasons for being. In other settings, however, rather abstruse arguments are put forward, usually around “bride ofChrist” symbolism or with a suggestion such as ordination is “God’s gift to men.” Several years ago, as you know, Pope Benedict XVI declared that the ordination of women was a “grave crime” akin to pedophilia. My sense is that these comments are found to be more puzzling, or bizarre, or embarrassing than seriously theological. They beg the issue, raising more questions than they answer.
In case you are wondering who this person is who is writing to you, I am an Augustinian priest, solemnly professed for 50 years, teaching at the School of Theology and Ministry of Boston College. Before coming to Boston College in 2003, I taught for many years in the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education at Fordham University. My areas of expertise are in pastoral care and counseling (Fellow, American Association of Pastoral Counselors) and the psychology of religious development (Ph.D., Psychology of Religion, University of Ottawa), areas that today would be considered practical theology.
I also have graduate degrees in theology, philosophy, pastoral counseling, and social work.
I mention this background because in all of my study, in all of my training, in all of my counseling experience, and in all of my thirty years of teaching I have not come across a single credible thinker who holds that women are not fully able to provide pastoral care . Likewise, I have not come across a single credible thinker who holds that women are deficient in religious development or maturity . From the perspective of practical theology—a theology of the living church—I find there is absolutely nothing that does not support the ordination of women to the priesthood.
Therefore, I too am looking to you and your fellow bishops for a serious theological explanation of the church’s teaching on women’s ordination.
Not being an historical or a sacramental theologian, I have attempted to keep abreast of some of the contemporary research. Perhaps in the mainstream of that research is Gary Macy’s The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West . Macy, a serious scholar by any account, begins the Preface of the book by saying: “The fact that women were ordained for the first twelve hundred years of Christianity will surprise many people. It surprised me when I first discovered it.” Chapter 4, “Defining Women Out of Ordination,” is as disturbing ecclesially as it is fascinating historically. Without doubt, patriarchy was alive and well in the medieval church.
All the historical reasons offered against the ordination of women ultimately boil down to the one theological explanation the Vatican actually did offer a number of years ago: women cannot be ordained because they are “not fully in the likeness of Jesus.” It seems to me, however, that to hold that women are not fully in the likeness of Jesus is to engage in heresy. It is to say that women are not fully redeemed by Jesus. It is to say that women are not made whole by the saving favor of our God. The statement of the Vatican on the ordination of women substitutes gender biology for Christian theology, privileging Jesus’ maleness instead of his full humanness.
Archbishop O’Brien, can you actually support this theological explanation offered by the Vatican? Is the theological reason why women cannot be ordained because they are “not fully in the likeness of Jesus”?
As you know, for centuries the question in the church was whether or not women had souls, and if they did, were they equal to those of men. Now, with an understanding of the person more as body than soul, the question is whether or not women have bodies equal to those of men. Is not Cardinal José da Cruz Policarpo, the Patriarch of Lisbon, right when speaking on this issue he clearly affirms the “fundamental equality of all members of the Church”?
Since 1986, I have been calling every four years for open discussion of women’s ordination at the chapters of my province, the Province of St. Thomas of Villanova. In September of 2010, I wrote to Father Robert Prevost, O.S.A. in Rome, the Prior General of the Augustinian Order, asking “that I be officially recognized as stepping aside from the public exercise of priesthood until women are ordained as priests in our church.” Eventually, I heard back from the Vicar General saying there was “no category” for what I am asking. In February of 2011, I wrote to you, the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston; to my Provincial, Reverend AnthonyGenovese, O.S.A.; to Reverend Mark Massa, S.J., Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College; and to Dr. Thomas Groome, my chair at the school, informing them that I was stepping aside from active ministry as a priest until women are ordained.
As a way of giving some context in my letter to Father Prevost, I told the following story. In 1991, I was invited to India to give a paper at a conference in Madras (now Chennai) honoring the life and work of Father D. S. Amalorpavadass. After the conference, I offered a workshop on “Listening Skills in Pastoral Counselling.” As I was describing these skills, a priest from a neighboring country said: “Can I ask you a practi cal question?” I said: “Of course.”
And then he proceed to tell me that the most pressing pastoral problem he was facing was that mothers were killing their own baby girls. The families were too poor to provide a dowry for them and it would be too difficult to keep them. Later, as I was reflecting on the horror of mothers being made to kill their own daughters, I asked myself: “How can the church respond to this?” And then it came to me: “How can the church talk about the dignity of women when it also sees women as inferior to men, as in a ‘state of subjection,’ as not fully in the likeness of Jesus?” I write to you to ask you in your role as a bishop in the church to craft a serious theological explanation of why women are not able to be ordained.
I also ask that you speak with your fellow bishops so that you can lift the rule of silence on this issue. If you agree with the church’s statements on women’s ordination, please have the courage to teach about this issue in a way that mature, intelligent adults can appreciate, taking into account Jesus’ relating to women and the actual history of ordination. If you have serious theological problems with the church’s statements on women’s ordination, please have the courage to teach about this issue with pastoral care so that the hemorrhaging in our church can begin to stop. Whatever your position ultimately may be, our church—including the students of theology and ministry at Boston College and elsewhere across the country—is in desperate need of your honesty, openness, informed clarity, and leadership.
A friend of mine is fond of saying that in the church today authority trumps theology every time. If this is true, it is clearly not a strategy for the long term. Is there a better way? Can authority and theology actually strengthen each other for the good of all the people of God?
It is the beginning of Lent, a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, a time of for all of us in the church to be mindful of how we are in our caring and in our justice. Archbishop O’Brien, is providing a serious theological explanation of why women are not being ordained in the church something you can do as part of your teaching responsibility as a bishop, as part of your caring and your justice?
John J. Shea, O.S.A., Ph.D., M.S.W.
Professor of the Practice of Pastoral Care and Counseling; Dual Degree Director (MA/MA and MA/MSW), School of Theology and Ministry,Boston College