Opinion: Pope puts a crack in Catholic Church’s ‘stained glass ceiling’

The news surprised some, because as recently as 2015, Pope Francis dismissed the idea out of hand.
Kate McElwee, the executive director of Women’s Ordination Now, a Catholic feminist organization, told me: “The fact that [Francis] evolved on this issue in such a short time is huge and gives me a lot of hope.”

Indeed, the approach is commendable. But it is time for Francis to move on to another subject: his opposition to the ordination of women.

Francis has taken other steps towards women’s equality in the church, including issuing a decree formally authorizing women to give Bible readings during Mass, to serve as altar servers and to distribute the communion. And significantly, last year he named the French nun, Sister Nathalie Becquart, as the first woman to serve as undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, an advisory body to the pope.
Francis invoked Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis as the last word against female priests, but left the door open regarding female deacons.

The main arguments against the ordination of deacon, priest or bishop of more than half of Catholics are far from convincing.

Catholics are asked to believe that Jesus’ selection of only male apostles presents unequivocal evidence that he intended only men to be ordained. Worse still, we are told that women cannot be ordained because Jesus was a man, so women cannot “imagine” themselves or present themselves as representatives of Christ.
Internationally renowned Catholic theologian Phyllis Zagano, whom Pope Francis appointed to the 2016 Papal Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women, examined these claims in her 2020 book “Women: Icons of Christ” and said that ‘she felt them not only wanting but undeniably influenced by anti-female animosity.

In her book, Zagano argues for the ordination of women deacons as the obvious next step toward full equality for women in the church. Deacons are ordained ministers who can preside at weddings, baptisms, and funerals but cannot celebrate Mass.

Zagano pointed out in an interview that John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis does not apply to deacons, so it’s one less hurdle to overcome. Pope Francis has deemed the research of his first commission on the subject “inconclusive”. He did, however, announce a second commission in 2020 to study the matter again.
This resistance is frustrating because the case of women deacons is obvious. As Zagano points out in her book, “the only person in scripture with the descriptor ‘deacon’ is Phoebe and Paul did not feminize her title ‘deaconess’.” She also writes that, “[b]bishops in the past…clearly ordained women as deacons with ceremonies virtually identical to those they used for the men they ordained as deacons.”

The argument that comes up for Zagano’s most vigorous challenge is the idea that women cannot be icons of Christ. “Not only is it [this] false,” Zagano writes, “it is a statement that joins the most serious and dangerous views of women in the world,” including the belief that women are “impure.”

Zagano called the denial of the ordination of women deacons a “scandal” that “will [so] deeply against the teachings of the Catholic Church and Scripture that he is probably formally heretical.”

To suggest that women cannot “image Christ” because Jesus lived as a man is to completely miss the point. Strangely, it was not recorded among the men who developed the theology of the Catholic Church that Jesus could only be a man. How would a woman in a culture that shamelessly treated women as inherently inferior become a spiritual leader of the magnitude of Jesus? It’s absurd.

What ordained ministers imagine is not anatomy, but essence. If a person cannot see the image of Christ in an ordained woman, but naturally bestows it on an ordained person with a male anatomy, then they have deeper issues to grapple with. “To deny the sacramental ordination of women as deacons is to deny their full humanity as created in the image and likeness of God,” Zagano notes.

“People who are wedded to this ‘iconic’ argument argue that…when people look at a woman at the altar, that woman is not pointing to Jesus in the same simple way a man would,” Catholic scholar Natalia Imperatori-Lee told me. “But we don’t force priests to retire when they turn 33 (the age we thought we were when Jesus died). Many priests are old and Jesus never looked old.”
Many people might find engaging in this debate a waste of time. Countless Catholics have understandably shunned the church, and those outside — and even inside — may find it archaic, misogynistic, and abusive. But ignoring the Catholic Church will not change the enormous influence it has on people’s lives. There are more than a billion Catholics in the world, and in many cultures extricating oneself from cultural power is not a real option.

“The Catholic Church is a huge superpower, and we believe the Church could restore its moral voice and credibility if it practiced gender equity. Equality for women and girls changes the world,” m said McElwee. “It is easy for some of us in Western countries to withdraw from church powers, but in many communities the church runs the only hospital or the only school. The theology that teaches that girls are somehow submissive or complements to men filter through, and this is taught all over the world.”

Even for those who might leave, many are unwilling to give up their faith, which is a source of comfort and support. They want a church that serves its people, behaves morally, and operates according to the teachings of Jesus rather than the patriarchal standards and ethos of a boys’ club.

Ordaining women is the only hope of achieving this goal.


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