An expanded role for women in the church

Father John A. Kiley

In a broad-ranging and now celebrated 80-minute conversation with journalists on the plane bringing him back from a weeklong visit to Brazil, Pope Francis said that the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on women priests was definitive, although he would like women to have more leadership roles in administration and in pastoral activities. Citing the authoritative statements of his predecessors, Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the pope closed any discussion on Catholic female clergy but opened widely and repeatedly further consideration on the role of women in the Church.

Keeping the Catholic priesthood closed to women might seem to be an uncharacteristically traditional stance for this new pontiff who is intent proclaiming the Gospel in a fresh and frank manner. But admitting women to the priesthood would be the worst thing any Pope could do. Not worst for the Church, certainly. Women could perform ritual functions as they have assumed novel tasks in other vocations.

Rather, admitting women to the ordained priesthood would be the worst thing that could happen for women. Admitting women to the priesthood would just enlarge the authoritative, institutional, clerical wing of the Church. The Church does not need more bureaucracy, more administration, more government. Frankly, with all due respect to the vocation crisis in the Western world, the Church does not need more priests. What the Church does need is more prophets, more persons who will ponder the signs of the times and discover God’s Spirit there. Such prophecy is clearly the role that women have played in the history of the Roman Catholic Church and that, judging from his statements and writings, Pope Francis has in mind when he hopes for an expanded role for women with the Church.

Pope Francis again raised eyebrows when he suggested on that same Brazilian trip: “I’ve said it, but I repeat it. Our Lady, Mary, was more important than the Apostles, than bishops, deacons and priests. In the Church, woman is more important than bishops and priests; how, it’s what we must seek to make more explicit, because theological explicitness about this is lacking.” Since then, our Holy Father has happily made his notion of women’s role in the Church more explicit. In his recent apostolic exhortation Pope Francis insists that there is a “Marian” style to the Church’s work. For example, going with haste to assist the elderly Elizabeth but at the same time pondering the mystery of Christ’s presence within her, the Blessed Virgin Mary is able to recognize the traces of God’s Spirit in small, practical events and in great, cosmic events in our world, in human history and in daily life. In Mary, the interplay of tenderness and thought, of concern and contemplation, of charity and faith, is what might lead the Church to look upon Mary as the model prophet who can give the Church “a holy courage to seek new paths and bear radiant witness to communion, service, faith, justice and love of the poor.”

As prophets, women have long displayed such holy courage to seek new paths. St. Mary of Egypt in the third century fostered a women’s religious community in the desert. St. Catherine of Siena cajoled the Popes exiled in France to return to their proper home in Rome. St. Teresa of Avila revolutionized Spanish convent life, awakening the faith threatened by Protestantism. Saints Angela Merici, Jane Francis de Chantelle, and Louise de Marillac effectively brought women out of their cloisters and into communities that assisted the poor. Dorothy Day more recently highlighted forgotten Christian values when she promoted the communal living and the shared resources of the Catholic Worker Movement. Mother Theresa spoke truth to power from outside ordained circles. Like Mary, each of these women, and many more besides, meditated deeply on the signs of their times and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, urged pontiffs and bishops and laity alike to have the “holy courage to seek new paths,” as Pope Francis wrote.

In both the Old and the New Testaments, the People of God have been directed by priests and driven by prophets. The tension between the priestly or institutional element within the Church and the prophetic or charismatic component of the believing community is undoubtedly and rightly born of the Spirit of God who breathes where he will. Prophecy, not priesthood might well be the wave of the future for consecrated Catholic womanhood.