Originally, holy orders began with election from within a community to a position of service. Over time, selection moved from the grass roots to require approval of the hierarchy to a position of power. It seems no coincidence that the switch from service to power meant the exclusion of woman priests and the introduction of priestly celibacy. Sophia Wisdom and the Spirit of Love were threatening to the institutional Church.
Today, the church seems no less afraid of women and love than in the 12th century. Male patriarchy, clericalism, and unalloyed loyalty to hierarchy are a trinity of arrogance which ensures that power is closely held. However, the institution is not reserving power to itself simply for the sake of power. I think they have grown deeply afraid in heart and soul:
First, the heart: aging celibates are afraid of what might happen if women and men served as equals in close quarters. They might fall in love! They might want to get married, have children and/or use birth control! This is reminiscent of the female stereotypes as temptress, shrew (‘nasty woman’), unclean, misbegotten or as Eve, responsible for the fall of all humankind. Gender and sexuality are tough subjects for churchmen.
Secondly, the soul: the church is afraid of admitting to centuries of mistaken scriptural interpretation about women being ordained in the early church. How many centuries did it take to apologize to Galileo? We see the same resistance around the issue of eligibility for ordination. The church is afraid to admit to being wrong on this issue for fear of challenges on other fronts. A thread of change pulls at the ‘seamless’ Catholic theology. If biblical authority turns out to support myths, the mission of teaching the laity and caring for souls is diminished.
Our design for returning to early church sacramental understandings is a real and present danger to some churchmen. Delio has a chapter in Making All Things New called “Humpty Dumpty Earth”. The image reveals how orthodoxies are teetering and might be about to fall. Some Catholics are afraid of the church falling to pieces that cannot be put back together again.
We are in a position to offer a ladder to Humpty to get him off that wall; or a cushion to soften the fall. We can enjoy making a future church that is less bent on power, less ruled by fear. The question for each of us as a priestly people with a Catholic birthright is - how do we minister inclusively and sacramentally with love and vision? How do we avoid seeming dangerous or threatening – is that even possible?
Lynn Kinlan, author, is a member of the Upper Room Inclusive Catholic Community in Albany, NY. Lynn is currently enrolled in the People's Catholic Seminary course on Sacraments.