Despite Archbishop Diarmuid Martin's hardline response to Josepha Madigan this week, there is every reason to question masculine dominance of the Church
'If priests disappear, then Masses will disappear and if Masses disappear, the Church will disappear." That was the stark warning of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) in response to the furore over Minister Josepha Madigan's involvement in a communion service at her local parish and her subsequent call for the Church to ordain women and permit priests to marry.
Members of the ACP know the reality of the priest shortage first-hand. The Association, which represents over 1,000 Irish priests, most of whom are over 65, has been highlighting for years that priests in Ireland are having to work longer hours, do more work, and retire later due to the decline in their numbers. With so few priests under 40, the future looks bleak.
The robustness of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin's response to the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht's comments surprised many.
The no-show by the priest assigned to say Saturday evening's Mass in the parish of St Thérèse in Mount Merrion created a dilemma for the parishioners and particularly those like Madigan who are involved in the parish's Ministry of the Word or the Ministry of the Eucharist.
Rather than send everyone home, they decided to hold an ad hoc service of prayer and distribute pre-consecrated Communion, as is done in many other parishes in Ireland and remote mission parishes around the world. When interviewed about the service, Minister Madigan availed of the opportunity to highlight the shortage of priests and call on the Church to change its teaching that women cannot be ordained priests.
Survey after survey has shown that the vast majority of Catholics in Ireland believe women should be ordained and that priests should be allowed to marry. So there was some bafflement that the archbishop should describe Josepha Madigan's call as "bizarre".
Minister Madigan gave voice to a question vexing many of the faithful - why is the Vatican so determined to quash calls for women priests even if it means sowing the seeds of the Church's extinction? The fact is, this issue has not been aired and debated in the manner it needs to be because of the stricture imposed by the late Pope John Paul II in his 1994 Apostolic Letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which forbids Catholics even discussing the issue of women priests. Now, that is bizarre.
In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI elevated the 'crime' of ordaining women to ministry as one of the most serious, putting it on a par with paedophilia. Those who defy this edict are liable to be excommunicated, those who question it, if they are priests or religious, are liable to be censured by the Vatican and removed from ministry, while lay people working for church organisations are liable to lose their jobs. That is a sufficiently strong deterrent to ensure very few Catholics give the issue of women's ordination any thought. Furthermore, there are signs of a hardening of attitudes even on the issue of women deacons.
The diaconate is an ordained ministry. But a deacon cannot perform some of the ministries that a priest can. For instance, a deacon cannot consecrate the bread and wine. This week, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF), the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, told reporters that while women deacons existed in the early Church, they were "not the same" as their male counterparts. Cardinal Luis Ladaria said the commission on women deacons, of which he is president and which was set up by Pope Francis two years ago to look at the issue, was examining women deacons' historical role in the early Church rather than whether women could once again be ordained as deacons in the 21st century. Many will see this as a fudge and contradictory, and perhaps even a little bizarre.
Soline Humbert is one of many Catholic women who feel called to priesthood. "I was 17 when I first felt called to be a priest; 34 when I told my bishop; 37 when we founded Basic (Brothers And Sisters In Christ) to campaign for women who feel called to ordination. (There weren't even altar girls at the time); and 48 when I met Archbishop Diarmuid Martin about it."
Sense of calling
The 61-year-old French-born Catholic says there are "other women who have a sense of calling but not to the present broken clericalist model with compulsory celibacy."
In her opinion, Archbishop Martin's kneejerk reaction to Minister Madigan is probably due to the fact that "Ireland and Dublin are in the spotlight because of the World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis' visit. Archbishop Martin cannot afford to be seen as not fully in charge of a properly functioning diocese - hence his comment on there being no shortage of priests. All cracks have to be plastered over..."
According to Humbert, even though lay-led Communion services are common in Ireland and throughout the world, she has heard that "they are not encouraged" in some Irish dioceses. "The Archbishop would have preferred if the gathered congregation had gone home." She also believes that one of the main factors for Dr Martin's antagonism was Minister Madigan's role in the Yes campaign in the recent abortion referendum and also because her role at the Communion service was headlined as 'saying Mass'.
"It was all too much. I think the Church authorities are trying to stop the unstoppable, and delay the unavoidable: the Spirit-led gospel equality of women and men. John Paul II tried to forcibly close the discussion in 1994 and Diarmuid Martin and others are feeling more and more under pressure to defend the indefensible on women's ordination - what Mary McAleese has called 'codology'."
Last week, the retired bishop of Middlesbrough in Britain said the time was ripe for the Church to re-examine "the key theological premises regarding the exclusion of women from the priesthood".
In a letter to international Catholic weekly, The Tablet, Bishop John Crowley said that "as far back as 1965, I had sensed on a purely instinctive, subjective level, that whether someone was married or single, male or female, should not be determinative in admitting someone to the priesthood."
However, it was made clear to him that he should not express his views publicly. Now that he is retired and has no public teaching role in the Church, he feels able to do so. According to Bishop Crowley, "a growing number of theologians" and "a number of bishops … would want this burning issue to be at least looked at again in a calm, open and public discussion within the Church" in a debate which "is already manifestly happening around the world among many lay people and some priests."
Chris McDonnell, secretary of the Movement for Married Clergy, agrees that there are many who wish to have this discussion. "Just to say 'it can't happen' is not good enough, the position requires greater justification than that," he wrote last week in an article for the Catholic Times newspaper.
Furthermore, he believes the oft-quoted argument used to challenge the validity of women's ordination, "that priesthood was conferred initially on 12 men sharing a Passover meal doesn't hold water. It is more than likely that other women were present; nowhere in the Gospels is 'priesthood' claimed as an exclusive male prerogative. Only through time and custom has that come about." He believes that the Church "cannot continue to support equality if, within our own community, the Roman Catholic Church, we maintain masculine dominance in a core aspect of our teaching".
For Soline Humbert, there is an irony and a sense of the Spirit whispering in all that has happened in Mount Merrion. "The parish church is dedicated to St Thérèse. She is the unofficial patron saint of women priests because of her stated desire to be a priest..."