|Illustration from Gutenberg Bible circa 1120 A.D.|
Principle source of research: Diarmuid O’Murchu’s ‘Christianity’s Dangerous Memory’
Jesus Christ brought a new vision for human interactions promoting ‘companionship of empowerment’. His prophetic teachings reflect the ideals of the women priest movement drawing attention around the world. Principles for this Roman Catholic initiative embody the Gospel teachings of Jesus, reflecting inclusivity in a global community without boundaries of gender, race and status. As declared by the gospel writers, women priests also look to truth embodied in the actions of visionary Mary Magdalen and her female companions. It was they, despite threatening ramifications, who overcame fear and remained steadfast as the first true companions to Jesus. Their commitment to lean into divine wisdom was acknowledged specifically in the scriptures that depict events occurring in the timeline of during, throughout and following the Crucifixion and Resurrection. It is their actions that illustrate apostolic devotion.
The Church has once again recognized the contribution of Mary Magdalene’s leadership. On June 10, 2016, the Vatican’s Archbishop Roche issued a press release entitled ‘Mary Magdala, apostle of the apostles’extending earlier attention pertaining to the role of women in the early Church:
It was St. John Paul II who dedicated great attention not only to the importance of women in the very mission of Christ and the Church, but also, and with special emphasis, to the peculiar function of St. Mary Magdalene as the first witness of the Risen Christ and the first messenger who announced to the apostles the resurrection of the Lord
… This importance remains in today's Church – as shown by the current commitment to a new evangelisation – which seeks to welcome, without distinction, men and women of any race, people, language and nation, to proclaim to them the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to accompany them on their earthly pilgrimage and to offer them the wonders of God's salvation.
St. Mary Magdalene is an example of true and authentic evangelisation, that is, an evangeliser who proclaims the joyful central message of Easter … a messenger who announces the good news of the resurrection of the Lord; or, as Rabano Mauro and St. Thomas Aquinas said, 'apostolorum apostola', as she announces to the apostles what they in turn will announce to all the world. The Angelic Doctor is right to apply this term to Mary Magdalene: she is the witness to the Risen Christ and announces the message of the resurrection of the Lord, like the other apostles.
I draw attention to the words in bold, as it is encouraging to see the Vatican connecting the ‘Good News’ and Mary’s devout relationship to Jesus, including her ‘peculiar function’ in the Resurrection. It is ironic that what may seem ‘peculiar’ to a clergyman would not be peculiar to a progressively minded person. Mary Magdalene transcended the norms of her day, empowered to continue leading humanity in a new direction as espoused by her companion Jesus. But the Church has failed to identify the complex relationships within the inner circle of the disciples. As stated in the above text, the Vatican continues to compartmentalize Mary Magdalene into a singular empowered context of ‘action’ by describing her role as messenger. Being identified as an ‘apostle to the apostles’ as previously declared by Rabano Mauro (780-856 A.D.) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.) it is problematic to see her legitimate authority reduced to sharing intimate encounters with the Risen Christ so the apostles alone control the discourse and proclaim the Good News.
The patriarchal culture of the time, not wisdom, deemed male apostles as the official guardians charged to spread the teachings of Jesus with the rest of the world. Jesus travelled Galilee sharing the day’s encounters with all his lingering companions, not some. In an earlier event along the timeline of Jesus’ ministry, we are presented with a record of the Last Supper. It is impossible to imagine that any one of His disciples who may have been with Him that day would have been intentionally excluded. The open-table set for the traditional Passover (Exodus 12:1-4) would involve the entire circle of close relationships and this particular meal is a reflection of His wish for continued gatherings in love, gratitude and compassion. Knowing what the future will reveal, His symbolic Eucharistic celebration was a hopeful message that His teachings would continue long after He was gone. Jesus’ profound request to those gathered was simply “Do this in memory of me” (Matthew 26: 26; Mark 14: 22-25; Luke 22: 18-20; 1Corinthians 11: 23-25).
Despite being a source of support, present to experience the totality of Jesus Christ’s presence on earth, Mary Magdalene’s legacy as a leader of the early Church was crushed in an attempt to send her influence into oblivion. Today, women continue to be prohibited to answer their calling to be sacramental leaders. The rhetorical intention mentioned in the above press release presents the Church as an advocate for a new evangelization through a commitment of ‘inclusivity’. However, it is extremely disappointing to see Mary’s contribution reduced to a ‘peculiar function’. The lasting effect is borne by witnesses today in the ongoing prohibition against women becoming priests.
These are two examples of disempowering not only Mary Magdalene but all women, as the Church continues to oppress a visionary along with her female companions, both then and today. Gender marginalization affecting the identity of all Christians continues to be cloaked within a declared intention of inclusivity.
Gender Marginalization is Injustice
Scholars have provided evidence that gender marginalization has existed for centuries in societies around the world. The act to marginalize is to treat an individual or group as insignificant or peripheral. The ‘2010 Education for All Report’ prepared by UNESCO for the international community acknowledged that the underlying causes of marginalization within a given society are multifold and varied presenting a complex set of challenges (http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0018/001865/186525E.pdf). One challenge is the legitimized form of social exclusion that ultimately restricts participation in cultural arenas of thinking and reason. To describe an archetype of female disempowerment, O’Murchu provides an historical analysis attributing significant influence to western philosophers Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.). He has determined that centuries of thought reflect the “inevitable consequences of patriarchal dominance and control … Serious stuff must not be entrusted to them (women). Men alone are endowed with true rationality” (page 111).
Despite the dominant perspective promoted in both secular and religious domains of thought and decision-making, scholars acknowledge that the many women who followed Jesus cannot be forever overlooked. He travelled with a soulful community experiencing the full dimensions of humanity as intended for the word to be made flesh (John 1:14). Mutual sharing would have been a natural occurrence including feelings, thoughts, choices and plans for action. They would have listened, discussed, argued and discerned wisdom relevant to the issues of the day, creating new distinctions.
Yet the feminine voices and contributions to advance understanding remain silent. Mary Magdalene represents the majority who are marginalized, never allowed to speak as proven by the scripture writings. Her wisdom has been suppressed. Further, her character is made dubious due to her initial portrayal as an immoral human being, prior to being empowered by Jesus. Despite this, His outreach means there is no denying that she is a chosen one. It is perplexing that the Church remains unwavering to make significant change, perpetuating indignity to every women being silenced, both in word and deed. Many of the appointed leaders and young clergy argue ‘Why women can never be priests’ sustaining the strong resistance to challenge the status quo (http://bridgetmarys.blogspot.com/2017/11/a-reflection-on-insights-of-elizabeth.html).
O’Murchu provides numerous examples of cultural norms and explicit actions designed to marginalize both males and females. Subjugation creates a major restriction for humans to fully manifest their divine nature. As a covert objective of those invested in patriarchy, there are implied expectations specifically for men, to not only provide for their family, despite incredible restrictive circumstances, but to accomplish significant deeds to acquire status in community. This way of thinking stirs guilt as a debilitating form of internal oppression.
O’Murchu also argues that the Church’s patriarchal lens presents the personhood of Jesus as an ideal beyond the scope of possible human accomplishments, placing Him on a pedestal as a heroic model to be emulated. As we read the scriptures we can see that Jesus does not promote himself as being special. Importantly He speaks through the lens of ‘companionship for empowerment’. Sharing power is what empowerment means and Jesus explained it as a Divine right for humanity. This is an important distinction as the apostles thought that power resided in God’s Messiah alone. Philip feared for the future, questioning what would happen to their group if He ever left them:
10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. 12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. (John 14: 10-12)
Jesus was willing to accept God’s invitation thus able to access Divine inspiration. He reassured His disciples that Divine energy is readily available and meant to be shared. In this way God worked through Him, and if they were willing God is able to do the same with them.
The power of believing in His teachings of compassion and love manifests empowerment. In the above passage, an argument can be made that representing God as Father reflects the influence of dominant patriarchy. However, when viewing scripture as the ‘Living Word’, it is important to appreciate the cultural paradigm of the day, acknowledging Father represents membership in a family, serving as a guiding light. Father also provides the seed of life passed on to all His children both male and female (2 Corinthians 6:18).
It is a fact that women have had far less opportunity to realize their God given potential. A historical profile is emerging that over the centuries women have been prevented from engaging in spheres of discourse and influence, relegated to passive inferior roles in perpetual servitude to meet the needs of all males, young and old. Much more obvious are external secular and religious forces which fiercely collude to keep hierarchal patriarchy in place (page 34). The author spends considerable time deconstructing the history of complicity in Christendom to explain causes of exclusion.
Millions of people throughout the centuries have been indoctrinated into passive submission to a paradigm of a ruling, controlling God creating a mandate of obedience to Church leaders who deem themselves as guardians of earthly enforcement. In 1992, Pope John Paul II began apologizing for numerous grievances toward humanity including issuing a letter to all women for centuries of oppression. More recently Pope Francis is acknowledging, ‘errors of mind’ illustrating the rational and logical promotion of patriarchal codependence. Meghan Day outlined the golden age of papal apologies and generates ideas for more (https://timeline.com/were-in-the-golden-age-of-papal-apologies-but-here-are-some-ideas-for-more-9c5828b6cfca).
Yet there has been no movement to recognize women as equal partners worthy to participate in decision making. On the contrary, loyalty and tough sacrifices are demanded in a patriarchal paradigm ensconced in doctrinal edicts and regulations. Consequences are merciless for those who deviate when they express and act on their understanding of Jesus’ intended inclusivity (page 7). Internal and external oppression through the process of excommunication is the extreme punishment.
A red line has been restated. For example, on May 29, 2008, the Catholic News Agency reported a decree issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:
The Vatican declared today that any women who attempt “ordination” or any bishops who attempt to “ordain” women are automatically excommunicated from the Church by their actions. The decree from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is said to be absolute, universal and immediately effective. (https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/vatican_decrees_excommunication_for_participation_in_ordination_of_women)
Following this ruling, in August 2008, Father Roy Bourgeois, a priest in the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers order, delivered a homily in the Roman Catholic tradition at the ordination of an American woman priest Janice Sevre-Duszynska. He knew that excommunication was always a possibility, yet Father Roy publicly declared that his conscience gave him the courage to pronounce, “Exclusion of women from the priesthood is an injustice”.
Since that time, Father Roy was pressured to withdraw his support for the woman priest movement. Three years later, he outlined his refusal to recant in a letter addressed to his religious order. An excerpt follows that explains better than I ever could as to why the Church is complicit in legitimizing acts of gender marginalization. It is so powerful and pertinent to the times of today, that any further reduction would be negligent:
“As Catholics, we believe in the primacy and sacredness of conscience. Our conscience is sacred because it gives us a sense of right and wrong and urges us to do the right thing.
Conscience is what compelled Franz Jagerstatter, a humble Austrian farmer, husband and father of four young children, to refuse to join Hitler’s army, which led to his execution.
Conscience is what compelled Rosa Parks to say she could no longer sit in the back of the bus.
Conscience is what compels women in our Church to say they cannot be silent and deny their call from God to the priesthood.
And it is my conscience that compels me to say publicly that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is a grave injustice against women, against our Church and against our God who calls both men and women to the priesthood.
In his 1968 commentary on the Second Vatican Council’s document, Gaudium et Spes, Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, said: “Over the pope … there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary, even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority.”
What you are requiring of me is not possible without betraying my conscience. In essence, you are telling me to lie and say I do not believe that God calls both men and women to the priesthood. This I cannot do, therefore I will not recant.
Like the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement and the right of women to vote, the ordination of women is inevitable because it is rooted in justice. Wherever there is an injustice, silence is the voice of consent. I respectfully ask that my fellow priests, bishops, Church leaders in the Vatican and Catholics in the pews speak out and affirm God’s call of women to the priesthood”.
In October 2012, after serving his congregation for 45 years and refusing to recant his support for woman’s ordination, Roy Bourgeois was formally dismissed:
"The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on October 4, 2012, canonically dismissed Roy Bourgeois from the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, also known as the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. The decision dispenses the Maryknoll priest from his sacred bonds."
The above publication goes on to state the Maryknoll congregation finally released a rational for Father Roy’s excommunication, known as ‘late sententiae’ on November 12, 2012. The official report stated, "Disobedience and preaching against the teaching of the Catholic Church about women's ordination led to his excommunication, dismissal and laicization".
I believe that Father Roy’s legacy and on-going ministry as an empowered disciple will continue to have influence. It is so interesting to realize that our identity inherited from the early Christians portrays a willingness of conscience to put their lives on the line, defying Roman Imperialism and ensconced Jewish authority. So too are the actions of courageous men and women today who are challenging the injustice embedded in the patriarchal domination model that has subsumed Christianity’s foundational wisdom. O’Murchu offers encouragement with an impelling contrast:
“The sapiential Jesus, on the other hand, champions earthly and personal transformation through justice, equality and the fresh empowerment of all who have been oppressed and marginalized … a collaborative endeavor between God and people, with Jesus as the wise and empowering catalyst for new hope and transformation”. (page 35)
His use of ‘sapiential wisdom’ is interesting. The word sapiential is derived from Latin used by the early Christian Church meaning prudent discernment and wisdom. In other words, wisdom is found in our conscience, going beyond knowledge, for it reflects insight and judgment to discern inner qualities and relationships. The broader question becomes what inner qualities have we inherited from the Divine Mystery to overcome these man-made constraints of injustice?
Companionship of Empowerment
Mary Magdalene and her followers were silenced but in the stillness of words not spoken ‘Power of Action’ was revealed. It was Jesus who encouraged these women to draw on the God-given power to act. Sharing power is what empowerment means. Diarmuid O’Murchu enters the discourse by drawing on scholarly research primarily in the fields of theology and feminism to support his primary goal, which is to “bring alive once more the prophetic inspiration of foundational wisdom” and declares “we never lost it, and today it is being retrieved” (page 2). He researched the Aramaic word for kingdom which is malkuta and determined that it connotes ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’. The notion of ‘power with’ defines companionship as interactive relationships reflecting mutuality (page 30). Importantly, norms of respect are necessary to honour differences and the diverse gifts that individuals are encouraged to share (De Froy, 2006).
Traditionally, the Kingdom of God has been represented as a hierarchy or top down series of power relationships each demoting the status of individuals in a pyramid fashion. In contrast, O’Murchu posits that God’s new reign, brought about through the teachings of Jesus, needs to be reframed as interrelated circles that connect to form a ‘companionship of empowerment’ (page 18). In this context he argues it would represent a more faithful rendering of the Gospel vision necessary to meet the global challenges of today (page 32, 36). He notes scholarly research in the developing field of social exclusion is relatively new and argues that feminist research and gender analysis offers a better situated understanding of the character and experience of being marginalized.
After a lengthy discussion of power dynamics, O’Murchu provides his readers with the promising contrast of empowerment declaring that it has the potential for all living beings to live in the fullness of the creator’s divine promise. The contrast is eloquently provided in the parables of scripture illustrating attributes of compassion, grace and freedom found in everyday events depicting relationships, values, behaviours and consequences. It is in these parable stories that we are provided with examples of Jesus pushing back, providing alternatives to domination, violence, reward and punishment that prevails to this day (page 57).
To conceptualize wisdom in the constructivist framework of scholarly research, O’Murchu approaches two thousand years of ‘Christianity’ as a domain of knowledge and understanding, for some proponents, divine inspiration and revelation of truth. Also, he has expanded understanding by introducing ‘sapiential’ wisdom as the basis for the original inspirational teachings of Jesus (page 35). In the spirit of inclusion he has framed human interaction and participation as ‘Companionship of Empowerment’ for all. I would argue that conceptualizing foundational ‘sapiential’ wisdom as a domain worthy of further clarification, by applying a framework that draws on multi-dimensional fields of knowledge similar to the work of J. D. Crossan (1991) and his application of a matrix framework. This approach may provide better opportunities for movement to deal with gender marginalization.
My main argument to answer why women CAN become priests is due to the impossibility that the Church will remain immune from the secular forces of justice taking root around the world. Significant progress has already been made in the developed world and gender roles are being redefined. The strongest factor in the past century is the rapid changes evidenced by technological advances. Secrets of corruption within the walls of all institutions are being revealed and the lengthy history of church involvement is not exempt. Equality for women is only one form of oppression in a list spanning two thousand years.
Before injustice and relationships can heal, the Church has recently recognized how a request for mercy and forgiveness will help ease the pain and allow doors for action to open. Numerous articles have highlighted papal apologies since 1992. On June 29, 1995, Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to women throughout the world asking for forgiveness for the Church’s contribution to the prolongation of oppressive behaviour (https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/letters/1995/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_29061995_women.html). As the secular world evolves, eventually so will the Church.
In the context of ‘successive thought’, there is hope as Pope Francis has taken steps to reevaluate the role of women in Church history. The institution can be metaphorically compared to the Titanic in its ability to slowly change course. Practice illustrates that previous history, as recorded and interpreted by sanctioned precedents, must be referenced first. The following excerpt reflects the pope’s position in September 2013:
“We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised for various areas of the church.”
I appreciate the recognition of ‘feminine genius’ in the decision making process but what form will contributions take? Again the focus on ‘function’ is perturbing as it does not embody all that a woman has to offer. A Facebook quote by Bobby Schuller captures the limitations when personhood is reduced to function. "I'm not what I do. I'm not what I have. I'm not what people say about me. I am the beloved of God. It's who I am”. In the companionship tradition of Mary Magdalene and her followers, O’Murchu cites the principal of ubuntu by renowned African theologian John Mbiti (1990, page 113) stating “I am because we are” (page 52).
In other words, identity is derived through the lens of influencing relationships. Creating inclusive opportunities for participation implies varied levels of interaction. In this way, an individual’s unique gift may have a chance to be nurtured. Importantly there is always freedom of choice as to how we participate. Some may argue there are those living in conditions where they have no choice. However as a community, I believe that we each have a responsibility to address injustice so in these times of dramatic change and social upheaval, personal growth is aligned with inspirations for justice. This goal requires the support of companionship. The Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests has embraced this challenge in their constitution declaring:
We strive to live as justice makers in right relation to self, to others, and to the earth. Aware of the interconnectedness of all, we believe that action on behalf of justice is constitutive to the Gospels. Because we understand how unjust structures marginalize people on the basis of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and mental and physical challenges, we collaborate to create alternative structures that are inclusive of all and are deeply based in the traditions of social justice within our church. (https://arcwp.org/en/constitution/)
Change is on the horizon. On May 12, 2016, Pope Francis announced the formation of a commission to review church history and ascertain whether there is a precedent for women becoming deacons. It is unclear as to whether the parameter of inquiry will include priests and bishops in their investigation. The world is able to follow the commission’s progress with the help of technology (http://www.catholicwomendeacons.org/commissionwatch).
We are the Church, in holy assembly and congregation, who will ultimately experience the effects of eventual entropy or witness a reverse direction. We have an opportunity to evolve through encouraging interactions, which will ultimately fulfill the relational dynamics of life. Hope is grace that embodies Divine Mystery and despite man-made attempts to curtail change, events will continue to unfold evolving in the same way every element in the cosmos has been doing over the eons. I would argue that the women priest movement as ‘companionship for empowerment’ is possible because it is a progressive integral part of the cosmos’ natural evolution, taking lessons from the past to create new, just as Jesus intended.
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