Thoughts on Religious Vocations: An Open Letter to Pope Francis I
May 5, 2017
His Holiness, Pope Francis PP.
00120 Via del Pellegrino
Citta del Vaticano
Most Holy Father:
I write to you as a Catholic mother, wife, writer, teacher and student of my own Roman Catholic faith. I write this as “an open letter.”
Like so many of my fellow Roman Catholics, I pray, this week, with a special focus on vocations.
Like so many of my fellow Roman Catholics I have celebrated, lately, the possibility that you may be considering loosening the celibacy requirement for our priests. While recognizing that some who are called to the priesthood view celibacy a gift, I know that for many priests, celibacy is not a gift.
I know that we already have married priests in our church, and that for (roughly) the first half of Church history, priests married. I know too that most of our married priests come to us from other traditions as “vir probati.” Having served as priests in their original traditions, they convert, undertake preparation for Holy Orders and are ordained into the Apostolic Succession by the Vatican.
I come to thinking about the question of married priests with a belief that sexuality when infused with respect, commitment and love, is a gift from God. As a Catholic poet, I have long admired the sacred eroticism found in the verse of our Catholic mystic poets. Erotic love has the potential to remind us of God’s passion love for us. Sensuality, which, of course goes beyond sex, permeates Catholic life.
As a woman married for more than thirty years, who has been blessed with three (now grown) children, and who has persevered in a marriage that has, at times, been profoundly troubled, I can attest to the power marriage can have to catalyze spiritual growth, and increase maturity, gratitude, devotion and faith. So too, has being a parent intensified my faith and belief. I have, for example, always loved, enjoyed and respected children. But motherhood increased my concern for the earth children born today will inherit, that created world Your Holiness so lyrically praised in Laudato Si !
For these reasons, I celebrate the possibility that we might soon see more and more married priests serving on our altars.
As a feminist Catholic, however, I feel conflicted.
I believe that to explore the ordination of married priests without casting even a glance in the direction of the many women who are called to ordination sends an excruciating message to Catholic women and the world beyond The Church.
I know that Your Holiness has affirmed Saint John Paul II’s teaching that the door is closed on the discussion of ordaining women, but we are a Church of miracles and I continue to pray for the day girls holding their mothers’ hands at Sunday mass will no longer have cause to feel somehow unfit to answer the call to ordination.
I believe that the tradition of upholding papal rulings of Your Holiness’s immediate predecessors and the fear of schism account for the refusal to even allow a dialogue among Catholic scholars and theologians of the question of ordaining women. I am no expert on my church but I love to read and I know that almost always the choice to silence opposition in questions of justice is a response driven by fear.
Still, I hold out hope that a shift in the Vatican’s disposition towards married (male) priests might, in time, lead to a more expansive view of ordaining women. I hold out hope that the Divine light of a pure truth might, in time, push through the door the advance of married priests has left a bit ajar.
I understand that increasing the number of married priests will facilitate the assigning priests to regions where Catholics currently lack access to sacraments and the celebration of Mass. That is so very necessary; ironically, in many of those priest-free communities, it is women who are keeping Catholic faith and tradition alive. Are they not fit for ordination?
I am familiar with the argument that excluding women from the priesthood not a matter of “fitness.” Canon Law clearly requires that ordinands be “baptized men.” That same body of (Canon) law also prohibits married men from serving as priests.
Saint John Paul II broke Canon Law as it pertains to ordination when he began to allow married priests from Eastern Rites and Episcopal traditions to become Roman Catholic priests.
I know that arguments advanced by Pope Benedict XVI and Saint John Paul II, and promulgated via Saint Pope John Paul II’s 1994 Apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacredotalis put an end to the debate about ordaining women. But we kept talking.
Your Holiness has reiterated the claim that the Church lacks the authority to ordain women.
I believe the Church does have the authority to ordain women, and that the Church not only has the authority to ordain women, but also the obligation to do so.
I recognize that it falls to the Magisterium (the teaching Office of the Church) to distinguish, for the benefit of Catholics, between man-made (ecclesiastical) law and Divine law” (law handed down by God). The Magisterium currently holds that Divine Law prohibits the ordination of women.
“Divine Law” can change, because we know that Divine Law has, on rare occasions throughout history, changed.
A strong tradition whereby Supreme Pontiffs uphold teaching promulgated by their immediate predecessors exists in our church, but I believe this tradition is a poor reason for perpetuating injustice and bigotry. Certainly there is some teaching advanced by your papal predecessors which Your Holiness would refuse to uphold.
Like so many Catholics and non-Catholics I celebrate your readiness, Your Holiness, to put God and conscience before (both civil and ecclesiastical) politics.
A Church that refuses to ordain women, has no standing in preaching against bigotry. How can we (The Church) condemn misogyny and prejudice with so great a log in our eye? Are we not called to teach by example?
As Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” “an unjust law is no law at all.” The Church is not a state. I believe a Church which emphatically embraces a “separate but equal” approach its most holy sacraments compromises or forfeits entirely its right to condemn sexist, “separate but equal” and discriminatory practices in our temporal, political world.
I believe that all injustice goes against Christ.
The law which stipulates that priests must be male is an unjust law.
I notice that many people both within and outside of the Church do not fully see how strong the principle of the female divine is in our Church. I am thinking of the powerful legacy of our women Church doctors and saints, and our devotion to the Mary. I think these have kept many Roman Catholic feminists who might otherwise depart the church, engaged and active in Catholicism.
We (women) are often reminded, by proponents of a male-only priesthood, that there are many ways in which women can serve in our Church. These do not much mitigate the long and deep discrimination at hand.
It is true that strength of the presence of the Female Divine Principle has been forcefully present in Catholic scholarship, worship and art. It is true that there are many Roman Catholic women who do not object in the least to the bigotry keeps an all-male priesthood in place. However, with all due respect, Your Holiness, I have come to believe that Vatican’s failure to rigorously address the issue of women’s ordination is a sin.
We cannot engage in oppression engaging in it. We cannot claim moral high ground on matters of social justice when we practice sexism and misogyny in our own church. The secular world needs to hear our voice of justice and peace but when it comes to discrimination against women, our fish appears to the world to rot from the head down.
In the past year, you have said so much about the need to increase women’s leadership in the Church. I was so grateful to see so much discussion of women in Amoris Laetitia. Your Holiness has not been blind to the extent to which women’s work is already keeping churches afloat and operating. Your Holiness has taken special note, radical note, really, of the gifts of women.
But I am not sure that any man, even one so full of devotion and love as Your Holiness, can understand how it feels to be a girl growing up in a church, asking for the first time, “Why are there no women priests?”
I have been blessed with the opportunity to sponsor three young women in Confirmation and, truly, discussing the all-male priesthood with the confirmands in my care has been discouraging and demoralizing.
In New York City where I live, women deliver the Eucharist to the sick, clean churches, teach in Catholic schools, minister to the sick and dying in Catholic hospitals, serve as cantors at mass, proclaim readings on altars and distribute the Eucharist at mass. Even in very conservative parishes, one sees more women than men on altars and in the pews. In recent years, I have had the great privilege to take part in masses in Europe and in Mexico where, even in very traditional Roman Catholic communities, I have seen more women than men both on the altar and in the pews.
In one interview a few years back, Your Holiness characterized women as “the strawberries on the cake.” I confess, that I would probably find this remark charming coming from Your Holiness, were it not for the backwards and excruciating tradition of our Church to persist in declining to honor the priestly vocations of women.
News broke this week that the president of my nation will soon enjoy an audience with Your Holiness. Donald Trump is a man who has shown profound disrespect for the poor, school children and women. How I wish our Church might have full moral authority to chastise Donald Trump for his bigotry and misogyny. How I wish there were no log in our eye.
I believe that if the world survives the current United States president, the Vatican will , in time, ordain women.
When it becomes an economic necessity and the survival of the Church depends upon it. And not a moment earlier.
I wish it were otherwise. I wish justice and not expedience might be the cause for such a shift.
I am often asked, by non-Catholic friends about the Vatican’s reasoning for refusing to honor the vocations of women who are called to serve as priests. I answer that because they are Christ’s semblance on earth, priests must, according to Catholic teaching, be men.
But Jesus was also a brown Palestinian Jew who came of age in the Temple. Why, then, does the Church ordain red-headed Irishmen and uncircumcised Nigerians?
I note the claim that there were no women “apostles.” But there are places in the New Testament (Paul) where women are called apostles. Most Catholics agree that there were women disciples.
I mention the concept of the Church as “mother,” and that priests are called “the bridegroom” of the church., that nuns are often been called “Brides of Christ.” Are not all priests, in some metaphorical senses, spouses of both Christ and the Church? Christian scripture and cosmology are rich with metaphor. The metaphor of the bridegroom, lovely as it is, assumes a taint when it is used in the service of prejudice.
As a poet I know that poetry should expand our souls not to bind us to injustice.
Some traditional Catholics point to the order of the priests of Melchizedek, who was called to the priesthood but not born into it (born being more the norm). The Jewish priesthood of antiquity was indeed restricted to men, but Christianity discarded much of Jewish religious in short time. Jesus of Nazareth labored on the Sabbath, ate at unclean tables and prayed with women — -all of which were forbidden by Jewish law. And the Hebrew priests were not rabbis; they collected tithes and presided over the Temple. The modern-day Jewish counterpart to a Roman Catholic cleric is a “rabbi,” the word Magdalen is believed (by Christians) to have used in addressing Jesus.
Catholics who favor a woman-free priesthood like to cite the putative absence of women at The Lord’s Supper (The Last Supper). Were women present at the last supper? Those who claim to know for certain speak dishonestly. The Gospels do not tell us that women were absent from The Lord’s Supper. As a woman who has prepared a Passover Seder every year for the last three decades, I find it hard to believe that no women were present for the blessing and breaking of the bread. Women have special obligations relative to Preparation Day and the Pesach meal. (Who cooked?)
It seems important for those accepting the argument that women were absent from the Last Supper “on faith” to bear in mind the margin of error involved (problems of translation, the “as told to” aspects of the scriptures, etc.) in documenting this holy event, and that men shaped by their time — -the Roman Empire, The Dark and Middle Ages, the Western Europe of the Inquisitions — -presided over the translating and codifying of the Christian Bible.
When, while explaining to non-Catholics the reason for our all-male clergy, I come to the Canon Code aspect of our failure to ordain women, I explain that the Canon Code — -the same body of law that forbids the ordination of married men — -forbids the ordaining of women.
I tell non-Catholics who query me the truth; there is no legitimate justification for denying women Roman Catholic ordination. I tell them it goes against Jesus.
Recently, in the United States, women held a protest dubbed “a day without women.” Women took to the streets. It was problematic. Poor women with employment outside their homes lacked the liberty to join. Teachers of children felt obliged to work that day. Women with small children, and women who take care of children — -whether their own or the children of others — -found themselves constrained.
This “ Day Without Women” occurred at the beginning of the second week of Lent. The timing prompted me to wonder how a Lent without women might look?
What if, in the name of Jesus and his Mother Mary, all Roman Catholic women and men joined forces to give up church for Lent?
What if women and their allies decided to give up singing in church choirs, teaching in Catholic schools, attending mass, tithing, serving on altars, receiving sacraments, preparing students for sacraments, working as administrators, cleaners and secretaries in churches and working in church-sponsored ministries. What if women gave up Church for Lent? What if all Catholic, feminist women, who would, no doubt, enjoy great support among their male allies, decided, on moral grounds and in Christ’s name, to be absent from mass?
What if every Roman Catholic feminist in the world were to give up tithing for Lent?
The synoptic Gospels do appear to inform us that Jesus of prayed with women, travelled with women, included women in his ministry, was accompanied by women as he died on the cross, and was greeted by woman on the morning of the Resurrection.
It is not just women who wait outside that door Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI slammed shut, Your Holiness. Jesus is standing at that door.
I am not an expert on my church. I am a Catholic mother, wife, poet and teacher. I write to knowing that such addresses as this one are highly “unorthodox.” I recognize that Your Holiness is unlikely to read these words.
I wish to express my gratitude for all that Your Holiness has done to bring authentic Christian teaching to our contemporary world.
Michele Madigan Somerville
New York City, US
May 5, 2017