Women and Power in Catholic Ministry by John Wijngaards

My 20 years as a missionary in India opened my eyes to the reality of life. One day I was visiting an Indian doctor, whom I shall call Azariah, and his lovely wife Pavani, in a small town in Medak District, Andhra Pradesh. As we were sitting at a biryani supper, a casualty was brought in, a young man hauled in on a bullock cart. His left leg had been mauled by a tractor. I was there in their danky makeshift operation theater when Azariah and Pavani began to amputate the poor man’s foot. I must admit that the sight of blood and smell of anaesthetics became too much for me. I slipped out before I would have fainted.

Azariah and Pavani belonged to the Church of South India. They had both completed their medical studies in England. But rather than remain in luxury, they had opted to return to India and work among the poor. “It’s all about power,” Azariah told me. “The power of money or the power of love.” “Most of the residents in the 66 villages that belong to our patch are agricultural labourers,” Pavani added. “They are totally at the mercy of the landlords, local officials, shopkeepers. We try to empower them to some extent. In each village we train one man or woman as a first aider. We provide them with plasters, bandages, aspirin, just the basics.”

I was reminded of this encounter when reading Pope Francis’s exhortation Querida Amazonia. In the section on women’s ministries, he recognizes that a number of distant Catholic communities are only kept alive by some “strong and generous women”. But he refuses to admit these women to holy orders, not even the diaconate which had been a request of many participants at the Amazon Synod. Instead of sacred power, these women should have more organizational power, the pope states, power contained in new enlarged lay feminine services. Such services should enjoy a level of authority, granting these women “a real and effective impact on the organization, the most important decisions and the direction of their communities”.

The pope defends his proposal by making a distinction. Men represent Christ, the Spouse of the community, by celebrating the eucharist as “sign[s] of the one Priest”. Women play a “tender, maternal role”, representing the body of the church, the Bride, and reflecting the ministry of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This should not be seen as a power struggle, the pope says: “This dialogue between the Spouse and his Bride . . . should not trap us in partial conceptions of power in the Church. The Lord chose to reveal his power and his love through two human faces: the face of his divine Son made man and the face of a creature, a woman, Mary.”

In other words: both men and women enjoy their own kind of “power” in the ministry. “Well, Pope Francis may have a point,” a priest told me. “Feminists judge everything in the light of naked power. They can’t see the fruitful interplay between distinct kinds of power in various situations. In prisons, wardens exercise control, rehabilitation officers educate and heal. In hospitals, surgeons operate, others provide nursing care for patients, and so on.”

“The trouble is in real life such diverse ‘powers’ are no longer gender specific,” I replied. “In Francis’s mind ministerial powers are. And, at the end of the day, the issue at stake is power.”

Power to Govern the Church

Why were women excluded from priesthood or episcopacy in the first place? In short, it was their perceived unsuitability for leadership roles. As research has convincingly shown, Roman custom and law played a decisive part in this. Roman family law made a husband the absolute lord and master of his wife. Roman civil law too limited women’s rights. Women could not hold any public office. They could not act in their own person in court cases, make contracts, or testify as witnesses. The reasons given in Roman law for restraining women’s rights are variously described as “the weakness of her sex” or “the stupidity of her sex.” The context makes clear that the problem did not lie in a woman’s physical weakness, but in what was perceived as her lack of sound judgement and her inability to think logically.

Historical studies document that in the early centuries some women did function as priests and bishops. This mainly happened in Hellenistic fringe communities, such as in the south of Italy. Celtic abbesses at times also governed male monasteries attached to their convents. In Saxon lands of the early Middle Ages we find abbesses carrying the title of Sacerdos (“priest”) and wielding considerable power, like Roswitha of Gandersheim (c. 935–973 AD). She administered a large territory in which she exercised ecclesiastical jurisdiction: she appointed local parish priests, oversaw the running of the parishes, and occasionally heard the confessions of her own sisters. She could not preside at the eucharist or ordain priests, but she wore a mitre and held a crosier. However, all such exceptions were gradually obliterated by the steamroller of Roman-based church law.

In the course of the centuries church leaders and theologians started putting religious “spins” on the exclusion of women. It was Jesus who was to blame. After all, he only appointed men as his apostles, didn’t he? And “do this in memory of me”—he only said that to men. Or Jesus and men act as the bridegroom, women like Mary as the bride. Or according to Pope John Paul II in recent years: “Christ incarnated as a man, a male. Only a man can truly represent him.”

But all the time, the real reason was the underlying conviction of women’s inferiority. This was what Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), the man heralded by popes as the greatest doctor of the church, champion of Catholic theology, touchstone of orthodoxy, expressed in his teachings. “God created man first, in his own image,” Aquinas lectured, “streamlining him for intellectual activity and leadership, making him the carrier of the seed that produces offspring. A woman is born as a mishap, an accident at conception. God created her to be subject to man, his helpmate. Her mind lacks acuteness. She is an imperfect human being. That is why she cannot represent Christ at the eucharist.” In short: women are incapable of wielding power. She cannot be entrusted with authority.

Pope Francis should abandon such spurious spins and acknowledge that this total undervaluation of women has been the real ground for excluding women from holy orders.

Denying Women the Power of Christ

Pope Francis also seems to forget that ordination does confer power on a person: spiritual power, the power to exercise the healing, teaching, and preaching leadership that ministry involves. By barring women from holy orders, he deprives them of the life-giving power they would possess. “To me has been given all authority in heaven and earth,” Christ said when he authorised his apostles to go out to preach the word, baptise, and make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18–20). The Apostle Paul was ordained by the community in Antioch (Acts 13:1–4). He knew that “the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power” (1 Cor. 4:20). This is not a power that degrades and corrupts; rather, it is a power that mends and that makes God’s love a reality.

Some of the women ministering in outlying Amazonian districts were allowed to speak at the Synod. Among them: Marcivana Rodrigues Paiva (Sateré Mawé tribe, Brazil), Patricia Gualinga (Kichwa tribe, Ecuador), Yesica Patiachi Tayori (Harakbut tribe, Peru) and Anitalia Claxi Pijachi Kuyuedo (Huitoto Ocaina tribe, Colombia). They told stories of communities surviving without a priest for decades. Year after year no eucharist, no confessions, no last sacraments. Catholics robbed of the sacramental power that makes Christ present. The catechist women ministering to them were left powerless.

In his book Ministry: Leadership in the Community of Jesus Christ, Edward Schillebeeckx, endorsed by many other theologians, showed that no Christian community can and should exist without the eucharist. Christ’s words “Do this in memory of me” empower each community to celebrate the eucharist. Deprived of ordained ministers through circumstances, whoever leads the community is ipso facto competent to preside at the eucharist. But there is no need for such extreme measures if the church itself ordains those leaders.

“But these women are not theologically trained,” one may object. “The church should not lower its standards . . .”

What standards? The elders who presided at the eucharist during the first centuries—mainly men, but also some women—had not enjoyed the sophisticated academic education now routinely required of candidates for the priesthood. Did the lack of that education make their ministry less effective? Of course, before receiving holy orders the women serving those deprived Amazonian communities should be given a basic course to provide guidance and direction. But if they are good spiritual leaders with a genuine call to ministry, they should be empowered to preside at the eucharist by the laying on of hands. It is the obvious response to the needs of God’s people.

“It’s all about power,” as doctor Azariah in Medak observed. “The power of money or the power of love.” In a church context, the supreme power of love is Christ’s power brought to us through the eucharist and the other sacraments. May we deny people that power because ancient prejudice judged women unfit to channel it? 

John Wijngaards is professor emeritus at the Missionary Institute London and founder of the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research. His new book, What They Don’t Teach You in Catholic College: Women in the Priesthood and the Mind of Christ, is forthcoming in 2020 from Acadian House Publishing in Lafayette, Louisiana.

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2 replies
  1. Margo Gravel-Provencher
    Margo Gravel-Provencher says:

    Voir mes réflexions théologiques sur la question de l’admission des femmes au sacerdoce ministériel. Pour ce qui concerne La Samaritaine, selon mes études sur le ministère sacerdotal, elle fait partie de la théologie du sacerdoce du Christ. Elle fut la première à recevoir la révélation du Christ. Je le suis, moi qui te parle Jn 4.

  2. Lala Winkley
    Lala Winkley says:

    Just rethinking the words of the
    ‘Hail Mary’. I hope people might find it helpful and

    full of the Grace of God’s Spirit,
    Blessed are you, woman, for you bore our God to be born a human.
    JESUS the Christ

    So Mary, we ask you as
    Mother of our God and our mother, Pray for us all now, every minute
    of our lives and at the hour of our death.



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