When I initially read Patricia Wittberg’s article, I was saddened, concerned and yet a bit surprised that I, as a 23-year-old, young practicing Catholic woman, was apparently a member of a minority. These thoughts, however, were all far from my mind as I headed to teach my first grade catechism class about Lent. To get them into the mindset to start considering what sin is and how we receive forgiveness, I asked a volunteer to help me demonstrate what the sacrament of reconciliation is like.
Before we began the enactment, I said to the class: “Now, I’m going to pretend to be the priest. But as you know, I am a girl and therefore I can’t be a priest.” Immediate uproar ensued from the girls and boys alike. The girls instantaneously in unison responded with “What?! That’s not fair! Why not?” and the boys proudly embraced their position with cheers: “Boys rule! You can’t because you’re a girl.”
I completely understood where these girls were coming from. They were raised in a world where every adult tries to make things as “fair” as possible for them, and they have also been told that girls can do anything just as well as boys.
My response was to go with the very watered-down theology of “because Jesus was a man.” Another round of “Not fairs” began. And again I agreed with them. It broke my heart. I felt like such a hypocrite for everything I had ever taught them in my classroom. For the past five months, I spent every week reiterating that God loves us unconditionally and equally, that he wants the best for us, that Jesus was a man who preached justice and fairness and a million other Catholic-isms that in one minute were undone for these kids because girls can’t be priests. The most important positions in the church are not an option for over half my class.
Why are young women not going to church? Because they, like my first graders, were once told that they do not have the option to pursue the ministry of the priesthood. They were baptized priest, prophet and king, but their options to minister in the role of a priest ends as a layperson (or religious, who again have no place in the church’s hierarchy). Who can blame young women for not wanting to be a part of that?
Farmington Hills, Mich.R-E-S-P-E-C-T
Of course young women are not attracted to the church. Why would anyone be drawn to an institution that seems to have such little respect for them?
Women are not being listened to adequately. Women’s experience too often appears to be ignored or disdained. Like most women, I am not interested in a form of “feminism” that has been developed by men and imposed on me as “authentic.” The church has repeatedly failed to seek out, value or listen to the experience of women. Rather, leaders still continue to write of us as the “other.”
Most of the activities that in an earlier day required women to be members of a religious order if they wished to undertake them can now be done in the secular world. You don’t have to be a sister to teach, to be a nurse, to be a missionary or even to get an advanced education. Moreover, the opportunities women have in the secular world are far more determined by their skills than by their gender. Why should it be surprising that women focus there?
If the church truly values women, it will address their experience of these issues rather than ignore, stifle or spin them. I say this as a minister who is loyal and loves the faith despite these grave deficiencies, and I continue to encourage young women to see the church as a spiritual home. Unfortunately, all too often the voice that discourages them comes from the church’s leaders—not from the secular world.
Margot Van Etten
Rochester, N.Y.Social Pressure
Patricia Wittberg’s article touched on several issues of concern. But it seems that her solutions fall short of resolving the underlying malaise she describes. At best, her solutions are only partial because the problems extend to both sexes, i.e., all the laity. For example, we read in the public press of surveys that reveal, with disputed accuracy, the frequency of heretical opinions among the Generation X group of Catholic women and the high use of contraceptives by the millennial group of young Catholic women. For the most part, these women have Catholic spouses who share their wives’ views or at least mentally tag along.
These misguided souls look around them and find that the rest of humanity agrees with them and that the church stands mute. My observation is that about 90 percent of the people at Mass receive Communion. Too many of those receiving the host are probably not in the state of grace, yet nary a word from the pulpit suggests that anything is amiss.
While an acceptable development, the ordination of women probably would be taken as “giving in to pressure” and would not generate much toward curing other ills of the church. In fact, such action would most likely generate a demand for more “relaxation” of other traditions. The church loses vitality during periods of flaccid shepherding, and it now appears as vulnerable and as unresponsive to various ills as in the time of Martin Luther.
Pawleys Island, S.C.An Answered Prayer
In prayer I began to question God about ideas I encountered in graduate school studying theology—ideas that focused on Christian feminism, the concept of church and the all-male hierarchy. When I first asked about this matter, I literally approached God in fear and trembling because my conservative upbringing had told me that even thinking about these issues was akin to heresy.
I honestly think I would have ignored the issue if it hadn’t been for my dad’s ordination to the diaconate. I was proud of him and happy for him, but I found myself wrestling with his ordination. I didn’t yet know what was moving in my heart, but I kept thinking of how many fewer classes he had to take compared with those required for my basic master’s degree. This man who had encouraged me that I could do anything he could do was no longer able to say that when it came to the church. It hurt both of us. When I ask him about his views today, he understands that the church needs to transform to meet God’s will for the future. And I saw on that day that my dad would help me with my vocation.
Still, I continue to cry out to God about what the church has said to young adults: that God only allows men to the priesthood, that Jesus only selected men as apostles in his ministry and that only men are capable of being “ontologically changed” in the sacrament of holy orders.
The next morning after my conversation with my dad, I woke up early enough to attend a weekday Mass. It was July 4, Independence Day and the birthday of the United States of America. The priest was on vacation, so instead of a Mass, the parish held a Communion service. The presider was a woman; the lector was a woman; and the eucharistic minister was a woman. In this eye-opening moment, I wept in relief that God had heard my prayer. I had seen the future of my church on a quiet morning service in the celebration of the Eucharist.
Washington, D.C.More Spiritual Vessels
I am a 59-year-old cradle Catholic mother of two daughters who were raised in the faith and no longer attend Mass or consider themselves Catholic, largely due to the way the church treats its female laypeople. I have remained in the church and attend Mass only because I realize the church is run by human beings, who, even if they are very holy or very smart, are nonetheless human beings. And human beings make mistakes.
The argument against female ordination was always that none of the 12 Apostles were women, which is ridiculous. If that were a good premise, then we should probably say that women should not be educated either, because so few were schooled back then. Oh, and let’s keep Catholic parishes in the South segregated, because it was what used to be acceptable. So funny that the male hierarchy often sees women as the more spiritual vessels, yet will not allow us into the priesthood! And they forget that Jesus treated his female followers as equals. If Jesus could treat men and women as respected equals, why can’t our church?
Vienna, Va.Call Waiting
A person who attended a Call to Action seminar reported that when invited, over 150 women stood up who felt they had a “call” to priesthood. I am just wondering if “call” is not being confused with “right to become.” I have found that Ms. Wittberg’s article has created a foggy area between politics and the Holy Spirit. This is not a bad thing. The subject is worthy of serious contemplation. But which is the driving force? Which is the influence? Cultural norms or the Holy Spirit? Should women be ordained as priests because it is relative to today’s society? This seems to take us to what Pope Benedict has been talking about all along: the dictatorship of relativism.
Vancouver, B.C., CanadaWho Will Stay?
Many U.S. bishops and Vatican officials lack real experience with women in general and with women in leadership positions. Because they lack such experience and because many travel in narrow social, intellectual and theological circles, they are incapable even of imagining, much less trusting in, what a church full of educated lay people empowered by the documents of Vatican II might look like or accomplish. These bishops are blind to the movement of the Spirit and deaf to the sensus fidelum, even as they beatify John Cardinal Newman.
Bishops should reread the Scriptures and notice Jesus’ love for and trust in women. New Testament women had many more extended conversations with Christ than did men. Like the women of the modern church, they are always present, always doing what needs to be done.
I attended a semester-long afternoon class at a nearby parish last fall. About 20 female practicing Catholics, age 55 to 85, gathered weekly. The class was on the Scriptures, not on feminism. All the women had been active and faithful members of their parish, devoting countless hours of service to the church and the parish school. All had raised their children in the church.
At the end of the semester, a discussion revealed that all these faithful women had doubts about their own ability to stay in the church. All had considered leaving for another denomination because of the church’s treatment of women and the arrogance of the hierarchy. While all remain in love with their faith, their parish and their church, all voiced the feeling that the spiritual, intellectual, psychological and emotional energy expended in letting go of their sorrow and anger over the statements of many bishops was wearing.
Most of their children and grandchildren had embraced other churches. None of these women felt they should impose their life-long faith on their families, whose reasons for abandoning Catholicism seemed reasonable and valid.
A similar discussion took place in the evening class, a somewhat younger and more diverse group. Though this was only a small sample, the words of the women in these groups, combined with the data in Wittberg’s article, are sobering. The women who spoke are the very women who have remained faithful to the Catholic vision through thick and thin, served as their children’s first catechists and taken on the day-to-day labor needed to support parish work. If the children of these women are leaving the church, who will stay?
Mary Brennan Ziegler
Oak Park, Ill.