Dr. Anne Inman of New Ash Green in Kent had the following letter published in The Tablet on September 11, 2021, “What does the Catholic Church have to say about the Taliban announcement that women can work for the government since almost half of the workers are women, but ‘in the top posts…there may not be a woman’ (BBC Pashto interview, 1 September)?”
My first reaction was to remember the question posed by Myroslaw Tataryn in his delightful letter to Pope Francis on this blog (August 27, 2021): “So dear brother, why are we afraid to say, enough of the charade of an exclusively male priesthood?”
I happened at the time to be reading the Diary of Jesus Christ by New York-based Jesuit playwright Bill Cain. In one of his pieces, an imaginative riff on the choosing of the 12, (He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him—Mark 3: 13) he places Jesus in consultation with Mary Magdalene before he makes his choice. After the public announcement of the 12 he tells her he thinks it went well and is happy. She seems cold and replies “well, good on you,” and walks away. Jesus doesn’t get it and says, “Let’s celebrate tonight. Let’s have a party.” She says, “Fine. Who are you going to get to cook?” Finally, aware that things have gone wrong between them, Jesus says, “You are angry with me…are you angry with me for not choosing you?” Magdalene says, “I am angry that it didn’t cross your mind. And—to be fair—I am angry that it didn’t cross mine…when all the names were called, you said these are the ones I want. Seeing the joy, the rapture, the delight of those being called, I suddenly felt something I had never felt with you. Un-chosen. Omitted. Passed-over.” Jesus says, “But you are more dear to me than any of them. You are the one I go to to choose them”— but they both know that something remained unresolved—"we were silent. There was nothing to say.”
As with Jew and Gentile, with master and slave, now with man and woman (Gal. 3: 28) the full implications of the Gospel message—for Jesus himself, and a fortiori for us—requires historical development. Changing moral sensibility, scientific evidence and all that make up “the signs of the times” conspire to throw new light on old truths. We are at such a moment now with regard to the role of women and men in the Church. It is of course much too crude to simply equate the stance of the Church to that of the Taliban. But when women in the Catholic Church are now so conscious of not being taken seriously for so long, their feelings and thoughts not given equal value, then there is a real crisis, a time of “discernment.” And with all due recognition of the dangers of clericalism and its need of reform, it is simply disingenuous to refuse female ordination on the grounds that the Church doesn’t want to “clericalize” women—if clericalism is intrinsically evil, why continue to ordain men?
At times it seems as if the Church authorities, while recognizing that something is amiss, are failing to engage sufficiently urgently in what many seem to view as a comparatively minor concern deriving largely from privileged interests in the developed world. Perhaps some of the talk of “ideology,” “isolated consciences,” “elites” is sourced in this perception? I recall again on this blog the 34th General Congregation of the Jesuits in 1995 when there was resistance among some Jesuits to call attention to the unequal status of women in the Church on the grounds that it was prompted by a Western agenda that did not respect regional cultural autonomy. Fortunately, some of our members had access to a high-ranking Filipino U.N. official working in the area of Human Rights who assured us—I paraphrase—that more sins were committed against women all over the world in the name of cultural autonomy than anything else.
Pope Francis has opened up a space of discernment and of open and honest debate in the Church. I think we need to keep faith with this synodal process, with courage (parrhesia) and constancy (hypomene). In doing so we cannot shirk the mutual listening and engagement between those who understand the ban on the ordination of women to be based on dubious Scriptural foundations and an unpersuasive theological tradition, and those who sincerely object to what they perceive as a betrayal of tradition for the sake of a faddish accommodation to modernity. This “not shirking” can be wearisome: most of us don’t enjoy conflict and this can feel like nagging, especially when the episcopal custodians of the current status quo are often palpably decent and kind men. But, as Pope Francis himself noted inimitably in a recent interview on the complex issues involved for all of us in discernment (La Croix International, COPE, September 1, 2021), “The devil runs around everywhere, but I’m most afraid of the polite devils—those who ring your door bell and ask permission to come into your home…they are the worst ones and one is very deceived."
Peace is a Christian gift, but so too is holy lamentation, and the subversive memory of Jesus that constantly disturbs our peace.
Gerry O’Hanlon, S.J., is an Irish Jesuit theologian and author.