Catholic Women Need to Challenge Hierarchy for Good of the Church

By Laura Beth Bugg
Sydney Morning Herald
October 22, 2010

St Mary of the Cross now joins the ranks of women deemed worthy of canonisation because of extraordinary works, virtuous behaviour, service and leadership but not worthy of serving as priests.

Australians have connected with different aspects of St Mary's story - her passion for the marginalised and her perseverance despite adversity. But her story also illustrates how the Catholic Church hierarchy continues to impede women's deeply held commitments and aspirations.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, nuns like St Mary challenged not only the expectations that larger society had for women, but also the authority of priests and bishops who shared a different vision for their work. Since that time, nuns, along with countless other Catholic laywomen, have led social movements, worked to establish schools, orphanages and hospitals and have served the sick, the poor and those on the margins of society. Often they have done it on impossible budgets, in dire physical and political conditions, and with little or no institutional support.

With a shortage of priests in many countries, nuns and laywomen now perform sacraments such as confession, anoint the sick or offer communion. In some rural and remote areas, they serve as parish priests in all but name. But because they are lay people, and not clerics, they are vulnerable, as St Mary was, to intrusions from the authority of bishops.

Only ordained clerics can preside at the Eucharist, hear confessions, and make decisions about property, politics and theology. Just this year, the Vatican released a document that deemed both the ordination of women priests and paedophilia as graviora delicta, or "grave crimes" against the church.

So why does the Catholic Church take such a stand? It gives two primary reasons for denying women ordination as priests. First is that Jesus selected only men as apostles and, second, that during the sacraments the priest acts in persona Christi - in the person of Christ - so that person must, like Christ, be a man.

The church argues that woman is, by her nature, different from man, because of her role in original sin and God's command that man should rule over her. Of course, the Catholic Church shares this with other religious traditions.

Growing up in the Southern Baptist denomination in the United States, I, too, could not have been ordained as a pastor. And women within Theravada Buddhism are fighting for their right to serve as bhikkhunis, or monks. Each of these denominations, along with Islam and Orthodox Judaism, sings the same song with a slightly different tune - women can't be at the top because of authority, tradition or nature.

But there are those who struggle against this pattern. This past week a woman was ordained a Catholic priest in Canada. The church did not sanction her ordination, and she will shortly be excommunicated. Roman Catholic Womenpriests, a movement for women's ordination that began in 2002, supervised the ordination. Since that time nearly 100 women worldwide have been ordained, although none have been recognised by the church.

These are not women who wish to break off from the church; they want to reimagine it. There are yet other Catholic feminists who understand the very concept of priesthood and the hierarchical structure of the church as fatally flawed. They do not wish to see women as priests, but to see the entire Catholic community as one that is radically democratic and committed to peace-making, justice and community building.

As St Mary's celebration recedes, there is already talk of another Josephite, Sister Irene McCormack, becoming Australia's next saint.

Sister McCormack lived and worked among the poor in a remote village in Peru. When the male priests left the village because of threats of violence, Sister McCormack stayed. She and a fellow sister led communion, celebrated the Eucharist, and performed weddings and baptisms. She said that her work among the poor freed her to exercise her ministry, and admitted frustration over the church's denial of collaborative ministry to women and married clergy.

In 1991, armed members of the Communist Party of Peru, commonly known as the Shining Path, stormed Sister McCormack's village and marched her into the town square. She was shot in the back of head - murdered for her willingness to stay and serve as "unofficial" priest to the village.

The Second Vatican Council declared in 1964 that expressing opinions "on matters concerning the good of the church" was an obligation of the faithful. Perhaps the legacy of St Mary and others like her who have spoken out boldly and faithfully will be to inspire new generations to speak to the structures of hierarchy and patriarchy that choke the church and countless other religious institutions.

As St Mary wisely advised: "Never see a need without doing something about it".

Dr Laura Beth Bugg is a lecturer in sociology of religion at the University of Sydney.


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