The Synod on Synodality is exploding ideas all over the church. Some on the extreme right hope for Tridentine Masses. Some on the far left hope for changes in teachings on sex and gender. Folks in the middle just want more respect for and better recognition of women.
To no one’s surprise, the working document for the synod’s “continental phase” recognized women as the backbone of the church. It also admits that many women feel denigrated, neglected and misunderstood, symptomatic of narcissistic clericalism infecting clergy. Many national synod reports sent to the Vatican from bishops’ conferences around the globe presented the desire for women to be present in church governance, certified as preachers and in the diaconate.
Pope Francis’ recent comments about women are not helpful. Yes, on the aircraft returning from Bahrain in early November, he decried treating women as “second-class citizens.” But in a Nov. 24 speech before the International Theological Commission (27 men, five women) Francis took aim at dissident Old Catholic Churches that ordain women — he did not distinguish whether as priests or as deacons — while at the same time saying he would like to increase the number of women on that very commission.
Speaking with America, the Jesuit magazine, a few days later, Francis used the theology of Swiss priest Hans Urs von Balthasar to cancel the idea of women in ministry, while approving of women in management. Von Balthasar, a close associate of Joseph Ratzinger (the retired Pope Benedict XVI) presented two principles that put women in their place: the “Petrine principle,” which defines ministry as masculine, and the “Marian principle,” which defines the church as female.
As Francis told America’s interviewers: “And why can a woman not enter ordained ministry? It is because the Petrine principle has no place for that. Yes, one has to be in the Marian principle, which is more important. Woman is more, she looks more like the church, which is mother and spouse. I believe that we have too often failed in our catechesis when explaining these things.”
Toward the end of his comments on women, he recommended a “third way”: Increase the number of women in administrative positions, in management.
So that is that. Management, but not ministry.
The Petrine theory is the root of the so-called argument from authority against women priests: Jesus chose male apostles, and the church is bound by his choice. Only priests can have governance and jurisdiction; they are ordained “in persona Christi capitas ecclesiae” — in the person of Christ the head of the church. That rules out women in positions of genuine authority.
The surprise in the Marian theory is that older documents say the diaconate is and acts “in the name of the church.” So, if the church is female, then ordained deacons should mirror that fact.
To complicate matters, the priesthood came about some two centuries after the diaconate. History records ordained women deacons up through the 12th century, with bishops ordaining women as deacons using liturgies often identical to those for male deacons. The bishops invoked the confirmation of the Holy Spirit and placed a stole around the ordained women’s necks. Most importantly, the bishops called these ordained women deacons.
For too long, theologians battled over whether diaconal ordination was a sacrament, but that was apparently first resolved at the 16th century Council of Trent. So, women were sacramentally ordained as deacons. It will not take a third Vatican Council to reaffirm that.
Or will it? Lately, the question of ordination for women seems restricted to the growing requests for women priests. Even Francis uses that shorthand. But the tradition of ordaining women as deacons could easily be restored. Benedict XVI even changed canon law in 2009 to emphasize the fact that the diaconate is not the priesthood.
o, which is it? As the Synod on Synodality enters its “continental phase,” the tide could be turning against women in ministry. Does the working document’s call for “a diaconate of women” mean ordained women deacons, or something else? If it means something else, why? Is it because the deacon is ordained to act and to be “in the person of Christ, the servant?” Does it indicate an official teaching that women cannot image Christ?
No doubt, the theological hair-splitting is lost on the people of God. But the church is dangerously close to losing even more members when it states — or seems to state — that women cannot image Christ — that is, that women are not made in the image and likeness of God. That is not a good stance for the Vatican. It is something papal briefers and speechwriters need to recognize, and soon.
Anne Tropeano is ironing her clothes in preparation for a busy day ahead. She gets out her white alb and her ornately embroidered chasuble, garments worn by Catholic priests around the world. On a calendar on her wall, bold red pen marks that tomorrow is “Ordination day”.
But she is also on the phone hiring a security guard for the service in a church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she lives – as she anticipates there could be hostility.
“It’s a tense issue, not everybody is open to even considering the possibility of women being called to priesthood,” she says. It’s not only harassment in person that Tropeano is concerned about. Since sharing her hopes of becoming a Catholic priest, she says she’s experienced “breath-taking” online harassment.
Tropeano is one of over 250 women across the world who are part of the Roman Catholic woman priest movement, a group who are taking part in unauthorised ordination services to become priests, in an act of defiance against the Roman Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church does not allow women to be priests. In fact, the Vatican sees it as a serious crime in canon law that is punishable by excommunication. This means the women, once they’ve taken part in an ‘ordination’, are unable to receive the sacraments, including communion, or have a church funeral.
“Excommunication was the reason I wasn’t able to entertain becoming a priest for a long time,” she says. “I was going to mass every single day. I worked for a parish, my whole life was in the church. So to think about giving that up, I couldn’t even really imagine it.”
Tropeano is a devout Catholic, who after years of doing other jobs including managing a rock band, felt the call to priesthood: “I would hear this. You are my priest, you are a priest. I want you to be a priest.”
The only option open to her as a woman was to serve the Church in another role – such as a nun or as a lay contributor to her diocese. Or she could walk away from Catholicism entirely, to another Christian denomination that would welcome her as a priest.
After years of personal discernment, she realised the limitations of the Vatican rules were not going to let her live out this call: “Once I recognised that this was the next step, the excommunication was just part of the journey.”
Tropeano, and other women like her, are also seeing their choice to be ‘ordained’ as a way to campaign against what they consider a sexist rule by the Church.
From Reform Judaism to many Protestant denominations, other faiths are open to the ordination of women. Yet for the Catholic Church the ban on women’s access to priesthood is based, among other arguments, on Biblical records that Christ chose his 12 Apostles only from among men, and the Church has gone on to imitate Christ ever since.
For Tropeano, the impact of this rule is far-reaching.
“By the Church teaching through its actions of excluding women from [priestly] ordination, it’s teaching that women are inferior. Women learn this, little kids learn this, men learn this… So they go out into the world and they live that way.”
Ceremony on a cruise
The movement for women priesthood gained visibility in 2002. A group of seven women took part in an illicit ordination service aboard a ship on the Danube River, on international waters to avoid conflict with any ecclesiastical region.
Yet there were reports of previous secret ‘ordinations’, such as Ludmila Javarova’s, who during the Communist rule of Czechoslovakia in the 1970s took part in a service led by a Roman Catholic bishop.
The women’s ordination movement is now mostly a European and US group, but it has expanded its representation in other parts of the world.
Colombian Olga Lucía Álvarez Benjumea was the first female ‘priest’ in Latin America, a bastion for the Catholic Church with more than 40% of the 1.3 billion global Catholic population.
Her ceremony in 2010 was a secret, but she says she has got support from the Church’s local hierarchy: “There was a bishop… a Roman Catholic whose name we do not say so as not to get him in trouble with the Vatican.”
“I was very afraid that people would suddenly start insulting me or throwing things at me at the altar, in this very conservative society I live in.
“So the support I received from people was a great surprise, and that strengthened and reinforced my mission,” says Álvarez. She has now been promoted to bishop within the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests (ARCWP), which is not recognised by the Vatican.
Álvarez comes from a very devout Catholic family but had the support of her mother, a former nun. Her brother, a priest, gave her a gift of a chalice which she sees as a form of silent support.
Álvarez is insistent that there is nothing in Scripture to exclude women from the priesthood: “It’s a human law, a Church law, and an unjust law need not be adhered to.”
This is a sentiment shared by the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC), a group that lobbies the Vatican for women’s access to the priesthood through calls for dialogue and demonstrations.
Executive director Kate McElwee says her favourite work is what they call the Ministry of Irritation – which has seen supporters doing everything from releasing pink smoke during the Conclave to lying in the road as the Pope’s motorcade came through the city. For their actions, they have been detained by Vatican Police.
“We walk with these women in their vocation and they’re waiting for the Vatican to open its doors and really confront its sins of sexism,” says McElwee. “But meanwhile for other women it would be impossible to wait, the call is so loud and so clear from God that they have no choice but to break an unjust law.”
A ‘closed door’
The Church sees these ordinations not just as illicit but also invalid.
After the Danube Seven story became public, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict, declared that since the women gave no indication of repentance, “for the most serious offense they have committed, they have incurred excommunication”.
Pope Francis has himself ruled out a woman ever serving as a priest. In 2016, when asked about any chance this could change, he referenced a 1994 document from John Paul II that said that the “door is closed” to women’s ordination, which the Pope said “stands”.
Sister Nathalie Becquart works from an office in Vatican City, with a picture of her and Pope Francis behind her. In February 2021, she was the first woman to ever be appointed as an Under Secretary to the Synod of Bishops, a body which advises the Pope.
She puts the current position on women priests simply: “For the Catholic Church at this moment, from an official point of view, it’s not an open question.”
“It’s not just a matter of you feeling you are called to priesthood, it’s always a recognition that the Church will call you to be a priest. So your personal feeling or decision is not enough,” says the French nun.
Sister Becquart is one of a few women given key senior roles under Pope Francis’ pontificate. Her position makes her the first woman in the Vatican with voting rights.
She believes there is an evolution happening, allowing more women to take up leadership roles, yet roles that are “disconnected from ordination.”
“I think we need to broaden our vision of the Church. There are many, many ways for women to serve the Church,” Sister Becquart says.
But she also notes that change is never easy, and always faces “fears and resistance”.
What does the Catholic Church say?
Catholic doctrine, or its legal interpretation, reference priesthood as being a prerogative of men – stating that “a baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly” (Canon 1024).
A 2021 revised version of Church law (Canon 1379) explicitly criminalized conferring sacred orders on women latae sententiae – a legal term which means that the penalty is incurred automatically, without the need for a judgment.
Pope Francis previously appeared to open the possibility of ordaining women as deacons, who cannot celebrate mass but can officiate funerals, baptise and witness marriages.
In an unprecedented move, Pope Francis has asked ordinary Catholics for their views on the future of the Church, in a two-year consultation process called the Synod on Synodality. And in a move that made headlines, the Vatican included resources from the Women’s Ordination Conference on the Synod’s website.
A recent working document suggests women’s role in the Church will be high on the agenda when bishops gather in Rome next October to discuss the results of the consultation.
Sister Nathalie Becquart told BBC 100 Women that “through the Synod on Synodality, we will continue to discern and the Pope will see what will be the next step.”
A different way
In a hushed Cathedral Anne Tropeano approaches the nave, faces her bishop and proclaims full of emotion, “Here I am, I am ready.”
It’s a day she has waited for for 14 years. The ‘ordination’ ceremony follows a similar liturgy to that which men becoming Catholic priests would experience – including the laying on of hands and prayer of consecration.
During the ceremony, Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan lifted Tropeano’s arms and presented her to the clapping congregation. The newly ‘ordained’ Anne said she felt “embraced”.
Tropeano prides herself on being the face of a different ministry, one with more participation and less hierarchy. As well as one that is open to groups traditionally questioned by the Church.
“Nobody is turned away from communion. Whether or not you’ve been divorced, none of that matters. Everybody is welcome, LGBTQ people are welcome at the table,” she says.
Anne Tropeano was ordained in a church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the US
Olga Lucía Álvarez also sees female priesthood as an opportunity to redefine the relationship of lay Catholics with their altar representatives.
There is an opportunity in the current state of the Church, says the Colombian woman ‘bishop’, given the dwindling number of vocations and the clerical sex abuse scandals that have severely damaged trust in priests.
“How can they say they are the sole representatives of God on Earth? They have no shame,” she says about the series of abuse allegations worldwide.
Pope Francis has apologised to the victims of sexual abuse committed by clerics, and has condemned the Church’s “complicity” in hiding the “grave crimes”.
Álvarez sees women’s ministry as an answer. At 80, she spends her time mentoring younger women who are hoping to become priests.
“It is urgent to show another face of the priesthood. We cannot let history repeat itself.”
The movement for women’s ordination wants an open debate on the ban, as they are confident to have the support of lay Catholics.
In Brazil, the country with the largest Catholic population in Latin America, almost eight-in-ten Catholics said they were supportive of women priests. In the US, the figure was six-in-10, according to a 2014 survey. Yet the movement for women’s ordination has not yet taken off in Africa, the region with the fastest-growing Catholic population.
When it comes to the possibility of change, Tropeano appeals to the Pope himself to open up a dialogue.
“You need to have an audience with women who are called to priesthood. Whether they have been ‘ordained’ as part of this movement or not, you need to hear our experience and take that into your prayer.”
While the fight for women’s ordination to priesthood still looks as though it could be a long one, Tropeano thinks it is vital for the future of the Church.
“The Church will not be able to fulfil its mission unless there’s equal participation. At the moment there is nothing more important.”
Recently the Jesuit-run America Magazine interviewed Pope Francis on various topical issues, among them the question regarding what he would say to women who are already serving in the church, but who also feel strongly about the call to be a priest in the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis reinforces the gender binary by pointing to the Petrine principle which means Jesus chose Peter as head of the Church and 12 male apostles because Jesus our high priest was male!
Pope Francis suggests that women have no place in the Petrine principle.
On the other hand, the Marian principle is a mirror of the Church as a woman and as the spouse of Christ. So, he suggests that women have to be content with being the mirror image of the Church which represents the feminine spouse of Christ — what a convoluted explanation to convey to women that we are an important part of the Catholic Church dominated by men.
“There are numerous articulate and excellent women theologians who have already been speaking of women’s positions in the Church”
As a woman, I do not know whether to laugh or cry at Pope Francis’ suggestion about women’s position in the Church. How can an institution that is ruled solely by men be ‘woman?’ How can such an institution be the ‘spouse’ of Christ?
I wonder if perhaps this theological idea of the Church as a woman and as the spouse of Christ and the male priests as representing Christ could be the root of the sexual abuse of women by clergy.
Pope Francis suggests that women’s place in the Church is a theological problem that needs to be sorted out by coming up with a theology on women.
When Pope Francis says” we need to come up with a theology on women,” does he mean the male leaders come up with a theology of women?
I would like to remind Pope Francis that there are numerous articulate and excellent women theologians who have already been speaking of women’s positions in the Church.
Pope Francis’ reiteration of the Petrine and Marian principles is an indication that he as the leader of the Church has not bothered to read the writings of feminist theologians of the past 50 years.
Feminist scripture scholars have pointed out that Jesus never ever ordained any priests. The last supper had both men and women present when he said “Do this in memory of me.” Women disciples in the scriptures were Jesus’ most faithful followers. He even chose a woman to carry the good news of his resurrection to the world. Would Jesus not want women leaders in the Church?
The third explanation that the pope gives is what he describes as the ‘administrative’ one.
He points out that In the Church there is the ministerial and ecclesial role which is reserved for men. Then there is the administrative role which has so far been dominated by men, but Pope Francis has recently begun opening it up for women’s participation.
He concedes “we have to give more space to women.”
While women appreciate the steps Pope Francis has taken to bring reform in the Church and the Roman Curia, his response to women’s ordination has disturbed a lot of progressive-thinking women and men, especially when he calls it a theological problem.
“Women’s voices have been missing at the decision-making table in the Church”
It is pertinent to note that the theology that Pope Francis has quoted has been articulated by men from a male perspective.
Women entered the field of theology only after the Second Vatican Council. Since then women have been studying scriptures and interpreting them through a woman’s lens which has brought in new and fresh perspectives that men could never see.
But somehow the Church has not recognized these perspectives nor listened to what women have to say. Women’s voices keep getting dismissed based on a theology that has not been updated to include women’s thinking about God and how God speaks to women in the context of their lives.
The reason why women need a place at the ‘table’ is that it is only through ordained ministry that one gets to make decisions that affect all in the Church. Women’s voices have been missing at the decision-making table in the Church.
The forthcoming Synod on Synodality is about listening to the voices of all. Women in the Church have been the most enthusiastic participants in synodal discussions at the grassroots, but their voice has not been heard, because the male leaders in the Church get to choose whose voice gets heard.
No one can deny that women are the most active participants at the parish and pastoral level of the Church. Yet women continue to be kept down like the proverbial ‘slaves’ in the Church. Yet what women all over the world are asking for is active ministerial roles, but they are being dumbed down by theological mansplaining.
Pope Francis has asked that all join the listening sessions. Somehow the bishops chose only those who they feel comfortable with while others are just never listened to. Can Pope Francis find a way to listen to voices from groups that have remained on the peripheries?
If the pope is really serious about fostering a culture of ‘encounter’ and ‘listening’ in the Church, he will call together women, not only religious but lay women as well, and listen to them. Today modern means of communication can easily facilitate this. May Spirit Sophia continue to work and inspire the Church towards wholeness.
Pope Francis has been accused of “misogynistic drivel” by the former president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, following an interview with a United States-based Catholic magazine where he said women are not being deprived by being denied the right to become priests.
in an interview with the Jesuit publication America, conducted in the Vatican last month, the Pope said: “The church is more than a ministry. It is the whole people of God. The church is woman. The church is a spouse. Therefore, the dignity of women is mirrored in this way.”
“And why can a woman not enter ordained ministry? It is because the Petrine principle has no place for that,” he said. “That the woman does not enter into the ministerial life is not a deprivation. No. Your place is that which is much more important and which we have yet to develop, the catechesis about women in the way of the Marian principle,” he said.
However, the interview prompted a sharp response from Mrs McAleese. In a short email to the Vatican addressed to the Pope, she said: “It was reassuring and gratifying to observe the utter impenetrability of the reasons you offered, their ludicrous lack of logic or clarity, in short the fact that you offered just more unlikely misogynistic drivel.”
Continuing, she said: “So nothing new then and nothing to fear. Thank you for giving us something to laugh at. If you ever come up with a serious and credible reason please do not hesitate to let us know. Meanwhile keep rambling on. It is such fun and the fun has almost gone out of faith! Best wishes and renewed thanks. Mary McAleese.”
Giving her Roscommon address, she signed the email as Dr Mary McAleese LLB, MA, JCL, JCD, including qualifications in canon law.
Asked in the interview about what he would say to a woman who feels called to be a priest, the Pope said it was “a theological problem.” He said “we amputate the being of the church if we consider only the way of the ministerial dimension of the life of the church. The way is not only (ordained) ministry.”
The “Petrine (from Peter) principle is that of ministry,” he said. “But there is another principle that is still more important, about which we do not speak, that is the Marian principle, which is the principle of femininity in the church, of the woman in the church,” he said.
There was also a third way, “the administrative way,” he said. “It is something of normal administration. And, in this aspect, I believe we have to give more space to women.” At the Vatican “the places where we have put women are functioning better,” he said.
“So there are three principles, two theological and one administrative. The Petrine principle, which is the ministerial dimension, but the church cannot function only with that one. The Marian principle, which is that of the spousal church, the church as spouse, the church as woman. And the administrative principle, which is not theological, but is rather that of administration, about what one does,” he said.
Asked about the abuse issue, he referred to his visit to Ireland in 2018.
“The church takes responsibility for its own sin, and we go forward, sinners, trusting in the mercy of God. When I travel, I generally receive a delegation of victims of abuse.” He recalled “when I was in Ireland, people who had been abused asked for an audience. There were six or seven of them. At the beginning, they were a little angry, and they were right.
“I said to them: `Look, let us do something. Tomorrow, I have to give a homily; why don’t we prepare it together, about this problem?’ And that gave rise to a beautiful phenomenon because what had started as a protest was transformed into something positive and, together, we all created the homily for the next day. That was a positive thing [that happened] in Ireland, one of the most heated situations I have had to face. What should the church do, then? Keep moving forward with seriousness and with shame.”
In an interview published in America Magazine today, Pope Francis ‘mansplained why women cannot be ordained as priests, but he emphasized the important role they can play in the life of the Church.
“Many women feel pain because they cannot be ordained priests. What would you say to a woman who is already serving in the life of the Church but who still feels called to be a priest?” asked Kerry Webber, executive editor of the monthly magazine published by the Jesuits of the United States.
Pope Francis explained by referring to two distinct principles: the Petrine and the Marian. “The Petrine principle is that of ministry,” he said. Since this is the principle that guides the Church, it means that women cannot ever be ordained. “But there is another principle that is still more important, about which we do not speak, that is the Marian principle, which is the principle of femininity (femineidad) in the Church, of the woman in the Church, where the Church sees a mirror of herself because she is a woman and a spouse.”
The Petrine Principle, or Theory as it is also called, refers to Christ’s bestowing of the “keys of the Kingdom” on Peter (the first pope, according to Roman Catholic tradition) and partly on Christ’s words: “And I tell you, you are Peter [Greek: Petros], and on this rock [Greek: petra] I will build my church.” It makes no mention of gender or indeed, of ordination, as the Catholic Church had not been founded yet in the time of Jesus and therefore fails to justify the banning of women to ordination.
Reiterating often-cited images of the Church as marriage and women as spouses, Pope Francis hoped to strengthen his argument by pointing out alternatives: “The way is not only [ordained] ministry. The Church is woman. The Church is a spouse. We have not developed a theology of women that reflects this,” Pope Francis said.
“A church with only the Petrine principle would be a church that one would think is reduced to its ministerial dimension, nothing else. But the Church is more than a ministry. It is the whole people of God. The Church is woman. The Church is a spouse. Therefore, the dignity of women is mirrored in this way,” he once again repeated.
“This is an abbreviated explanation, but I wanted to highlight the two theological principles: the Petrine principle and the Marian principle that make up the Church.”
Hoping to mollify anyone who has not yet found the metaphor of women being mere spouses to the Church as satisfactory, the Pope adds that if “the woman does not enter into the ministerial life [it] is not a deprivation. No. Your place is that which is much more important and which we have yet to develop, the catechesis about women in the way of the Marian principle”.
Pope Francis said that in addition to the Petrine and the Marian principles, there is still another function of the Body of Christ that is particularly suited to women: “There is a third way: the administrative way… which is not a theological thing, it is something of normal administration. And, in this aspect, I believe we have to give more space to women,” Pope Francis said.
The Holy Father then pointed to the women he has appointed, noting that women generally do a “better” job managing things.
He praised the women who work in “administration” by inadvertently recalling the long-established image of women as accomplished domestic organizers and managers: “Here in the Vatican, the places where we have put women are functioning better…When a woman enters politics or manages things, generally she does better. Many economists are women, and they are renewing the economy in a constructive way,” he said.
Finally, in a stunning reiteration of the stereotypes that have kept women relegated to the home and the office merely as nurturers or support for men, he stated that, “The woman is a mother and sees the mystery of the Church more clearly than we men. For this reason, the advice of a woman is very important, and the decision of a woman is better.” And for that reason, she is valued as an “administrator”.