A LIMERICK priest has compared the Catholic Church to the Taliban on how they both treat women.
Fr Roy Donovan, parish priest of Caherconlish and Inch St. Laurence, has spoken out following a recent statement from Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy.
It was titled, “Change taking shape as greater lay involvement in the Church emerges”. The bishop also asked for expressions of interest from men over 35 years of age, married or single, interested in taking up roles as permanent deacons.
Fr Donovan said Bishop Leahy’s intention of introducing the male Diaconate into the diocese is a “return to the dark ages”.
“In recent weeks we have learned of the Taliban’s negative attitudes to women in Afghanistan, that of exclusion from education and the public domain.
“In the Catholic Church, women are excluded from the hierarchial (patriarchial) structures – no woman can be ordained a deacon, priest, bishop, cardinal or pope. Women are excluded from leadership, governance and decision making in the Church.
“Women have no vote in the upcoming Bishops’ Synod 2023 on Synodality. The Catholic Church at many levels, like the Taliban, treats women as second-class citizens,” said Fr Donovan, who is originally from Knockarron, Emly and served for many years in Dublin.
In his statement, Bishop Leahy said deacons had a ministry in the early Church which focused on service, both within the church community helping in the administration of the diocese and in reaching out to the marginalised in society.
Fr Donovan said up until the 12th century, the Catholic Church ordained women deacons, although by then their service was mostly restricted to women’s monasteries.
“Some Orthodox churches that split from the Catholic Church in the 11th century still do. In the New Testament Book of Romans, the Apostle Paul introduces Phoebe as a ‘deacon of the church at Cenchreae’.
“He also names Priscilla and Junia and several other women leaders,” said Fr Donovan, who is one of the leaders of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) but is speaking in a personal capacity.
The priest said this move towards male deacons “raises questions about how women in the Limerick Synod have allowed this to go forward or have they?”
“It also raises questions about having a meaningful Synod in the Irish Church. Men in every diocese in Ireland and throughout the world should join in solidarity with women and refuse the male Diaconate,” concluded Fr Donovan.
Casey Stanton wanted to offer encouragement, love and healing to the inmates at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, where she served as a chaplain intern a few years ago.
But as a Catholic woman she could not represent her church there in any official capacity.
The state of North Carolina requires chaplains in its state prison system to be ordained. And the Catholic Church does not ordain women — neither as priests, nor as deacons.
Stanton, who is 35 and holds a master of divinity from Duke Divinity School, is not seeking to become a priest, which canon law forbids. She would, however, jump at the chance to be ordained a deacon — a position that would allow her and other women to serve as Catholic chaplains in prisons, hospitals and other settings.
“I’d like to be able to represent the church in these places where I feel like we’re called to go,” Stanton said.
She tried the Veterans Affairs hospital next. But there too, she found a similar obstacle to full-time chaplaincy.
“I thought I could find some workaround,” she said. Instead, she added, Catholic chaplaincy “felt like a dead-end.”
In April, Stanton co-founded Discerning Deacons, an organization that urges conversation in the Catholic Church around ordaining women deacons. Stanton hopes it might add to ongoing efforts on multiple continents to restore women to the ordained diaconate, which the church in its early centuries allowed.
On Monday (Sept. 13), a new commission set up by Pope Francis to study women in the diaconate began meeting for one week in Rome. It is the fourth group since the 1970s to discuss ordaining women deacons, and many are hoping they will release their recommendations publicly so the church can lay the groundwork for restoring the order.
Francis has repeatedly called for a greater female presence in church leadership, and while he has continued church teachings against women priests, he changed church law to allow women to be installed as lectors and acolytes.
Up until the 12th century, the Catholic Church ordained women deacons, although by then their service was mostly restricted to women’s monasteries. Some Orthodox churches that split from the Catholic Church in the 11th century still do. In the New Testament Book of Romans, the Apostle Paul introduces Phoebe as a “deacon of the church at Cenchreae.” He also names Priscilla and Aquila among other women given titles of “fellow workers.”
In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council reinstated the role of deacon for men. (It had previously reserved the diaconate as a transitional ministry for men studying to be priests) but not for women.
Partly due to the shortage of priests, there is growing momentum to restore women to the diaconate. At the 2019 Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, a large number of bishops requested the permanent diaconate for women. Many are now hoping the next synod, which will culminate in Rome in 2023, will take up the issue again.
“If the church expresses its need, the Holy Father would have an easier time restoring women deacons,” said Phyllis Zagano, senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, and the foremost expert on women deacons in the Catholic Church.
The work of the deacon as defined by canon law is to minister to the people of God in word, liturgy and charity. Though not a paid position in most instances, it does require a person to undergo a course of study and a laying on of hands through ordination.
“Typically, the deacon manages the charity on behalf of the bishop or pastor in any given parish. That would include managing the food bank, taking care of the poor, visiting the sick,” said Zagano.
Deacons may also proclaim the Gospel, preach, witness marriages, baptize and conduct funeral services. They cannot lead a Mass, consecrate the Eucharist or hear confessions.
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate estimates there are about 19,000 male deacons in the United States today, a 1% drop from last year. Formation programs for deacons reported a 2% drop in enrollments. Perhaps most troubling, the share of deacon candidates in their 30s and 40s has declined to 22% in 2020, down from 44% in 2002, a June report found.
In some parts of the country, Catholic laywomen are already serving as administrators in lieu of priests, often as parish life coordinators, but without ordination.
“Right now, when you are a woman serving in any capacity, there’s often a cloud of suspicion hanging over your work, the sense that your work would be better done by a man or a priest,” said Anna Nussbaum Keating, a Catholic writer living in Colorado who supports restoring the diaconate for women. “There’s a sense she is inferior or maybe she’s there because she wants to change the church, versus understanding that there have always been women in ministry in the church and that their contributions are holy and valid and good.”
The coronavirus, which has killed more than 650,000 Americans, has only accentuated the need for more Catholic hospital chaplains as people died alone and without the comfort of a priest or a deacon during their final days.
On Sept. 3, the feast day of St. Phoebe, the group Discerning Deacons held a Zoom prayer service celebrating the legacy of the 1st-century saint with some 500 women from across the world. It included videotaped stories of women who were passionately called to serve the church and hurt by their inability to do so formally.
Documentary filmmakers Pilar Timpane and Andrea Patiño Contreras have filmed “Called to Serve” about some of the U.S. women now pushing the church for ordination as deacons. A longer documentary, with producer Christine Delp, is now in the works.
“We’re looking at the needs of the church today,” said Stanton, who lives in Durham, North Carolina. “Might including women in this order help further the church’s mission in the world?”
The decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland has included a steep drop in vocations to the priesthood. While Ireland once exported its surplus of priests across the world just 13 men began training for the priesthood here last year. Added to that, the average age of priests is 70. Many parishes are staffed by elderly men who would be enjoying retirement in other professions.
Priestly vocations have often been described as a ‘calling’. Is there something about this secularising island, including the impact of clerical abuse scandals, that makes God’s voice hard to hear? Research points to a counter-narrative, one in which some people believe that God still speaks. Anne Francis’s study of women in ministry in Ireland was simply titled Called to emphasize women’s deep conviction that they were responding to a supernatural prompting to serve.
It is a conviction shared by Soline Humbert, who has felt called to the priesthood since she was a student at Trinity College Dublin in the 1970s. While she quietly stifled her call for decades, she celebrated her first public Eucharist 25 years ago – without, of course, the blessing of the Catholic Church. Humbert’s decision to defy official Church teaching was in part stimulated by a 1994 apostolic letter from Pope John Paul II which condemned even discussing women’s ordination. Hopes that Pope Francis would be more open to women’s ordination have not materialized. “It was a big relief when I could be open about [my vocation]”, said Humber. “Before, it was like being in a tomb – gradually you end up dead inside.’
John Paul II later said that those who continued to discuss women’s ordination ‘were effectively excommunicating themselves’. But women around the world have continued to hear a call, with growing numbers organising their own ordinations, celebrating Eucharist and taking responsibilities for parishes, building thriving ministries despite their excommunication.
Across the island, there are around 400 women ‘ministering as their main life choice’, including Protestant clergy, Catholic Religious and laity with formal roles in church structures. While these women reported feeling fulfilled by their calling, 70% across all Christian traditions believed gender issues had negatively impacted their life or work.
Almost all Catholic women thought that a patriarchal Church culture prevented women’s ordination and felt their contributions to ministry were not valued by authorities. Similarly, some Presbyterian clergy believed the validity of female ordination was under attack by conservative elements in their church. Between 2013 and 2020, Rev Dr Stafford Carson, who opposes women’s ordination, was principal of Union Theological College, where ministers for the Presbyterian Church are trained.
Female clergy in the Church of Ireland and Methodist churches were most likely to feel valued. But women remain under-represented among their clergy and in positions of leadership. Pat Storey, Bishop of Meath and Kildare, is the only female bishop in the Church of Ireland; while Rev Dr Heather Morris, a former President of the Methodist Church, serves as the church’s General Secretary. A study found that while 20% of clergy in the Church of Ireland are women, they are less likely than their male counterparts to be employed as rectors of a parish and more likely to be serving in part-time or non-stipendiary posts.
Honouring the contribution of women?
In March 2021, the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference announced a ‘synodal pathway’, which will lead to a National Synodal Assembly in the next five years. Pope Francis has enthusiastically promoted synods as mechanisms for the Church to discern the will of the Holy Spirit, including contributions from lay and ordained.
As part of the process, the Bishops Conference has identified seven areas for ‘listening to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church in Ireland’, one of which is ‘honouring the contribution of women’. Dr Nicola Brady, a lay Catholic who as General Secretary of the Irish Council of Churches is responsible for administering the island’s national-level ecumenical structures, has been named chair of the synodal steering committee. Her appointment reflects her expertise – and raises expectations that the synod will take women’s perspectives seriously.
Women’s inclusion is an urgent issue. While women are more likely to be regular churchgoers and pray more often than men, they feel undervalued by the Catholic Church. A study found that a stunning 74% of Irish Catholic women believed that the Church did not treat them with ‘a lot of respect’, compared to just 6% of Protestant women. It also found that 84% of Catholic and 95% of Protestant women were in favour of female clergy.
Former President Mary McAleese has captured the mood, describing the Catholic Church as ‘a primary global carrier of the virus of misogyny’. A 2018 poll found that 55% agreed with McAleese that the Church does not treat women equally and 62% agreed with her support for the ordination of women.
But dreams that the synod’s pledge to ‘honour’ women might extend to consideration of women’s ordination are likely to be misplaced. Pope Francis has been very clear that synods are not instruments to change church teaching, but rather to apply teaching more pastorally. It is not yet clear how conversations about women will be framed by the synod. Regardless, the women who feel ‘called’ will continue to bear witness to what they regard as the voice of God.
Now the installation is moving forward at the Wyndham Springfield City Centre on September 4.
Keldermans, who worked for several Springfield Roman Catholic parishes and received an award from the Springfield diocese for her service to the church before being excommunicated for her ordination to the priesthood in 2014, will have some special guests on hand for the ceremony.
A spokesman for the diocese didn’t return a message from The State Journal-Register Sunday.
“You cannot defend something like that,” Keldermans countered, “because the call to priesthood, the call to ministry comes from God, and it comes from the people who you minister with. That’s how it was in the early house churches, but (women leaders) got erased from history. We’re here, and we’re saying this call comes from God.
“You don’t turn your life upside down like (I did) without it being deep, deep in your soul that you feel God talking, that you feel God calling. There’s no man on earth that is going to tell me God didn’t call me for this. This priest part of me, this is what I’ve always done. This is how I’ve always talked, so people have gotten used to me.”
RCWP is not, Keldermans said, “a women’s movement. It’s a reform movement in the church.”
An outspoken US nun who was recently embroiled in a censorship row with Melbourne’s Archbishop has warned Australia’s Catholic Church it faces an inevitable decline unless it stops suppressing rank-and-file members pushing for reform.
The nation’s bishops are under pressure to overhaul the church after years of sex scandals and internal unrest, and one of America’s most prominent Benedictine nuns, Sister Joan Chittister, has now renewed calls for women to be ordained and for laypeople to be given more power over their parishes, declaring that the church needs to “grow up” if it wants to thrive.
Such reforms were meant to be thrashed out at the most significant conference Australian Catholic bishops have held in 80 years, the Plenary Council, which is scheduled to take place in October.
However, working documents prepared for the event have prompted concerns that some of the more contentious issues on the agenda could be cast aside or not addressed properly by the bishops, despite past assurances that “everything is on the table”.
“Everyone knows that the church in Australia needs a major overhaul of its governance, culture and structures, but instead of setting out a clear, concise and coherent blueprint for reform, this document is a ground plan for inertia,” said Catholics for Renewal president Peter Wilkinson. “It is very disappointing.”
Sister Joan, who this month headlined an event by the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald she shared concerns that “suppression by the bishops” would impede much-needed improvements. This, she warned, would prompt more members to abandon their parishes.
“There are one of two ways that this can end. The bishops can embrace the concerns and the need for resolution or they continue to ignore the laity – at which point the church will some day wake up in the morning and find out that the church is in fact gone.”
In a speech to a 3000-strong audience this month, Sister Joan added: “Catholicism must grow up, beyond the parochial to the global, beyond one system and one tradition to a broader way of looking at life … Why not married priests, women priests, or women cardinals?”
Sister Joan is a writer, feminist and theologian who has spent 50 years advocating for social justice and church reform. However, the prominent US nun found herself at the centre of an Australian censorship saga two years ago, when she was disendorsed from speaking at a Catholic education conference soon after Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli learnt of plans to include her.
The snub prompted a fierce backlash from rank-and-file Catholics, but the Archdiocese initially sought to dismiss the matter as a misunderstanding, saying the Archbishop had simply requested “that more names aligned to the themes of a national Catholic education conference be considered”.
Sister Joan disagreed, describing the episode as an “insult” to the Catholic education system.
“Of course it was censorship; there wasn’t any doubt about that,” she said this week. “Nobody has a right to tell anybody else what to think. That is not helpful to any organisation – state or church. You’re only burning it down from the bottom up if you do that.”
Sister Joan’s appearance in Australia comes at a critical moment for the church ahead of October’s Plenary Council. Expectations were high in the wake of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, which found the hierarchical nature of the church, coupled with its lack of governance, had created “a culture of deferential obedience” in which the protection of paedophile priests was left unchallenged.
However, rank-and-file Catholics have become increasingly concerned about the church’s will to change. Such fears were compounded in March when a working document prepared for the Plenary Council did not give enough credence to critical issues that members have been seeking to address.
Peter Johnstone, the head of the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, urged Australia’s bishops to use the Plenary Council to genuinely tackle the “existential crisis” the church faces.