This is the text of the lecture by Terry Wright, Emeritus Professor of Literature at Newcastle University, given at Holy Name, Jesmond on Wednesday 4 July.
Change is not a word that trips easily off the Catholic tongue. There’s a type of ultra-traditional Catholic, often active on social media, who argues that the Church has always been the same: semper eadem. But there are many subjects on which the Church has changed her mind: slavery, usury, capital punishment, the status of Judaism, the order in which the gospels were written, trades unions, whether women should be given the vote, whether the earth circles the sun (as Galileo argued to his cost), the theory of evolution and so on. In the realm of sexual ethics the Church used to teach that intercourse during menstruation or pregnancy was forbidden and that there was only one ‘natural’ position (with the man, of course, on top). In the sixth century Pope Gregory identified Mary Magdalene as a prostitute while in 2016 Pope Francis declared her ‘an apostle to the apostles’. On all these subjects, the Church has quite rightly changed her mind in response to new evidence or new understanding.
The conservative view of a Church that has never changed and is at odds with the modern world is itself a fairly recent product. It was in 1864 that Pius IX (Pio Nono) said ‘no, no’ to all ‘modern’ ideas such as liberalism, progress and evolution in his infamous Syllabus of Errors. His successor, Leo XIII, made Aquinas the model for all Catholic theology, a bulwark against modern thought (although Aquinas too had been condemned in his own time as unacceptably modern). In 1907 Pius X condemned Catholic Modernism out of hand, compiling a similar list of lamentable modern ideas. His successor Pius XI denounced contraception in his 1930 Casti Connubii while Pius XII (‘Hitler’s Pope’) may have remained silent about the holocaust but not (unfortunately) about any kind of accommodation with the modern world.
It was at the Second Vatican Council that the Church could be seen most visibly to change her mind, breaking with this immediate past and bringing herself ‘up to date’ with some of the thinking of the modern world. The initial schemata produced by the Curia under the direction of Cardinal Ottaviani (whose motto was ‘semper eadem’) were thrown out by a progressive alliance of Cardinals, bishops and their periti, including a number of theologians who had been condemned in the 1950s, such as Karl Rahner and Yves Congar, not to mention a certain ambitious young German theologian named Joseph Ratzinger. They argued that the Church continually developed its understanding of faith as it encountered new evidence and new questions. She was not semper eadem but semper reformanda, always in need of reform. The battles between the majority progressives and the minority conservatives continued throughout the council, the latter receiving a boost when John XXIII was succeeded by Paul VI in 1963. The new Pope intervened more often than his predecessor, withdrawing controversial issues such as clerical celibacy and birth control from open discussion.
One of the problems with Vatican II, however, was that even its progressives were divided. There were some who wanted ‘aggiornamento’ (bringing up to date) while others urged ‘ressourcement’, a return to the sources, the Bible and the Church Fathers. The Fathers, for all their merits, were Hardly progressive about sex and gender. After the council these two groups would found their own journals, Concilium and Communio, each advocating a different agenda. In spite of this, Vatican II succeeded in changing many things, most obviously the language of our liturgy, our attitude to other churches and to Judaism, and our understanding of the Church (including the laity) as the ‘people of God’.
I will begin by looking more closely at the Council, in particular at the way in which it was forced into compromise and prevented from discussing celibacy and birth control. I will then consider the years following the Council, which were dominated by conservative Popes who fought tooth and nail against all reform, outlawing all dissent and screening all bishops for ‘orthodoxy’ on both of these issues and on the question of ordaining women. I will end by looking at the renewed opportunities for change afforded by Pope Francis, who is at least open to the possibility of ordaining married men (it is on the agenda for the Pan-Amazon Synod of Bishops in 2019) and women deacons (he set up a Commission on the question of Women Deacons, whose report, I gather, has been submitted). We have been given one more chance to change our minds. As a Pope who believes in collegiality (the responsibility of the bishops as a whole) and subsidiarity (decisions being made wherever possible at a local level) he is not going to impose his views from the top down. The Church as a whole must be involved in the process. And with so many Conferences of Bishops being dominated by conservative appointees of his predecessors this is not going to be easy.
I want to return, however, to the Second Vatican Council as a model for the process of how the Church can and did change her mind. Many Catholics, I fear, have not caught up with (and not been told) just how significant it was. For it was, as Schillebeeckx argues, ‘the dynamic energy…, the spirit that moved the world’s bishops, which ‘transcends the recorded result’. It was revolutionary (as Cardinal Ottiviani, head of what was then called the Holy Office complained) for the bishops to throw out the carefully prepared schemata on the liturgy, on the sources of revelation and on the Church in that opening session of 1962 and to ask for them to be rewritten by better informed and more open-minded theologians. Rahner and Ratzinger, for example, were given the task of refashioning Dei Verbum to recognise the Bible and Christianity itself as an event in history subject to the ongoing interpretation of the Church, a living tradition, rather than a system of doctrinal points to be cited out of context as ‘proofs’ of an official teaching.
The second session of the Council in 1963 continued in the same vein, with the bishops voting against the advice of the Curia to reject celibacy for the reintroduced rank of deacon, for collegiality among bishops and for the recognition of the ‘priesthood of the laity’ in the rewritten document Lumen Gentium. There was palpable tension between the progressive Cardinal Frings of Cologne and the conservative Cardinal Ottaviani over the centralisation of power in the Curia. This dramatized what O’Malley sees as the ‘fundamental issue of the council – how the church was to operate in the future’, not through a ‘top-down style of management’ but through ‘broader consultation’ and shared responsibility. The conservatives managed to smuggle a ‘Preliminary Explanatory Note’ to the final version of the schema, watering down the concept of collegiality and restating the importance of the head of the Church (i.e. the Pope). And even while officially promulgating Lumen Gentium Paul VI insisted that there had been no change; the Church was still ‘monarchical and hierarchical’ (though the Council had gone out of its way to avoid the former term).
Similar tensions between progressives and conservatives continued through the discussion of Gaudium et Spes (“The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”), perhaps the most exciting document to read, with its justly celebrated opening paragraph:
The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts.
The whole document is suffused with a different attitude to ‘the world’, which is not to be judged and condemned but listened to and cared for. The document is full of appreciation for the ideas condemned by the Piuses: development, progress, evolution and the need to discern and respond to ‘the signs of the times’. Its treatment of marriage is also entirely different from that of earlier Vatican documents, where it was seen as a remedy for ‘concupiscence’ (to use Augustine’s somewhat grotesque term). It is made quite clear that ‘Marriage is not merely for the procreation of children’ but for the ‘mutual love of the partners’. Even where there are no children ‘marriage still…preserves its value and indissolubility’. There is, however, a compromise on birth control, on which ‘the sons of the Church are forbidden to use those methods disapproved of by the teaching authority’. But to this is appended a footnote that ‘certain questions requiring further and more careful investigation have been given over to a commission’. So there was a hint of possible change on this subject.
In discussion of Gaudium et Spes Cardinal Suenens had made a rousing speech asking the Council to move its sexual ethics on from Aristotle and Augustine (‘Let us have done with Manichean pessimism’) and to avoid ‘another Galileo’. His speech was greeted with loud applause but led to his being summoned to the head (of the Church) and forced into a retraction, a recognition that the final decision lay with the ‘supreme magisterium’. The celibate cardinals and bishops debating the intricacies of marriage had its comic moments, for instance when they voted 2052 against 91 to support the proposition that ‘Eros in itself has something good about it’. But the final document was at least more positive about sexuality.
Some Brazilian bishops had wanted to raise the matter of celibacy in the discussion of Ministry and Priesthood but Paul VI again intervened, removing the issue from the agenda. Those who wished, his letter continued, could send submissions to the Council of Presidents. This was interpreted as indicating that there would be a commission on this topic too but none materialised. The Church thus lost the opportunity fully to discuss both of these issues. The question of ordaining women never arose, although Gaudium et Spes recognises (as Augustine refused to do) that ‘All women are created in God’s image, with the same nature and origin, calling and destiny. Their equality, it insisted, must be given ‘ever greater recognition’. These grand phrases, however, were undermined by the fact that no women attended the Council until the third session when Paul VI made an exception for ‘a few devout ladies’ to audit some of the sessions. That number eventually rose to 22 (out of a total of some 3000 delegates). There were limits, in other words, to the changes enacted at Vatican 2.
The Commission on Birth Control began meeting in October 1963, with numbers continually added until by the fourth session in March 1965 it composed 55 people, including 34 lay men and women. Two of these, an American couple called Crowley, produced surveys of other Catholic couples worldwide, nearly all of whom reported the damage done to their relationships by the rhythm method. The commission also benefitted from the input of the leading historian of the Church’s changing attitudes towards sexuality, John Noonan, whose thoroughly researched book on Contraception was published in 1965. This showed that the Church had gone through significant development in its attitude to sex. The initial suspicion of any kind of sexual pleasure which Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Jerome inherited from the Stoics, found exaggerated expression in the Manichean pessimism of Augustine, for whom the sexual act transmitted original sin. This suspicion of sexuality informed confessional practice in the early medieval period but was later tempered by Aquinas’s acceptance of Aristotle’s more positive valuation of pleasure. By the sixteenth century thinkers such as Bellarmine could value sexuality as in itself natural and good. Later developments in the understanding of the biology of procreation and the techniques of contraception (the vulcanisation of rubber facilitating the production of condoms while the progesterone pill enabled the ‘safe’ period to be indefinitely sustained) convinced the further-enlarged commission to accept that it was time for the Church to change its now outdated teaching on contraception.
The commission’s report was published in April 1967, among other places in the Tablet, whose editor Tom Burns commented that it showed ‘the mind of the Church in the process of change’. The report itself claimed that, like the Second Vatican Council, it was merely bring the Church ‘up to date’, reflecting ‘a changed estimation of the value and meaning of human sexuality’. It also challenged previous understanding of what was ‘natural’, including biological and psychological processes now better understood than in previous centuries. The Commission wasn’t completely unanimous, however: Cardinal Ottaviani produced a ‘minority report’ dissenting from the others and was promptly put in charge of a new secret commission of twelve to ‘settle the question’.
Everyone knows what happened next. Pope Paul VI produced his own encyclical Humanae Vitae in July 1968 (exactly fifty years ago) reasserting Pius XI’s rejection of ‘artificial contraception’. It is a curious document, following the scholastic method in first listing all the arguments against his position, including the ‘rapid increase in population’, the ‘new understanding of the dignity of women’ and the ‘stupendous progress in the understanding of nature’, before proceeding to trot out all the ancient arguments from Natural Law, the ‘objective moral order established by God’ in nature. There was also, he claimed, the danger of ‘artificial’ contraception lowering the dignity of women by encouraging a man ‘to treat his wife as a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires’. In the absence of better arguments he ended by calling for ‘obedience to the magisterium of the Church’.
The reaction of the majority of the Catholic Church, as some of you will remember, was one of astonishment and disbelief. The publication of the Commission’s report had led everyone to expect a change in Church teaching. Colleges of Bishops around the world (not, however, in England and Wales) advised the faithful that this did not claim to be an infallible document and contraception could therefore be a matter of individual conscience. Even Cardinal Heenan pointed out that the condemnation of artificial contraception ‘was not a central tenet of the Catholic religion’. Twenty theologians from the Catholic University in Washington who were initially suspended for publicly dissenting from the encyclical were quickly reinstated with the agreement of the American bishops. The Canadian bishops announced that those who couldn’t accept the teaching shouldn’t be considered ‘shut off from the Catholic Church’. Other conferences of bishops around the world made similar reassuring statements.
Humanae Vitae, in spite of the attempts of later Popes to enforce it, has never been received by the faithful. Repeated surveys show that some 80% of Catholic couples ignore it. The ‘reception of doctrine’, as you can read in the Catholic Encyclopaedia, is the ‘process by which the faithful accept’ the teaching of Church leaders. Until that happens, a ruling ‘does not as yet shape the life of the community’. Humanae Vitae, in other words, is a clear example of the Church as a whole not accepting a papal injunction. There has been a clear change in Catholic practice which the hierarchy has as yet failed to recognise. It can only be a matter of time until they do.
The question of priestly celibacy has a more complicated history. There is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that Jesus himself was celibate himself or required celibacy of others. He did, according to Luke, celebrate any man ‘that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God’s sake’ as something ‘impossible with men’ but ‘possible with God’ (Luke 18: 29-30). Matthew has Him emphasise the indissolubility of marriage by praising those who have divorced and ‘made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake’ (Matt 19:12), i.e. left their wives in order to promulgate the gospel. We know that Peter was married (since Mark records Christ’s healing of Peter’s mother-in-law) while Paul asks the Corinthians, ‘Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife?’ (I Cor 9:5). There is a slight ambiguity about the Greek noun ‘adelphen guvaika’ (literally ‘sister wife’) but the NRSV translates this as ‘believing wife’. When priests were first ordained in the second century they were not expected to be celibate but from the fourth century there were calls for a lex continentiae (law of continence) by which they were expected (on grounds of priestly purity derived from Leviticus) to abstain from sex on the night before celebrating the eucharist. When daily mass became more common, this caused a clear problem. Priests continued to marry, however, until the twelfth century when the Second Lateran Council outlawed the practice. Concubinage continued long after that (as the diocesan whore taxes against priestly offenders indicate). It was with the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century (in reaction to Protestant encouragement of married priests) that the seminary system was introduced, separating boys from the world (and women) from the age of eleven. This was a ‘separate and control’ system imparting the same kind of discipline on future priests as the ancient Spartans did on their soldiers, as the Turks did on Janussaries (kidnapped young Christians who were educated in special schools far from the reach of their families or any women) and as the Nazis would do in their military academies. It is a way of producing fanatical fighters for the cause, what Canon Law would later (in the revised code of 1983) describe as ‘an undivided heart’.
This heartless system has since been defended by generations of subsequent Popes in spite of all protest. Gregory XVI, for example, in his encyclical Mirari Vos of 1832 complained of the ‘abominable conspiracy against clerical celibacy…promoted by profligate philosophers, some of whom are clerics’. The question, as we have seen, was removed from discussion at Vatican 2, allowing Paul VI to reinforce the traditional teaching in his 1967 encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus. As in Humanae Vitae, he begins by listing all the arguments in favour of change: the New Testament ‘does not openly demand celibacy of sacred ministers’ and Jesus ‘did not make it a prerequisite in His choice of the Twelve, nor did the Apostles who presided over the first Christian communities’. He notes the origins of required priestly celibacy ‘in a mentality and in …historical circumstances different from our own’. He sees its contribution to ‘the shortage of the clergy’ and to the ‘distressing defections which hurt and sadden the whole church’. He cites the objections raised by some that it causes priests to ‘become hard and lacking in human warmth’, condemning them to ‘a life of solitude which leads to bitterness and discouragement’. Only then does he proceed to give reasons for maintaining the requirement, which include taking on ‘a closer likeness to Christ’ by ‘daily dying to himself’, and spending himself ‘for the welfare of all’. He proceeds to cite the Gospels on marriage (‘in resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage’ (Matt 22:30) and the passage about eunuchs discussed above before quoting St. John Chrysostom’s treatise on priesthood. This is the same Chrysostom, by the way, who asked, ‘What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, …an evil of nature’. This is a ‘different mentality’ indeed, an argument from one of the ugliest aspects of tradition, which only reinforces the need for change.
As with his other encyclical, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus was challenged by many inside the Church, including many bishops. The subject was raised at the Synod of Bishops in Rome in 1971, where many spoke in favour of married priests but were outvoted by curial officials. The American bishops were particularly worried about the haemorrhaging of priests and commissioned a number of surveys on the subject. One of these, the NORC (National Opinion Research Center) survey of 7000 American priests of 1970 conducted by Andrew Greeley and Richard Schoenherr (published in 1972 as The Catholic Priest in the USA: Sociological Investigations) showed a majority of priests in favour of being allowed to marry, citing compulsory celibacy as the main reason so many had left. 85% of priests under the age of 35 in this survey believed celibacy should be optional. A companion volume on The Catholic Priest in the USA: Psychological Investigations by Eugene Kennedy and Victor Heckler concluded on the basis of the same survey that 9% of these priests were emotionally maldeveloped, 64% underdeveloped, 21% developing and just 7% well developed.
It is worth explaining these terms: ‘Maldeveloped priests have a negative self-image, sexual identity problems and difficulties with authority.’ Underdeveloped priests share these problems but less pathologically. A priest in either of these first two groups does not seek to leave the priesthood since it ‘provides a shelter for him against a more fully developed life’. Developing priests, aware of the inadequacy of their education, attempt to learn how to relate to women in a more mature manner. These, unfortunately, are the most likely to leave in order to marry. The small number of well-developed priests (all 7% of them) were found to enjoy ‘mutually satisfying relationships with others’ and be ‘happy in the priesthood’ in spite of the restrictions placed upon them. It is not exactly a portrait of a healthy organisation.
Another survey commissioned by the American bishops in 1985 found that 40% of priests surveyed reported ‘severe personal behavioural or mental problems’ in the previous year. Their problems didn’t cease if they left the Church. For while Paul VI had been reasonably sympathetic to those who chose to leave, John Paul II made life extremely difficult for them. The process was often protracted and they were forbidden to teach, preach or even distribute communion or even to live in the area where they formerly served. The priests who had published the surveys were also hounded from their posts. Again, these are hardly the actions of a caring, compassionate community. Fortunately, Pope Francis has shown more openness to change, recognising that celibacy is a matter of church discipline not doctrine and thus capable of being changed. He expects national conferences of bishops to initiate proposals to ordain married men as priests. They need, he said in an interview in 2014, to be ‘corajudos’ (courageous). I suspect that our own bishops lack the ‘cojones’ for this. They continue to ask us to pray for vocations, which to my mind is like Cain asking God for a baby brother to replace the one he killed. For, make no mistake, the requirement of celibacy is killing off recruitment. But the issue, as we have seen has been allowed onto the agenda of the Pan-Amazon Synod of Bishops in 2019.
There is another aspect of the debate over celibacy which can no longer be ignored and that is the clerical sexual abuse crises which struck America in the 1980s, Ireland in the 1990s and more recently Australia and the United Kingdom. These dates, of course, relate to the period in which the abuse became common knowledge, not when it occurred. The key research conducted in this area in the States was by Richard Sipe, who evaluated the responses of 1500 priests between 1960 and 1985 and concluded that only 50% of them practised celibacy, 20% engaging in heterosexual activity and 30% in homosexual activity. He estimated that 6% of them abused minors, an estimate confirmed in the case of the archdiocese of Boston. If you have seen the film Spotlight, which focussed on a group of reporters investigation clerical abuse in Boston, you will have heard Sipe’s voice on the phone advising them about the numbers they should expect to find (which they did). He has published a whole range of books on the disastrous effects of compulsory celibacy, the best known of which is Sex, Priests and Power whose bright red cover also makes an appearance in the film Spotlight.
One sickening aspect of the Boston scandal was the way in which the Church dealt with victims of abuse, humiliating those who dared to take the matter to court in order to force others secretly to accept low amounts of compensation from the diocese. Another was the way perpetrators were protected, temporarily suspended before being found new parishes. That sort of practice, has been found to have taken place all over the world, most recently in Australia. Most Episcopal conferences have more robust child protection procedures in place (as recommended in England Wales by the Nolan Report). But some abuse continues while the hierarchy resolutely denies any link between the requirement of celibacy and clerical sexual abuse. It took a Government Commission in Australia to recommend last December that their conference of bishops apply to Rome to make celibacy optional. Here in the United Kingdom we have our own Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse which has already considered the evidence of abuse within the English Benedictine Community. It will go on to consider abuse within the Archdiocese of Birmingham and within the wider Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. I don’t want to prejudge their findings but I would be very surprised if they don’t involve similar recommendations to reconsider the question of compulsory celibacy. It is deeply embarrassing for Catholics that the Church has to be forced into change by secular authorities. We should have put our own house in order years ago.
The third area in which the Church needs to change her mind is in its treatment of women. Jesus himself was exceptional among his contemporaries in being inclusive of women, as Luke’s gospel makes abundantly clear. They were part of the group of disciples who followed him in proclaiming the Good News (Luke 8:2-3). All four gospels record them following him to the cross (unlike most of the men) and being chosen to be the first witnesses of the resurrection. The likelihood that this is historical is increased by the fact that it would have been against the interests of the early church to rely on women, who were not regarded by the secular world as credible witnesses (they couldn’t play that role in court, for example). As the committee appointed to study the role of women in the early Church by the Catholic Biblical Association of America pointed out, the gospels also record that women fulfilled all the criteria of apostleship spelt out by St. Paul: ‘They accompanied Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, and witnessed his death’ and resurrection. The Twelve, admittedly, were all men but then they were chosen to judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt 19: 29) in line with Jewish tradition. No-one has suggested that, following the example of Jesus, only Jews can be ordained. And, of course, Jesus said nothing whatsoever about ordination.
The New Testament is also clear about the changed role of women in the early church. St. Paul mentions a number of women deacons in his letters, especially in Romans 16.It is also clear from the attacks upon them by Church Fathers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian that some church communities in the second and third centuries allowed women to serve as priests. The Council of Chalcedon (451) banned women under forty from being ordained as deacons (after that age they were seen as no longer a distraction). Women deacons, however, continued to be active into the eighth century . In the later Middle Ages too women were regularly ordained as abbesses and nuns, the former wielding considerable influence.
The question of ordaining women as priests, however, did not resurface until the twentieth century, prompting the 1917 Code of Canon Law to announce that ‘only a baptised man validly receives ordination’. Even Vatican 2 could not envisage a woman receiving holy orders. But in 1971 the Synod of Bishops asked for a commission to be set up to consider the question of women’s ordination. Nothing actually happened but the question was being asked. A Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1976 recognised that leadership of the early Church was always held by men ‘in conformity with Jewish custom’. But in the same year the CDF issued “A Declaration on the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood” in an attempt to close the matter down.
This document Inter Insigniores declares that ‘the Church, in fidelity to the example of the Lord, does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination’. Since a priests acts in persona Christi as a sacramental sign of Christ, he must be male. It draws upon Aquinas’s argument that a sacrament requires ‘natural resemblance’ to what it signifies. It was difficult, the CDF argued, to see a woman as ‘the image of Christ’ and so this disqualified them from ordination. But Aquinas followed Aristotle in seeing women as ‘misbegotten males’. Even the CDF admitted that some of the Church Fathers were ‘prejudiced’ against women though it claimed that these prejudices ‘had hardly any influence on their pastoral activity, and still less on their spiritual direction’.
Resistance to allowing women any part in the leadership of the Catholic Church continued, with the revised Code of Canon Law of 1983 banning women from being lectors or altar servers although they could fulfil these roles ‘by temporary deputation’ by a bishop or priest. John-Paul IIhimself was virulently opposed to the ordination of women, reportedly thumping his desk whenever the question was raised. His Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity of Women), a response to the 1987 Synod of Bishops highlighting the role of women in the Church, stressed their calling to be either virgins or mothers, repeating the claim that Jesus Himself, in choosing twelve men to judge the twelve tribes of Israel, had established the pattern for an exclusively male priesthood. He repeated this dubious argument in an apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacredotalis (On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone) in 1994. It is surprising to read such an authoritarian leader repeating the equally dubious claim that ‘the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women’. It is ironic too that a man who did so much to change the world opposed all change in the institution over which he wielded such authority. He would write a Letter to Women the following year insisting that exclusion from the priesthood ‘in no way detracts from the role of women’ in the Church. The CDF meanwhile belatedly attributed papal infallibility to this decision on women even though Canon Law requires that not only the Pope but the whole body of Catholic bishops has to agree an infallible utterance and the bishops in this case hadn’t even been consulted.
Many Catholic theologians, including Nicholas Lash, the first Catholic Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge were shocked by this attempt to foreclose discussion on the subject. Lash pointed out that the question whether women could serve as priests had resurfaced as a result of new attitudes to women generally. Attempting to use infallibility to shut down discussion of the subject, Lash argued, was to use ‘a blunt instrument to prevent the ripening of a question in the Catholic mind’. The CDF continued to use other blunt instruments, silencing dissenting theologians and even removing them from their posts (Lash was safe because he taught in a secular institution unreliant upon Church funding; his counterparts elsewhere, such as Charles Curran at the Catholic University of America and Hans Kung in the Catholic Theology Faculty at Tubingen, were not so fortunate). This pressure on ‘dissent’was stepped up in 1998 in an apostolic letter Ad Tuendam Fidem (To Defend the Faith) in which bishops were told to punish anyone who failed to give full assent to papal teaching. The issue of ordaining women could not even be discussed. The American bishops obediently produced several documents on the subject that year, one of which argued that to become ‘a labourer in the field’ (i.e. a priest) you had to be called. The Pope had said women weren’t called and so women couldn’t be labourers in the field. QED.
This would be comic were it not for the damage it does to the Church in the eyes of the world. One of the victims of papal punishment, Sr. Lavinia Byrne whose book Women at the Altar was consigned to the flames, turned it to her advantage, producing a second edition of the book with the advertising slogan emblazoned on the cover ‘Banned by the Vatican’. Being ‘silenced’ by the Vatican, as Charles Curran and Hans Kung have found, made them more influential in the world at large. But three decrees were published in 2012 threatening excommunication to anyone who attempted to ordain women, a threat which was carried out. Only recently under Pope Francis has the question once again been opened to discussion.
What are Catholic women expected to do about this? An excellent book on The Papal ‘No’: A Comprehensive Guide to the Vatican’s Rejection of Women’s Ordination, by Deborah Halter, quotes one American Catholic, Rosemary Jantzen, on why she stays in a Church that is so unfriendly to women:
Because I believe the Eucharist is the Body of Christ; because Christ did not ever demean women; he treated them with respect and generosity; he did not exclude them from being disciples. He had been born a human, to a woman; and the most momentous of all events, his resurrection, he announced first to a woman.
There will be many who feel like this. But there are also many who have found it impossible to remain in a Church which clearly fails to follow Christ’s example in this respect. There are many more who could never consider belonging to such an institution.
We are asked to be missionary disciples, however, to spread the good news of the gospel, to invite people to join our community of love. But we have been hampered by a hierarchy which fails to listen or respond to our questions on all of these issues: contraception, compulsory celibacy and the ordination of women. This is all the more disappointing after the promise of Vatican 2, which showed how change could come about. The tide may be turning with Pope Francis, who has opened up these areas for consideration at least. But he often meets resistance from a hierarchy still dominated by Cardinals and Bishops appointed by his predecessors, who were chosen (or at least vetted) precisely for their resistance to change on these three issues. Change, however, must come if the Church is not to wither away. And the laity, who actually know something about sexuality and gender, must make their voices heard.
This may go against a longstanding tradition that lay people should wait for their leaders to decide when the time was ripe for change. But if we were to follow this tradition we might find ourselves waiting for ever. This was Karl Rahner’s view back in 1976:
The situation today is such that time is running out too quickly for us to be able to wait patiently in every case until the mental attitudes of the official teachers who set the standards has changed spontaneously.
Forty years further on we can see that the position of the Church is even more urgent. Lay people must speak out to try to influence the mindset of the hierarchy. For without these changes the Church will become an irrelevance, a tiny minority of elderly male celibates waiting for institutional death.
It is because of this realisation and because the promise of Vatican 2 has so spectacularly failed to be fulfilled that a number of reform groups have grown up in the last few decades. ACTA, for instance, “A Call to Action” finds its inspiration in the Second Vatican Council, aiming to re-establish the communication and dialogue that has been so lacking in the Church in recent years. MMaC, the Movement for a Married Clergy, promotes the cause for the acceptance of married priests. The ACP (Association of Married Priests) represent men and women who have left the ministry or religious life, campaigning to allow priests who have married to return. More memorable acronyms are WOW (Women’s Ordination Worldwide) which like WOC (the Women’s Ordination Conference) focusses on the role of women in the Church. We Are Church makes the point that we the laity are part of the whole Body of Christ and should have a say in our future. Voice of the Faithful, which was set up in the wake of the American abuse scandal, has the motto: “Keep the Faith. Change the Church”. There is also Voices of Faith, which makes the point that we have more than one voice. Perhaps the most striking acronym is SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests”). It is scandalous, as with the “Me Too” campaign, that there are so many victims in need of support.
I could mention more but there is a limit to the number of organisations any individual can join. And the problem remains that the hierarchy (in England Wales at least) is currently very reluctant to engage in dialogue with the faithful. Bishop Seamus Cunningham of Hexham and Newcastle recently took to the Bishops Conference of England and Wales a proposal from his Council of Priests to ordain married men which was rejected out of hand without a vote. They have since refused to reconsider this subject, arguing that nothing has changed since their previous judgment. But that, of course, is the problem. Nothing has changed since the Second Vatican Council. And it is about time that it did. To use the title of Mary McAleese’s talk at the Voices of Faith conference in March, “The Time is NOW for Change in the Catholic Church”.
So what I suggest is that Catholic lay people stay in the Church – they are, after all the Church – and demand that there is proper consultation in parish, partnership and diocesan pastoral councils. We did once, in 1980, have a National Pastoral Council, which proved far too radical for the Vatican. Archbishops Hume and Worlock, if you remember, had their knuckles wrapped in Rome for allowing such discussion to take place. What we need now, I suggest, is another National Pastoral Congress or, better still, a permanent Synod of the kind envisage by ARCIC, on the model of Anglican practice, to bridge the current gap between the hierarchy and the laity. It may be, as Cardinal Schoenborn suggests, that we will need a Third Vatican Council to introduce such a significant change as the ordination of women. We should do whatever it takes to change our Church, to make it reflect more fully the values of Christ himself.