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Women priesthood or de-clericalization of the church?

It is disturbing to see the powerlessness of Catholic women to respond to what they perceive as their Spirit-led vocation

Women priesthood or de-clericalization of the church?

Pope Francis greets a group of nuns during a Jubilee audience at St Peter's square on June 30 at the Vatican. (Photo by AFP) 

Kochurani Abraham, Kottayam
India

November 22, 2016

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The question of women priesthood in the Catholic Church has been a thorny issue for several decades. Once again it is alive in media debates as Pope Francis reportedly affirmed the church's stand of not ordaining women while speaking to journalists early this month.

The pope affirming the church's stand to a frantic "Never, ever?" question, supposedly raised by a Swedish journalist onboard the papal plane, echoes the fear of many that their dreams of finding women 'at the altar' could be smashed forever.

Reports portray strong reactions. Some are angry as they see the church fixated on the tradition of an all male priesthood that they believe has become obsolete for our times. For some others, the papal statement is baffling. Though he signaled to signs of hope on the gender question — through the different pronouncements and gestures of inclusion — he is not ready for radical changes that would facilitate the expansion of women's roles in the church. And so, there is a sense of frustration.

As a woman who continues to love the Catholic Church, the news of Pope Francis reiterating the church's official stand against ordaining women to the priesthood evoked mixed feelings. It is disturbing to see the powerlessness and inability of many Catholic women to respond fully to what they perceive as their Spirit-led vocation within the church. Women are apparently at the mercy of the church's all male leadership to be included or excluded — as made evident in the foot-washing ritual of Maundy Thursday 2016.

However, a critical discernment of this unresolved issue of women's role in the Catholic Church prompts me to put the question differently. What do we need as a church community: women priesthood or de-clericalization of the church? Perhaps it is time for a serious re-thinking on what it means to be church today. The question is not if women should be ordained into structures that facilitate clericalism, but if the church should start a process of de-clericalization.

Pope Francis rightly says that women should not to be clericalized. He spoke about "greater role" for women in the church and insisted that they must not be clericalized — as seen in the December 2013 interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, when he was asked about the possibility of naming female cardinals. Would this mean the possibility of delinking clerical ordination and ministry? Could this lead to cutting the critical link that has developed in the Catholic Church between priestly ordination and jurisdiction?

The church needs leadership. But a hierarchical structuring of leadership founded on 'priestly' ordination as understood and exercised today seems to go contrary to the spirit of the Gospel model of Christian leadership. If at all the church decides to budge from the "never ever" position on women's question, will the incorporation of women into the church hierarchy resolve the issue?

The Gospels point to a radical vision of the "people of God" initiated by Jesus that was fundamentally inclusive and egalitarian — where the 'Jew or Greek', 'slave or free', 'male or female' differences did not matter. In the Gospels, we also see Jesus taking a strong and critical stand against the structures of the Jewish tradition that blocked the realization of this vision.

Even though leadership in the Catholic ecclesiastical tradition has been built over the centuries on male priesthood and hierarchy, perhaps it is time to rethink these traditions. A creative transformation of the church with new structures of participation becomes imperative for giving birth to a new 'ekklesia' that transmits the energies of the Spirit to the world today.

Persons imbued by the Spirit and wisdom irrespective of their male, female or trans-gender identity can lead the community in worship and in other organizational matters. Allowing the Spirit to pave way for the emergence of these new expressions of Christian leadership and ministry would make the church a leaven of transformation and a prophetic sign and sacrament of liberation in today's world.

Kochurani Abraham is a feminist theologian committed to building gender justice in the church and in society. She can be contacted through kochuabraham@gmail.com.

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