Six for women, seven for men

Anna Quindlen

November 27, 1992|By Anna Quindlen

SO MUCH is contained in a small story Bishop P. Francis Murphy recounted recently in Commonweal magazine. The auxiliary bishop of Baltimore asked a class of first-graders the number of sacraments, a question as elementary to Catholic schoolchildren as the ABCs.

"One little girl promptly responded: 'Six for women and seven for men,' " the bishop wrote.

What a smart little girl! The gender-specific sacrament is ordination, the one that makes men Catholic priests. Murphy believes that is wrong. Of the ordination of women he writes, "Justice demands it."

But he is still in the minority, and last week, when the American bishops rejected their own pastoral letter on the role of women, the dis-ease of the Catholic hierarchy with half its people was made painfully manifest.

Since the National Conference of Catholic Bishops was founded in 1966, it has wrestled with issues of social welfare, armed conflict and economic justice. But the pastoral letter on women is the first in its history on which the conference has been unable to reach consensus, falling far short of the two-thirds majority needed for approval. By the time it had been drafted and redrafted, homogenized and Vatican-vetted, its vitality was gone and its supporters nearly outnumbered those who thought it more divisive than illuminating.

And while many of the bishops preferred to focus on other issues, the pastoral letter had at its heart what has become for some Catholic women the most obvious symbol of church patriarchy, the refusal to consider the ordination of women.

The new catechism reads, "The Lord Jesus chose men to form the college of the 12 apostles. . . . The Church acknowledges that it is bound by this choice of the Lord Himself." As though the single-sex Congress of the early days of the Republic inevitably dictated that Congress should remain so today, the church, at its most literal-minded, considers the New Testament in a vacuum, divorced from the mores of its times, the larger lessons of Christianity and the overarching issue of humanity.

Stretch this, and you can argue that stories that Christ was a carpenter dictate that only those skilled with hand tools shall be called to the priesthood. It ignores the fact that Catholicism is not powered by the literal facts of Jesus' life alone, facts that vary from gospel to gospel. Its engine is its ethos, an ethos at odds with discrimination that, no matter how cloaked in "unbroken tradition," is nothing more than gender prejudice made theological writ.

This is precisely what those who oppose the ordination of women would expect me to say. The auxiliary bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, John R. Sheets, recently described some proponents of ordination for women as "those whose stridency hints at something more at work than theological clarification." And the failed pastoral letter itself took aim at radical feminism. How much easier to dismiss us as fringe elements than to consider in a thoughtful fashion the more troubling question of exclusion as tradition.

The remarkable thing is how many of those seen as malcontents have stayed within the church of our mothers. In an earlier, more vivid version of the pastoral letter, many women were quoted. One said, "As I reflect upon my experience as a Catholic woman what stands out the most for me is that I choose to participate in an institution that is discriminating against me as a woman."

That child Bishop Murphy quotes cannot even be an altar girl. That is indefensible. Defend it the hierarchy does, by saying that women can serve in ways just as valuable but not identical. It is a classic separate-but-equal argument; the separation is real but the equality illusory.

"Jesus inhabited a world which was utterly different from our own," A.N. Wilson writes in his uncommonly intelligent new book, "Jesus: A Life," an exploration of both the historical figure and the Christ of faith.

While some prefer to think our position is political, the truth is that it is precisely in that nexus of spirit and gospel story that many of us find the argument for the ordination of women in the Catholic Church. For it comes down to this:

Can we imagine that, carrying out his mission today, the Christ of charity and unity would have restricted his circle to men alone? No. So crabbed a spirit would not have survived so long.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.