Pope Francis gave a lengthy interview to America magazine (November 28th 2022) answering a wide range of questions, including the issue of women’s ordination, which he ruled out. Being a woman with a lifelong sense of vocation, this is my response.
Coincidentally it was published on the same day as a book by Dr Ann Francis on women in ministry in Ireland was launched on Zoom. The book entitled ‘’Called’’ is the fruit of her extensive research into women’s ministry, ordained and non-ordained, across denominations. Besides her findings, it includes transcripts of in-depth interviews.
I am one of the women featured in these interviews. During the discussion one woman commented she had found reading my interview very painful. The Pope’s interview also referred to the reality of that pain, in the question put to him: ‘’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?’’
But Francis skirted around the pain and what was a pastoral issue. He chose to answer at a theological level, arguing that the Petrine principle was that of ministry and was the preserve of men.
The interviewer later said she had hoped he would address the personal, not the ‘why’ or ‘why not’ but the question of what someone does with the pain caused by a Church teaching. But is the Pope able or willing to engage with that pain? He never has.
The reality is, as far back as 1995, I have described this teaching as a form of spiritual abuse, causing great pain. These statements have been repeated over and over by successive popes, convincing fewer and fewer people. I experience them as like being assaulted in my spirit, being bludgeoned over the head, put down, silenced, made to disappear. I do not know whether Pope Francis has any awareness of how his statements are experienced by women like me, that they are received as a form of violence.
The tragic irony of course is that Pope Francis’ favourite metaphor for the Church is that of a field-hospital. But for me the Church is the very place where the injury of rejection, the wounding of discrimination is taking place, and he is part of it.
As older arguments against women’s ordination successively crumbled under examination, Pope John Paul ll and his successors have resorted to adopting Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Petrine and Marian principles as a bulwark against women’s ordination.
In a 1995 RTE Would You Believe television documentary in which I spoke about my sense of vocation, Fr Brendan Leahy (now bishop of Limerick and Deputy Chair of the Irish Synodal Pathway) used these to justify the exclusion of women from the ordained ministries. There were strong reactions to Pope Francis’ comments.
Mary McAleese was forthright in stating it was the same old ‘misogynistic drivel’, while others described it as convoluted and rambling. In an insightful article in the Vatican’s own newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Professor Marinella Perroni summarised it best: ‘’Doesn’t the Marian-Petrine principle express an ideology and rhetoric of sexual and gender differentiation that has now been exposed as one of the covers for patriarchal privileges?’’
In other words a flimsy fig leaf to try to hide the naked gender apartheid in Church ministries Pope Francis has spoken repeatedly about the evils of a ‘throw-away culture’ and the urgency of creating a culture of encounter, putting people and relationships first, not starting with abstract ideas or ideologies. It means reaching out, listening and dialoguing with persons. And yet, when it comes to women with a sense of vocation to the ordained ministries, the clerical culture is literally one of ‘’throw away’’.
I have a question for Pope Francis: Will you open yourself to an encounter with us, will you listen to our testimonies as we bear witness to the hope that is in us? So far, my requests and best efforts, and those of other women, have met with silence. Will our sense of vocation continue to be dismissed as ‘’women’s idle tales’’?
Shortly after the America interview, Sr Nathalie Becquart, Undersecretary of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops stated in a BBC interview that ‘’for the Catholic Church at this moment, from an official point of view, it [the ordination of women] is not an open question’’. If not now, when? These words ‘’not an open question’’ reminded me of some of the women who believed they were called to the presbyteral ministry in France in the ‘70s. These pioneering, prophetic women, had formed a group called VIE (LIFE in English), which was the acronym for Vivantes Interrogations à l’église (Living Questions to the Church).
We, awkward women, remain living, breathing questions, persistent questions, disturbing questions to the Church. Our Christian vocations are too expansive to be confined to the rigid stereotypical gender roles assigned to us by churchmen.
The working document for the Continental Stage of the Synod urges us to ‘’Enlarge the space of your tent ‘’(Is 54:2). If the Pope and the bishops cling to the tight, short ropes of the sexist categories of the Petrine-Marian principles, the tent will remain a narrow, inhospitable, patriarchal space, with no room for those of us who are labouring with the Spirit to give birth to new life. The integrity and fruitfulness of the Synodal process require all questions to be open to scrutiny and discernment, open to the surprises of the Spirit.
A hundred and fifty years ago a little girl was born in France who came to feel that pain so intensely she forecast her early death as God releasing her from it. “You see, God is going to take me at an age when I would not have had time to become a priest…If I could have been a priest, I would have been ordained at these June ordinations. So what did God do? So that I would not be disappointed, He let me be sick: in that way I couldn’t have been there and I would die before I could exercise my ministry.”
St Thérèse of Lisieux, now a doctor of the Church, died at 24. We, her sisters in the faith, live on, with both the pain and the hope.
Soline Humbert, born in 1956, is a French-Irish, ministering as a spiritual director since 2006. She has degrees in History, Business Administration, and Ecumenical Theology from Trinity College, Dublin and diplomas in Catechetics and Spiritual Direction. She is a member of We Are Church Ireland.