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December 10, 2016
Canadian Excellence

Catholic women rock the boat

A Canadian woman will be one of several ordained as a Catholic priest

David Haskell
The Hamilton Spectator
1,154 words
23 July 2005
The Hamilton Spectator
Copyright (c) 2005 The Hamilton Spectator.


Nine women, including one Canadian, will be ordained this Monday as Roman Catholic deacons and priests. The ceremony is scheduled to take place on a boat in the middle of the St. Lawrence River.

Holding the ceremony in the middle of a river may seem like an odd location but the participants say it makes what they're doing legal. Because they will be in international waters between Canada and the United States, they are outside the jurisdiction of any Catholic diocese that could formally object to their ordinations.

The location of the ceremony is apt for another reason: it's the goal of the nine women to rock the boat. They want to challenge the church's doctrine that states only men can be ordained as a priest.

The river ceremony will conclude a conference focusing on women's ordination that is being held at Carleton University this weekend.

The Vatican has not issued an official statement on the conference or the intended actions of the female ordination candidates but past actions leave little mystery as to the feelings of the Holy See.

Earlier this month, Lyon's Cardinal Archbishop Philippe Barbarin excommunicated a Frenchwoman who had been ordained on a boat on the Saone River. The female "bishops" who officiated there had been excommunicated in 2002 by Pope Benedict, acting in his pre-pontificate position as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Despite its hard line on the issue, it seems probable that Rome will ultimately have to sacrifice centuries of tradition on the stone-cold altar of reality.

Statistics show that the church's pool of candidates for the priesthood is as shallow as a baptismal font.

In their book Full Pews Empty Altars, Richard A. Schoenherr and Lawrence A. Young say that almost half the priests in North America are 55 or older and there is little chance that seminary enrolment will keep up with retirements and deaths.

According to the Vatican Statistical Yearbook, an estimated 58,000 parishes and 112,000 mission stations worldwide are now without a priest.

A 2000 study by U.S. bishops concluded that 27 per cent of American parishes do not have a resident priest. Canadian figures are thought to be similar.

While there is survey data that suggests more men would enter the Catholic priesthood if they were permitted to marry, most experts agree that given the overwhelming need for priests, it's unlikely that change alone would be enough to alleviate the shortage.

There would still be a need for women priests.

Furthermore, public perception of the church would be incredibly negative if Rome chose to give its stamp of approval to one major doctrinal change -- the marriage of male clergy -- but denied what appears to be another equally valid change -- the right of women to become priests.

A single move blatantly biased in favour of men would risk a schism the likes of which has not been seen since the Protestant Reformation.

In the past, when Catholic Church leaders have been challenged on their position regarding women and the priesthood they have cited scripture.

They say because Jesus didn't make a woman one of his apostles and because the apostle Paul in some of his letters suggests women be excluded from presiding in a Christian assembly, barring women from the priesthood is justified.

But others say that, biblically speaking, a strong argument can be made for the ordination of women. Certainly, many Protestant denominations believe this to be so.

The Salvation Army was ordaining women in 1865.

The Roman Church's close spiritual cousin, the Anglican Church, began ordaining women in Canada in 1976 and in England in 1992.

Many Catholic academics are also of the opinion that the Vatican's interpretation of scripture is wrong. Dr. John Wijngaard is a noted scholar of church history and author of the book, The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church.

In it he explains that, "while Christ did not choose women (as one of his 12 apostles) because of the social perceptions of the time, he made women, in principle, equal partners in his priesthood.''

The Gospel of Luke, for example, reports Mary Magdalen, Joanna and Susanna were among the women who travelled with Jesus and supported his ministry from their own resources.

Furthermore, says Wijngaard, "Paul's prohibitions (against women clergy) concern only local communities. He taught the equality of women in Christ as one sees in his letter to the Galatians where it states: "Thus there is no longer Jew nor Greek, free nor slave, male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.'"

In fact, Paul's writings show women serving as prophets (Philip's daughters), deacons (Phoebe), missionaries (Prisca) and leaders of local communities (Lydia). One is even called an apostle (Junia).

Examples of women as equal partners in ministry are not only to be found in first century documents. A more recent precedent comes from the 1970s.

In her book Out of the Depths, Miriam Therese Winter tells the true story of Ludmila Javorova, a Roman Catholic woman ordained as a priest in Czechoslovakia by Bishop Felix Davidek. At the time of her ordination, her country was under an oppressive communist regime that openly persecuted Catholics. Javorova ministered to the spiritual needs of an underground church.

Her case was an extreme exception but to women like the nine planning to be ordained in the St. Lawrence River, it is a powerfully motivating tale of what can (and should) be.

Of course, cynics might say Monday's ordination ceremony is little more than a publicity stunt destined to accomplish nothing. I disagree.

These women, some of them nuns and all deeply rooted in their Catholic faith, are willing to face excommunication -- a banishment from their spiritual family.

For them, this is no cheap stunt.

While it's certain Rome is not going to recognize these nine women as legitimate priests of the Catholic Church after their ordination, ordinary Catholics who hear of their actions -- even those who don't agree with them -- will have to acknowledge their bravery and selflessness.

The strength of their characters might be enough to convince many Catholics that when it comes to the priesthood, the best man for the job might sometimes be a woman.

David Haskell is assistant professor of journalism at the Brantford Campus of Wilfrid Laurier University. His research interest is religion and media.