Women Priests

Welcome friends

February 21, 2011


response to the Jamie Manson article in the NCR 2/15/2011

by Tony Equale

For many Catholics who are seeking church reform, the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood is a settled subject.  How could there possibly be any disagreement?  Women are working in every career choice open to men, including the police, and the army.  Why not the priesthood?  There is no reason.

I am not challenging women’s rights.  I accept the principle of egalitarianism for all humankind, and of course that would apply to any role in any organization.  But I would not want the defense of that principle to obscure what is at stake with Church reform.  For me the question is not whether women should be priests in the Roman church, but whether in a christian com­mu­nity there should be any priests at all.

I claim that the institution of the “sacramental” priesthood as we know it in our times, is a greco-roman elitist innovation that did not exist until well into the 2nd century, a hundred years after the founding of the church.  It was designed precisely to eliminate christian egalitarianism, create a hieratic caste, mystify the ordinary people and concentrate power in the hands of the upper class.  It represented the unwarranted transformation of a legitimate ministerial role — the presbyter — into an ontological caste that did not previously exist in the christian scheme of things, and certainly not in the mind of Jesus.  It was an essential step in bending christianity to the cultural requirements of the class-based society run by the Roman Empire.  It makes the people themselves complicit in their own impotence by making it seem impossible for a christian group to have the eucharist unless it be performed exclusively by the magical hands of a representative of the (upper class) bishop.

The earliest accounts of the life of christian communities portray a fellowship where fixed caste status for the clergy grounded in ritual alchemy, was not in evidence.  Likewise, infrastructure (buildings) if they existed, were a secondary feature of the community.  It’s not insignificant that the two phenomena seem to have arisen together, suggesting that “buildings,” i.e., property and wealth became a factor requiring the creation of new “sacramental structures” that would insure that control stayed in the proper hands.  These developments were exactly what made christianity an attractive choice as the “new” Religion of the empire.  An egalitarian group of slaves and tent-makers operating out of homes and storefronts just would not do for “divine Rome.”

By the 4th century, with the elevation of christianity to the status of State Religion of the Roman Empire, the connection between church property and the Roman upper class was such a conspicuous part of ecclesiastical reality that we see Constantine himself sending his legions in 316 to restore North African church buildings to their “rightful” bishops.  What made this restoration so shocking, besides the use of imperial force, was that the “rightful” bishops were in most cases the same men who had “handed over” (traditores) the (sacred) books to the Roman authorities during the persecution of Diocletian, causing the “people” (afterwards called “Donatists”) to refuse to receive them back as their bishops.  But Constantine had made a huge transfer of basilicas, temples and other buildings to christianity from the Roman polythesitic religions, and he would not abide having “his” imperial church buildings taken over by a mob of disobedient nobodies.  Every facet of the empire was run by obedience to the Roman authorities. The Empire’s new Church would be no different.  Precedent had to be set.

“Ordination” functioned in this context to insure a mystified control of the Church and its sacramental life by the upper classes.  This is the “priesthood” that the RCWP is banging on the door to enter … rather than to eliminate in order to return the eucharist to the fellowship of equals.  How can we support an elitist anachronism in the name of gender equality?  It’s time, I think, to stop talking about the church and the “ecclesistical careers” that have been denied women, and begin talking about the kind of living community that Jesus encouraged his followers to form.

Just look at the ludicrous scenarios described in the Manson article.  Imagine, mature adult christians, so mesmerized by the Roman sect’s absurd claims about apostolic fidelity being bound to mechanical legal ritual that they are ordained in the middle of rivers in order to avoid the reach of episcopal jurisdictions!  This is not rebellion.  It is a crass submission to the legalistic mystifications that have been developed to soli­di­fy power in the hands of those in control.  It is to be complicit in the elevation of caste superiority into a christian category in utter contradiction of the egalitarianism preached by Jesus.

In the late sixties Ivan Illich was something of a guru to a group of Catholic people in the New York area interested in serving the poor and in serious church reform.  Many of us learned spanish and the principles of pastoral acculturation at his feet in Puerto Rico and in Mexico.  On one occasion we shared with him our enthusiasm for a married deaconate and perhaps the ordination of married men as a first step in the larger reform of mandatory celibacy and the ordination of women.  To our surprise he told us he did not agree. “Until clerical culture changes,” he said, “the only thing you will accomplish will be to draw this new group of unspoiled laypeople into a dysfunctional clerical culture, effectively adding to the unchristian stratifications within the church.  You will just perpetuate something that should not exist.”

I hear in those words the very same counsel as offered by Mary Hunt and Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, mentioned by Manson, that “Catholic women should think beyond ordination and seek a church that functions more like … ‘a discipleship of equals’.”  The depth of reform that this would entail is truly beyond imagination … but only because of the hierarchy’s insistence on clinging to power and to the ideological (dogmatic) props that protect it.  Otherwise, it’s not unimaginable at all.  It’s time to stop begging them for what they will never give … and at any rate do not own.  It is not theirs to give!  To seek ordination under these circumstances is to buy into the very system that debases us.

You want to celebrate the eucharist?  By all means, do it!  But don’t tie it to being ordained a “priest.”  And that goes for us all!

Tony Equale




4 comments on “Women Priests

  1. patty hyland says:

    Hi, Tony,

    [An Unknown God] gives me an opportunity to explore, yet again, a topic near and dear to my heart. The sacred. I haven’t read through the whole book yet, but I do hope you talk more about what your ideas of the “sacred” are.

    I really like the title. It dovetails nicely with an experience I had lately. Recently someone gave me a new meditation tool. It’s “runes”, small stones that fit very nicely on your fingertips. Each is inscribed with a symbol for each of the main words of the serenity prayer i.e. God, serenity, acceptance, courage and wisdom. There is a small velvet bag the runes are kept in. One reaches in and takes one of the stones and meditates on its meaning. About the third or fourth day I reached in and pulled out a stone with noth-ing on it. Puzzled, I looked to see what it meant. And it is the symbol for God. And I thought, how wonderful! The unknown, the unmentionable.

    I really liked the prologue. The language was clear and crisp and human. I loved the invitation to dialog and the non pedantic nature of the prose. I thought the passages about Mary are especially beautiful. The description of your loss – “howl in the night” – was very moving (and frankly frightening to think of losing John). And phrases such as “personal expansion” and “in-grafting” (especially from a winery owner) were very beautiful. And it was helpful to be reminded of how we do take each other for granted. I really appreciated your honesty in giving credit to Mary for initiating the whole question about Divine Providence so nicely summarized in last paragraph of p.5. Having met Mary those few times at Vic’s it seems “proper” and won-derfully human.

    As far as the charges you lay at the feet of the RC church … It’s hard for me to determine, sometimes, where the fault lies. Is it the culture, is it the church? And yes I know the church informs the culture. But the culture also informs the church. I guess I would be more comfortable saying that the teachings of the RC church were influential rather than causative in, for ex-ample, pedophilia. I haven’t read up enough on that issue, but what I have read indicated that it’s hard to determine the cause of it. Mandatory celi-bacy doesn’t seem to me to cover all the possibilities, especially when mar-ried men are also pedophiles. As a social worker/therapist I would have to consider other psychological concerns.

    Speaking of which, I missed in your moving account of your emerging sexuality, the influence of ideas from your family. I always find that inter-esting. For myself, coming from an Irish catholic family … I was given mes-sages of fear and guilt. … Anyway, I wondered what messages you got from your folks. And why do some of us seem more vulnerable to messages of guilt than others. I wondered, further, if you experienced more guilt than some. …

    I hadn’t given much thought to the importance of the concepts of Apos-tolic succession, and infallibility. But I think you make a convincing case both for the hypocrisy, and for the human damage they are responsible for, as well as the historical context for their existence. It gives me comfort to have the justification for what I know in my gut is true. Thank you.

    I’m not as sure as you that the church won’t reform itself in some way. Most likely it won’t reform itself in exactly the way we might like, but when its very existence is threatened, and they finally admit that, they will likely change. They can easily reinterpret the celibacy issue, citing the first 1,000 years. Women priests will take a lot longer, but it’s still possible. But the issue of being divine, that I’m not so sure will ever change.

    Stay well, my friend. And thank you again for all this important work you are doing, and inviting the dialog.


  2. tonyequale says:


    Thank you for what you said about the prologue … and the sense of Mary’s presence. That was very important to me. Also, I’m happy to hear that the book is stimulating a sense of the Sacred. That, after all, (quiet as it’s kept) is the purpose of it all. Your story of the stones was moving, and very much to the point. Thank you for that.

    And so to the “fault” issue. Chapter One was not ultimately centered on laying blame. I admitted that these were historical problems that we all inherited, and that even the priests that administered the seminary system were its victims … no one is to blame for its imposition in 1953. Yes, they made us immature … but no one knew any better. (My family, like most, was mute on the subject … going along with the Church.)

    But after the council … that the Vatican honchos chose to disregard the spirit of the council, was the “fault.” … and even though celibacy was clearly not a “commandment from God,” they refused any possibility of returning it to its original voluntary status …

    Some claim that most of the pedophile occurrences happened after 1968, confirming the theory … that may or may not be true … it may just be that, earlier, such events were just as frequent, but simply did not get reported … the victims being of the generation that “knew how to keep their mouth shut,” or had already passed on.

    The laying of blame is not my point. My point is to clarify the dynamic that percolates right now under the surface preventing the Vatican authorities from embracing change … and not only on the issue of celibacy. That dynamic is the Church’s self-divinizing self-definition. It’s what constrains men who might otherwise be intelligent and flexible, to repeat hidebound formulations and dysfunctional practices endlessly … and therefore obviate reform.

    My interest these days is to express that insight in a ways that may make it easier for Catholics to understand. I make a distinction between the kind of “divinity” communicated by Jesus … what Paul called kenosis, “self-emptying” … and the kind of theocratic “divinity” projected by the Roman Empire, which was legalistic, self-aggrandizing, dictatorial, inflexible, controlling and punitive. I claim the Church’s current definition of “divinity” is actually a pagan concept, developed by theocratic Rome, not one that corresponds to Jesus’ mission and message …

    On your argument that “The Church will change when its existence is threatened,” … it’s my perception that “The Church,” as a matter of practical fact, is a corporate business entity controlled exclusively by its corporate officers (the hierarchy). “They” have precipitated the closure of over 80 parishes in the Diocese of Boston alone … not because those churches weren’t full of people, but because they needed money to pay off the abused. The disappearance of those (poor) parishes did not threaten “The Church” in the least. It’s my opinion that so long as they have their corporate wealth the hierarchy are quite capable of presiding over empty pews and “bare ruined choirs.” With or without a congregation, they will still call themselves “The Church;” and those that respect wealth will gladly accommodate them. You may be right. … when “they” feel threatened maybe they will change … But I’m afraid it will take a lot of financial loss be-fore that “Church” feels its existence threatened.

  3. Dick Harding says:

    Hi Tony;
    I’m still out here but as I mentioned, once I got well enough to go back to work my intellectual endeavors took a dive. Have been reading your ongoing postings though and enjoying how you are moving forward and growing the blog site.
    I’m a little disappointed that the readers that I prompted with their very own copies of Unknown God have yet to get back to me with any comments much less post anything to the blog. I’m tempted to email them and see what they are up to. Truth be told, haven’t emailed them either since they got the book, so am out of touch with just about everybody.
    In simple thoughts, I have long been in touch with the sacred as it manifests in the natural world but have not bothered to put it into logical thought. Your work has helped me to feel more at home with the here and now concept of the sacred and for that I thank you.
    I like you refreshing approach to the not so obvious notion that we often labor for “divine” inspiration with our heads in the sand of our out moded theological training. Letting go of those concepts is a task in itself at times but I’m hoping that more and more readers will grasp your initiative and move into sacred awareness for the 21st century. Recent news items about Il Papa are another instance of the outrageously out of touch thinking that keeps driving “the faithful” current leader. Learning to be more unfaithful is incredibly liberating and again, thanks for helping others to grow into a new way of seeing and believing.
    Got to go for now. Promise to stay in better touch. Hope you are well and healthy.
    Dick Harding (the Yank).

  4. tonyequale says:

    Dick, hi!

    Thanks for your comment. I’m well. And I’m looking forward to some dialog with you that relates some of my thinking with Berman’s. I’ve finished Re-Enchantment …and Wandering God (I’m starting Coming to Our Senses now.)

    So far I find him conspicuously unwilling to tackle the question of the “Sacred” head-on. He hints, he makes very suggestive statements, but aside from his clear criticism of the “vertical” ascent “God,” you don’t know quite where he stands on the “sense of the Sacred.” One gets the feeling sometimes that almost anything, even traditional religion, might be considered good or bad by him, depending on how it’s used. … though he never says that either.

    I know this is not very specific, but I wanted to reply to your comment and invite you to get your Berman hat on. I’m sure you can help me get a sense of his “big picture.” His “paradox,” if I understand it correctly, conflates with my reading of the mystics. I know that sounds like a contradiction in terms in his system. But I often ask myself if “categories” and their terminology might not be the problem. I wonder if the experience we’re speaking of isn’t the same … and the cosmo-ontology implied by it.


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