The Vatican recently threatened to excommunicate Father Roy Bourgeois for his position that women be ordained priests. This out-of-the-blue, extreme measure against a prominent social justice advocate seems strange and ill-conceived. On the other hand, it serves as an opportunity to re-visit the issue since Pope John Paul II suspended all talk on it in 1994.
Father Bourgeois, 70, who began his 36-year ministry as a Maryknoll priest in Bolivia, has been an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America since 1980 after a Salvadoran death squad raped and killed four American churchwomen. In 1990 he founded the School of the Americas Watch (http://www.soaw.org), which has been holding weekend vigils annually at Fort Benning, Ga., to demand closure of the U.S. Army's combat training school for Latin American soldiers. The School of the Americas (renamed "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation" in 2001) "has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics," according to the SOAW (http://www.soaw.org/type.php?type=8).
What led to the altercation between the Vatican and Father Bourgeois was the fact that he showed his support for women's ordination by delivering a homily at the ordination of Janice Sevre-Duszynska, 58, on August 9 in Lexington, Ky. She was the sixth woman ordained this year in the United States, according to the National Catholic Reporter (http://ncronline3.org/drupal/?q=node/1568).
Actually, Sevre-Duszynska is among 60 other women who have been ordained since June 29, 2002, when the first seven women stepped forward, according to the Women's Ordination Conference (www.womensordination.org/content/view/229/104/). Four of these women priests have become bishops and nearly 100 more are in preparation programs sponsored by the Roman Catholic Women Priests (www.romancatholicwomenpriests.org).
It is no small matter that these women seek ordination. As priests they are demanding that women be seen as equals to men in the eyes of the Church. Women's ordination reflects secular society's movement toward gender equality that sprouted in the late 1960s and which we largely take for granted today. During this time women all over the world have made bold strides in taking on various roles to show that they ARE equal to men. One who was well-schooled in that idea almost made it to the White House!
However, the process for change in the Church is long and difficult because theology and tradition hold a lot of sway. For example, the Church's case that the priesthood remain male is summed up this way: Jesus was a man, his 12 apostles were all men and the Church has never had women priests. Many theologians and Church historians have differed on this judgment and on Thanksgiving weekend 1975, hundreds of people met for the first Women's Ordination Conference (WOC) in Detroit to hear them respectfully and logically make the case that women be ordained.
The work of the WOC has continued since then and the idea of women priests is no longer an aberration. According to a September 2005 Gallup Organization survey, 63 percent of U.S. Catholics said they supported ordaining women and only 29 percent indicated that an exclusive male, celibate clergy was "very important." The Associated Press-Ipsos poll taken in April 2005 found the same result.
The Episcopalian Church can probably be thanked for much of this attitude change. On July 29, 1974, eleven women forced the issue by finding three bishops willing to ordain them. Although the Church immediately and vociferously declared the ordinations invalid, two years later, the 72nd General Convention in Philadelphia passed a resolution declaring that "no one shall be denied access" to ordination on the basis of their sex. In 2006 the American Episcopalians elected their first woman presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori.
The Vatican is undoubtedly fearful that women's ordination will further divide the Church. The dissension suffered since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) has been enormous and no one is in the mood for much more. Back then Catholics left the Church in droves. Priests and nuns quit. Vocations plummeted. Recently, the priest shortage has precipitated numerous and heart-wrenching parish closings and mergers in most dioceses and, of course, the pedophilia scandals have caused much mistrust and anger among regular parishioners.
The most revealing statistics from all of this fallout is the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which reported last February that 28 percent of adults have left the faith of their youth with Catholics coming out as the largest group-about 10 percent out of a population of 305 million Americans.
Admittedly, it's difficult for an institution to change, especially one as huge, as old and as steeped in tradition as the Catholic Church. But traditions are man-made, not God-made. And one might conclude that this confluence of events in both secular and religious society signals God's call for the Church to change.
The Church has endured difficulties in the past and it has adjusted. Quite frankly, today's problems are so great, we need every leader we can get. To eliminate half of the population from priestly ministry is to see the world with only one eye or to fix it with only one arm.
Gender shouldn't determine whether or not a person is fit to be a priest. Neither should class, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation for that matter. The priesthood should be open to men and women who are called to it. We need to concentrate our energies on the things that matter!