Q: Archbishop J, what about the role of women in the Church?
The role of women in the Catholic Church is a global concern. This topic came up in our Diocesan Synod Synthesis, the AEC Synod Synthesis and in the final Vatican document Instrumentum Laboris (IL). In each case several issues come together. I will try to untangle the issues and open a space for real conversation.
Our Synod Synthesis
On the topic of women, our synthesis said:
There were voices which shared the sentiment that “we need to utilise to a far greater extent the unique strength and abilities of women towards furthering God’s will in the Church”. A call was made for women to serve as deaconesses and priests. One person expressed the view that there is “disenchantment with the misogyny of the Church leaders – will return to church when it begins to ordain female deacons and priests”.
I would like to make a distinction between ordination to the diaconate and priesthood, on the one hand, and inclusion in the governance of the Church and decision-making, on the other. Both are very important areas of enquiry.
This question to be discerned in Synod 2023 is instructive: “What concrete steps can the Church take to renew and reform its procedures, institutional arrangements and structures to enable greater recognition and participation of women, including in governance, decision-making processes and in the taking of decisions, in a spirit of communion and with a view to mission?” (IL, p 41 #B 2.3)
A conversation with the AEC Synod Team elicited this comment for discernment: In the Caribbean we need to ask also, how do we engage men in ministry and mission in the Church?
Governance and Leadership
The Caribbean Church is unique, in its inclusion of women in governance and leadership. We may not think so, but many women hold significant responsibilities in the Archdiocese.
The Chancellor and the Episcopal Delegate for Administration are both women. They have oversight of the Chancery and its departments.
Several of our heads of commissions are women—Family Life, Youth, Catechetics, Evangelisation, Education. Catholic Media Services Ltd (CAMSEL), our communications department, is headed by a woman. The dean of the Seminary, the chair of our Social Justice commission, and the chair of our Archdiocesan Pastoral Council are all women.
These women sit at the table where the decisions are made and have both voice and vote on the major pastoral life of the Archdiocese. This began with Archbishop Anthony Pantin, became institutionalised with Archbishop Edward Gilbert, and Archbishop Joseph Harris and I built on their initiatives.
Also consider the work of our women religious and the ecclesial communities that are all run by women, and note their impact on the Church in T&T.
Most of the feelings, however, are around ordination of women. This one has no easy answer.
St Paul, in his Letter to the Galatians 3:28, puts the challenge most forcefully: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Some believe this was a baptismal formula and, thus, an identity of the community committed to radical equality.
In the Book of Genesis, we read, “God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness’ … male and female he created them” (1:26, 27).
Any devaluing of a person because of their sex is sin. It is against God, and it has no place in the Church. We cannot compromise on that.
We must also acknowledge that we have not lived the ideal. Indeed, we have fallen very far from it. We have discriminated against women in our history in the Caribbean Church and in the Church universal.
Pope St John Paul II apologised for this in his mea culpas, Archbishop Pantin apologised, and I also apologise for the times we as Church have not treated women with dignity.
Ordination of women?
The real question is whether the ban on the ordination of women is discrimination? This issue needs both patience and faith. For a full exploration of the Church’s teaching here, see Pope St John Paul II’s Apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Also, see the USCCB document: Ten Frequently Asked Questions about the Reservation of Priestly Ordination to Men.
The most direct answer is that Jesus as forward thinking as He was, chose 12 men to be apostles. These were ordained. The fact that Jesus did not ordain women, and He could have, holds a vital value in the life of the Church.
Can the Church change what Jesus deliberately chose for His community? Remember, He spent the night in prayer before He picked the 12 (Lk 6:11–13). This was not a random act.
The Apostles also handed on this ministry to men and there has been an unbroken chain. There are theological reasons for this. One is that the priest stands in the person of Christ as bridegroom to the bride, the Church.
Priesthood is not about power. Jesus, speaking to the disciples after the mother of James and John asked for seats of power retorted: “Whoever wants to be first among you, let him be your servant. For the Son of Man came not to be cared for. He came to care for others” (Mt 20:27).
Priesthood is not meant to be a title of honour, but rather a call of service. We have made it into honour rather than service.
The Vatican document Concerning the Reply of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the Teaching Contained in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis strengthens the case. It states:
In the specific case of priestly ordination, the successors of the Apostles have always observed the norm of conferring it only on men, and the Magisterium, assisted by the Holy Spirit, teaches us that this did not occur by chance, habitual repetition, subjection to sociological conditioning, or even less because of some imaginary inferiority of women; but rather because “the Church has always acknowledged as a perennial norm her Lord’s way of acting in choosing the twelve men whom he made the foundation of his Church” (n. 2).
The diaconate is a different story. A plausible case can be made for women deacons based on New Testament sources, but the evidence is not clear. This is why Pope Francis has instituted a commission to look at the evidence. He named five women theologians on the commission. We await their findings.
In June 2016, the Holy Father raised the Catholic celebration of St Mary Magdalene to a feast and gave her the ancient title Apostle to the Apostles. She is the first to encounter the Risen Lord and the first to bring the news to the apostles. What if we considered St Mary Magdalene as we consider St Peter—an office in the Church which is both a structure of grace and a guarantee of intimacy and fidelity.
In our local Church women have held this office of Apostle to the Apostles. Ursula Babsie Bleasdell preached to 5,000 priests at the Second Worldwide Retreat for Priests (Rome 1990). Women have been recognised for their ongoing outstanding contribution to priests, bishops, and the whole People of God.
Women have a vital role in the Church. From the beginning they have been co-workers with the apostles.
Let us all reflect on and acknowledge the ways we have shown prejudice to women. Let us also work to ensure both men and women are included in the governance and ministry of the Church.