Perennial Hope

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I had the opportunity this past week to attend a lecture given by Dr. Phyllis Zagano. In fact, it was her last public appearance before leaving for Rome in November to serve on the papal commission convened to examine, yet again, the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate. She will not speak publicly again until the commission’s work is concluded.

Dr. Zagano spoke in great detail about the history of women in the diaconate. This has been her passion and her life’s work and, as she quipped, every word is not only researched but footnoted. She spoke of rights, of justice, and of mercy. She stressed repeatedly that no one, male or female, has the right to be ordained. Thus, ordaining women to the diaconate is not about a woman’s right to be ordained. There is no such thing. Rather it is about the right of the community to be ministered to by women who have been called to serve.

In addition to preaching, baptizing and officiating at weddings, women ordained to the diaconate would be able to serve in offices reserved for those in the clerical state. It is the right of parishes, dioceses, and the entire Church to be ministered to by women in these ways, women who bring with them the unique gifts and perspectives of womanhood. This isn’t just about positions in the Curia, but also about looking much closer to home where it could mean women serving as an canonical judges. Under the new guidelines for annulments, a single judge may issue a decision without the need for a second trial. While women currently serve on tribunals as canon lawyers and judges, their work is overseen by ordained men and cases overseen by a single judge must be decided by clerics. Ordained women would be able to fill this role.

She spoke of justice in the Church and how that carries out into the world. One of the arguments that has long been championed as the central reason for the all-male clergy is the maleness of Jesus. This flawed line of reasoning holds that women don’t match Christ’s image. This carries an implication that women, simply based on their gender, cannot image Christ or do so in away that is fundamentally flawed. It runs counter to the understanding that all people are made in the image of Christ. That is an injustice and one that radiates out into the world. Indeed, the long history of the subjugation of women is based entirely on the view of women as being less than a man. The Church has the opportunity and the responsibility to correct that worldview.

Finally, she spoke of mercy and the role of the Church to recognize and touch the suffering within the community. Women within their communities are often willing and able to be ministers of mercy but are limited by the roles they are currently permitted to hold. Whether that means a woman serving as a deacon in Latin America, traveling to the remote villages where the priest can rarely visit or a woman serving as a deacon in a suburban parish down the street, preaching the gospel and touching the lives of those around her in service and charity.

Ultimately, there is a wealth of historical evidence, including rites of ordination, that women served as deacons. The topic of reviving this role for women was raised at the Second Vatican Council and at the close of the council, it was slated as a topic that warranted further study but was largely neglected. In 1997, a commission studied all of the evidence and created a detailed report which concluded that yes, women could be ordained to the diaconate. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who at the time served as President of the International Theological Commission, refused to sign it. In 2002, a new commission was convened to study the same question. It subsumed the entire 1997 report into its own 78-page report, which concluded that there was no conclusion. Dr. Zagano summed up the discussions of the last 50 years in one succinct statement: They know they can’t say no, but they really don’t want to say yes.

They know they can’t say no, but they really don’t want to say yes. 

 

Now, Pope Francis has handpicked a new commission made up of twelve highly respected scholars. There are six men and six women. Dr. Zagano said she has no idea what the outcome will be. And she refused to entertain questions on women serving in the priesthood. She did, however, state that Benedict XVI defined the diaconate as a ministry entirely separate from the presbyteriate and the episcopacy.  In simple English, ordaining women to the diaconate poses no theological challenge to maintaining an all-male priesthood. There are some who argue that the diaconate, presbyteriate, and episcopacy are inextricably entwined.  If that were ever determined to be an inviolable theological truth, then women would have to be ordained to the priesthood based in the historical evidence of women serving in the diaconate for many centuries in the early Church. But that is not the role of the current commission to determine nor to consider. Their role is solely to determine whether women can be ordained to the diaconate. Dr. Zagano plainly stated that all of her work leads to a clear yes, they can. They were in the past and should be again.

The sheer volume of historical evidence she traced out for us was nearly overwhelming. And for me, just being in that space, surrounded mostly by women of a certain age, women who really know how far we have come, was an amazing experience in and of itself. There was an air of excitement and hope, not optimism or wishful thinking but a true, deeply held, rarely displayed, soul level hope. It was the kind of perennial hope only progressives, and maybe lifelong Cubs fans, would truly understand. Maybe this is our time. The Cubs finally had their year. Will we?

Trust

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Yesterday, I had my day planned out. Spend some time at the beach, bake a batch of cookies while I worked on my homework, frame out a blog post, and cook a nice meatloaf dinner. Long about noon, I came home from the beach and took a quick scroll through Twitter. I retweeted a link by Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan calling for Pope Francis to recognize women’s ordination. Nothing new there for me. I openly support Catholic women who call for the ordination of women. Anybody who knows me knows that. Within a minute of tweeting that link, a Catholic priest pounced on me. That led to a debate. Five hours of debate in tweets of 140 characters or less. It was not the way I planned to spend my Saturday.

And yet, it was time incredibly well spent. I was told I am a heretic, selfish, stupidly misguided, emotional, full of rage and guilt, ignorant of scripture, lack doctrinal formation, lack objectivity, have an unformed conscience and am in desperate need of a stricter confessor. All of these failings have taken me out of the arms of the Catholic Church and out of the arms of Jesus. So my dear readers, read on at your own mortal peril.

I know my views on women’s ordination are considered heretical by the Catholic Church. I’ve wrestled with that view for years. I don’t take the church’s views lightly, nor do I suggest anyone else should. And ultimately, after study and prayer and discussion, I made the decision to follow my conscience and to trust in the truth of my experience of God’s love. The Catholic Church has always held the primacy of conscience and taught that individuals must follow their conscience even if they are wrong. (Vatican II, On Religious Liberty 1965)

So then who gets to decide what is truth? So who gets to decide what Jesus truly intended? This is why we need a church community: to challenge us and hold us accountable. It is why I have shied away from the spiritual-but-not-religious views that many people take up after becoming disillusioned with religion. Religious tradition serves a purpose and that is to lead us closer to God. My Catholic pastor has been known to say openly that if religious tradition is not leading you closer to God, it isn’t working for you. Find one that will. But don’t try to con God. Be honest with Him. It’s the only way the relationship can grow. I know many faithful Catholic women who have struggled with the church’s teaching on women’s ordination. Some find that they accept the doctrine as truth. Are they wrong?  No. They have followed their conscience, as must we all.

The Catholic Church brought me closer to God and there have been days when I wish it hadn’t. It would be easier to show up Sunday after Sunday, halfheartedly shuffle forward to receive Communion, mumble through an obligatory confession a few times a year and go back to my everyday life with God safely tucked away in the tabernacle where He can’t wreak havoc on my life. But it did bring me closer. I found love, compassion, forgiveness and was challenged to show others the same. Along the way, I found the landmines and roadblocks that keep people from coming back to the church. I found people who, like me, equated the Catholic Church with God. If the Catholic Church rejected them for whatever reason, then in their mind God had likewise rejected them. And that is a dangerous lie. Jesus came for the lost, the broken, the sinners, not just the elect few. No one who cried out to Him went unheard or unanswered.

Yesterday was one of those days when I wished I could keep silent and found that I could not. I had things to do! And yet, I could not let the Twitter tirade go unchallenged. I poured out my convictions 140 characters at a time. The church is greater than the Roman Catholic Church. It is the community of all believers and belongs to all those who seek Jesus with an honest heart. To deny women ordination is to deny that women are also made in the image of God and other denominations have accepted that truth. That my disobedience to Rome is not disobedience to God. That becoming Protestant was not slapping God in the face but running into His arms. If in the end, after having followed my conscience to a religious tradition which brings me closer to God, if then I am wrong, He will not slam a door in my face. He knows my heart, my wounds, my scars and my desires. And most importantly, nothing can ever take me out of His arms. I am His and I trust Him.

Yes, I said it. I trust Him. I trust Him above all else. Especially above the threats of judgment and hell and condemnation. I did not arrive at this place lightly or easily. But I am where I am and my Shepherd knows my path. At the end of a long, heated debate, Fr. Paul told me he wouldn’t want to be me on the Last Day. Because if he is wrong, no biggie. But I am wrong, yikes. But from the way I see it, if I am wrong, I trust in God’s love and His mercy. I make no claims to have the right answers. But if Fr. Paul is wrong, how many people will he have browbeat into staying in a dishonest relationship with their God, encouraging them to maintain a false fidelity to church over an honest struggle for truth out of fear of hellfire and damnation? And which then is the greater sin? I trust that in the all-encompassing light of God’s love, it will cease to matter.