Editorial | Pope Francis must go further
POPE FRANCIS’ decision on Monday to allow women to perform some altar duties during Roman Catholic Mass is a welcomed, but tentative, move away from anachronistic gender stereotypes. But not fast enough.
What the pontiff must now do is to take the bold, and courageous, step towards ending the Church’s historic misogyny. In other words, he should immediately sanction the ordination of women as deacons and put the Church on an irrevocable path of having female priests, even if he acts on his own volition.
While Catholic women, like females in many Christian denominations, undertake the bulk of the organisational work of their local parishes, they, until now, were not officially allowed to carry out altar functions during the Holy Eucharist. With the pope’s adjustment of the canons, they can now be formally, as lay members, be lectors, reading Scriptures during Mass, and acolytes, helping priests in other roles, such as administering the sacrament of Holy Communion. These roles were previously carried out by men, although, in some dioceses, exceptions were sometimes made.
“Offering lay people of both sexes the possibility of accessing the ministry of acolyte and lector, by virtue of their participation in the baptismal priesthood, will increase the recognition, also through a liturgical act of the precious contribution that many lay people make, including women, to the life and mission of the Church,” Francis wrote in a letter announcing his decision.
He, however, made it clear that this doctrinal development, partly in response to the “needs of the needs of the times”, was “fundamentally distinct from the ordained ministry that is received through the sacrament of holy orders”.
In other words, this action is not to be conflated with women being deacons or priests, which remain exclusively male, and the case of the priesthood, with its authority to conduct Mass, celibate men. Married (non-celibate) men can be deacons. They can perform marriages, baptisms, funerals and other duties that priests perform, except for presiding at Mass.
Western Catholicism’s insistence on the tradition of a celibate priesthood remains despite the growing shortage of priests in the Church, especially in the Americas. For instance, 50 years ago, there were more than 37,000 diocesan priests in the United States of America.
By 2017, that number has fallen by more than a third. In 1970, just over 8,000 prospective priests enrolled in seminaries. In 2018, the number was 3,369 – a decline of nearly 60 per cent. Globally, between 1970 and 2017, the number of priests remained largely the same – just over 400,000. Yet, the number of Roman Catholics had doubled to around 1.2 billion people.
Thousands of parishes are now without priests. It was in part to deal with this problem, and in manifestation in the crisis of pastoral care for indigenous populations across nine countries in the Amazon region, that Latin American bishops, at their synod in 2019, proposed the ordination of married men.
Pope Francis shot down the idea last February. In the circumstances, it seems – despite the trend in other denominations – that it will remain a long, hard slog before Catholicism relents on misogynistic aversion to female priests.
The doctrinal basis for this stance, at its simplest, is that Jesus’ disciples were all males, as have been all the successors of Peter, the presumed founder of the Church. So, this exclusion of women, half of the world’s population – and the majority of the adherents to Catholicism – from the critical centre of the Church’s life and leadership is grounded in an unevolved, 2,000-year-old idea that has resisted logic, growth and experiential advancement.
That, from this newspaper’s perspective, is intellectually unfathomable. Even if only from a spiritual context, it is inconceivable that God would confine the conduit(s) for the delivery of grace to a single sex or gender, and would be so sold on patriarchy.
Perhaps if the Catholic Church utilised the entirety of its gift, so many congregations would not be without priests.
Presuming that the conservatives at the Vatican are beholden to the status quo, we would urge Pope Francis to, on this question, assert his infallibility as pope with an ex cathedra declaration on the equality of women and their right to ordination as priests.