In April 2013, Rosemarie Smead was ordained a Catholic minister. One of many members of a dissenting faction of the Catholic church who are tired of waiting for it to welcome women in leadership, her ordination came with an almost inevitable guarantee of excommunication. Smead wasn’t troubled at all. “It has no sting for me,” she said. “It is a Medieval bullying stick the bishops used to keep control over people and to keep the voices of women silent. I am way beyond letting octogenarian men tell us how to live our lives.”
Smead follows almost 150 other Catholic women who have been ordained all over the world since the modern-woman priest movement began in Austria back in 2002. Their movement comes as a direct response to a 1994 declaration by Pope John Paul II that the Catholic priesthood was reserved only for males—a decree which many feel to be regressive, and for which many have been excommunicated. While the new Pope Francis may lean more liberal when it comes to social issues in the church, his statements recently in an interview with Vatican remains rather close-minded on the issue.
“We cannot limit the role of women in the Church,” he said, “…but with regards to the ordination of women, the Church has spoken and says no.” He added: “That door is closed.” The question of which doors will be opened in the future still remain unanswered.
The lack of women in ecclesiastical leadership, whether consciously or unconsciously, sends a clear message that religious authority is still a man’s arena whereby women must follow in good faith and more supportive roles. That’s why individuals like Smead are so important: even in the face of explicit and implicit gendered pressures, they are pushing the barrier and providing much-needed role models for religious women looking to provide spiritual guidance and influence. They are standing against the argument of tradition for the sake of a new one.
Last March, Harlem ordained their first Southern Baptist minister, Eva Duzant. When asked why it has taken this long to happen, she replied honestly that she didn’t know but admitted own ordination was a slow moving realization. “I decided I wanted to answer the call in 2003, but because you did not see a lot of woman ministers, I held back,” she said. “I had to first identify who I was before I would be able to fulfill not just my needs but the needs of others. But the older I got, the louder he called me.”
And while feminism may continue to be framed by the Pope and others as a dirty word, it’s about time the church started acknowledging the influence patriarchal culture has on their ability to reach out to and uplift all God’s children. Though many Christian denominations continue to obsess about the threat to religion tradition and what it will cost them to adopt women into the priesthood, what they should really be looking at is how much it will cost them to not allow women into the priesthood.
Aside from stunting progress, the choice to ban women from ecclesiastical leadership is bad business. Ordination rates are on the decline – in various denominations of Christianity - and valuable human resources are being wasted. The church’s patriarchal desire to maintain gender hierarchy limits its ability to reach out and connect to all of their congregants, or to relate to their congregations’ full spectrum of experiences and needs. It restricts the demographic of those who come to the table with innovative ideas and mutes important voices in their work to solve global inequity issues.
Ultimately, if we really all are created in God’s image and equal in his eyes, all must be equal in representing him as faithful servants in his church – whichever that may be.