Why in the world would any Catholic woman want to become a priest?
When Anglican/Episcopalian women became priests in the 1970s amid much wailing and gnashing of teeth, but also with the blessing of the institutional church, I was happy for them and proud of them. They took on the system and they prevailed. It wasn't easy, but they knew they had a fighting chance. Why? Because they knew that long ago, the Anglican Church recognized the need for a Via Media, a way to get beyond the canons and the controls to be with and of the people. Other denominations had already desexualized the altar rail before them, but they were pioneers within the liturgical high churches.
I rejoiced and cried when I participated in the first masses or services of my friends Jane, Mary, Kathy, and Judy. I don't know why I cried - I guess the anger against the church of my birth was stronger than I thought. I guess it meant more to me than I knew to have a woman presiding at the liturgy. That's a big part of why I eventually became an Episcopalian.
Basically, I am happy that they made it happen and that it has been over forty years since the first ordination of women as Episcopal priests. I love it that priests in the Anglican Communion are no longer identified as "women" priests if they happen to be female. They are, for the most, part, just called priests and taken for granted as such. Maleness no longer is required to bless the sacraments there.
I am furthermore also delighted that there are young women as well as old women in the Catholic Church working to get women ordained. I admire them without limit. I agree with them. I pray they will prevail. I know it will be worth the effort, perhaps not for them, but for their successors.
But I still wonder deep down and finally I ask: why bother? Why would you want to be a priest in the Catholic Church as it is today? This church is a church of clericalism, patriarchy, hierarchy and other -chys and -isms. Why would any woman want to be a part of this enterprise? Or any man, for that matter? Why would you want to be caught up in the spider web of rank, structure, politics, secrets, intrigue, favor-seeking, sycophantic behavior? Who needs to be a part of that? Why do you women want to be a part of all that?
Yes, they answer me, we know all that. But we will change the church to our image and likeness and we will lead by our generosity of spirit and our love of god and neighbor. We will be models of priesthood within our church, not necessarily because we are women, but because we are good priests. We will open the church for our daughters and sons. We will serve our people.
I still don't get it. Why? Do you have to remain a part of a dysfunctional family because you were born to it? Do you have to become martyrs to change the church from within? Is this not spending your life's energy for change which might not ever matter at all? Will there be a church as you know it in the future?
Why not perform your ministry without all the baggage? What baggage, they say? The baggage of climbing the ladder, gossip and rivalry, and acquiescence to a system that is long past due, I say. But, they say, we will reform the system. We have a chance now with Pope Francis. Yes, I say, but why waste all your years of ministry fighting a long-entrenched system? Get out and be a priestly woman in a community of priestly people. Why wait for permission?
Some of us are already doing that, they say. Yes, I say, and they are the leaders. Yet some of these new leaders are merely replicating the existing system without enjoying the perks. They are not breaking out; they are just trying to get a piece of the pie, open the system, deconstruct the sexist mirage. I applaud them because I know it has to be done.
Thus my dilemma: I left my community of nuns because I couldn't wait. Certainly there was selfishness in that decision as well as the realization that religious life as I knew it and lived it was over. Some nuns did and continue to practice renewal and reform in place in religious communities and in parishes. Some of the more farseeing women are pressing for ordination. What bothers me about all the energy these stalwart women are putting into demanding that the church ordain women is that I believe it is basically for naught. The male hierarchical church is doing a good job of destroying itself because of its misogyny, its medieval hierarchy, its opulence and its presumptions of absolute truth. They will do that well without women's help. I think these women should go where they are needed and wanted. The church as we all knew it is basically over. Less restrictive and judgmental, more communal ways of being church are alive in hundreds of places, denominations, and churches throughout the world. I wish women priests would minister in those places, and not just attempt shadow groups of exactly the same model. Women priests can function well by themselves and be church where they are. They can celebrate the work of the faithful in their communities. They can conserve their energy for worthwhile tasks and missions and not worry about the men in red dresses. They can be witnesses to the Spirit who moveth where she will.