00:00 Saturday 21 August 2010  Written by Editor

Ordination of women as priests needs to be considered by church

CLONAKILTY lady Jennifer Sleeman's planned protest against the Roman Catholic Church's attitude to women and the limited role they are allowed to play in the institution may ultimately prove to have been no more than a gesture, but it should be a significant one nonetheless, as she strives to get her point across. Mrs Sleeman is asking all female members to boycott Mass on Sunday, September 26th next, in an effort to show, through a large amount of empty pews, how big a part women are of the church.

She feels that their role has been taken for granted over the years by the church authorities and the fact that the institution will still not even consider the possibility of having women ordained as priests is a source of great frustration to her. Rather than being born into the church, like most of its members, Mrs Sleeman consciously became a convert to Catholicism 54 years ago and even has a son who is a monk in Glenstal Abbey, so she is not an insignificant stakeholder and would not have planned her day of protest lightly.

She wants to let the church authorities - both in Ireland and in the Vatican - know in no uncertain terms that women are fed up of being treated as 'second-class citizens.' Mrs Sleeman, rightly, maintains that women are potentially very powerful, as they make up more than half the people still going to Mass, so she is hoping that she can persuade the majority of them to support her boycott next month in order to get her point across.

She maintains that it is fine for women to clean the church and give out communion, but if they ask to do anything more than that they are ignored by the powers-that-be. Many of them crave proper recognition and she said she knows that there are lots of women who would like to be ordained.

While women are being more actively used as lay helpers, there is still no prospect of them being allowed study for formal ordination as priests. The ordination of women as priests is surely something that should be seriously considered by the church authorities at this point in time, given the huge fall-off in vocations in recent years.

Up to the middle of the 20th century, here in Ireland, families were large and many of them - including Mrs Sleeman's - produced at least one son who became a priest or a brother and, of course, daughters so inclined were able to answer their religious calling by joining an order of nuns, so there was no shortage of vocations. The vast majority of these men and women went on to loyally serve the church and its flock, unquestioningly, with distinction.

However, the institution remained - as it has always been - very much male dominated, with the reverend sisters never meant to be anything more than back-up for their priestly colleagues who wielded all the power and influence within the institution - and still do. Women in religious orders distinguished themselves in the areas of health, education and missionary work, helping the poor and less-well-off at home and abroad, and were probably closer to the people than most priests ever were because the work they did came across as more relevant and tangible.

Unfortunately, the good works of the majority of religious - both male and female - have been overshadowed in recent years by the heinous physical and sexual abuse of children, which while perpetrated by a tiny minority, was then compounded by being covered up by the church authorities - from diocesan level right up to upper echelons of the institution in the Vatican, which has always promoted a sinister culture of secrecy. As a result of this and other factors, including smaller families and materialism, vocations to the priesthood and, indeed, religious orders - both male and female - have reached an all-time low.

The age profile of men in the priesthood here must be worryingly high for the Catholic Church authorities, with the majority aged from the mid-fifties upwards. Because there are very few young men joining the priesthood, a crisis situation has already developed, with parishes about to be combined into pastoral areas and what priests are left being asked to take on more and more responsibilities, leading to some of them becoming disillusioned with their lot and looking for time out from their ministries and, thereby, further stretching resources.

Lay people are being drafted in to help, but surely the situation cannot be allowed to develop where priests become a dying breed altogether? On the evidence of what has been happening in the area of vocations in recent years, this is a very real possibility that cannot be ignored.

The church's own rules do not allow for the ordination of women as priests and, in practical terms, that worked fine for it for centuries when they had plenty of men available to take on the role. However, times have changed and while the church should always strive to live up to the Christian ethos and values that are its bedrock, there would be nothing intrinsically wrong with changing its rules to provide for the ordination of women.

In the Church of Ireland, there is a growing number of female rectors - many of them married - and, not only is this helping to head off any potential vocations crisis, it is also maintaining the parish unit, so people in rural areas have a greater sense of belonging and of the church being theirs. By maintaining an intransigent position on the ordination of women as priests, the Roman Catholic Church is severely limiting its potential to deal with its very serious vocations crisis and, if it does not address the situation imaginatively and pragmatically, the institution risks doing itself serious and possibly irrevocable damage in the longer term.

There has been a broad welcome for Jennifer Sleeman's suggested protest on September 26th next, as well as the predictable railing against it - most of the latter in the letters columns of various newspapers from males who seem to have no appetite for change or even debate about it. The church's own reaction was of the stock and bland variety, with the Catholic Communications Office merely reiterating that Mass should not be boycotted, because 'the celebration of the Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation is essential to the practice of the Catholic faith as the Sunday Eucharist is a pivotal aspect of the spiritual lives of Catholics.'

It studiously avoids being drawn into the debate that Mrs Sleeman is trying to provoke by suggesting the boycott. This lady is not a crank or a mischief-maker, as she has a great track record in propogating the Christian ethos by hard work and good example through her practical involvement in issues such as fair trade and sustainable living.

While many women will back her boycott next month, there will probably just as many - if not more - whose consciences will not allow them to do so. Either way, the church authorities will probably just ignore the gesture and continue as they were.

Pope Benedict XVI is not exactly noted for reflecting the wishes of the people who comprise the Roman Catholic Church here in Ireland, given his refusal last week to accept the resignations of Dublin Auxialiary Bishops Eamonn Walsh and Raymond Field, tendered by them in the wake of criticism for their handling of complaints of clerical abuse of children in the Archdiocese of Dublin, contained in Judge Yvonne Murphy's inquiry report published on November 30 last. In fairness to the bishops concerned, they did the right thing by submitting their resignations, but the Pope's refusal to accept them is an insult to the people of Ireland and, even worse, insensitive in the extreme towards the survivors of horrific abuse by certain evil clerics.

It is also a form of rebuff to Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin, who had emerged as an honest broker, willing to express genuine shame and sorrow on behalf of the church, to call for resignations and to engage with victims of abuse in a process of healing. He is obviously considered by the Vatican to have been too forthcoming and accommodating.

Such an attitude does not inspire great confidence in the apostolic visitation that will be comencing in certain Irish dioceses in the autumn. As one abuse survivor, Andrew Madden, declared at the time of its announcement, 'they make a big deal of wanting to listen to victims and then ignore what they say.'

The church's response to abuse scandals also greatly concerns Jennifer Sleeman. While it is difficult to envisage her day of protest at women being treated as second-class citizens by the church getting much of a hearing from the hierarchy, at least she has started a necessary debate on the possibility of ordaining women as priests at some time in the future.

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