Could Catholic Women’s Ordination Shift Thinking on Human Rights?

The horrific and preventable death of Savita Halappanavar due to septicemia from a miscarriage at Galway University Hospital in Ireland made me once again shake my head in appalling astonishment. Why didn’t licensed health professionals provide Savita an emergency abortion as she requested? The tone deaf response continues to ring in my ears:  “Ireland is a Catholic country”

The early lessons from childhood can be difficult to unlearn. I was raised in a Roman Catholic household and learned from a young age that men, irrespective if they actually have the skill set, are leaders. Men lead the church, men lead the community, and men lead the family. Only men have direct line to god. Catholics confess their sins to a male priest, who then through his connection with the divine, can dole out the appropriate penance. Women exist to serve.  This outdated worldview came into direct conflict with women’s continued inclusion and influence in the social, economic, and political mainstream. As a response the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) was founded in 1975 to ordain women as priests, deacons and bishops into an inclusive and accountable Catholic church. The long-term goals of the WOC are heady:

Renew church governance to be inclusive, accountable and transparent;
Bring about justice and equality for Catholic women; and
Incorporate women-centered theologies into every-day Catholicism.

I abandoned Roman Catholic teachings as a teen and never looked back. Let’s just say I found Catholic doctrine limiting and leave it at that. Indeed, I don’t identify with any religious or spiritual group. I also do not care much for atheist, agnostic, or other humanist communities. If I had my way, I’d never want to talk about spirituality, believers, non-believers or anything connected to faith or the divine ever again.

Until now.

Abortion laws in Ireland need to be updated. No doubt. But laws are not enough. In the United States abortion rights have been curtailed to a level that Roe v. Wade is effectively meaningless for poor and working class American women attempting to access the services.

The law changed almost 40 years ago but our society’s thinking and feeling hasn’t. We need to change the how spirit of the law is interpreted so that the letter of the law can be carried out effectively. And one way to do that is to support women’s ordination. Catholic women need to be seen as moral thought leaders. Catholic girls and boys should learn that women can lead and are moral agents and experts of their own lives.

In Jodi Jacobson’s recent on-point post addressing conception and what it all means, her line “The issue of ‘personhood’  is a theological and personal rather than medical or scientific question” really gets to the crux of this matter. Imagine a world where female Catholic bishops and priests have a seat at the table and are looked to for leadership and as experts in attempting to answer that question. Imagine a world where women priests and bishops had a hand in editing the next encyclical letter on Humane Vitae.

Being seen as a leader, being taught that women can lead is powerful, make no mistake. It’s one reason why the Catholic hierarchy is dead-set against allowing women anywhere near the altar. But the Catholic Church is also a political construct. Vatican II happened. It was real and it changed the hierarchy just enough to allow it to survive and remain relevant in the 20th century.

Roman Catholicism is one of the largest transnational religions in the world. What happened to Savita has been and will continue to repeat its tragic outcomes in countries in every part of the globe where Catholicism is practiced.  Catholic women’s ordination is a necessary part, though not a silver bullet, to help to create a culture where women’s lives have meaning outside of being an auxiliary to men. And to be clear, I don’t think that all women clergy would be social justice warriors. I’m sure a Sarah Palinesque priest or three would get access to the pulpit as well.

I’m an empiricist. I accept and deny assertions based on provable facts. I do not believe that pregnancy and childbirth are miracles. To me, both are pretty mundane—we know the mechanics, we simply refuse to fully teach accurate sexual health information. I also accept that so long as there are questions unanswerable to humans, religion is one way that some people choose to fill in the gaps of knowledge. Women are needed as priests and bishops in the Catholic Church. When Catholic women are recognized and accepted by the Catholic Church as leaders all women and men will benefit.



Image credit joltgen via the Creative Commons License.

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