Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Ordination of Women: You're Doing it Wrong

I was startled when I saw the front page of the New York Times last Saturday in a grocery store. This was the story:

More than 150 Roman Catholic priests in the United States have signed a statement in support of a fellow cleric who faces dismissal for participating in a ceremony that purported to ordain a woman as a priest, in defiance of church teaching.

The priest in question, who is ordaining women, is associated with some 300 Austrian priests who have signed "A Call to Disobedience" aimed at correcting perceived problems with the practice of the Roman Catholic Church. In addition to actively participating in the ordaining of women, the controversial Call directs priests to say a public prayer every week for reform, to admit non-Catholics and divorcees to communion, to permit lay preaching, and to pursue every avenue to ordain married people (regardless of gender).

While I think some of these goals are admirable--and some deeply destructive--I am disturbed by the way that these priests have elected to go about "reform." Prior to the lamentable circumstances of the Reformation, in which the pope responded so violently to the prospect of dissent and thus precipitated schism, the Roman Catholic Church was a rich kaleidoscopic of beliefs that were allowed to coexist in Christian fraternity. With comparative rarity did disputes come to the point of one view or the other being declared heretical and condemned. When they did, the problem was solved in council and the results thereby significantly more reliable and enduring. Things have changed since then.

It is interesting that the Americans who have expressed their support for the Austrian dissidents were careful only to support their right to speak their minds. That, after all, is a right once cherished in the Catholic Church. Where the Austrian priests err, and where they warrant the just censure of the church, is when they choose to subvert normal avenues of reform and simply elect to do things the way they think they should be done (which was the ultimate mistake of Martin Luther and subsequent "reformers"). I disagree strongly with the ordination of women, but I would respect and defend anyone's right to disagree with me on that in a spirit of mutual forebearance. What disturbs me is when Christians becomes so certain in their personal, local, or regional beliefs that they would rather set up an alternate church (or in this case an alternate practice) than to work for change.

Like so many genuine reformers in the Catholic Church and elsewhere in the past, these priests would have profited from allowing the force of their arguments (and perhaps their skill in ecclesiastical maneuvering) to win the day rather than simply claiming victory by the supposed virtue of their positions. It is not as though there is a great sin being perpetrated by the existence of a male-only clergy or a Catholic-only Eucharist. The highest good may be disputed, but certainly few will contend that there is an urgency in these matters to correct grossly sinful behaviors (i.e. priest X does not sin by virtue of the fact that he is a member of a male-only clergy). The process of true reform for the better which began at the cross and continues on infinitely into eternity as we grow ever in grace and knowledge of God surely can stand for us all to take a surer and less fractious road.

Or do we not, as Christians, believe that the truth will win out regardless?

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