What’s Behind the Wannabe Priestesses?
The priestess campaign rumbles on: as you would expect during this confusing and ambivalent pontificate. The present Holy Father gave it aid and comfort by promising some progressive American nuns he’d look into the possibility of appointing women deacons. But then he annoyed them considerably by denying that establishing a Commission on Women in the Diaconate meant that he was in favour of actual change.
It must be nearly 20 years since Women’s Ordination Worldwide (WOW) and Soline Vatinel’s group Brothers and Sisters in Christ (BASIC) held a well-publicised gathering in Dublin. An article I wrote at the time for the Brandsma Review is still quite relevant, I think.
If you want to understand what motivates any pressure group, don’t just look at its propaganda material, concocted to impress the general public: read what its leaders write for the edification of their insiders. Now, when the international priestess movement has left town after predictable media acclaim, is a very good time to assess just what Women’s Ordination Worldwide and Brothers and Sisters in Christ really want to achieve.
I should explain at the outset that I am not here concerned to rebut the arguments for priestesses: that has already been done very effectively in this Review by Dr Peter Kreeft, Professor of Philosophy at Boston College (February-March and April May, 1995), and I’m not going over the same ground again.
Having read their “liturgies”, both rubrics and words I really don’t know how they manage to keep straight faces when doing their Witchipoo stuff.. For instance: one of their “mantras”, which they sang as they all danced into the hall, went: “EARTH my BODY / WATER my BLOOD / AIR my BREATH / FIRE my SPIRIT.” Then at one stage they all bound purple stoles across their mouths, identifying the distress of being bound and gagged and silenced. Elsewhere the following doggerel was sung by the Water Element singers: “I am the God of snow and rain, I have heard my people’s pain…”
Until fairly recently I used to think that the main problem with “Catholic feminists” was their refusal to accept the infallible teaching of the Church’s magisterium that the priesthood is open only to males. But after reading some of the things these ladies have been writing, I have realised that this explanation is inadequate. These self-enlightened Gnostics reject not only the teaching authority of Pope John Paul, but much, much more.
The makers and shakers of WOW and BASIC would like us pewsitters to think they are just ordinary women who feel called by God to be ordained as priests. They are not. They are ideologues, working to replace what the Church has always understood the priesthood to be, by something radically different.
One has to bear in mind that the essence of priesthood—whether pagan, Jewish or Catholic—involves the offering of sacrifice. (The Protestant tradition does not have a sacrificing priesthood, so it does not much matter whom they choose to ordain.
Particularly instructive is an article by Gail Freyne from the magazine Womanspirit (Autumn 1993). It seems fairly typical of the ideas behind what the Sunday Business Post once called “The Fight for Female Fathers”. Ms Freyne is a family therapist and counsellor, whose husband Seán Freyne is on the editorial board of Concilium. Her densely-packed piece argues that the Eucharist was originally just a meal which anyone, including women, could celebrate, and that the idea of sacrifice only began to come in after about 200 years. By the early Middle Ages, she says, “magic and power had replaced sharing and communion”—a thesis that any good Paisleyite would accept, but not compatible with membership of the Catholic Church. (I am not here concerned with the theory’s plausibility.)
So where now? is the question she asks the readers of Womanspirit. Her answer is fascinating: she actually argues that in order to make way for priestesses we will first have to abolish the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Her key passage reads:
“So long as the primary function of the priest is to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass there is no place for women in the priestly ministry of the Catholic Church. Put another way, so long as the Mass is equated primarily with sacrifice and sacrifice is a male domain, as argued herein, then there is an explicit reason for excluding women. Put a third way, the corollary would be that only if the Mass ceases to be a sacrifice , reverting to what is arguably its original form of eucharistic meal of remembrance, could women find their place in the priestly ministry.”
To back her thesis Ms Freyne then calls in two diametrically-opposed witnesses: On her right, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre; on her left, the post-Christian “thealogian” and New Age guru Rosemary Radford Ruether. Archbishop Lefebvre, she recalls, argued that in the new rite of Mass it is no longer the priest who offers the Holy Sacrifice, it is the assembly. “This Mass is no longer an hierarchical Mass; it is a democratic Mass,” he said. “…And this is what at present corrupts the entire Church.” (Whether one agrees with the Archbishop or not, there is no doubt that the ancient rite of Mass provided an impermeable bulwark against the kind of thinking exemplified by Ms Freyne.)
Rosemary Ruether is quoted to the effect that if women were to be ordained they could not be contented to assimilate themselves into a clericalist mentality. “Ministry must be seen as primarily, not for the exclusive male-controlled act of sacrifice, but the skill to evoke the gifts and creative initiatives of the whole community.”
Ms Freyne says—apparently without irony—that in Ms Ruether and Archbishop Lefebvre we see an “unholy alliance” of the “new” and the “old”, both recognising that without sacrifice there can be neither hierarchical priesthood “nor its institutionalised genealogy linking males in unilineal descent”. (Presumably this is Freyne-speak for the Apostolic Succession.) She concludes that the praxis required to dismantle the hierarchical structure must start at the roots, with small groups willing to challenge the status quo. They could be described as “sacrifice-free zones”, she says.
What can we conclude from all the above? Surely, that as in the days of the Reformation, it is still the Mass that matters. One main difference is that unlike the 16th-century reformers these strident ladies, who so hate the very idea of the Holy Sacrifice, still feel entitled to remain within an institution whose doctrines they abhor. The reason why they stay, of course, is their belief that from the inside, they can continue pressing to implement their agenda. It’s not what you’d expect people with integrity to do: but then “the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light” (Luke 16: 8). And there are quite a few priests covertly backing them.
It is difficult to be sure to what extent Soline Vatinel, leader of BASIC, shares the views outlined above. She is still claiming St Thérèse as a would-be priestess, even though she must know the Little Flower would be horrified by Ms Vatinel’s defiance of papal authority. And recently she press-ganged St Paul, of all people, to her cause, citing the occasion when Paul “withstood Peter to his face” over the question of mixing with Gentile converts. The comparison is thoroughly inept: St Peter was in the wrong because he was acting in breach of what had been revealed to him. He ostracised the Gentiles from motives of human respect, because he didn’t want to lose face with Jewish believers. And since when has Ms Vatinel bothered about St Paul’s teaching—particularly on the place of women in the Church? A few years ago she was claiming to have a more authentic idea of Christianity than the Apostle to the Gentiles.
There’s quite a lot more in the magisterium she rejects: as you might expect. Humanae Vitae is jettisoned. Married people should be free to use whatever method of contraception they wish, she once told the Sunday Business Post. And while she would grieve for any woman who “has to” have an abortion, she would not “force a woman not to have an abortion”. From whatever angle you examine that piece of wiggling, it would be difficult to avoid the conclusion that she believes in the “Right to Choose”.
Probably the most inane contribution to the Dublin conference came from the opening speaker, Nobel prizewinner Mairéad Corrigan Maguire, who described the Church’s insistence on an all-male priesthood as “a form of spiritual abuse”. The only spiritual abuse I have ever witnessed is the disrespect to the Blessed Sacrament shown by some (not all) Extraordinary Eucharistic Monsters, female and male.
If you want to hear the tapes of the conference speakers, notably the egregious Benedictine nun Sister Joan Chittister and the wannabe priestesses’ heaviest artillery piece Fr John Wijngaards, you may order them from—of all places—Charismatic Renewal Services. Now there’s an unholy alliance, if you like—and something of a mystery. All the genuine Catholic charismatics I know rightly pride themselves on their orthodoxy and loyalty to papal teaching, and would never give aid and comfort to the likes of WOW and BASIC. However, this connection has been around for some years: CRS taped the proceedings of a BASIC conference in 1995.
I can’t give you a satisfactory explanation for the mystery, but here are a couple of pointers. In the first place, I understand that Mairéad Corrigan Maguire once had links with a charismatic group in Belfast. Maybe she still does. There is no doubt that unless they belong to a group where they get sound teaching based on Scripture and Tradition (such as the Nazareth Community in South Co. Dublin ) charismatics can by led by what they think is the Holy Spirit into strange by-ways. I once met a young ex-nun who told me God had called her to leave the Catholic Church.
Secondly, nearly 20 years ago I recall meeting a high-profile charismatic priest at a dinner party, who confided to me after the second glass of wine that he could see no reason why women should not be ordained.