'Holy disobedience to unjust law'
The teachings of Jesus Christ mean the Roman Catholic Church cannot have women as priests under any circumstances, say those heading the church. But women being ordained say this is only the product of patriarchy.
Two weeks ago 60-year-old Mary Ryan became the first woman in South Africa to be ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church. The mother of four became the country’s second such woman to break church doctrine. Patricia Frensen, the bishop who ordained her, said at the ordination: “In South Africa in particular, we know the only way to change an unjust law is to break it.”
Women cannot baptise children, lead a mass or hear confession and forgive sins.
Groups such as the Roman Catholic Women Priests say what they are doing is “holy disobedience to an unjust law”. But the result is immediate excommunication.
Ryan said she had technically been excommunicated, but had not received any formal notification. After spending the past 30 years thinking about women’s ordination, she said she had deepened her relationship with God and was ready for any reaction by the church.
Meant to serve the people
The church was its people, and the institution was meant to serve the people, she said. “I have no fear of the institution. In fact, there is much that I love about it.”
The movement she is part of is important in that it challenges the patriarchal structure of the church.
“Many theologians and creative thinkers within the church have challenged this law on scriptural and theological grounds,” she said.
The church relies on Canon Law 1024, which read: “Sacram ordinationem valide recipit solus vir baptizatus [Only a baptised man validly receives sacred ordination].”
But Ryan said Jesus did not ordain anyone and had called men and women to be his disciples. “The current model of ordained male, celibate priesthood only finally became widely adopted in the 12th century.”
Before that, women were active in the ministry and were ordained into different orders, she said. “To break the current impasse, the church will need to revisit its theology on women and engage the depth of women’s theological scholarship in the process.”
Groups asking for female priests in the early 1990s led to Pope John Paul II saying it could not happen. “The church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be held by the church’s faithful,” he said in 1994.
Pope Francis, seen as being progressive, has held the line and wrote this year: “The reservation of the priesthood to males is not a question open to discussion.”
Although the movement is growing overseas, it is not pervasive in South Africa. Father Smilo Mngadi, spokesperson of the Southern African Catholic Bishop’s Conference, said it was rarely discussed at a local level. “Especially here in Africa it has hardly been an issue. People normally accept the status quo.”
The problem with ordaining women as priests was that the church “is not empowered” because the scriptures do not allow it, said Mngadi. “Jesus didn’t indicate that this could happen.”
Mngadi said a misunderstanding of how the church was structured meant some expected it to change with society. “If you put arguments about modernity and democracy as your raison d’être for change, you are going wrong.
“The church is not a democracy; it is based on the scriptures and change comes from those.”
The only way change could happen would be if more research was done. “Any argument for change has to be scripturally based,” he said.
In Mngadi’s parish, women held many positions at the grassroots levels of the church. Because these were democratic structures, anyone could be elected to a committee. With a shortage of priests in the country, laypeople (men and women) could step in to lead a service or events such as funerals, Mngadi said.
But women could not become priests. “Unfortunately, they are excommunicated if they become ordained.”
He said that this used to be a punitive measure. When Martin Luther left the church, it was used to ensure he never came back, but today it is restorative, Mngadi said.
“People who are excommunicated are cut off from the sacramental life of the church. But they can come back [to the church].”
How one would return to the church is unknown, Mngadi admitted, because nobody had attempted it.