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Two bishops and half a billion women

Fr. Kevin Nadolski | Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Earlier this month, two bishops said significant things about women in the church. The one from Argentina represents 1.2 billion Catholics; the other, from Washington, spoke to most of the leaders of the 57,000 religious sisters in the United States.  
Pope Francis, bishop of Rome, during the much-discussed airplane press conference as he left World Youth Day in Brazil, responded to two questions about the role of women in the church. His answers provide a window into his understanding of this all-important matter before the church today. He was direct, clear and unapologetic in precluding the ordination of women.
“That is closed; the door is closed,” he said.
Surprisingly, this statement received little attention.
While few commented – positively or negatively – on his comments on women, these statements could energize anew the conversation about women in the church. In the affirmative, he called for a new theology of women.   
“I think we must go further in making the role and charism of women more explicit. I think we have not yet made a profound theology of women in the Church,” he said. “She can only do this or that, now she is an altar server, then she does the reading, she is president of Caritas. But there is more! A profound theology must be made of woman … theological explicitness about this is lacking.”
Even though he hailed the work of Pope Paul VI on this topic and knows Pope John Paul II’s writings on the dignity and vocation of women, Pope Francis believes that more work needs to be done. In other words, what the church has put forth to date is insufficient.  
Perhaps Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, was heeding the pope’s call when just 12 days later he preached a homily on the the Assumption of Mary to 825 leaders of communities of religious women gathered for their annual assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Reflecting on the day’s gospel reading where Mary assents to give birth to Jesus, he discussed the need for disciples to submit to God.
The context of Archbishop Sartain’s preaching is important. As the Vatican-appointed supervisor of LCWR, he attended the meeting after an earlier assessment raised concerns about the group and its annual gatherings.  I wonder how his exhortation to submit was heard, especially in a climate with questions about submission to the authority of the hierarchy.  
However, another point in his homily, I think, could launch women into a more substantial and central role in the church, beyond the ordained ministries.
“In some ways, Mary’s faith is like the faith of Abraham,” he said. “Because Abraham went out not knowing where he was to go, God had simply said to Abraham, ‘Go forth to the land that I will show you.’ So he went forth on the basis of a promise of a promise. And, Mary did the same thing. Abraham went as the Lord directed him. Mary said, ‘Be it done to me according to your will.'”
To characterize Mary as a new Abraham situates her as visionary, leader and chief spiritual parent. While she has been portrayed as the new Eve, here she is seen as a person whose legacy is based on someone who actually lived and who is praised as a founder of the faith that her son fulfilled.  
Aligning Mary – a woman – with Abraham, who lived before the Levitical priesthood, helps shift the question of leadership for women in the church. Authentic, effective, life-giving and faith-founding leadership, grounded in God’s word, need not belong to someone who is ordained or a man.  
Countless mothers, grandmothers, teachers and aunts have taught their loved ones how to pray and live a life with the sacraments. Most importantly, they taught and lived Jesus. Indeed, like Abraham, they are the parents of the faith, and without them, the church would be diminished exponentially, if not extinct. Many of them and more of their children and students went on to lead – with Christian faith – families, schools, hospitals, companies, communities and even countries.
Again, like Abraham, these women were visionaries, leaders and spiritual parents. Their epic impact has exceeded any one role. But, is it regarded – in and by the church – with appropriate acclaim, gratitude and honor?  
If church leadership has closed the door of ordination to women, which doors need to open? Perhaps what first must open are ears to listen to them, eyes to see their work and fidelity and mouths and arms to thank them. This is so that we can celebrate Sarah and her daughters through the generations as much as her husband and the priests in a world, church and university that teaches that men and women are absolutely equal and essential in this community of faith that calls everyone to a vocation of service and holiness.  

Fr. Kevin Nadolski, OSFS, a priest with the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, works for his community as director of development and
communications. He has served the church as a Catholic high school teacher, campus minister, and
principal, as well as vocation and formation director for the Oblates. He lives with his
community in Wilmington, Del., and can be reached at
[email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.