Why Is the Vatican Now Letting Advocates of Women’s Ordination Hold a Demonstration in its Back Yard?

As if there haven’t been enough surprises under Pope Francis, here’s another one: not only did Women’s Ordination Worldwide have an unprecedented meeting with an official from the Vatican Secretariat of State and give him a petition, the group is also being permitted to hold a public demonstration in the public gardens of Castel Sant’Angelo on Friday, the day that the Pope celebrates a jubilee Mass for priests in St Peter’s Square. Members of the women’s ordination group have also been given tickets to attend the Mass. See The Table’s report here.

Why do you suppose the Vatican is doing this?

I rather doubt it is to promote women’s ordination to the priesthood, or even move in that direction. It’s more about Pope Francis’s plan to keep the Catholic Church’s embrace large enough to include all its members. Even if he doesn’t support women in the priesthood, Francis knows that lots of Catholics do, and he wants to signal that they are welcomed members in the church. And while this decision may not be from Francis directly, it certainly reflects his pastoral approach.

The popes since Vatican II have all opposed women’s ordination, but with widely differing attitudes.

Paul VI approved a low-level curial document in 1976 affirming the ban on women priests. But he did not issue firm edicts in his own name and, despite the curial document, the question seemed to remain open for many people.

John Paul II thought a firm hand would settle the matter. Better not to waffle and raise false hopes, he thought. “In order that all doubt may be removed,” he declared women’s ordination impossible. Bishops were to cut off dialogue with dissenters and defend the official position more vigorously.

Pope Benedict, who had stated earlier as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that John Paul’s statement was infallible, did not take any major action nor issue any major statements on the matter. Nor did he need to. John Paul had set the course, and bishops who supported it were being appointed to replace the remaining wafflers in the episcopate. If anything, the rightward shift in the episcopate increased under Benedict.

The papacy of Benedict was quite demoralizing for mainline and progressive Catholics, especially those in full time church work. On all fronts, their legacy was called into question. (Think of the missal retranslation, where a high quality translation which had been worked on for 17 years was thrown in the wastebasket and a new translation of questionable quality imposed instead.) The papacy of Benedict put wind in the sails of the most zealous traditionalists, including extremists far to the right of Benedict himself. And some of these took it upon themselves to judge and condemn other Catholics, and to make the church a most unpleasant place.

So many things in the papacy of Francis say, “Enough already.” Francis may not agree with progressives on this or that point – we’re not always sure just what he thinks – but he clearly wants to call off the rampage some have been waging in the name of rigid uniformity.

Pope Francis is a man exceedingly comfortable with ambiguity. Think Amoris laetitia. Or, on a very different front, think of his overtures to Lefebvrites who reject the Second Vatican Council.

Francis seems comfortable not knowing where all this will lead. Perhaps he is risking raising hopes that will only be dashed. But for now, he wants to ratchet down the conflict and buy some time. And he is a pastor above all. People are more important to him than ideas. His pastoral sense tells him that, for right now, church leaders needs to avoid divisive statements and just keep everyone on board.

awr

10 comments

  1. “The papacy of Benedict was quite demoralizing for mainline and progressive Catholics.” I am quibbling. I know. But I am not sure Benedict’s papacy was demoralizing for mainline Catholics. I totally agree with everything you say about the traditionalist (and those far to the right of Benedict) being heartened. I also strongly agree that progressives were disheartened. But for mainline people, it seems to me that Benedict had pretty much had a hands off approach. I didn’t see mainline people thrown out of chancelleries or seminaries. Liturgies didn’t take a major traditionalist turn. Granted, for me someone like Bishop Robert Barron or Cardinal Dolan is mainstream. Maybe they that is a reflection the age in which I grew up: the age when the right became the norm?

    I don’t want to derail the thread too much, especially because I think the thrust of your post is spot on. But I would like to know more about your thoughts on the right-left divide under Benedict.

    1. @Steven Surrency:
      One mainstream example: many of our parishes and dioceses saw numbers of inquirers, catechumens, and candidates for full communion dry up, especially in the year 2000 (when he penned and promulgated Dominus Iesus) and in 2009 when one of the forgiven SSPX bishops turned up as a Holocaust denier.

      A number of observers found his treatment of theologians as uncharitable or even unchristian. I certainly found his 2013 insulting treatment of a retired bishop I knew as petty and vindictive.

      I am sure Fr. Benedict has virtuous motivations. But the darkness can just as easily wedge in and deceive the self-styled faithful as it can with relativistic persons.

      I made the best of some very dark years in ministry, mid-90’s to 2013, and I’m quite grateful they are in the past. I’m grateful today’s Bishop of Rome is a more faithful servant of unity. We do not profess a uniform Church in the Creed, but a body that is one.

      1. @Todd Flowerday:
        I would add that, when the third wave of scandals of prelatial coverup of sex abuse waxed during the middle of B16’s pontificate, it was a painful echo here in the Boston area of the second wave of scandals that had consumed the region earlier in the decade (the first wave occurred in the middle of JP2’s pontificate, but with less resonance outside areas not directly affected). It’s that third wave when, as I was a member of a choir, I could see the vanishing of people who never came back. It’s also the time when church funerals and weddings took a dive, and have not come back.

        That wasn’t mostly progressives who left at that inflection point. That was mainly Catholics who gave up at evidence that the bishops and Rome were going through the motions to *seem* like they had learned the lessons of the first and second waves, but really hadn’t. I can’t say they were wrong about that.

      2. @Todd Flowerday:Todd: As a RCIA alumni myself, I have been tracking the numbers since the 90’s. 1999/2000 actually was a major high point in terms of adults being baptized and received – at least at a national level. CARA has 172,581 entering in 1999 (reported in 2000) and the number released in 2001 for 2000 were a bit higher – about 178,000. There was a modest drop after that, then a modest recovery around 2005 and after that the big plunge began.

        Numbers fell dramatically for 8 years. In 2014, for the first time in 8 years, a 12% rise in adult baptisms was reported. I realize that your experience on the ground in your region may have been quite different but that was the national story. The biggest factor of all was the turn of generations and the entry of the millennials, who are strikingly different from Gen Xers, into young adulthood.

      3. @Sherry Weddell:
        Thanks for the update on that. I was in a very good diocese 1995-2002, then in a troubled one 2005-08, then back to the good one till last year. One of my colleagues was vilified and forced into retirement in 2008 because of falling RCIA numbers. But another staff colleague reported his friends and contacts in other parishes were also reporting a bad year. Sometimes we don’t want to believe bad news, and sometimes we do best to put the best face on discouragement. But sometimes we just look for scapegoats. I was responsible for putting a good face on GIRM 2000, Pope Benedict, and MR3 in parishes and dioceses. I still wonder if I was selling out.

  2. View from the Pew
    Regarding: “And some of these took it upon themselves to judge and condemn other Catholics, and to make the church a most unpleasant place.”
    – With the papacy of JPII and continuing through Benedict’s papacy the concept of “smaller purer church” gained traction and for many our church went from a ‘big tent with walls that could roll up” to a an exclusive tent whose walls did not roll up to make room for everyone.
    – Happily, there seems to be more readiness to roll up the tent walls.

  3. I was one of those people who took the trouble to read Benedict’s books and his sermons rather than condemning him out of hand as so many ‘progressives’ did. Benedict had a great and rich vision of the faith and the Church and I always came away enriched by reading him. I don’t have the same experience with Francis. The one good thing that Francis has achieved is to change the narrative about Catholicism that was dominant in the western media: the obsession with sexual abuse of priests. Both JPII and Benedict were deeply thoughtful men who had a sense of the Church great Tradition. I have no reason to doubt that JPII’s statement about the ordination of women is magisterial and progressives really are wasting their time harping on about it.

  4. I am not sure that Crisis Magazine article on Amoris lataetia has it quite right on Francis’ vision as to norms. Look for instance at paragraphs 307 and 308, where he clearly differentiates between pastoral mercy and “any kind of relativism.” Or 304: “… what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule.” The piece in Crisis appears to me to assume, without providing any reasons/evidence, that this differentiation is untenable. If you are going to tell me the pope is wrong, please present reasons that meet his position as he has formulated it. (I don’t mean you, Fr. Anthony.) Maybe Francis’ stance cannot be reconciled with Veritas splendor, but it is formulated so as to foster another (more nuanced) sense of how they relate to each other, and no critic of a pope (nor anyone else, but doubly a pope) should get away with just pretending otherwise for the sake of “crisis.” Dissension is too much in the air as it is, which your (Anthony now) thoughtful comments on the ‘women’s ordination’ movement beautifully affirms as Francis’ concern.

  5. According to Edward Pentin in “Women’s ‘Ordination’ Never, but Dialogue With Vatican OK” in the June 3rd National Catholic Register ( http://www.ncregister.com/blog/edward-pentin/womens-ordination-never-but-dialogue-with-vatican-always-ok ), there is the possibility “that the the Vatican could come up with a reason to lift [the excommunication of ‘ordained’ women] such as claiming … that some of those involved are ‘not really against the Church’s teaching’ or that ‘it’s a “matter of interpretation’” and continue “dialogue” with them but not yet granting them a “mission” or faculties – similar to the manner in which Pope Benedict XVI acted (and Pope Francis has continued) with the Society of Saint Pius X.

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