Never have I written on a more difficult subject than the pope’s recent letter on women’s ordination in the Catholic Church. As the product of an Irish-Catholic family, the church I share with John Paul II is my roots, my home, my tradition. In addition I have had the joy of being a member of the Franciscan order for more than 40 years. In the ceremony of admission to that religious institute, we pledge obedience to the rule of life set out by St. Francis himself, part of which prescribes obedience to the pope.
Over the several decades of my life as a priest, I have had occasion to glory in some wonderful expressions of Catholicism. For example, I was a direct beneficiary of the Latin American church’s conversion moment at Medellin, Colombia, in 1968. There our bishops spoke of the "institutionalized sin" that afflicted and oppressed the majority of our people, and they called the whole church to a preferential option for the poor.
Working for the most part as a pastor since my ordination, I have consistently endeavored to help people encounter the Lord Jesus in and through, despite and beyond, the necessary rules and regulations of our worldwide body. This has sometimes proven most difficult, but I believe I can say honestly that I have remained faithful to that ideal.
It is this pastoral preoccupation that makes the present moment in Catholicism so difficult. In the face of Pope John Paul’s letter forbidding women’s ordination in our church, we are left with pastoral concerns that seem overwhelming.
How are we ever to get on as a church when more than half of our body is cut off from consideration of their fitness for priestly ministry? Are we facing a schism in the American Catholic Church, wherein sincere and devout women claim a call to ordination? Where is the Holy Spirit in this? What will be the price our church will have to pay in losing the enormous and unique gifts that women bring to ministry? The pain of these questions for all concerned borders on the unbearable; one finds himself asking pardon for the hurt our sisters are experiencing.
Other concerns emerge from the present situation as well. With laywomen and men moving into the many pastoral responsibilities being vacated by diminishing numbers of clergy, will priests become mere "sacramentalizers"—men confined to carrying out the liturgical functions of Catholic faith communities? Already the term "circuit riders" has become common parlance in reference to those of us who visit several parishes on Sunday mornings, afternoons, and evenings for the sole purpose of saying Mass.
Another pastoral concern surfaces in the area of ecumenism, and it is especially sensitive for those like me who have worked positively with persons of other Christian traditions. One Catholic archbishop expressed the dilemma this way: "Since full communion among the churches ultimately must include the mutual recognition of ministries, will this declaration [of John Paul’s] mean that full communion is ruled out with all except the Orthodox churches? The Orthodox churches may agree with the pope on the question at hand, but are usually shocked when the pope teaches the bishops and does not speak in union with them" (Archbishop Rembert Weakland, May 31, 1994).
Finally, I find myself gravely concerned over the erosion of authority that this document has caused in the minds and hearts of American Catholics. No one with whom I have spoken knows what occasioned the pope’s pronouncement or with whom he consulted in writing it. Rank-and-file Catholics are tending to ignore what the pope says on this and many other very important issues. This can only do harm.
In thinking about a proper reaction and response to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, I turned to a compelling figure of the 19th century, John Henry Newman. The parallels to today’s situation are striking.
Newman, a convert to Catholicism from the Church of England, never lost his critical sense even—and especially—with his adopted church. His inquiring mind got him into many public controversies inside and outside the church. During one particularly difficult period of church life, Newman is said to have declared that he chose simply to "wait for a better day."
Newman considered ill-timed the Catholic Church’s declaration of papal infallibility, especially in view of the fact that its declaration seemed to respond to no particular crisis or need in the church. He accepted the doctrine of infallibility in the end but had this very English thing to say in one of his letters: "Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing), I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards."
A pope later named Newman a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church.
JOE NANGLE, O.F.M., former outreach director at Sojourners, is executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C.