"Whenever people discover that they have rights, they have the responsibility to claim them."—John XXIII, "Pacem in Terris"
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Up at the top of a Mexican mountain, up beyond miles of rutted road and wet, flowing clay, I toured an Indian village that was visited by a priest only once a year. That was years ago. Now the mountain is just as high but the priest is 15 years older.
Five years ago I spoke in an American parish of 6,000 families—a "mega-church" that is served by three priests. There is no priest shortage there, however, the priests want you to know, because the bishop has redefined the optimum priest-to-people ratio from 1-to-every-250 families to 1-priest-to-every-2,000 families.
In diocese after diocese, Catholic parishes are being merged, closed, or served by retired priests or married male deacons designed to keep the church male, whether it is ministering or not. The number of priests is declining, the number of Catholics is increasing, and the number of lay ministers being certified is rising in every academic system despite the fact that their services are being rejected.
Clearly, the Catholic Church is changing even while it reasserts its changelessness. But static resistance is a far cry from the dynamism of the early church. Prisca, Lydia, Thecla, Phoebe, and hundreds of women like them opened house churches, walked as disciples of Paul, "constrained him," the scripture says, to serve a given region, instructed people in the faith, and ministered to the fledgling Christian communities with no apology, no argument, and no tricky theological shell games about whether they were ministering in persona Christi or in nomini Christi.
So what is to be done at a time like this, when what is being sought and what is possible are two different things? To what are we to give our energy when we are told no energy is wanted?
The answer is discipleship. The fact is that we cannot possibly have a renewed priesthood unless we have a renewed discipleship around us and in us as well. The temptation is to become weary in the apparently fruitless search for office. But the call is to become recommitted to the essential, the ancient, and the authentic demands of discipleship.
Christian discipleship is a very dangerous thing. It is about living in this world the way that Jesus the Christ lived in his—touching lepers, raising donkeys from ditches on Sabbath days, questioning the unquestionable and—consorting with women! Discipleship implies a commitment to leave nets and homes, positions and securities, lordship and legalities to be now—in our own world—what the Christ was for his. Discipleship is prepared to fly in the face of a world bent only on maintaining its own ends whatever the cost.
But to understand the nature of discipleship is not enough. The church must not only preach the gospel; it must be what it says. It must demonstrate what it teaches. It must be judged by its own standards. The church that preaches the equality of women but does nothing to demonstrate it within its own structures is dangerously close to repeating the theological errors that upheld centuries of church-sanctioned slavery.
THE PAUPERIZATION OF women in the name of the sanctity of motherhood flies in the face of the Jesus who overturned tables in the temple, contended with Pilate in the palace, and chastised Peter to put away his sword. Jesus, despite the teaching of that day, cured the woman with the issue of blood and refused to silence the Samaritan women on whose account, scripture tells us, "thousands believed that day." Indeed, as the life of Jesus shows us, the invisibility of women in the church threatens the very nature of the church itself.
What does the theology of discipleship demand here? What does the theology of a priestly people imply here? Are women simply half a disciple of Christ? To be half-commissioned, half-noticed, and half-valued? If discipleship is reduced to maleness, what does that do to the rest of the Christian dispensation? If only men can really live discipleship to the fullest, what is the use of a woman aspiring to the discipleship that baptism implies, demands, and demonstrates in the life of Jesus at all? What does it mean for the women themselves who are faced with rejection, devaluation, and a debatable theology based on the remnants of a bad biology theologized? What do we do when a church proclaims the equality of women but builds itself on structures that assure their inequality?
The answers are discouragingly clear on all counts. Christian discipleship is not simply in danger of being stunted. Discipleship has, in fact, become the enemy. Who we do not want to admit to full, official, legitimated discipleship—something the church itself teaches is required of us all—has become at least as problematic for the integrity of the church as the exclusion of women from those deliberations of the church that shape its theology and form its people. And therein lies the present challenge of discipleship. Some consider faithfulness to the gospel to mean doing what we have always done. Others find faithfulness only in being what we have always been. The distinction is crucial to our understanding of tradition. The distinction is also essential to the understanding of discipleship in the modern church. When "the tradition" becomes synonymous with "the system," and maintaining the system becomes more important than maintaining the spirit of the tradition, discipleship shrivels. It becomes at best "obedience" or "fidelity" to the past but not deep-down commitment to the presence of the living Christ confronting the leprosies of the age.
HOW CAN A CHURCH such as this call convincingly to the world in the name of justice to practice a justice it does not practice itself? How is it that the church can call other institutions to deal with women as full human beings made in the image of God when their humanity is precisely what the church itself holds against them in the name of God?
It is the question that, like slavery, brings the church to the test. For the church to be present to the woman's question, to minister to it, to be disciple to it, the church must itself become converted by the issue. Men who do not take the woman's issue seriously may be priests but they cannot possibly be disciples. They cannot possibly be "Other Christs." Not the Christ born of a woman. Not the Christ who commissioned women to preach him. Not the Christ who took faculties from a woman at Cana. Not the Christ who sent women to preach resurrection and redemption of the flesh to apostles who would not believe it then and do not believe it now. Not the Christ who sent the Holy Spirit on Mary the woman as well as on Peter the man. Not the Christ who announced his messiahship as clearly to the Samaritan woman as to the rock that shattered.
Thomas Carlyle wrote, "Our main business is not to see what lies dimly in the distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand." A priestly people in a priestless period must keep the ultimate vision clearly in mind. But we must also keep the tasks of the present clearly in mind. The task of the present is not simply preparation for priestly ordination in a church that denies the right even to discuss this festering question of whether or not women can participate in the sacrament of orders. Clearly, preparation for ordination to the priesthood would be premature, at best, if not downright damaging to the Spirit itself in a climate such as this.
No, the task of the present in a time such as this is to use every organization to which we belong to develop the theology of the church to a point of critical mass. The task now is to practice a dangerous discipleship. We need a group free of mandatums that will organize seminars, hold public debates in the style of the great medieval disputations that argued for and against the full humanity of indigenous peoples, hold teach-ins, sponsor publications, write books, post educational Web sites, and hold more and more gatherings where women speak freely. It is time to bring into the light of day the discussions that lurk behind every church door, in every seeking heart. If, as Vatican II says, priesthood requires preaching, sacrifice, and community building, then proclaiming the coming of a new church, sacrificing ourselves to bring it, and shaping a community new with the notion of a new kind of priest and permanent woman deacons may be the greatest priestly service of them all right now.
As John XXIII says in "Pacem in Terris," "Whenever people discover that they have rights, they have the responsibility to claim them." And Proverbs teaches clearly, "If the people will lead, the leaders will eventually follow." Therefore, what must we do now as priestly people? We must take responsibility. We must take back the church. We must lead leaders to the fullness of Christian life!
Joan D. Chittister, OSB, was executive director of Benetvision, a ministry of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania, when this article appeared. It was excerpted from a June 2001 speech at the Women's Ordination Worldwide First International Conference in Dublin, Ireland.