Of the Cloth: The Question of Women’s Ordination in the Catholic Church

by Thea Michailides

The Roman Catholic Church is the epitome of a patriarchal institution. In the early 1960’s, as movements for social change were gaining momentum the Catholic Church seemed poised to make reforms that would mark its entrance into a new era with dramatic and unprecedented institutional changes. The Second Vatican council, convened in 1962, held the promise of making the Catholic Church relevant in the modern world. Catholic reformers hoped Vatican II would facilitate modernization throughout Church practice and doctrine. For Catholic women – lay and religious – Vatican II did not realize its full potential. As women in general were beginning to identify the institutions and ideologies of their subjugation, Catholic laywomen recognized the same practices within their faith community that relegated them to secondary status.

It took Pope John XXIII two years to plan the Second Vatican council. He called together bishops of both the Roman and Eastern rites, scholars of church doctrine, canon law, liturgy, history, and theology. The bishops on the Council had been specifically directed by John XXIII to explore ways to make the Church relevant to the modern age.  Pope John XXIII wanted the council “to rethink the church radically,”[1] envisioning a shift in the power structure from one that enhanced and supported the entrenched hierarchy to a more egalitarian, democratic Church that reflected the will and needs of the people.

After Pope John XXIII’s death in early 1963 Pope Paul VI succeeded him in overseeing the council. Pope Paul VI was not prepared to support dramatic change to the Church. Unlike John XXIII, Paul VI was a traditional, conservative Pope. While the council never accomplished John XXIII’s mission of inclusion Vatican II did succeed in bringing to the fore the entrenched inequities between men and women – lay and religious – that were supported by the Church institutionally, historically, and doctrinally.

Pope Pius IX called the First Vatican council in 1870. Vatican II, assembling worldwide Catholic leadership in Rome to debate and set the character and mission of the global Roman Catholic Church was an historic occurrence. Vatican II’s agenda was touted as expansive but did not include addressing any issues specifically concerning women’s rights in the church. ”Of all the[se] thousands of official observers and participants…none were Catholic women, although twenty-three Catholic women observers were eventually invited for the third session.”[2] The church claimed that Vatican II would promote greater lay participation yet the council never imagined new forms of institutional participation for Catholic women.

The Council professed to be “open to change,” even acknowledging, “it [the Church] was fallible.”[3] Many Catholic women were disappointed in the council’s failure to include women’s concerns in its agenda for Vatican II. This did not deter Catholic women from imagining that they might achieve leadership positions in what has been a rigidly patriarchal institution.

Catholic women saw promise in the seemingly progressive agenda of Vatican II yet there was division over what Vatican II really represented. Some Catholic women felt it served as a “blatant large-scale display of the church’s entrenched sexism.”[4] The pervasive subjugation of women within the Catholic Church, illustrated by the very composition of the Council, became untenable for many. Vatican II was evidence of this inequity. Still there was hope that the Council might offer a remedy. Despite Catholic women’s burgeoning dissatisfaction with their secondary status and with the Church in general, it would take until the early seventies – almost ten years after the close of Vatican II – for Catholic women to organize themselves into a cohesive coalition with the ability to petition for change.

How to incorporate secular philosophy and faith has become an increasingly significant area for debate among Catholic women since Vatican II. Women’s ordination is one way Catholic women have pursued the integration of Catholicism and feminism. While the ordination of women had been discussed among Catholic feminists – both lay and religious – since the sixties the absence of a cohesive and organized group confined it to the realm of the theoretical. In 1975 the Catholic women’s ordination movement and the organized Catholic feminist movement were in their nascence. In this same year Catholic, feminist sociologist Ruth Wallace addressed the Annual Meeting of the Association for The Sociology of Religion in San Francisco, California and reprinted by the academic journal Sociological Analysis. Wallace identifies strategies and obstacles for women pursuing change in the Catholic Church. The paths Wallace outlines predict the future of the Catholic women’s ordination movement.  Given women’s “marginal” status, Wallace proposes two courses for restructuring Church hierarchy to incorporate women into the clergy.

Wallace uses the familiar image of ‘two worlds’ to characterize women’s existence in relation to society and the Church. Wallace suggests women’s experience of marginality is derived directly from the fact that women must either be content to dwell in the limited world prescribed for them by society or be prepared to confront their marginality when they challenge this order. “When she decides to rise above her marginality and aspires to become an active participant in an institutional position which heretofore had not been open to women, then the fireworks begin.”[5] Wallace suggests an impending and inevitable tension will arise between Catholic women interested in pursuing ordination and change within the Roman Catholic Church and those who prefer to work outside the church for institutional changes, “…we can predict two direction: an ‘opting out’ of the institutional church, or a pressure for their inclusion in the leadership positions and the heart of the ministry.”[6] It is Wallace’s hope that these two factions do not become distracted from their ultimate goals by engaging in a debate over the ‘correct’ or ‘best’ way to approach changes to the Catholic Church’s policies regarding the ordination of women.[7]

Wallace foresees that women will become more conscious of their second-rate status as they pursue equal participation in all aspects of society.[8] Also significant is her observation of an already growing number of women studying for ministry as well as the fact that some progressive priests and theologians understand that women’s ordination is necessary to the Church maintaining its relevance.[9]

Wallace speech represents the optimism of the early Catholic women’s ordination movement. Wallace shows prescience in her identification of potential impediments for proponents of the Catholic women’s ordination movement yet she her speech is marked by language that perpetuates the ‘marginality’ she professes to oppose.

As previously mentioned Wallace sees women as occupying two worlds, one of the home and one of the “male dominated world,” wherein exists the, “decision-making or leadership positions in the Christian churches.”[10] Wallace suggests women’s exclusion from ordination is the result of a male Church hierarchy fearful of female empowerment and married to the preservation of traditional gender roles. To contradict these arguments Wallace does not assert the value of including women as a means for broadening the Church’s relevance. Instead she contends that ‘uniquely’ feminine traits would make women naturally suited to roles in the clergy.

Though Wallace asserts that women’s ‘unique’ traits suit them to clerical service these seem to be more a product of the time in which she was writing than an expression of a fully conceived idea. The hope for women’s ordination being sanctioned by the Church seems to have diminished to the point where it is almost inconceivable. The reactionary elements that opposed changes from Vatican II have retrenched and are asserting themselves on the Catholic world. These factions stand in strict opposition to women assuming roles of any authority in the Church despite the continued need for more clergy and the precedence for women assuming clerical roles as deaconesses.

The Church is a corporate institution that seeks to preserve its power through the reassertion of the authority represented by a strict hierarchy. Women have traditionally served the Church in roles that place them close to the laity thereby making it easy for them to disseminate information and garner support. This makes women – particularly women religious – especially dangerous to the Church hierarchy. Were women to be given access to the pulpit as priests their ability to reform would be enhanced and reform would reveal the ineptitude of the current Church authorities and the irrational practices on which Church doctrine and canon law are based. ▢


[1] Henold, Mary J. Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008. P 22

[2] Henold, 21

[3] Ibid, 22

[4] Ibid, 22-23

[5] Ruth A. Wallace, “Bringing Women In: Marginality in the Churches,” Sociological Analysis (Oxford University Press) 36, no. 4 (Winter 1975): 291-303. P 293

[6] Wallace, 296

[7] Ibid, 300

[8] Ibid, 296

[9] Ibid, 296

[10] Ibid, 292

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