NEW YORK – Advocates of the ordination of women to the Roman Catholic priests, with an indication of the church’s unfolding sex abuse scandals as powerful arguments for their case, while acknowledging the high improbability of reaching their goal anytime soon.
Even with extensive grassroots support for letting women be priests, Pope Francis and the Vatican’s male-dominated hierarchy have repeatedly stressed the need for a men-only priesthood is a divine command that cannot be changed.
“I see no movement to ordain women to the horizon, although I wish I did,” said Margaret McGuinness, a professor in religion at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “The people in power are not going to look at this as a solution.”
In the United States, an organized campaign to advocate for women priests dating back to the 1970s, and the leaders seized on the new scandals around sexual abuse in which the alleged perpetrators have been male clerics to help make their case.
The most talked-about scandals: allegations against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick abused at least two minors, as well as adult students, and the Pennsylvania grand jury report claimed that about 300 priests have sexually abused at least 1,000 children in six dioceses since the 1940’s.
“If we had women as equals and partners, women ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church, the church would not be in this mess, because we would have parents that minister and that would ensure that children are protected,” said Bridget Mary Meehan, a former nun, who has led a rebel movement to ordain women, including herself, in conflict with the teachings of the church.
The penalty for attempting to ordain a woman is excommunication. The Vatican is so horrible that it is included in the same classification of “serious crimes” as sexual abuse.
The current scandals suggest that the leaders of the church in the course of the years, have priority over “protecting the perpetrators and silencing survivors,” said Kate McElwee, director of the Women’s Ordination Conference.
Pope Francis, it should be noted, has called on lay Catholics to help in the creation of a new culture in the church that would curb the sexual abuse and “clericalism” — the policy that places priests on a pedestal.
“It seems clear to me you should refrain from the old boys’ club and everyone at the table,” McElwee said.
Under the doctrine of the Catholic church, the priesthood is reserved for men, since Christ chose only men as his 12 apostles. Education is seen as inspired by god and infallible.
Pope Francis has confirmed the ban, repeatedly, while insisting that the church is feminine in nature and can not exist without women. He has advocated a greater role for women in decision-making processes of the church and created a commission in 2016 to study the role of female deacons in the early church.
There are mixed views on the question of whether the commission, whose work has remained confidential, it could be argued that women may be deacons in the contemporary church. Deacons can perform many of the same functions as the priests, such as preaching or presiding at weddings and funerals, but they cannot celebrate Mass.
Kate McElwee said that her organization would welcome a decision to let women be deacons, in the hope that it would lead to the ordination of women to the priesthood.
Otherwise, she said, “It is an incomplete step.”
The Women’s Ordination Conference and its allies have long argued that women can play an important role in addressing the acute shortage of Catholic priests in many parts of the world. One of the worst deficits in the Amazon region of South America, and a preparatory document for the Vatican 2019 top of the Amazon called leaders of the church to identify new “official ministries,” for women to serve there.
Among the male supporters of a larger role for women is Michael Higgins, a professor of Catholic Thought at the Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.
He sees no chance of female priests quickly and says that the goal is hardly worth pursuing until the church of a radical reform of the nature of the priesthood to the less self-absorbed.
“We would only be them in a system that is falling apart,” Higgins said. “That culture of exclusive male rights, not more work.”
Higgins would like to see the church implement a new version of the so-called ‘worker-priest movement” in France after the second world War, priests who work in the factories in addition to the regular employees. He believes that women are a part of such a community-oriented movement.
The best time for women to join the priesthood would be after it has been restructured to break down barriers between clergy and laity, said Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York.
“You don’t want more priests,” said Imperatori-Lee, who describes herself as a feminist Catholic. “You want to create a more transparent church that meets people where they are … sharing life with people in the margin.”
In the short term she sees little chance for such a transformation.
“The only people with actual power of the clergy,” she said. “So it is a kind of voluntarily relinquishing power, which history shows is not likely to happen.”
The leaders of the church need to think what “dramatic changes” to prevent further deviations in the U.S., said Margaret McGuinness, La Salle professor.
“If they don’t do something, people are just going to walk,” she said. “We go to Ireland all over again, where the churches are empty — they have become apartments, and office buildings.”
The former Irish President, Mary McAleese, is one of the most outspoken advocates for the ordination of women. She was the keynote speaker in March at the International women’s Day conference which was relocated Vatican territory, because a cardinal, refused to sponsor it by her participation.
“The Catholic Church has been a primary global carrier of the toxic virus of misogyny,” McAleese said. “The leadership has never sought a cure for that virus, but the remedy is freely available: His name is equality.”
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.