by PETER NOLAN
ABRIEF survey of opin
ion among leading British Catholic women, lay and religious, shows none in favour of ordination of women as an immediate aim; but all convinced that women must play an important pastoral role.
Joan Morris of St. Joan's Alliance, founded by two Catholic suffragettes to fight for women's eights over 60 years ago, has written a book on the "Lady Bishops" of the middle ages to be published in January, A former lecturer at London University, she believes Christ liberated women by teaching that celibacy was a worthy vocation, so they could "do something besides procreate."
Preferring to call herself Ms. Morris "because other titles discriminate" she is opposed to the Women's Liberation movement because, in its extremism, it is "against the Church." Male opposition to women as having a right to rule she sees as a return to the pagan idea of ruling as domination, instead of the Christian concept of "humble service."
Her book traces the history of 'powerful abbesses and cannonesses on the continent who were 'ordained' by the imposition of hands by the bishop and had similar powers, apart from saying mom. They had power to license clergy to celebrate mass within their territory and many heard confessions.
The influence of Greek ideas in the Renaissance, coming from an era when women had no part in government and could not even eat at the same table as men helped undermine the position of women, Ms. Morris argued.
The jealousy of monks who objected to being under an Abbess and finally Napoleon's Concordat with Rome which subordinated all superiors of religious orders to bishops chosen by him finally reduced the status of women in the Church, she said.
The ordination of women to the ministry was not even considered in the middle ages because of a belief that women became "unclean" and subject to the power of the devil during their monthly period, she said. While not pressing for the ordination of women, she thought they could help greatly to make the parish "a less cold and unwelcoming place than it is," take communion to the sick and perhaps hear confession.
Ms. Morris was an observer at the last Synod of Bishops in Rome and welcomed "the 16 interventions by 'bishops in favour of women" and the Synod's request for a Commission to be set up to study the role of women in society and the Church. "The U.S. have already appointed a national commission to look into the subject, but I have not heard that the Vatican or the British hierarchy have done anything" she said. Though voted for by the Synod, the Pope need not act on the bishop's motion.
St. Joan's Alliance is different from other Catholic women's organisations in having non-Catholics as associate members and several male members, both lay and religious. Representing lawyers doctors and other professional women, it has some members in Parliament and enjoys consultative status at the United Nations.
Mrs. Marie Whalley, a member of the National Board of Catholic Women, representing Catholic Women's organisations in Britain, said they had begun looking at the role of women in the Church this year and hoped to publish a series of papers on the subject next year. "We will naturally discuss women being ordained, but I am more concerned with• practical suggestions of how women could be used — other denominations train women for pastoral work," she said.
"I am convinced priests in laSg urban parishes cannot cope. Women have certain gifts men do not possess, such as sensitivity to others' problems. Anglicans have women parish visitors accredited by their bishops" said Mrs. Whalley'. One neglected area where women might help was in technical colleges, rarely visited by priests, she thought.
She saw no reason why women could not' be ordained but believed -such a move would have to be preceded by "an educative process involving both priests and laity" before it could become acceptable. She did not think there was 4a great deal of scope for single sex organisations in the Church any longer and praised the work of St. Joan's Alliance who had been "for many years a voice crying in the wilderness."
Like Mrs. Whalley, Sister Louis Gabriel of the Sisters of Sion, a lecturer working in the field of Judaeo-Christian relations, saw the Papal Motu Proprio on the minor orders of lector and acolyte announced by the Vatican this month as a negative move.
"The Motu Proprio states that 'in accordance with the venerable tradition of the Church, the 'institution of the ministries of lector and acolyte is reserved to men'," said Sister Gabriel. The French branch of the international movement 'Women and Men in the Church' have already criticised the decree as showing that the Vatican continues to recognise the word layman only in the masculine gender, she said.
Sister Gabriel quoted a recent article she had written in a scripture publication tracing the beginning of women's inferior status in the Church to the Jewish attitude to women priests. Countries surrounding Israel went in for the worship of Bael with priestess temple prostitutes and this had led to Jewish dislike of a female priesthood. "But the whole of Redemption depended on the 'yes' of one woman" she said.
She thought the Motu Proprio was an example of a wondenful opportunity to include women officially in the Church's worship which had been missed. She did not see women ministers as an immediate necessity but thought there was a great deal women could do in the pastoral field without it. She was still smarting from a priests suggestion for using women's potential made on a recent
Eamonn Andrews show La which• she took part. "He said we could be priests housekeepers. I do not object to a woman's role as cook, but ..." she exclaimed, asking me not to quote the exact. and forceful, expression of her reaction to this.
Fr. George Leonard of the Catholic Information Office said the Motu Proprio had been drafted before the Synod of Bishops recommended that "women should have their own share of responsibility and participation in the community life of society and the Church" and asked that a mixed coinm6ssion be set up of men and women religious and lay people to give "serious study" to the matter.
"The Motu does not rule out the synodal approach which actually came after it, though the Motu was published lates," said Fr. Leonard. He understood the statement on manor orders did not change the present permission for women to read scriptural lessons and common prayers at Mass. It does mean, however, they still have -no formal title to do so.
Sister Desmond of the Order of the Holy Child, who has recently joined the Catholic Information Office, said they were trying to get superiors of religious orders to agree to a questionnaire. "We simply do not know what many sisters do, what qualifications they have. how many contemplative nuns there are in Britain," she said.
She thought many nuns would not want •to be ordained but could play a more active role. "In Paris our sisters give out communion., but when we asked permission •to do this at a big 'boarding school here, we were told we could not do so as the matter had not been sufficiently discussed."
Sister Mary Magdalen, one of the six sisters acting as chaplainesses to Catholic University chaplaincies, working in London University, said she found 'her pastoral role had been fully accepted by the priest chaplains and she had no desire for ordination. She had recently been asked to preach at an Anglican retreat and admitted that "women have
something to say if asked to give a sermon."
She thought the place of women in the Church would be influenced by the sociological trends towards greater participation in secular society, but that the effort to give women a greater pastoral role should begin with individual parishes. "Some parishes in Britain already make great use of sisters" she said, though they could not bring communion to the sick, as was permitted in Germany and America.
"When one is sick, communion assumes a much greater importance and I think as a small practical gesture, it would be very good to allow nuns do this here. Very often a priest is very busy and lucky to be able to visit a hospital once a week."
She emphasised t h e usefulness of woman's role lay in the way it complemented that of the man : "I fear many of the women who are more active now are of the bulldozing type and have lost some of those womanly qualities which are so vital," she said.
She pointed out that the institution of Deaconnesses had done the Anglicans no harm and supported the gradual abscaptiot of women into parish life where they could fulfil a very useful role.
In Lambeth Palace last week Cardinal Willebrands of the Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity was asked if the ordination of women, on which the Anglicans issued a report last month, would make Catholic-Anglican unity more difficult. He spent a long time answering the question and was reported to have said that for the Catholic Church there were theological difficulties that would 'prevent women ever being ordained. He said Anglican women ministers would definitely cause extra difficulties from a Catholic point of view.
Mrs. Eleanor Barnes, head of the National. Board of Catholic Women and chairman of the Laity Commission of England and Wales, said the "idea of ordination of women frightens the very people one wants to put in a cooperative state of mind" and did not really see it as a pressing issue yet. She said they hoped to produce a collection of papers "weaving a path between the apathetic majority and the militant minority". But we want 'to avoid women being considered as separate citizens, she said.
"I myself was brought up in the Anglican tradition and the vicar's wife played a very important part in parish life_ I am not suggesting priests should marry, but women could play a much more active role in the parish. I was glad to hear this discussed at the national conference of priests last month in Birmingham," she said.