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A Review on the Catholic Women Priests Ordination Movement


Balbina Lee Mi-young / Researcher of Woori Theology Institute(WTI)


How have women been recognized in Catholic church? A historian Guy Bechtel classified the identity of women which had been formed by Catholic church into ‘the whore(La putain), the witch(La sorcière), the woman saint(La sainte) and the fool(Bécasssine)’ through the book, ‘God’s Four Women(Les Quatre Femmes de Dieu)’. A priest I know expressed “feeling nausea” after reading the book. He criticized that this book described the feature of church that hated women and treated them cruelly, too negatively and with exaggerations. We cannot say, however, that the church fully respected women as men from the historical point of view, notwithstanding the difference in degree.

Recently, the attitude of Catholic church toward women has progressed rapidly. Pope John Paul II supported the campaign for the progress and liberation of women by saying “the dignity and the vocation of women – as well as those of men – find their eternal source in the heart of God”(no.14) in his Apostolic Letter <Dignity and Vocation of Women(Mulieris Dignitatem)>. Different from pass trends, the church is taking a positive and friendly attitude toward the role and responsibility of women in society progressively, however, it prohibits women from assuming positions in the church system.

Catholic women activists expect they will be able to restore the dignity of women religiously and practically, outgrowing the viewpoint that the church ‘protects’ the weak women. They are requesting retranslation of bible clauses which hurt the dignity of women. They are also requesting changes in terminologies that the church is still using, for the equality of sexes and trying to find ways to expand terminologies to be used comprehensively, including female, instead of the male-dominated symbols. They expect women to be able to participate in all church activities equally, including ritual ceremonies, as well. In particular, ‘the women priests ordination’ issue is the most outstanding one. The women priests ordination campaign is ongoing in North America and Europe, declaring women’s equal participation in church.

In the Korean Catholic church, as a matter of fact, the women priests ordination campaign is still an unfamiliar subject. It is even considered as a threatening attempt in the Catholic church to discuss the ‘women priests ordination’ something the Pope has declared will ‘never be allowed’. In the Korean Catholic climate the concept of women theology itself is denied. Accordingly, the emerging campaign in North America and Europe which is an important issue, is rather being screened in Korea, far from being discussed.

Under this circumstances, the lecture and informal gathering for discussion by Christine Mayr- Lumetzberger, one of the founders of WOW in spring of 2006 on ‘Catholic Women Priests Campaign’ provided opportunities to discuss this issue in earnest in Korea. It is pretty recent for us to hear the voice of activists who are actually participating in the movement in the West, though the women priests movement was introduced into Korea through women’s studies and/or women theology books, etc. In summer of 2005, a North American activist Victoria Lue visited Korea to chair the “Gender and Religion” section of the 9th World Women’s Conference as a professor of San Jose State University, and details of the movement was introduced to the public of Korea through mass media for the first time. And a year later, Christine, an Austrian activist introduced the movement into Korea through the lecture and the discussion with women activists of other religions. Just in time, when she arrived in Korea, a woman ascetic was ordained as a deacon at the Korea Anglican church for the first time in Korea.

In this article, I would like to summarize the meeting minutes with Christian through the lecture and the discussion, and describe my own expectations on this movement as well.

Meaning of the Women Priests Movement

The following is a summary of the meaning of the movement, introduced by Christine, to the Catholic church.

Church Reform Movement

It is quite natural for most people in Korea to be surprised to know that the history of the Catholic women priests movement dates back to the 2nd Vatican Council, because the movement itself is a strange subject to them. According to Christine, two German women theologians Ida Raming and Iris Müller requested the council to discuss the women priests issue, together with other issues, such as priest bachelorhood and other pastoral issues. Though the actions for the rights of women in church, together with the liberation of women trend, were implemented before the council, it shows this issue was discussed for the reform of church from the nature of the council which had important mission of ‘aggiornamento‘.

Doing Apostolate of Serving based on the Gospel

According to Christine, she is currently doing her pastoral activities under a tacit support from Catholic priests. She emphasized the most important thing is to serve believers who requested this job. Women priests are doing their pastoral activities for those who cannot go to church because they are too poor and estranged, and those for whom the existing priests cannot administer baptism or the sacrament. In fact, Jesus Christ in bible was with these people. Jesus Christ wanted to meet those who were very weak and estranged from the society, not ordinary people.

Women priests are approaching, without any conditions, those who cannot go to church due to church law and those neglected by others. They are just embracing those people, not judging by them by church law and emphasizing keeping rules. They are pastors who are with those who really need them and serving them. Women priests are practicing this kind of biblical feature of priests. The priesthood of serving of this kind is required for all priests, notwithstanding gender. And it can be a good example toward the reform of priesthood.

Movements within Catholic Church

People who feel awkward about women priests or, on the contrary, who are sad about the criticism about them suggest that theygo to other denominations where women priests are formalized or create a new denomination. Women priests, however, are denying to go out of Catholic church, saying “We are the church.” What they really want is the reform of Catholicism, not any new religion.

In fact, many women activists, including Mary Daly, has already left the patriarchal church, and some people who were pursuing a new femininity spirituality movement suggested a new religion like ‘goddess religion’. But these ‘outer’ movements are being evaluated as not contributing toward the change of the Catholic church. The Catholic church is not listening to these ‘outer’ claims. Now, however, the Catholic church is responding to these internal challenges, although mostly excommunicating or sending same letters repeatedly, explaining why women priests are not allowed. The Catholic church may seem to become more conservative through these denial responses. But those opportunities to response allows the church to examine this issue. It is easy to go out of the church, escaping from the difficulty. In fact, it is more difficult to stay in church with these criticisms and objections, and their love for the Catholic church enable them to make efforts to change the church.

Solidarity between religions for the women movement

Now the Catholic women priests movement is being approached as each religion’s women movement by solidarity with Judaism and Protestant women. As an answer to the question that it could probably be better to go with the abolition movement of priests bachelorhood from the eye of the priesthood reform, Christine said it would be more meaningful for the women priests movement to work with women of other religions from the women movement standpoint. The social standing of women in world religions are pretty low. So the women priests movement toward the basic love and the value of equality, not to speak of the difference between doctrines, can be a turning point for consistency and dialogue between religions.

The limitation of women priests movement

Despite of the hopeful message toward reforming church by the Catholic women priests movement, some questions were raised in the lecture and the discussion.

Is it definitely necessary for women to participate in the patriarchal ministry?

Dr. Kang Nam-sun, a female protestant who participated in the discussion expressed that the introduction of the women priests system without changing the gender discriminational theology and doctrine of catholic can strengthen the existing system by saying “The Methodist church allowed women to become pastors in 1931, but the male-dominated system has not been changed.” These questions have been continuously raised by women theologians like Elisabeth S. Fiorenza regarding the Catholic women priests movement. Fiorenza said in her book <Discipleship of Equals> that the secession of ministry from church is needed, and not women’s ordination and emphasized women should declare their identities and set up their goals, rather than being placed in the ministry hierarchy from the eye of church, people of God. She evaluates that laymen experts was subordinate to the ministry hierarchy as the permanent diaconate have been allowed after the 2nd Vatican Council. From this standpoint, she was afraid that the women’s participation in the hierarchy can be exploited to strengthen the structure.

The other one of the criticisms for the movement is that it’s purpose is to share the church power equally between men and women by taking advantage of the women liberation line. This question itself reveals wrong values that view the ministry as the power, not serving people. However, it’s a similar criticism as the previous one that makes the priesthood particularly special amongother various church positions, by emphasizing the priesthood which is not allowed for women. For these questions, Victoria Lue says the movement is pursuing to become serving priesthood, not the existing ruling class, paving the way to be a equalized church. Still, however, the purpose of women priesthood is prevailing over the pursuing of an equalized church.

Can women priesthood really change the church?

Though the movement is pursuing an alternative priesthood and equal participation in the church hierarchy, can women ordination alone bring about a big change in church? Of course, it can bring some changes symbolically. For the basic church reform, however, various methods should be applied.

In the case of Korea, aside the Western circumstances, women priests in other denomination have nothing special. In Korea, there have been women pastors from long ago, and women priests are starting to appear in the Anglican Church of Korea. Actually, however, women pastors and priests are experiencing difficulties in general due to those believers who think them unreliable. Some women pastors are wearing Roman collars everyday to show their priesthood, and sometimes show authoritarianism. like other men priests.

Is there any certainty that these situations will not be repeated in the Catholic church? It’s difficult to expect changes to take place overnight in Korea from the viewpoint that when female religious are giving the Eucharist during a Mass, there are still many believers who move to the line of a male priest. Without the epoch-making change of thinking on women, women priests itself cannot bring about church reform.

How ordinary believers can share the same sentiment on the movement?

A Catholic laywomen who attended the lecture by Christine said it was difficult for her to accept Christine as a ‘woman bishop’ after being excommunicated from the Vatican and added she wondered how Christine could explain her movement and disposition to the faithful. Although she was a member of a catholic women’s group, she admitted that she was confused about the women priests issue and was shocked by it. How will other ordinary believers who do not have the consciousness about women think about the issue? Also a female pastor Han Guk-Yeom indicated that the women priests continuing on with their priesthood would make the faithful confused by doing so even after being excommunicated from the church authority.

Catholic church believers, more than any other denominations, have traditional values that priesthood is from apostles and that universality is important. Thus they think any trial that the Vatican denies is heresy or an action to split the church. Those who criticize the existing women priests movement are stigmatizing that the movement is trying to split the church only by the facts that they were excommunicated by the Vatican and being ordained by other branches than orthodox Catholic, through raising the orthodox issue. Also the issue itself can be a dispute that could lead to the church split with the deep-rooted prejudice on women. Actually some Anglican Church bishops, priests and believers converted to Catholic because they could not accept women priests ordinations when the first women were being ordained in the Anglican Church. Recently, at the American Protestant Episcopal Church which selected a woman bishop as its head, some parishes even requested to be governed by the Anglican Church in England. The condition that priests should be men is prevailing, not just for the church law. The women priests movement should be a movement to change church families thoughts and values, as well as appealing to the church. It is true that the movement can not persist only by uniting with some sympathizers, and without the support of church families.

What impression may this give to women in other positions and men in church?

The women priests movement still has the impression that it is only for those women who wish to become priests. Though the purpose is for the equal participation of women in church positions, it is hard to find some other meaning on the relationship with women in other positions and men.

A Buddhist nun Bongak who participated in the meeting asked a question to Christine about how the position of the women ascetics can be influenced when women are being ordained as priests. Christine answered that the vocation is different according to individuals. But it can cause a crisis under current church structure, such as decreases in the ascetics, etc. As the identity and the role of religious orders are being jeopardizing by monks becoming priests based on the reason that there is a lack of priests, and women’s religious orders can encounter the same crisis. In that case the monk’s position itself can be meaningless and it can make the status of sisters even more unequal.

Women priests have some meaning for women. For men in church, however, it has no significant meaning. The women priests movement should give biblical message to men, as the women liberalizing movement was a movement which make men get rid of the burden of patriarchism, not only liberalizing women. If the movement wants to be good news for all church family through women priests, it should suggest the meaning to all church family, instead of devoting only to the ‘women priests ordination’ issue.

What kind of meaning can the Western women priests movement give to the Asian situation?

Some people insist that the decrease of the male priest number will enable the women priests ordination movement to be boosted in the western part of the world. Women priests are expected to become a reality as well as married priests with the decrease of bachelor priests.

But the situation in Asia, especially in Korea, is entirely different The number of priests outnumbers the increase of Catholic believers. New priests are being supplied from seminaries of each diocese every year, though the number of monks is decreasing. Therefore the lack of priests does not matter. Even the existing permanent deacons system has not been introduced into Korea yet. In this circumstance, the women priest ordination matter cannot be an issue. The rapidly expanding Africa and South America will also be similar. For those women in Asia and the third world countries who are more interested in poverty and welfare issue, the women priests issue can be a trivial matter and, rather they may express objection on the issue because they are mostly conservative on the women and religion issues. Female deacon Oh In-sook (Katharina) of the Anglican Church of Korea mentioned that “we need to implement the movement in our own style because Christine is doing her job under European situation.” Indeed, how can the movement be sympathized and united under the situation in Asia and Korea? And if it should be solved only by women in this region, what kind of meaning can the movement in Europe and North America give to us?

Expectation toward the women priests movement

In spring of 2005, shortly before the new Pope was elected, some progressive people expected the new Pope to express a positive stance on the women priests movement. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who had shown conservative position was elected, their expectation was dissipated. But their trial is still going on. Father Pierre who is called by the French people as a ‘Living Saint’ in his essay <God… Why? (Mon Dieu…pourquoi?)> recently criticized that denying women ordination is not theoretical, and the reasons for the prohibition is only a social explanation in accordance with custom. In her speech, Christine insisted that around half of male priests of her diocese supported her and even the bishop encouraged her to go ahead, though he officially denied the movement. The holy spirit probably with the movement in view of the increased number of those who believe the vindication of women priests. Now I would like to make some suggestions with hopes that it would help with the church reform and bring about an increase in the number of supporters.

Efforts to encourage women to participate in church

It’s meaningful for women to share the church hierarchy. But it is more important for women to participate in the church system and become aware of their leading roles in advance. In fact, most lay-members of the pastoral council in a parish are men, though about 60 percent of believers are women and grass-root positions are mostly occupied by women.. Also most lay-representatives in church are men. What is worse, women are willing to participate in lower service positions, but concede to men those upper positions. If women could realize desirable leadership, they would be welcomed to various church positions.

In this case, the support for women priests would be expanded naturally. The movement should be processed through the course of expanding women’s participation, as well as making more women priests. As Lisa Cahill, former American Catholic Theology Society chairman and a theology professor of Boston College mentioned in an interview that “changes will begin from grass-root provincial churches, not from the top(the Vatican)”.

To break mythology on the priesthood

Christians say the priesthood is a call from God, not a fruit through petition and struggle of people who want to be priests. Accordingly, people are used to ask if the will of God is with those who wish to be priests, notwithstanding their gender. It is right to point out so, but it is a dangerous question, too. God calls people for their vocations, not just for the priesthood. Not all of those who wish to become priests can be priests, thus not all of those who wish to be lay people can be lay people. God’s will is hidden inside of that. And how can we decide for whom God calls as a priest, monk and lay people? How and who can be sure that God’s will is not with them?

Not all of those who participate in the movement want to become priests. Not all female christians necessarily want to become priests, and actually do not need to aim so, as not all male christians are becoming priests. In any case, the number of female christians who can be priests is very small. The problem is the attitude that women cannot participate in the priesthood because of the believe that the priesthood among all positions is the most divine position to reveal Jesus Christ. It is necessary to break this thought and the movement should be support this campaign.

This year, the Anglican Church of Korea ordained a woman deacon who was an Anglican sister for the first time. She will become a priest next year. Major mass media light up her life and the meaning, etc. Most comments from people and Catholic on the article were congratulations and blessings. Can we say the supporters of the women priesthood are increasing among conservative Koreans, based on the responses? It would not be the case. People simply think her personality is good and she has been recognized by people as God’s daughter through her long ascetic practices. And her comment on her priesthood at the age of retirement was pretty simple and clear “… nothing much will be changed. The difference is that I can conduct masses at nunneries or welfare facilities without inviting fathers.” From her attitude which was like a response to God’s calling to a new task, people probably accept her as a priest, not before raising issues on how a women can become a divine priest. Personally I think people agree with the practical needs and possibility, rather than theoretical disputes.

I believe the women priests movement needs to approach the movement in this way. Also a new interpretation for the priesthood is needed to make the church accept women to become priests easily. Questions should be on why God does not call women for the priesthood among many church positions, and why the priesthood should be the only special position. These questions need to be raised and not why women cannot participate in the divine area. And we could also ask if it is really the will of God to make only the priesthood the distinct and special one.

Efforts for ecumenism

Some people insist women priest system is not helpful for the unity of church because the Orthodox does not want women priests. Furthermore for the pastorship in Protestant church it may not be a problem, but for the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox church which minister the Sacrament of Eucharist during masses, it is a problem biblically, theoretically and church historically.

In the Anglican church, some orthodox people insist women priests would hurt the church unity. From the eye of these situation, the movement should be accompanied by other churches, rather than being proceeded only in the Catholic church. Christine in her speech introduced that the movement has already united with other denominations. The united activities are needed to raise the dignity of women in church, and it would have great meaning if the movement could lead to church unity through these united activities.

Accompanying the theoretical re-interpretation work

In 1976, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared the “Inter insigniores” (disapproval of the women priesthood) and the reason relied mostly on customs and biblical interpretations like the one that Jesus Christ did not allow any woman to become an apostle and did not give any woman the priesthood although his stance on women was different. The Vatican said it could not entrust the priesthood, the proxy for Jesus Christ, to women who had not have natural similarities with him. Though they insist there is no evidence that the reason for the prohibition do not exist only in socio-cultural standpoint and cannot be proven so, on the contrary there is no evidence that Jesus Christ declared “women cannot be ordained as priests” and they set themselves against those numerous women who participated as deacons in apostle age by insisting that their existence was due to the weak church system. We need to investigate if these theoretical decision is God’s will and correct theoretical interpretation.

During the meeting with Christine, Lee Seon-jong, a ‘Wonbulgyo(Won Buddhism)’ nun, said men and women participate in the activities equally in their system, because their basic dogma emphasize equality between gender. She said their dogma emphasize “the principles of Yin and Yang in the universe and no gender should be excluded”. It shows that the dogma and theoretical teachings should primarily be based on the correct understanding on women. For the church teachings that encourage women to remember traditional roles while emphasizing the dignity of women continuously, we believe that the women priests movement should be implemented together with the theoretical work for women, profound review and restructuring on the priesthood. The movement can send a redemption message to men and the whole ecosystem, as well as the redemption of women.


Though the church declares there is no ground for women to become priests theoretically, it is hard for us who are living this age to understand the grounds that women cannot be priests, as well. The more the church insist this logic forcibly, the more the church would be estranged from those who have reasonable way of thinking. The Catholic women priests movement gives great possibility and hope for those who think the church is unreasonable. If we can say to those children who would like to know why women cannot become priests like “it is not true that women cannot be priests because they are women. The Catholic church is still not taking action, but there are many people in the church who are making efforts and sometimes women can become priests.”, then it can be a hopeful enough message to them. From this standpoint, I think the movement is a symbol of hope toward the reform of church.

The dream of the church reform, however, cannot be necessarily realized only by allowing women priests. It is only a subject among numerous other tasks for the reform of church. The aim for the movement should be an effort to endow the priesthood with the ‘feminie’ value i.e. taking care of people who are estranged and serving them from the lowest place positions, not simply participating in the priesthood. It is the movement to reform the priesthood, aiming to a new age, though numerous tasks in church can be done only by this reform.

Now the movement is expanding to a new horizon. I believe this movement is toward the reform of church with God’s will. All awakened people should work together to make our dream to reform the church come true.

Journal <Theology & Solidarity> Vol.1  2006