The Saturday night interfaith panel. Photo by Giulia Bianchi.

Pope Francis is calling for a more just and peaceful world.  Considering that women are among the poorest and most vulnerable, he has a tremendous opportunity to speak out for them. As he has moved the Catholic Church forward in so many areas, he could move beyond the prejudice that has excluded women from ordained ministry and thus from significant authority and influence.

About 500 people from 19 countries and five continents attended the “Gender, Gospel, and Global Justice” Conference in Philadelphia, Pa., Sept. 18-20, sponsored by Women’s Ordination Worldwide (WOW). Participants celebrated the 40th anniversary of the U.S. based Women’s Ordination Conference which began with a Thanksgiving weekend gathering in Detroit in 1975. Ten years before at the Second Vatican Council women’s ordination had been mentioned. A recent Pew Research Center study indicated that 58% of U.S. Catholics favor the ordination of women. 

On the same day that “Gender, Gospel, and Global Justice” opened, Bishop Francis A. Quinn, retired in Sacramento, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, headlined “How the Pope Might Renew the Church.” Bishop Quinn suggested that the Catholic Church ought to consider allowing women into the priesthood.  

When Sister Theresa Kane approached the stage in Philadelphia, there was a powerful standing ovation. In 1979, when she was the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, she addressed Pope John Paul II in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C.: “We have heard the powerful message of our Church addressing the dignity and reverence of all persons. As women, we have pondered these words.” The Church, “must respond by providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries.”   

The crowd during the panel. Photo by Giulia Bianchi.
The crowd during the panel. Photo by Giulia Bianchi.

Recently friends had been asking her what she would say to Pope Francis today. She shared what she would like to say to him:

“Through both education and life experiences, I have come to a conviction that anything less than all women in the Catholic community having the possibility of being in all ministries of our Church is not only a deficit, not only wrong; it is a scandal to our Church and to our world. For a long time I have believed the Catholic community might serve as a role model and an instrument of reform for governments and religions throughout our world that allow and even legislate that women are less than fully human; that women are objects to be exploited; that it is acceptable and even at times believed natural to violate, to beat and abuse women physically, psychologically and sexually. For the Catholic Church to be agents of God’s message to our 21st century, we need to have a vision that the degradation of women worldwide, in all countries of our planet, is the primary, root issue of social and religious violence and not of God. We as a Catholic community are called to proclaim fully and lovingly to our entire planet community that such scandalous beliefs and actions of gender inequality are forms and expressions of idolatry. When idolatry is present God is not in our midst. We need to bring a loving, caring, creative God into the center of our everyday lives by eradicating all forms of gender inequality.” 

Many of the speakers explored inequalities and injustices experienced by women worldwide. Dr. Shannen Dee Williams who holds a Ph.D. from Rutgers University focusing on the black Catholic diaspora, African-American, women’s, religious, and civil rights history, addressed contradictory realities in Catholicism. In 2000, the Catholic Church held up a Sudanese woman Josephine Bahkita as a saint because of her goodness. She is the patron against human trafficking and the story of her kidnapping and forced slavery can lead people to stand against these awful crimes.

While Catholicism honored a black woman in this way, there still are sad stories of black women in the U.S. seeking to become Sisters who were prevented or experienced discrimination even among Sisters.  Dr. Williams is finishing a book called “Subversive Habits: Black Nuns and the Long Struggle to Desegregate Catholic America.”    

Internationally respected theologian Ursula King presented “Speaking out with One Voice” on women in various traditions. In central China, there are 18 million Muslims who have had women imams since 1600. In Taiwan there are more Buddhist nuns than monks and, as the women have acquired more education, they are teaching in universities and elsewhere.

A Buddhist woman scholar has said, “Women without education are like birds without wings.” As women get educated, they read and interpret sacred texts. King believes that this is as radical as when the Bible was first translated into vernacular languages. Women’s open access to the scriptures of various faiths is revolutionary. Women’s reading of the scriptures will have profound transformative effects in each of their faith traditions. She encourages, “Interfaith dialogue of hands, head, and of heart. Working, thinking, and loving each other.”

In the workshop “Worshiping in the Onion Fields: a Church of the Undocumented,” Chava Redonnet spoke of ministry with the Oscar Romero Catholic Community, which is a gathering of migrant workers in the Rochester, N.Y., area. 

Equal in Faith: An Interfaith panel moderated by Sr. Maureen Fiedler. Rebecca Alpert, Jewish; Christina Rees, Anglican; Maureen Fiedler, Roman Catholic; Patricia Fresen, “Roman Catholic Womanpriest;" Asra Nomani, Muslim;  Kate Kelly, Mormon. Photo by Giulia Bianchi.
Equal in Faith: An Interfaith panel moderated by Sr. Maureen Fiedler.
Rebecca Alpert, Jewish; Christina Rees, Anglican; Maureen Fiedler, Roman Catholic; Patricia Fresen, “Roman Catholic Womanpriest;” Asra Nomani, Muslim; Kate Kelly, Mormon. Photo by Giulia Bianchi.

Stories of people working so hard and lovingly to provide for their families were mingled with stories of their fears. One of the migrants came and spoke of her father and brother who were kidnapped by a gang in Mexico.

Though they escaped, they knew their lives were in danger. The family members had visas so they came to the U.S. Redonnet is one of more than 200 “Catholic women priests” on five continents who sought to be ordained because they felt a strong call to minister people.

While the official Catholic Church does not recognize their priesthood and has excommunicated them, thousands of people, such as the migrants, are grateful for the women’s ministries. A pattern is emerging in many parts of the world where people are drawn by compassionate pastoral service of the “women priests” and the people are not bothered by legal words such as “valid” or “licit priests.” 

Among the conference participants were persons who sought ordination for women now and others who emphasized renewal and reform in the Catholic Church so that women not be co-opted into problematic structures. Conference participants agreed that the degradation of creation, the exploitation of the vulnerable, and the exclusion of Catholic women from priesthood are all connected issues emerging from patriarchal attitudes of superiority.   

I drove to the first conference on women’s ordination in Detroit in 1975 with Sr. Dorothy Ettling, Sr. Mary Walden, and Ada Maria Isasi Diaz.    

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*Top image: The Saturday night interfaith panel. Photo by Giulia Bianchi. 

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Sister Martha Ann Kirk, a professor of religious studies at UIW, teaches “Arts for Christian Worship” and is very grateful for her students who are compassionate and creative.