Punishing Women or Planting Seeds? A Defense of Cardinal O’Malley

Cardinal Sean O’Malley with Norah O’Donnell

UPDATE (11/30/14): O’Malley writes in The Pilot about his interview. His comment, in full:

“A topic also of significant concern in the Church that was addressed during the interview is the discussion concerning the ordination of women to the priesthood. This is particularly painful to many Catholic women who feel that the teaching on women’s ordination is a rejection and unfair.

“Throughout history, many wonderful Catholic women have wished to be priests, among them St. Therese, the Little Flower. In my comments I was trying to communicate that women are often holier, smarter and more hard-working than men, and that the most important member of the Church is a woman, the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Church is called to be faithful to Christ’s will, and that is not always easy or popular. Understanding the Church’s teaching is always a process that begins with faith.”

Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley spoke with 60 Minutes over the weekend, making headlines for several remarks. Many applauded his criticism of convicted felon and bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph Robert Finn, while O’Malley’s comments on women’s ordination received harsh criticism. He told Norah O’Donnell:

“If I were founding a church, you know, I’d love to have women priests. But Christ founded it and it — what he has given us is — is something different.”

I don’t have the time to adequately explore his comments, but I want to offer two initial thoughts for why the cardinal’s remarks might not be as negative as it has been portrayed.

First, for a cardinal to say he would “love to have women priests” on this most controversial and closed of issues is noteworthy. Where else in recent years has a member of the hierarchy (and close papal confidant) spoken so positively about the concept of ordained women? What about women’s place in ecclesiastical structures at all? O’Malley readily affirmed in the interview that it is women who are, indeed, leading the church’s efforts in education, pastoral, and social justice.

I’m not the first to point out that even Pope Francis who is doing good work in reforming the church elsewhere has a most notable blind spot when it comes to gender justice — and he is hardly alone. Under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, advocating for women’s equality was among the worst crimes (quite literally in canon law when ordination was compared to the abuse of a child). Every time a woman is ordained, she is excommunicated we’re told and many in the church have suffered, like Roy Bourgeois, for speaking truth to power on this specific issue.

In that context, is it not actually quite radical for one of the most powerful Catholic leaders in the world to say he would “love women priests,” even if it is not possible?

Second, O’Malley needs to revisit his church history. Any claims that Jesus instituted the church or gave the community specific structure are quite problematic. Jesus did not ordain women because he did not ordain anyone. Ordination and the hierarchical structuring of ministry we know today (never mind that ontological change bit, which is another post…essay…book) only developed in the third and fourth centuries. To suggest Jesus gave the church anything institutional without conceding the cultural-social-political realities which formed Christian ministry is not quite honest, as powerful as the narrative may be.

O’Malley is an intelligent and educated prelate. Is his own blind spot church history? Or is he intending something else with what is, in my reading, a fairly weak and understated defense of the hierarchy’s exclusion of women from their rightful place at the altar?

Because what Jesus did give us is the Gospel message, and in this message is all we need to know about women’s place in the church: that women repeatedly understand the Reign of God far better than the men, that a Samaritan woman is the proto-disciple and first witness to Jesus as the Christ, that Jesus’ prohibition of divorce was a critique of patriarchy, that Mary Magdalene first announces the Resurrection, that justice and equality for all is a mandate for our world, and that in Christ gender is irrelevant for all are one.

O’Malley, like most in the church’s hierarchy, is constrained by institutional strictures that curtail (and really, silence) prophecy. I’m not defending what is, in many ways, a lack of courage to preach the Gospel in its fullness. But O’Malley is doing more good than most bishops. He has rehabilitated the Catholic Church in Massachusetts amid the sexual abuse crisis, adding his voice to statewide efforts raising the minimum wage and opposing casino expansions recently. Nationally, he successfully calls attention to the immigration crisis in the US and told me in a conversation the firing of LGBT church workers “needs to be rectified.” Repeatedly at the USCCB, he has championed a more expansive view for anti-abortion advocacy and now appears to be unafraid to call out a fellow bishop who deeply failed the people of Kansas City. Perhaps most importantly, he is the American voice that Pope Francis apparently hears most.

None of this justifies the exclusion of women from all the church’s ministries, as his comments suggest at first glance. But what if O’Malley is playing a longer game? What if he is beginning to plant seeds for us to cultivate and nurture that will eventually lead to women’s ordination?

For better or worse, development in the church is a slow process — and I think advocates for women’s equality have at least a non-enemy, if not an ally in Sean O’Malley.

For a report on the interview, check out Joshua McElwee’s piece at NCR.

-Bob Shine

UPDATE: Other commentaries on O’Malley’s remarks….

Ken Briggs at NCR: O’Malley and Muzzled Candor

Thomas Fox at NCR: “The Good Cardinal’s Revealing Interview

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