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Why obsessing about women priests plays into hands of critics of change in the Catholic Church

By Michael Kelly

Former Irish president Mary McAleese is a reporter's dream. She is never shy in front of a microphone and, as an accomplished journalist herself, is almost unrivalled in her ability to craft a headline-grabbing soundbite. It wasn't by accident that she used the words 'empire of misogyny' to describe the Catholic Church.

The Church has a long way to go on women's issues, but even people sympathetic about some of the points Mrs McAleese was making will recognise her 'empire of misogyny' comments as hyperbolic.

When it comes to the Church and women, too often there is an almost exclusive focus from some campaigners on the issue of female ordination.

The absence of women priests is seen as a gaping wound and there is no doubt that, for the women who feel they would like to be priests, that feeling of exclusion is real.

But the focus on priesthood and ordination also runs the risk of ignoring much deeper questions about decision-making and how authority is exercised in the Church.

As it stands, the Catholic Church is far too clerical - that is to say, dominated by clergy. It is only when there is a proper rebalancing of power between priest and people - the ordained and the non-ordained - that the Church can be authentically reformed.

What do I mean by this? Well, virtually every report into the mishandling of allegations of sexual abuse against priests highlights the phenomenon of clericalism as a major factor of cases not being handled properly.

Time and again, bishops and religious superiors put the Church's good name and the reputation of the accused cleric ahead of child welfare.

It's not unique to the Church. It's the same pattern of behaviour that we have all too often witnessed in other institutions when things go wrong.

As things stand, decision-making and governance in the Church is vested in priests and bishops alone.

Advocates for the ordination of women argue that this is why it's vital for women to become priests, so they can start to exercise real power within the Church.

But what about shifting away from clerical power to a culture of co-responsibility within the Catholic Church, where priests and laypeople make decisions together?

What campaigners for women priests fail to understand is that the current model of leadership in the Church doesn't exclude women because they are women, it excludes them because they are not ordained.

The ordination of women would simply add more members to the particular caste making all the decisions within Catholicism.

One can see how this might be appealing to women who feel that their voice is unheard, but a more radical approach would be to call for a reform of how the Church is governed - one that would fully embrace the vision of the reforming Vatican II agenda that sought to put laypeople front and centre in the Church, working together with priests and bishops.

Critics of a more lay-based approach to governance will often grumble that the Church is not a democracy - and they're right.

In fact, theologically, it is much more than a democracy - it is a communion, which means everyone working together for the common good.

Paradoxically, obsessing about women priests plays into the hands of those opposed to the meaningful reforms that would give laypeople their rightful place within Church decision-making.

It focuses minds away from what can actually be achieved in terms of the Church and it allows opponents of reform to dismiss all calls as coming from a radical fringe.

Those women impatient for reforms in the Church would do well to set aside the megaphone diplomacy and join in advocating for a Church where ordination is not seen as the golden ticket to power, but where people work and make the important decisions together.

Belfast Telegraph

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