Document 17: Excerpts from Margaret Farley, RSM, "Moral Imperatives for the Ordination of Women," in Women Catholic Priesthood: An Expanded Vision, Proceedings of the Detroit Ordination Conference, ed. Anne Marie Gardiner, SSND (New York: Paulist Press, 1975), pp. 35-36, 48-49.
In 1975, twelve hundred Catholics gathered in Detroit for the first large-scale meeting on the subject of women's ordination. One of the speakers at the conference was Margaret Farley, a theologian who believed women's ordination was a "moral imperative" for the Catholic Church. Farley argued that women should seek ordination, even if the nature of the priesthood still needed reconsideration. Ordination was the ideal opportunity to challenge sexism while confronting larger questions of injustice in the church, she believed. Her talk emphasized the need to confront the church while continuing to work toward its renewal.
Moral Imperatives for the
Ordination of Women
Margaret Farley, R.S.M.
MARGARET FARLEY, R.S.M. is a member of the Sisters of Mercy, Detroit Province. She received her M.A. in Philosophy at the University of Detroit, and her M.Phil. and Ph.D. in Religious Studies at Yale University. Her publications in ORIGINS, JOURNAL OF RELIGION, and REFLECTION explore the various areas of ethics — especially sexuality, commitment and man-woman relationships. Margaret is a member of the Executive Board of the American Society of Christian Ethics, the American Academy of Religion, and associate editor of the JOURNAL OF RELIGION STUDIES IN RELIGIOUS ETHICS. She is currently Associate Professor of Ethics, Yale Divinity School.
I. The Moral Question
I think I understand the reluctance of many women in the Church today to allow the issue of ordination to the priesthood to become central in an overall questioning of roles for women in ministry. That is to say, I understand a concern to challenge the very meaning of ministry in the Church and to reform the patterns of ministry so that women will not be caught in structures which continue to fail to liberate either women or men. I especially understand a concern to press beyond an egalitarian ethic to an ethic which recognizes that equal access to institutional roles is not sufficient to secure justice if the institutions and roles are themselves oppressive to persons as persons.
I nonetheless wish to argue that the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood must indeed be central to any considerations of roles for women in the Church, and that the many moral imperatives which confront the Church regarding women and ministry unavoidably
converge in the imperative to ordain women to the priesthood. The office of priesthood, in fact, offers a particularly potent focus for addressing directly the sources of sexism in Christian thought. Reasons and attitudes which have kept women from the office of priesthood are remarkably similar to reasons and attitudes which continue to keep them from full participation in the general priesthood of the faithful.
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III. The Moral Imperative
When the Roman Catholic community reflects on the question "what ought we to do" regarding the ordination of women, it has the same sources of moral illumination that it has for any other ethical reflection on how its faith is to be lived. It must look to its tradition, to the Scripture and theology which are part of that tradition, to other disciplines which can inform its theology, and to its own contemporary experience as a Christian community. We have explored some of the sources of which it must take account, seen some of the places of insight and some of the places of impoverishment of insight, discovered some of what must be incorporated and embraced and some of what must be transformed or abandoned. Through all, I have implicitly assumed that part of the richness of the Roman Catholic tradition of theological ethics, of moral thought and moral teaching, is the refusal to retreat to voluntarism, and the insistence that laws and policies should be inherently intelligible, should make inherently good sense in the Church's efforts to love truthfully and faithfully. What, then, is the answer to the question "what ought we to do" regarding the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church? Two general imperatives, it seems to me, are already clear: First, the Church ought to open its ordained sacramental ministry to women. It ought to do so because not to do so is to affirm a policy, a system, a
structure, whose presuppositions are false (for the nonordination of women is premised on the denial in women of a capacity for leadership, a call to represent God to the community and the community to God, and a worthiness to approach the sacred in the fullness of their womanhood). It ought also to do so because not to do so is to harm individual persons and the Church (by choking off the life of faith which is possible in a Christian church modeled on the life of God; by perpetuating unjust patterns of relationship between women and men; by failing to speak a word of healing to persons as yet fragmented in the powers of their own selves; and by reinforcing inadequate notions of freedom and destiny for women and for men).
Secondly, women in the Church ought to seek ordination — for the same reasons that obligate the Church to ordain women, and because some women will have received a unique imperative by the power of the Holy Spirit and from the Christian community in which they find life. They should seek it without bitterness (though they will know the meaning of Naomi's complaint, "Call me not Naomi, for that is beautiful; but call me Mara, for that is bitter"). They should seek it in spite of weariness (though they can say, too, "I am so tired . . . and also tired of the future before it comes," and though they are subject to the cardinal temptation to weaken and not to struggle forward in freedom and responsibility). They should seek it in a way that does not alienate them from one another, whatever their pasts and whatever their present contexts. They should seek it because now ripens the time when they must say to the Church, for all women, words reminiscent of the words of Jesus Christ to his disciples (under the continued query for a revelation of his true reality), "Have we been so long with you, and you have not known us?"
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