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book reviewThe Papal “No.”

By: Deborah Halter. Crossroad Publishing. 2004. New York
Review By: Sr. Mary Ann Flannery SC

Deborah Halter frames her book in the tradition of good journalism: narrative and factual history.

Each chapter ends with a brief vignette of the life of St. Therese of Lisieux, “…a cherished icon of Catholic womanhood, whose‘ little way’ provided a model of female sanctity since her death in 1897.” That is, until recently when scholars studying her original Autobiography (before it was sanitized by her overprotective sisters), discovered a tougher, more vigorous Therese who wrote often of her desire to be an ordained priest.

The vignettes form the narrative part of the book connecting the human with factual history that is the bulk of the book. Halter takes the reader through the tradition of scholarship denigrating women beginning with Aristotle, who influenced Augustine and Aquinas. “The medieval view of women”, says Halter, “…saturated Church teaching and the sensibilities of men and women alike…until the 1960’s and Vatican II.” The Council generated a more realistic representation of women, Halter adds, “…even as it aggressively maintains that women can not experience a valid call to priesthood.”

Halter’s extraordinary scholarship on the institutional Church's attitude toward women begins with Vatican II documents and includes directives written by the Pope and Vatican congregations; the texts of bishops and theologians; resolutions, announcements, and press releases and other actions of the laity. “These documentary sources form a feedback loop,” says Halter, “that informs and sustains the flow of information in the Roman Catholic Church.”

But reading these documents is like moving over a web of land mines in an open field. Startling evidence of organized suppression of arguments favoring women’s’ ordination and worse, the silencing of attempts by established theologians to dialogue about the topic jump out at the reader constantly.

Here are a few examples. Ludmila Javorova was ordained in 1970 in the clandestine Church of communist-controlled Czechoslovakia. The impetus was the extreme need for women to minister to other women imprisoned for their faith. Javorova served for 20 years a priest—she was ordained by Bishop Felix Maria Davidek, a former political prisoner himself. But after the communist regime fell, Ludmila’s status was not recognized. “Ordinations of women were declared ‘clearly invalid’ and their priestly actions were likewise invalid,” says Halter. Javorova now teaches religion to children though she holds dear a little box containing her priestly stole, a tiny brass chalice, and a smallcontainer for hosts.

Sister Lavinia Byrne, IBVM, of England, learned in 1994 that 1300 copies of her book, “Women at the Altar: The Ordination of Women in the Roman Catholic Church,” were to be burned by the Liturgical Press of Collegeville, Minnesota, under pressure from the Vatican.

Two women religious, Joan Chittister, OSB, and Myra Poole, SSND, were forbidden to speak at the Women's Ordination Conference in Dublin. However, their religious communities stood by them and challenged the Vatican until it finally rescinded its threatened punishment.

Examples of the Church’s efforts to control the public witness of many other valiant prophets are numerous. Halter has amassed these stories to demonstrate the consistent sad reality that countless voices advocating at least a dialogue about inclusive ordination are summarily dismissed in one word: “No!”

The author has provided, in her own words, “A Comprehensive Guide to the Vatican’s Rejection of Women's Ordination.” She includes the insights and analyses of reputable theologians and canon lawyers. The appendix is an excellent reference, reprinting all 12 magisterial documents about women’s ordination.

Halter is clear about her objective. She does not intend to rebel outside her faith. She wants to work from inside the Church, presenting factual evidence from documents that overwhelmingly reveal the marked resistance by men to any discussion of the ordination of women. That each document is researched and written by men only, without even one female voice despite the many trained women theologians in our Church, becomes glaringly obvious.

This is not just a resounding, “No”; it is a mirror of the entropy that generates sexism and distrust within our Church, the paralysis of community that, as Lonergan describes, “…calls for common judgments, and when they are lacking, people reside in different worlds.”

Along with Halter, we might say that, “If we are to believe that we are all one in Jesus, and if we are to follow Christ according to his call and our own gifts, we can only conclude that priesthood is not about sex but about souls.”

Focus on FutureChurch

Spring 2005



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