To the altar


THERE are, they say, no accidents, and so perhaps it was some bit of divine inspiration that the story in my newspaper on Sister Virginia Welsh ran on the same day the leader of her church was minimizing the contributions of her kind, my kind.

Sister Virginia runs a Catholic parish in Ohio. That job is called pastor when a priest does it, but Sister is called a pastoral administrator and her sermons called reflections.

She can soothe the sick but not anoint the dying; she can speak to parents about their spiritual obligations to their children but cannot baptize; she can carry the administrative load but not consecrate the host.

She comes to this job because of the crippling shortage of priests in the United States, where more than 300 parishes are led by those, like her, who are barred from answering the spiritual call to ordination, no matter how truly it may resonate in their hearts.

On the very day that Sister Virginia's pastoral duties were described in the newspaper, Pope John Paul II said, in a particularly peremptory pronouncement, that the issue of the ordination of women was closed to discussion and an accompanying statement concluded that "it does not belong to matters freely open to dispute."

The president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops felt moved to add that women were just as good, simply different.

This is an ethos that we know well as separate but equal, and it has nothing to do with equality at all. Sister Virginia's role is one we have seen in the secular world, when women are given jobs equal to those of men but with lesser titles, less respect.

It is just more shocking to see it sanctioned by an institution that is supposed to stand for the equal dignity of every person.

John Paul's rationale for the ordination ban is that Jesus' Apostles were all male. This is the theology of a seminarian speaking to a class of fourth graders; the Apostles were all

Jewish, too. In 1976 Pope Paul VI asked a group of prominent scholars to study the question of whether anything in Scripture forbade the ordination of women. They concluded that there was nothing.

Some women who feel called to the priesthood discuss the possibility that women were expunged from the Gospels at the hands of male writers, that Mary Magdalen may have played a much greater role, that someone had to cook the Last Supper. Father Richard McBrien, the Notre Dame theologian, says that's beside the point.

"To establish the fact that women should be ordained you don't have to talk about Mary Magdalen," he says. "All you have to say is why not? Where's the evidence against it? There isn't any."

In November 1995 the Women's Ordination Conference will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a convention in the nation's capital. Ruth Fitzpatrick, the executive director, remembers fondly how 1,200 showed up for the first gathering; when asked how many felt called to the priesthood, nearly 300 women rose to their feet.

Certainly the participants in next year's gathering will discuss why a church that is beating the bushes for celibate men in full knowledge of the commitment of such women is cutting off its nose to spite its face.

They will wonder whether the Pope did not declare this pronouncement an infallible one because he knows that it must be overturned by his successors. They will surely talk of whether much modern church doctrine, on contraception, on abortion, on ordination, is a product of ignorance or fear of women.

And they will overwhelmingly feel not the goad of self-interest but the pain of seeing the inclusion and equality the Gospels preach perverted.

"It's like belonging to a private club that won't admit blacks or Jews," says Father McBrien of being a priest today.

"Tying ordination to masculinity is bad theology," writes Daniel Maguire, a professor of moral theology at Marquette University. "Enforcement of bad theology by the officers of the church is unworthy of the church and must be called by its name. Its name is injustice. Its name is sacrilege."

More than the utilitarian conviction that the church needs priests, more than the scriptural belief that there is no bar, those of us who believe women have a divine right to ordination believe that the denial of that right is a moral wrong.

Because of that it will not stand.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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