Paying Attention to the Voices that Cry, “It’s Not Fair!”

Nancy Gruver, founder of New Moon Girl Media — also, incidentally, my supervisor — has an essay published in Catching A Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21st Century called “That’s Not Fair! Nurturing Girls’ Natural Feminism.” In this piece, Ms. Gruver makes the case that girls — and one could argue kids in general — are equipped with an internal gage for injustice. But in our culture, too often children’s cries of “That’s not fair!” are disruptive to a carefully maintained adult order; how many remember being told (or telling kids) that “that’s just too bad; life isn’t fair”?

That’s certainly true, but it’s not a good reason to stop fighting for a fairer world. Nancy’s essay struck me when I first read it as an intern at New Moon because it made me recall my own awakening to feminism and social justice. It came through the Catholic Church.

I was 10 years old when I started to notice something “off” about the lessons in my CCD textbook. When we learned about the sacraments, I realized that the beautiful sacrament of Holy Orders wasn’t meant to ever include me. My internal social justice alarm started ringing too loudly to ignore: That’s not fair! My hand shot up into the air, and when the CCD teacher called on me, I asked, “Why can’t women become priests?”

The teacher, like most CCD teachers, was a volunteer from the parish who had no formal theological or Catholic training. She was caught off guard and flustered. She said, “I . . . I don’t know. Let me ask Father about that.”

A week later, our parish priest gave a sermon about why Holy Orders was reserved for men: because Jesus was a man, and the priest takes the part of Jesus when he performs the sacrament of the Eucharist. The priest kept making eye contact with me throughout the sermon. I wasn’t buying it. Suddenly the man who performed miracles, who rose from the dead, and who was God, couldn’t perform the very minor transformation of allowing a woman to represent Him on the altar? If we were all supposed to live our lives as Jesus lived His, why was there this one instance in which we weren’t supposed to walk in His footsteps? The “reasons” for barring women from the priesthood seemed to make null and void everything I believed about Jesus. And because I wasn’t willing to stop believing in Jesus, I knew I had to disagree with the Church.

The issue of women’s ordination still cuts me deep in my heart. Every time I hear the same tired “justifications” for this pillar of sexism in the Church, my anger bubbles up; but under that anger is a much deeper ache, the ache of being told again and again by the Church I still love that because of my sex, I can’t ever stand in for Jesus the way a man could.

I often think back to that year when my crusade toward women’s ordination began. I respect my CCD teacher’s willingness to admit that she didn’t know the answer, and to take me seriously enough to bring the question to a “higher authority.” But really, so much healing would have come from my teacher, from my priest, from anyone who had more power than a 10-year-old girl, if they had had the courage to look me in the eye and say, “You’re right. It isn’t fair — now, what are you going to do about it?”


11 thoughts on “Paying Attention to the Voices that Cry, “It’s Not Fair!”

  1. It really isn’t fair in a lot of ways, right? I’m taking the class Lay Presiding right now and it’s been great and powerful to be in the class – to hear women preach on the Word, to witness how they conduct rites that lay people are authorized to perform in the Church. A couple weeks ago we had a discussion about the document “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord” – the document from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops that talks about the role of lay ecclesial ministers. It begins with “God calls. We respond.” It’s amazing to think about call, and how there are so many gifted people that do honor the call to be lay ministers in our Church. However, it became important in my classroom of mostly women to identify that while this honors the call of some, it doesn’t honor those women who feel called to Holy Orders. I think the document does a great job of looking at call in a positive light, but there is still work to do to respond to the call that many women feel to Holy Orders.

  2. During my ecclesiology class this summer with Fr. Richard McBrien, we had the opportunity to spend a day discussing current issues of the Church. The first topic addressed was women’s ordination; interestingly, it was brought up by a male, lay ecclesial leader. The discussion started by asking if anyone in the class believed that women should be allowed ordination. Not a single person in a class of 30 disagreed that the church’s stance was right. It actually amazed me. Certainly, a specific kind of person may be more inclined to take a class from McBrien than most, but not one person defended Rome’s stance! The conversation that ensued then revolved around how to best change Church teaching on the topic. It was this discussion of “how” that promoted opinion to divide with some supporting the move by the Roman Catholic Women Priests and others believing that women should continue to prove their worthiness by running parishes as they have been and continue to do with the priest shortage until Rome chooses to acknowledge the equal gifts of women and allow the sensus fidei (the opinion of the people) to prevail.

  3. Thanks for your comments. I remember having a discussion about this with my uncle who’s a priest when I was a teenager, and he referred to the role of lay ministers and the many things women could do to serve in the church. He ended with the question, “With so many opportunities to serve, you have to ask yourself the question, are women wanting to be priests because they have a real calling or because they want more power?” I was pretty insulted by the implication that male priests didn’t get snagged with the same question, or never pursued the priesthood for the “wrong” reasons.

    Becky, your story about your ecclesiology class is encouraging, especially since there’s so much talk about the trend of young Catholics becoming more conservative than their parents’ generation. For the record, I’m on the side of the Womenpriests movement; it gave me the chance to attend mass celebrated by a woman and it was one of the most moving experiences of my life. I hope that in my lifetime I’ll also see change in the institutional Church, but if I don’t, I’m so glad womenpriests gave me that experience.

  4. Thanks for your comments. I also share similar feelings of anger and resentment because women are denied the sacrament of Holy Orders. I love the Catholic faith for many reasons and it is my home. However, the injustice of women in the Church makes me sad, and makes me question why I am Catholic. For a couple of years I was discerning whether or not I wanted to work for the Catholic Church and after deciding that there is injustice in every workplace, took a position as Youth Minister at three parishes, where I have been at for nine months.

    I have heard a priest say that there are many ways that women have served and are serving in the Church, and we just need to be creative with how we look at women’s leadership. I agree with this, and feel that we have come a long way with allowing women and lay people the opportunity to minister to God’s people through the Church. However, we are still not allowing women to serve in the leadership roles which ultimately make decisions and influence change in the Church.

    Isn’t it funny that our Church has a sacrament for people who choose to be married and men who are ordained as deacons and priests, but we do not have a sacrament for religious sisters who take vows?

    It gives me great hope that there are many people out there who are working to create a more just Church where every person, regardless of age, race, sex, ethnicity, national origin, disability, or sexual orientation, is able to minister to God’s people through Holy Orders.

    What ultimately keeps me here in the Catholic Church is the many faithful, loving, joyful people who have believed in me and who continue to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God, in big and small ways.

  5. To td276575: I’m glad that you made the decision to serve as a Youth Minister within the Catholic Church. I think that your voice of justice and compassion is one very much needed. I’d never thought of the fact that there’s no sacrament for women who devote themselves to religious life; although I’ve been to beautiful ceremonies where sisters have taken their vows, it is a shame that it’s somehow seen as less worthy of attention than holy orders or marriage. In general, I feel there needs to be more blessing for the vocation of singlehood, within or outside a religious order, but that’s probably a blog post in itself. :)

    Like you, I’ve sometimes questioned my decision to stay; but ultimately, nothing else feels like my spiritual home the way Catholicism does, and I’ve accepted that I’m in this for the long haul.

    Paednoch: Part of the risk that we take in sharing our voices in a forum like this is having people attack a part of our identity that is deeply part of us: our Catholicism. We’re here for discussion and an open exchange of ideas, not to have a contest about who’s more Catholic than whom. Also, I find your assumptions incredibly hurtful — I’ve practiced Eucharistic Adoration, prayed the rosary, and feel a great deal of love for Mary. There are issues with which, after much discernment and listening to my conscience, I’ve had to disagree with the official stance of the Church. But that makes me no less Catholic than you. Please save the judgments for God, who knows our hearts and yours.

  6. Paednoch, I took down your second comment. Personal attacks are not OK in this forum. Unfortunately, what with Internet anonymity, questioning the faith of people who disagree with you seems to be so common that we had to spell it out as verboten in our comments policy.
    Let’s all be respectful of each other, remember that this is a Christian community (however virtual) and try to stay in dialogue.

  7. Since we believe in the Catholic Church, we believe in a universal church (remember that “catholic” means universal). Christ came not to a select few who considered themselves “orthodox” and threw stones at whoever disagreed with them. In fact, he prevented the stones from being throne and offered a lesson of forgiveness, love and compassion instead. Never once did Jesus condemn anyone for WHERE they studied, nor did he tell people they were not “real” believers. He commanded that we follow the greatest commandment, and he left the Church to help guide his disciples in building the Kingdom of God on earth. We certainly believe that the Spirit is present in the Church’s teachings, but we also believe the Spirit is acting outside of the institution as well. It is impossible to debate with someone who refuses to acknowledge that the Spirit is everywhere, that God is not confined to the terms “conservative,” “orthodox,” “traditional,” or even “progressive.”

    The University of Notre Dame, that is The University of “Our Lady,” under the guidance of the Congregation of Holy Cross, maintains in Catholicity in good standing with the Vatican, but I do not need to defend her nor will I enter into this fruitless debate. The blessing of universities like Notre Dame is that they refuse to limit their academic and intellectual pursuits, and instead, bring in scholars of all political and theological leanings to help form consciences rather than indoctrinate. Christ, in his pedagogy of parables, invited people to interpret and learn for themselves, and I pray daily that I am living and doing his will in all that I do and say.

  8. Apostolic succession was started by Jesus Christ when he chose his apostles (all men). The Church doesn’t have the right to change what Jesus instituted. We can’t change the sacraments based on a popular vote. The Word of God is not right or wrong based on the latest poll. If we’re going to start changing the sacraments, we might as well become the Anglican church (look what a mess they’ve created, and it all started in 1992 when they allowed the ordination of women). I see some of the commenters are also pushing for the ordination of gays. Yes, I’m sure that’s what St. Paul had in mind.

    Nobody has a “right” to be ordained – it is a calling from God. Women are not called to be priests, just as men are not called to be mothers.

  9. Thanks for this, laceyl. As someone who is committed to the teachings of the Church and the ritual, I believe that one can be a faithful Catholic and disagree with some church teachings. As Jesus was both male and female, it is fit for men and women to be priests, as well as those who fall elsewhere on the gender spectrum. And if we were practicing pure doctrine handed down from Jesus Himself, I believe the regulations would be different. (Hence St. Paul thrown into the mix, not Jesus).

  10. To address some previous comments: this 23 year-old Catholic went to Adoration a week or two ago and prayed the Chaplet of Divine Mercy; this Catholic also went to Confession a few weeks ago; and this Catholic also happens to be an adherent of Call To Action.

    I do find some of what has been said disturbing. I don’t know where the idea that anyone here “hates” the Virgin Mary came from. However, I will say that I think the idea of female ordination is not as black and white as some people think. Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary herself were perhaps Jesus’ most loyal disciples. And women were ordained in the Church as deaconesses up until the 4th century. Bearing that in mind, the issue of female ordination is not just a question of fairness, but also one of truth.

  11. Tom, women were ordained in the Episcopal church in 1974, not 1992, in Philidelphia. In 1976 it was officially approved by the general council of Episcopal churches. That issue hardly seemed to be divisive like you characterize it especially compared to the ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson who is gay. I thought it was so sad that a church who seemed to weather all kinds of change (with respect for those who want to change and those who don’t being able to exercise their ways and stay together at the same time-how do they do it!!??), would let something like Bishop Robinson’s ordination break it apart.

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