Women's Ordination Worldwide (WOW) hold a protest at Castel Sant' Angelo in Rome on the morning the Synod opened. WOW
Catholic Church

‘Medieval misogyny’: Women’s ordination group hopes something ‘tangible’ will come from Synod

Miriam Duignan of Women’s Ordination Worldwide says their mission goes beyond women being called to the priesthood.

Diarmuid Pepper reports from the Vatican

WHILE POPE FRANCIS presides over the historic Synod in the Vatican, people on the outside of the assembly are also making their voices heard.

Miriam Duignan is a leading member of Women’s Ordination Worldwide (WOW), which aims to challenge discrimination against women in the Catholic Church and whose mission is the ordination of women into the Church.

“We wanted to make sure that we were a visible, vocal presence at the opening of the Synod,” Duignan told The Journal.

“What’s interesting is Pope Francis said that he had read the press and had seen everybody writing about women’s ordination, he named that as the issue that had come to his attention.

 “We’re very happy with that because we wanted to make sure that the Synod did not think the issue of women was one that is going to be easy to gloss over.”

For the first time, women and laypeople will be allowed a vote in the Synod, which is an assembly which “considers questions pertaining to the Church in the world”.

And while the majority of the voting members are bishops, 54 are women.

The topics to be addressed include whether women should be ordained, the place of LGBTQ+ people within the Church, and whether married men can serve as priests in regions with insufficient clergy.

On the night before the Synod opened on 4 October, WOW held a prayer vigil which was “led by women, for women, praying for the success of the Synod that our voices would not be silenced anymore”.

It was held in a Catholic church and Duignan explained: “We managed to get the rector to agree to allow women to hold the liturgy.

“It was really a beautiful service with women’s testimonies of what it feels like to be excluded and silenced and also the repercussions of women having zero say in the running of their own church and in the Vatican maintaining an all-male supremacist hierarchy that is so afraid of including women and the global consequences.”

Prior to the Synod that is currently ongoing in the Vatican, local churches all around the world expressed their views on the Church and its challenges. 

“In parishes all over the world, the topic of women’s ordination came up almost in every document and every report submitted to the Synod office,” said Duignan.

On the morning the Synod opened, WOW held a protest wherein members held up a large purple tent-like material with the words “Ordain Women” written on it.

“That was to signify the message of the Synod, which is a quote from Isaiah, ‘enlarge the space of your tent’,” explained Duignan. 

“We are saying, ‘you want to enlarge the space of your tent but you still haven’t enlarged it enough to fit women priests and women ordained to all ministries in that tent’.

“Out of those 54 women inside that Synod Hall, there is not one of them that has openly said they have a vocation to ministry because then they will not be invited.

“So we are on the outside. We were not allowed to go up to St. Peter’s Basilica.”

Duignan said members of WOW were given a space by police on the morning of the opening of the Synod by Castel Sant’Angelo, more than a kilometre from St. Peter’s Basilica. 

view-of-the-castle-and-the-bridge-of-sant-angelo-near-the-tiber-river-and-the-vatican-city-in-the-background View of the Castel Sant'Angelo with the Vatican in the background Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“We were given a space not within walking distance of St. Peter’s and after we finished our protest, we were not allowed to even walk in the direction of St. Peter’s Square,” Duignan told The Journal.

“We were stopped by the police.”

‘A glaring injustice’

While the stated mission of WOW is the ordination of women into the Catholic Church, Duignan said “it’s not just about that, although that is so important.”

“It’s also about what that means for Catholic women all over the world, it’s just a glaring injustice.”

Duignan said she is “hopeful that something tangible will come out of the Synod” but this hope is based on pre-submissions made to the Synod from parishes all over the world.

“Not because the leaders of the church – the small group of hardline clerics that really don’t want women – not because they will agree to it, but because so many Catholics have spoken it as the will of the people.

“Those bishops who have come from all over the world to the Synod, they can’t go home empty handed.

“They know that everyone’s talking about it, they can’t dismiss it as a fringe concern from a small group of Western feminists, which is what people always say that we are.”

However, Duignan concedes that the “likelihood of getting sacramentally ordained priesthood for women is a long way off”.

She is also doubtful that women will be granted a “permanent deaconate”.

A permanent deacon assists the priest at Mass by proclaiming the Gospel, preaching the homily, and they can also baptise and preside over weddings, funerals and burials.

They can not consecrate the Eucharist, hear confessions, or anoint the sick.

Married men are able to become deacons.

Rather, Duignan predicts that the Church “will likely say we want to create a lay ministry for women so that they can help priests and help prepare people for the sacraments in an official role”.

While Duignan said women will have to be ordained at some point she predicts that to begin with, only nuns will be allowed to become priests.

“But I think the celibacy rule will probably go before the ban on the ordination of women,” said Duignan, “because they will see that as a way of stopping the push for women’s ordination, stopping the outcry against shortages of priests.

“It’s hard to say what they would do, but I suspect married men will come before ordained women.”

‘Sickness that has tainted the Church’

The Catholic Church points to Jesus appointing 12 male apostles as the reason why only men can be ordained to the priesthood.

But Duignan told The Journal that “women were equal with men in the early church for the first 300 to 400 years”.

“We have evidence from artifacts of the early Christians that we have found that women were presiding at the Eucharist alongside men, sometimes with just women.

“We have art showing Mary Magdalene as a priest and a real following of her as the ‘apostle to the apostles’.”

Pope Benedict XVI conferred this title onto Mary Magdalene as all four Canonical Gospels have her as being the person entrusted with the message of Christ’s resurrection, which is the central point of Christianity.

“The Church is founded on the teaching of Jesus and after his resurrection, he chose Mary Magdalene to be the first person to go and preach to his followers, disciples and apostles.

“Jesus entrusted her with this message, the early Church recognised that and then that was scrubbed from history.

“They 12 male apostles were ambassadors representing the 12 tribes of Israel in the Old Testament, but he asked women to go forth and preach his message, there were women apostles too.”

Duignan adds that the “theology doesn’t support the ban” on women becoming priests, and that the ban is itself evidence that women once were priests.

“The Canon Law that banished women from the altar only came into effect in the year 1150. So you don’t need to ban something if it wasn’t being done.”

Duignan also cautioned that “unless and until women are the peers of men, at every level in the Church, the imbalance will never change”.

“It is a sickness. Sexism is a sickness that has tainted the Church and it has caused so many repercussions.

“It’s become such a magnet for a type of man that feels that they want to be in an all-male environment and the teaching and practices of the Church reflect that.

“They will not want to change any teaching and policies that would suggest women are equal and have rights and women should be changing that teaching alongside their male peers.”

“The Catholic Church has huge power, it has lobbyists in every government, it has a seat at the UN.

“And their number one priority is making sure that women are not seen as the peers of men and it has huge consequences, it’s way beyond priesthood and that’s why we keep going.”

Duignan said this “imbalance” has caused “so much illness in the world because the all-male hierarchy hasn’t been accountable to anyone”.

“A lot of the very hardline clerics, who are clinging on to that all-male hierarchy, that absolute obsession with their power and their special status, when women join the Church as equals, they will leave,” said Duignan.

“People who argue against women’s ordination say there’ll be a schism (a split in the Church) and a lot of men will leave and to that we say, ‘good’.

“If you are only a priest in the Catholic Church because a woman can’t do it, then you’re not really a priest, you are a male supremacist.”

Duignan added: “When women join as priests, it will no longer attract the certain type of young seminarian who wants to find a refuge from the modern world where women can never be their boss or their peer even.

“There will be an exodus of the worst kind of cleric as soon as women join and you can’t clear out that imbalance and all of that prejudice without women sitting alongside them.

“Those men whose priority is stopping women being recognised as equals, they have no place in the Church and they have made it a very toxic place.

“Not only about ordination, but all of the crimes of the Church, like the ban on contraception and the cover up of child abuse.

“And so women need to be the peers of men to clear out those bad apples and then more reforms will come.”

‘When you’re Catholic, you’re Catholic’

Many Christian denominations allow women the same role as men, such as the Anglican Church.

“People ask us all the time, ‘why do you stay?’

“But when you’re a Catholic, you’re a Catholic. It’s like a stick of rock, it goes through your bones,” said Duignan.

Duignan’s father is from Elphin in Roscommon and her mother is from Kenmare in Kerry.

“I was educated by Dominican nuns and I have three aunts and one cousin who are nuns.

“I’m a Catholic and you can only change something from within.

“Nothing gets changed by outsiders coming in and campaigning for the Catholic Church to bring women in, it has to be us.

Duignan added that the ban on women becoming priests had “nothing to do with Jesus” and rather “came about because of the teaching that women were inferior and could not hold authority”.

“It is based on an unjust medieval law and it is based on medieval misogyny that hasn’t changed.”

Amazon Synod

While the current Synod is grabbing headlines, a previous Synod is pointed to by Duignan when highlighting how the ban on female ordination can impact the faithful.

The Amazon Synod happened in 2019 and focused on new paths of evangelisation for indigenous people and for people in remote regions.

pope-francis-met-with-about-40-indigenous-people-at-the-vatican-on-october-17-2019-some-of-them-participants-at-the-synod-for-the-amazon-others-engaged-in-parallel-cultural-activities-currently-und Pope Francis meets with about 40 indigenous people at the Vatican on 17 Oct, 2019, for the Amazon Synod. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“There is a shortage of priests everywhere, but particularly in these remote places,” said Duignan.

“So the Amazon Synod heard about these nuns and sometimes lay women who are running parishes entirely by themselves.

“For Sunday Mass, the nuns are given special permission to run the Eucharistic service, but they’re not allowed to consecrate the bread because they’re not allowed to administer sacraments.

“So there is one ridiculous situation in the middle of the Amazon, where a priest literally has to fly in.

“He consecrates the Eucharist and then he flies out again and comes back a couple of months later.

“So all of these parishioners are seeing that this nun runs my parish, she’s my priest, but when it comes to the sacraments, they have to wait for the man to literally fly in, baptise everyone, do all the consecration of the Eucharist and everyone can see how crazy that is.”

When asked if ordaining women could be the solution to the shortage of priests, Duignan said there would be enough to fill the gap in the short-term, “but probably not the long-term”.

Pope Francis’ legacy

On the eve of the Synod, Pope Francis seemed to set the tone for the discussions to follow.

Five conservative cardinals had questioned Pope Francis on the blessing of same-sex couples.

Conferring blessings on same-sex couples is something that Catholic churches in Belgium and Germany have been doing without sanction from the Vatican for several years.

In a response made public two days before the synod, Pope Francis appeared to suggest a way for the blessing of same-sex couples by priests.

While insisting that the Church only recognises marriage between a man and a woman, the Pope said that “we cannot be judges who only deny, reject, and exclude” and called for “pastoral prudence” to be used. 

Duignan told The Journal: “The type of people that are obsessed about keeping marriage as a sacrament reserved for heterosexual couples, because then they want them to have children, it’s pretty much all the same theology.

“It’s basically about the nuclear family – a woman needs to marry a man and have babies and not be looking for a leadership role or trying to step outside that natural law framing that women are meant to be mothers, serving, subordinate to men.

“So the reason that hardline group of vocal, arch-conservatives is so against opening up marriage to anyone who loves each other, is because they are so fixated on women getting married and knowing their place as wives and mothers.”

Duignan said that Pope Francis “is saying that while we should recognise those relationships in some way, they cannot have the sacrament of marriage in a Catholic church”.

She added: “I think his positioning that gay Catholics are part of the Church and who they love should be recognised – I suspect he has a lot of gay friends and he’s heard their stories.

“He would certainly have a lot of gay men that he would listen to more than women with a vocation, so I think he feels an awful lot of sympathy with them.”

Duignan said Church teaching on same-sex marriage “needs to be dismantled” and “acknowledged as wrong and harmful”.

“The two issues are so tied – the ban on women in any sort of authority position and the ban on same-sex partners being married or recognised,” said Duignan.

“It’s all about heterosexual marriage, women knowing their place as wives and mothers and being subordinate to a man.”

When asked about concerns that the next Pope could be one of the arch-conservatives Duignan speaks of, she points to Pope Francis’ recent appointment of 21 new cardinals.

vatican-city-vatican-04th-oct-2023-vatican-city-vatican-october-04-pope-francis-presides-at-holy-mass-with-the-new-cardinals-and-the-college-of-cardinals-for-the-opening-of-the-general-ordinar Pope Francis presides at Holy Mass with the new Cardinals and the College of Cardinals for the opening of the current Synod on 4 Oct, 2023. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“I think he’s trying to stack the deck in his favour for his legacy,” Duignan told The Journal.

“Those cardinals get to vote for the next Pope so he’s done a good job of trying to promote bishops who are less hardline, less conservative.

“We don’t know any newer cardinals who have spoken in support of women’s ordination or recognition of gay relationships, but it certainly would keep going in the right direction if those cardinals vote for someone who is fairer and more open in their theology.

“I don’t know if the numbers are there, it’ll be a battle, but certainly it could all be reversed if an extremely conservative hardliner gets voted in next time.

“But hopefully the fact that Pope Francis has promoted so many bishops to become cardinals will work in our favour.”

- Diarmuid Pepper is reporting on the Synod from Rome and you can follow on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @Diarmuid_9