Spiritual Brain Drain

A Perspective on the Cost of Denying Women Ordination

Nearly six years to the day that I received my first theology degree, I was back in Boston at an ordination (see box below).

I was at the Episcopal cathedral, not the Catholic one. Jen, a former roommate, asked me and two other women friends from divinity school—a Jew-nitarian (and Wicca-friendly) minister and an Episco-Lutheran postulant to participate in her “deaconing” (being ordained a deacon) as presenters.

In Christian churches ordination is the ritual by which the Holy Spirit is called down upon leaders of the community. In the Catholic, Orthodox, and certain other Christian traditions ordination is reserved for men only, while in most Protestant denominations it is open to both men and women.

The occasion was, of course, a happy one. Jen’s life is starting to come together spiritually and professionally at last. With her friends and family I watched from the pews, though with mixed emotions: thrilled for her to be able to do finally what she loves and feels called to do… and longingly, for me and my own frustrated desires for ordination—”a dream deferred,” to borrow the wistful-angry words of poet Langston Hughes.

Women of the cloth?
Earlier in my training I was naïve enough to hope that I would see legitimate Catholic women priests in my lifetime… even if that meant living beyond the age of 100. In 1995, I was part of a group of young women who had committed to continuing the struggle for equal access into leadership roles in the Catholic Church.

In the time since, I have seen that, even with the explosion of paid lay ecclesial ministry positions in the U.S. Catholic Church, truly rewarding opportunities for Catholic women who want to do pastoral ministry (as opposed to religious education or music ministry) are few. It’s not about the money, although the pay is never great; it’s more about finding work situations that are supportive and collegial and genuinely recognize our moral and spiritual authority.

Even the women I know who have made a valiant, semi-successful effort at it admit that it’s fundamentally galling to not have their work, presence, and gifts validated on their own merits. I think of the ones I know working as hospital chaplains, for example, able to nurse a family through crisis but having to call in a priest for last rites or anointing of the sick. We need our allies in the rectory and the chancery, but we don’t want to have to always depend on them.

Change lanes. Or not.
The number of ordinations I have attended is gaining on the wedding count. During my time in Boston, three of nine roomies who cycled through over three years aspired to ordination. I participated in Suzanne’s very Lutheran one in Minneapolis a couple of years ago. This summer is Jen’s turn.

Now I remain the only Catholic of our whole girl gang who hasn’t “crossed over” in order to be able to be ordained. It feels a little like being the last in your high school crowd to get your driver’s license.

Singing a familiar tune

According to Pope John Paul II, even he as pope could not initiate the ordination of women as priests or bishops in the Catholic Church—it is something Christ intended for all time when he chose twelve men as the Twelve apostles. He has demanded that theologians and pastors drop the issue.

Jen’s story is common to many of us Catholic women who have pursued theological degrees. After wrestling with her call for months on end, she asked to be received formally (about halfway through the Master of Divinity program at our theological school) as an Episcopalian in order to pursue ordination, and she has been there since.

The process has been challenging and the fit not neat and perfect, she admits, but she knows it would not be perfect anywhere. Life is nothing, if not messy, and she has made certain decisions because ordination is so important to her ministerial goals. As “the Rev.,” you are allowed to do things that are nearly impossible for a layperson.

Yes, I AM “the Rev.”
We are often divided about the people who assume the burdens of spiritual leadership, either dismissing them as poser-freaks or entrusting them with the entire weight of the world. We don’t leave them much hospitable middle ground to be simply human, like us, in all things except for that little plastic collar. That can make the job as difficult as it is rewarding.

But putting that title in front of your name says to God and everybody that you are—for better or worse—willing to put yourself out there publicly as a moral and spiritual authority in the community. That’s an act of faith that takes courage, boldness… and humility.

Some of the people I have encountered in seminary—be they as classmates, colleagues, or students—I would honestly not want as my priest or minister. But I think: who am I to judge? Maybe they would work well for someone else.

In my lifetime I have listened to hundreds of sermons ranging from mediocre to lousy (the good ones being exceedingly rare) and sat through just as many incoherent, unsatisfying services and thought: I want something more than this from my faith community. I could PROVIDE better than what I’m getting right now.

And I think about my own call, question my choices.

On the DIY—do-it-yourself—tip, I could even get ordained online as a Universal Life minister in less time than it takes to nuke a TV dinner.

Well-meaning Protestant minister friends have issued standing offers to endorse and shepherd me through the ordination process in their respective denominations. The pull from ex-Catholics at these ceremonies, for example, was so strong and compelling. If it only were as simple as leaving.

And yet I stay, making do, not satisfied.

Doing the limbo
I am treading water, spiritually.

I haven’t had the opportunity to preach or preside at a prayer service in months. Teaching classes and giving workshops are but sublimation, drawing on similar skills and passions but ultimately not the same thing at all.

I miss doing something I love and growing into something I want to know more deeply. I miss being able to have heart-to-heart conversations with a beloved community, however difficult that life can be sometimes.

And yet each conversation I have with a vocations (recruitment) director, Catholic or Protestant, confirms my gut impulse: however sound my reasoning, I cannot see myself switching unless the move would feel more like a gain than a loss. There is so much it would pain me to leave behind, and at this point it would feel as if I were just trading one set of troubles for another.

The altar call
I went to the altar to bless Jen and present her for ordination—she who calls me friend and recognizes my priesthood, unacknowledged though it may be otherwise. The air in the church shimmered with prayer for these new priests and deacons.

And it crossed my mind: Catholicism’s loss is the Protestant churches’ collective gain.