Saint Brigid, Women's Ordination, and Pope Francis

Despite the many things that Pope Francis made clear he was open to in his recent exhortation, he made it equally clear he was not open to the notion of women's ordination.  But he said other things on the topic as well:

The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general. . . .  Its key and axis is not power understood as domination, but the power to administer the sacrament of the Eucharist; this is the origin of its authority, which is always a service to God’s people. This presents a great challenge for pastors and theologians, who are in a position to recognize more fully what this entails with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life.  (Para. 104)

This, to me, gets to the real engine that drives the debate on women's ordination.  Even if you remove the negative connotations around the word "power," the problem with the discussion about women's ordination is that it is not simply a discussion of ordination--it is also inherently a discussion about leadership.  If one limits ordination to men, you are not simply excluding women from ordination, you are also excluding them from everything that goes along with ordination.  In Catholicism (and, in fact, pretty much any Christian church with a notion of sacramental authority) ordination is tied to leadership.  To be the head of a parish, you must be a priest.  To be the head of a diocese, you must be a bishop.  To be a leader, you must be ordained.  Sure, non-ordained people can exercise leadership roles, but such roles are almost always subordinate to, and contingent upon, the ordained. 

So, while one can read what Francis is saying on a surface level--"hey priests, don't be jerks"--there is also the deeper level that sacramental power is inherently tied to other kinds of power when priests also have leadership authority in the religious community.  This is a serious problem where one-half of the population can never access that kind of leadership role.  Even if you ignore the justice dimension, it does distort the decision-making process when only men are the ones making decisions about the direction of a community.  Men and women are different, and female gifts and voice are needed for balance.  As currently constructed, women do not get to bring those gifts to bear for the good of the Church.

Which brings us to St. Brigid.

St. Brigid of Kildare is second only to St. Patrick among the Irish saints, and was a contemporary of Patrick.  She is said to have performed many miracles and accomplished many amazing deeds, but what is relevant for our purposes is that she established a monastery in Kildare, where she was the abbess.  This monastery was a double monastery, meaning that there was a men's part and a women's part in the same building.  All accounts agree that Brigid was the spiritual head of both parts--there was an abbot of the men's monastery, but he was subordinate to (and appointed by) Brigid.  In other words, she was in charge of the men as well as the women.  Moreover, the monastery had responsibility for the local Christians in the area, which meant that Brigid had responsibility for the local Christians in the area.  There was a bishop, who was also the abbot of the men's monastery, but again Brigid was responsible for picking him.

Ultimately, while Brigid had no sacramental authority, she had full leadership authority.  This model was repeated throughout the Celtic Church.  While there is limited evidence of women acting in a sacramental role, there is overwhelming evidence of women operating in a spiritual leadership role.  That's not to say men didn't also exercise this kind of leadership--the idea seemed to be that the person who demonstrated the most suitability, man or woman, got the job.

How might this work today?  Imagine a hypothetical St. Brigid's Parish, a large suburban parish somewhere in the U.S.  In that parish, we have two priests, both men.  Their job is primarily is to say Mass, hear confessions, and dispense the sacraments.  In addition to the two priests, there is the pastor and an associate pastor, both women.  They are responsible for the administration of the parish on a day-to-day basis.  They handle the books, coordinate ministries, visit the sick, and provide spiritual counseling to parishoners.  They are also ultimately the superior of the priests assigned to the parish visa ve the work of the parish.

True, these hypothetical female pastors cannot be priests.  But they can do pretty much everything else.  It would preserve the tradition of male-only ordination, while allowing capable women to exercise their spiritual gifts and their voice.  Some will see it as insufficient and demand full and complete equality.  But I think it might dramatically lower the temperature of the discussion to decouple ordination from leadership. [Ed: Ross Douthat covers makes a similar point in his post from Monday, though I don't agree with his take re: celibacy].

I don't think Pope Francis has in mind something this radical when he talks about "the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life."  But it shows a way to think about what he said that points to more than tokenism and symbolic gestures.  It also represents a recovery of an authentic spiritual tradition of the Church, as opposed to simply going with the prevailing cultural winds.  It also represents, perhaps, an end-point in an evolution that would begin with some lesser step Pope Francis might propose.  The Church may not be ready for St. Brigid now, but perhaps it will soon.


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