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Posted March 15, 2006

John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter
with his take of Pope Benedictís understanding of women



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Whenever I lecture on the Vatican or the papacy, there's a standard set of questions that almost always come up, one of which focuses on women in the church under Benedict XVI. Sometimes this is a disguised way of asking about women's ordination, but more often it's a genuine bit of curiosity about whether we can expect Benedict XVI to do anything to promote the empowerment of women in the life of the church.

Until last week, I was left to speculate. Now, however, we have the pope's own words in response to the same question.

On the morning of March 2, Benedict XVI met with a group of clergy from the Diocese of Rome, listening to 15 of them formulate questions, and then offering impromptu answers. Fr. Marco Valentini touched precisely on this point, asking why the church doesn't recognize that the insights and experiences of women can balance those of men in decision-making positions.

The following is my translation of the full text of Benedict's answer, given in Italian.

"I'll now respond to the assistant pastor of St. Jerome's - I can see he's also very young - who spoke to us about how much women do in the church, also on behalf of the priests. I can only underline how the special prayer for priests in the first Canon, the Roman Canon, always makes a great impression on me: Nobis quoque peccatoribus. In this realistic humility of us priests, precisely as sinners, we pray that the Lord will help us to be his servants. In this prayer for priests, and only in it, seven women appear who surround the priest. They demonstrate how women believers help us in our path. Everyone has certainly had this experience. In this way, the church owes an enormous debt of gratitude to women.

You quite rightly underlined that, at the charismatic level, women do a great deal, and I would dare to say, a great deal for the governance of the church, beginning with the sisters of the great fathers of the church, such as St. Ambrose, to the great women of the Middle Ages - St. Hildegard, St. Catherine of Siena, then St. Teresa d'Avila - up to Mother Teresa. I would say that this charismatic sector certainly is distinct from the ministerial sector in the strict sense of the term, but it's a true and profound participation in the governance of the church. How could we imagine the governance of the church without this contribution, which sometimes becomes very visible, as when St. Hildegard criticized the bishops, or when St. Brigit and St. Catherine admonished the popes and obtained their return to Rome? It's always a determining factor, and the church can't live without it.

You rightly say: 'We want to see women more visibly, in a ministerial way, in the governance of the church.' I would say this is exactly the question. The priestly ministry from the Lord is, as we know, reserved to men. This priestly ministry is governance in the deep sense that, definitively, it is the Sacrament that governs the church. This is the decisive point. It is not the individual man who does something, but the priest faithful to his mission who governs, in the sense that it is the Sacrament - that is, through the Sacrament - that Christ himself governs, both through the Eucharist and the other sacraments, but it is always Christ who presides. However, it's proper to ask if in this ministerial service - the fact notwithstanding that here sacrament and charisma form the one track upon which the church is realized - it's not possible to offer more space, more positions of responsibility to women.

Bottom line: no change on women's ordination, but openness on other ways to move women into positions of authority that don't require sacramental ordination.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org