Let’s end the obsession with women priests: the arguments are outdated and the question resolved long ago

Campaigners for women's ordination in front of St Peter's Basilica in Rome (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

There is a lot to be said for being stuck in a traffic jam. This morning in the car I turned on BBC Radio 4 at Woman’s Hour, to stumble upon Jane Garvey hosting a discussion between Baroness Helena Kennedy QC and Madeleine Teahan, associate editor of The Catholic Herald. The subject: why can’t women be priests?

Somehow this debate seems very 1960s – the era of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, Gloria Steinem in the States and the slogan “Women need men like a fish needs a bicycle” (now why did I remember that?). In other words, it is dated. Baroness Kennedy came across as a bit of a feminist dinosaur in this regard, throwing out words like “patriarchy”, “oppression” and “misogyny”, phrases like “male exclusivity” and statements like “theology has been constructed by men”, “for too long the voices of men have dominated” and “The Catholic Church is an evolving institution”. It was as if she was rehearsing lines learnt from those hoary old feminists, yet deploying them in an arena in which they have become outdated and irrelevant.

Madeleine Teahan responded to all this annoyance and irritation with calmness and clarity, refusing to rise to the bait yet not allowing herself to be patronised by the older woman. She reminded Kennedy that the late Pope John Paul had never said, “I will not ordain women”; he had made it clear that “I cannot ordain women.” In other words, it was not within his power to do so. The priest has to represent Christ in His humanity; it was a question of magisterial teaching, based on the Gospels and mediated by the Church through the hierarchy.

The Baroness was having none of this: it was a debate in which the Church should show “transparency” and “openness”; there were many women who would make fine priests and “we are talking about the exercise of power”. After all, Baroness Shirley Williams and Mary MacAleese, the Irish president, both support the idea of women priests.

At one stage Jane Garvey politely asked her why she was still in the Church if she felt like this. The Baroness chose not to answer, thus implying that it was for the Church to change rather than for her to give way.

At intervals, Madeleine Teahan suggested that the Church is not a democracy. Describing herself as a feminist, she said that she, too, believed in a women’s right to vote – but that this was not what was at issue. “My generation believes it can flourish within the Catholic Church”, she stated, adding that she knew a lot of modern, emancipated women in the Church who definitely did not feel “oppressed”; it was not a question of “men versus women” but about those eligible to be ordained and those who are not.

The Baroness stuck to her hymn sheet: “Look at the people with power in the Church: where are the women?” she demanded to know. She told Teahan to “speak to the ordinary women cleaning the Church, doing the flowers”; they were not at all happy. Indeed, she is putting the case for women becoming priests in an open meeting in the House of Commons this afternoon.

I have two observations to make about this discussion. 1. It seems to me obvious that Baroness Kennedy is really arguing that women should have a slice of the “power” that she perceives priests enjoying. Yet, as I blogged recently about Una Kroll, once an Anglican priest and now a Catholic lay woman, the priesthood is not about power but about service; as Kroll put it, “I was called by God to move to a Church where I couldn’t exercise dominion of any sort, but where I could still learn what servant priesthood actually meant when put into practice.” 2. And as a corollary of this, Kennedy thinks it is demeaning for women in Catholic churches to do the cleaning and flower-arranging. This, too, was answered in the posts following my earlier blog: one person pointed out that they were not the only roles women could play at parish level while another said she was proud to fulfil these tasks.

I give the last word to Madeleine: as she said, there are many more important things to discuss in the Church today and it is sad to “obsess” about a question that has been decided long ago by God himself.